This week:

  • I tell you about one creative way to rethink a general-education science course.
  • I share a story I wrote about an unconventional way of teaching.
  • I point you to stories about teaching you may have missed.

Science for Nonscientists

Teaching a general-education science course can be challenging. Students may only be in your classroom to meet a graduation requirement. And they typically come in with a range of experiences, from AP classes in high school to science phobia. All that leads many faculty members to wonder: How can I connect with people who might not care about science, and may even be worried about their ability to understand it?

Heather Miceli is familiar with those challenges. A lecturer of general-education science at Roger Williams University, Miceli has been teaching science to nonmajors for 13 years. For many years, she says, she ran a traditional classroom, with textbooks, projects, and exams. An insight about student work, combined with interests in open pedagogy and “ungrading,” led Miceli on a journey to revamp her course. The result, she says, has increased enthusiasm among her students for science because it puts them in the driver’s seat.

I came across Miceli through the OpenEd21 conference, which focused on the use of open educational resources in higher education. Miceli has shifted to open pedagogy. But she also made key changes in how she teaches to reduce what she calls “science anxiety” among her students, fueled by difficulty with science classes in high school. She attributes that anxiety, in part, to a mismatch between students’ interests and traditional science textbooks, which are often written at too high a level to engage non-science majors.

Miceli’s first insight came when she noticed that every year after students did a poster presentation of their projects, they would toss their posters in the trash. All of that knowledge, she thought, is just getting thrown away. Inspired by a talk she heard on student-written textbooks, Miceli wondered how she could adopt that concept in her classroom.

Miceli is fortunate, she says, because the CORE 101 course is designed to allow faculty members to teach what they want, as long as they meet broader learning objectives. “I have turned that on its head,” she says, “and allow students to vote on what they want to cover in the class.”

Students’ interests reflect the current moment: Space exploration. Climate change. Artificial intelligence. Vaccines. Energy sources. Miceli says she makes clear that she is learning alongside them, which means letting go of the idea that she is the expert in the room. “When we started, I knew almost nothing about space exploration,” she notes. “But for many, it’s their favorite topic to talk about.”

Miceli assigns students to groups and puts them in charge of creating a website around their topic, or enhancing an existing one built by students in a previous semester. Her colleague, Lindsey Gumb, a scholarly communications librarian, runs a workshop for the students so they can learn about intellectual property, copyright, and creative-commons licensing.

As students work on their websites, they know their fellow students are their audience, which helps them write about what they’re learning in an engaging and accessible way. “The websites are the quote-unquote the textbook,” says Miceli. “I tell them, ‘This was written for you. It wasn’t written by scientists for college students in general. This was actually written by classmates for you.’”

The course is now in its fourth year, with 11 websites up and running. Several things, Miceli says, make this structure work. First, students are learning from each other, often making connections among subjects they are researching and then presenting to their peers. Second, students are passing their knowledge on, from semester to semester. On the space-exploration page, for example, students in one semester might focus on the history of NASA and the next on private space exploration.

“They love it,” Miceli says. “They are the same age, experiencing the same things, especially with current events. They know they’ll go to the climate-change page and will read about the California wildfires of the past two years.”

Third, Miceli believes in “ungrading,” the concept that grades should be de-emphasized to improve students’ learning. To that end, she has eliminated exams and replaced them with writing and reflection throughout the semester. “It doesn’t matter if they memorize what ACGT stands for in DNA,” she says. “What’s more important to me is whether they can create a coherent argument for choosing genetically modified foods or not.”

She makes clear what the assignments and expectations are throughout the course, she says. Then at the end of the semester, she asks students what grade they would give themselves based on how well they met those goals. Almost always, she says, they choose a grade she believes accurately reflects their work.

Miceli began doing pre- and post-course surveys to gauge students’ confidence in learning about science. While the data is limited, in part due to the shift to online learning during the pandemic, she has seen an increase in measures of science confidence, such as their belief in their ability to apply scientific concepts to everyday life.

During her one-on-one ungrading sessions, Miceli asks them what they expect to take away from the courses. She thought they might talk about a particular science topic. “But 75 percent of them say, ‘Science is cool.’ Or, ‘I didn’t think science was something I could do. And this class showed me that science is important and relevant to my life.’”

“That’s literally the goal,” she says. “That is the point of general education.”

No Textbooks, No Grades, No Right Answers

Heather Miceli’s experience designing a course that puts students in charge of their learning reminded me of one of my favorite stories to report, “No Textbooks, No Lectures, and No Right Answers. Is This What Higher Education Needs?

Over the course of a semester, I watched teams of students at James Madison University’s X-Labs dive into complicated topics — homelessness, education, nonprofit work — through unscripted, research-driven exploration. It was fascinating to see such an unconventional college course in action.

Did everything work out perfectly? Not at all. “I’m used to professors telling me what they want, and I do what they want, and I get a grade,” one student told me. “Now it was very much working with them and trying to figure out a solution to a problem nobody had a solution to.” But frustration was part of the learning experience.

Here’s what I wrote at the time: “College students don’t lack ambition or creativity, professors here say, but the education system has trained them to think within existing boundaries and frameworks. If you put them in charge of figuring out what they need to learn, they are willing to wrestle with uncertainty, challenge themselves, and work long hours to find answers.”

Have you found that to be true? If you give your students open-ended problems, and put them in control, have you found that they rise to the challenge? If you have a story to tell, write to me at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com and your experience may appear in a future newsletter.

ICYMI

  • In her latest story, Beckie explains how the pandemic pushed many faculty members to be more flexible with traditional course rules around things like deadlines and grading.
  • Why is a core curriculum important for a new generation? Roosevelt Montás of Columbia University makes the case in this Chronicle Review essay.
  • Students tend to hate group projects. In this Chronicle advice piece, Jane S. Halonen and Dana S. Dunn explain how better design and instruction could change that.
  • Want to improve student retention? Involve department chairs. Allison Calhoun-Brown of Georgia State University explains why that matters in this Chronicle advice piece.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

— Beth

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