content be organized and presented? Because science curricula tend to be vertically structured, students' content knowledge is critical for advancement in a field and for understanding the next level of information. In science courses for nonscience majors, how should the content be organized and presented? In any given course, we should ask what should be the balance between specific information, application of that information, and conceptual understanding of basic principles? If the course is truly to be a course for lawyers, citizens, teachers, and other nonscientists, it should provide some of the essence of what science is and the nature of the scientific enterprise.

Most science courses, particularly introductory courses, emphasize discipline-centered teaching. Generations of students have been exposed to science as a subject in which the correct formulas and answers must be memorized, and the material is divided into many different and seemingly unrelated pieces. Problems with this approach have been exacerbated by the explosion of scientific information. Faculty members, wishing to cover the latest results and ideas but reluctant to discard classical material, rush to cover more and more information in the same amount of time.

Collaborative Syllabus Design

Often, multiple sections of an introductory course are taught by different faculty members. Some faculty members find it useful to meet with their colleagues to design a syllabus that optimizes the order and structure in which to present the course material. For example, if you are teaching atomic theory, is it best to start with basic terms and then to build up to a model, or to start with a model and disassemble it piece by piece? The first step in collaborative syllabus design is to meet with fellow faculty members who teach the same course to identify basic concepts. Then, separately, each teacher does an analysis of the critical variables related to each concept. Finally, the colleagues reassemble to compare their lists, identify similarities and differences, and discuss the implications of their lists for instruction.

Those who have studied the learning of science have concluded that students learn best if they are engaged in active learning, if they are forced to deal with observations and concepts before terms and facts, and if they have the sense that they are part of a community of learners in a classroom environment that is very supportive of their learning (Fraser, 1986; Chickering and Gamson, 1987; McDermott et al., 1987; Fraser and Tobin, 1989; McDermott, 1991; McDermott et al., 1994; McKeachie, 1994; Tobin et al., 1994). Instructor-centered and student-centered teaching are more effective than is discipline-centered teaching for students to learn in this way. When the focus is on meaning rather than solely on facts, students develop their conceptual abilities. They assimilate information by incorporating new concepts or by using information to differentiate among already existing concepts. This is not necessarily at the expense of their development of algorithmic abilities, because conceptual understanding gives a context for the application of problem solving methods. A student-centered style is more likely to motivate students by engaging their interest. Several factors can influence your choice of teaching style:

  • student needs (future course and career requirements, preparation for participatory citizenship, and preparation for careers in science, engineering, technology, or education),

  • student background (preconceptions and misconceptions; see Chapter 4),

  • familiarity with various teaching methods,

  • course enrollment (size, students with special needs, the logistics of managing small group activities),

  • student learning styles,

  • teaching load (number of contact hours, office hours, time for preparation and grading),

  • other responsibilities (research, committee work, administrative duties),

  • support structures (equipment cost, teaching and demonstration assistants),



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement