My top 4 tips for effective science teaching / engagement
Every year, the Association of Science Education (ASE) hosts one of the largest science education conferences in Europe. Last week, I went to get my fix of the latest research and practice, seeing too many talks to relate them all but for my first blog of the year I will write about the top four things I took away from it. Naturally, the talks I went to reflected my interests: using evidence based interventions, using arts and discussion based interventions to foster engagement and deep learning, and to communicate science in a way that addresses inequality. As a result, this may give a somewhat narrow view of the conference but pleasingly, these topics were all fairly high on the agenda so here they are..
Creativity is important
There is a common held belief that science is not a creative subject. Science is seen as a body of knowledge and skills to be learnt but not questioned. Many students prefer subjects, such as art, where their original ideas are valued in their own right and where they have more agency over the content that they grapple with. Despite this, a study looking into the educational experiences of scientists shows that many scientists were motivated to pursue science by experiences where they were allowed a greater deal of agency in the tasks that they did and felt that these experiences tallied with their experience of being a scientist, namely that their job is extremely creative. In other words, creatives would probably make good scientists but many are turned off before that can be an option. It is worth noting that many of these scientists gained these creative scientific experiences out of school, and aside from practical work and the odd inspiring teacher, school was low down on their list of things that inspired them to become scientists. This suggests that teachers and science communicators should build genuine enquiry and innovation into the activities they do.
Another way to bring creativity into the classroom is by using arts to foster creative responses to scientific ideas. The University of Exeter have created the CREATIONS project to look into this by working with teachers to create cross-curricular projects between art teachers and science teachers. Dr Paul Davies is a science teacher who has trialled one of these projects with his students at an independent girls school in central London and the art they exhibited was of an enormously high standard. In creating deeply conceptual artwork about the big ideas, like evolution or time, the project helped students to see science as a creative enterprise, breaking down their idea of science as being about getting the right answer, rather than being focussed on new possibilities. The study was unable to look at effects on attainment, but in my experience being able to have a personal connection to an idea through a piece of creative work helps make content more memorable, increasing engagement with learning.
Dialogue for seeing multiple perspectives
Key to the CREATIONS project is dialogue. Dialogue helped students to explore their ideas to a greater depth and even helped the teachers to understand the benefits of the very different ways in which art teachers and science teachers talk. Another project that involves dialogue was reported on by Michael Reiss and is a cross-curricular project between science and religious studies teachers to help students see biology as less reductive by considering science and religion as two different windows through which to look at the world. As in the CREATIONS project, students were able to see science as more than facts to be learned and were able to see science and religion as more compatible. Whether or not you agree that they are, it is an important perspective to share with students, many of whom are led to believe that science is inherently anti-religious and therefore disengage. Students were more positive about the contributions of science as a result.
Dialogue not only helps students to hold multiple perspectives (something that is surely desirable in an increasingly polarised world), it helps them to form their understanding of more complex ideas, and is often more engaging as their perspectives gain importance compared to traditional teaching styles. This works from primary level, all the way up.
Use the science of cognitive psychology
It strikes me that if science teachers don’t engage with the science of learning, they are missing an opportunity, not only to improve their teaching but also to demonstrate to students how science can be of direct benefit. Cognitive psychology is a branch of science that has known about some very fundamental and basic principles of learning for a very long time, but many teachers are unaware of what those findings are, or the scientific methods used to find them. At the conference, I saw two very illuminating talks on this. The first, by Flavia Belham, presented the research on the most effective strategies for storage and retrieval of information in long-term memory, and the other by Bob Pritchard, a science teacher, about working memory and cognitive load theory. Here are the highlights:
Coding and retrieval from long term memory - the most effective strategies are:
Retrieval practice - use flashcards, past papers, and get students to explain how and why. This strengthens the neural pathways associated with recall.
Spaced practice - revisit topics regularly as the more times you visit a topic, the longer it stays in long term memory and if you don’t revisit it goes.
Dual coding - get information in more than one way, eg. diagram and words. In fact linking anything memorable to the information helps, as your brain has more ways to access the information for retrieval. This is why mnemonics work.
Interleaving topics - going back and forth between topics means you regularly revisit information (spaced practice), and allows links to be made between topics which helps with memory as the student can incorporate the information into a schema.
Concrete examples - give real world applications of all the science.
Elaboration on answers - Get students to improve their answers 2 or 3 times as it will force them to think more deeply about each topic and help them to make connections between topics.
Working Memory and Cognitive Load:
Working memory is the conduit between sensory information coming in and the long term memory. It is involved with the retrieval and and encoding of information.
Information held in working memory only holds for about 30 seconds and is easily lost. It has a small capacity for pieces of information and is easily overloaded.
Overloading leads to misunderstood content, ineffective coding and slowed cognition but there is no overload when using information from the long term memory. This means that students with less prior knowledge will struggle doubly hard to understand new concepts.
Effective strategies are:
Faded worked examples - Eg.Show students how to solve an equation. Then get them to do another but only complete the first step, then another completing more steps, until they can do the whole thing on their own. This limits the amount of information needed in working memory.
Don’t split sources of information - if you have to read a question at the top of the page and then refer to a diagram overleaf, the switching slows down processing. Use the least possible information and put it next to the relevant part of the diagram.
Dual coding and multi-modality - Show information in different ways to help with coding. Make it visual as well as wordy.
Avoid redundancy - The same information delivered twice at the same, in a similar mode is tricky, so don’t read slides from a powerpoint. The students will be slowed down by listening and reading simultaneously.
Remove the goal - If you get students to explore the possibilities of the context of a question before giving them the actual question, they have much less to hold in mind and can store the possible solutions in memory before the question is asked, reducing cognitive overload.
Provide role models and real world applications
Aside form the use of real world applications having a positive effect on long-term memory storage, a number of presenters were talking about their effect on scientific career aspirations. Louise Archer, through the ASPIRES research has shown that whilst student interest in science is high, the enthusiasm does not translate into students choosing to go into a scientific career. A much better predictor of whether a student will choose a scientific career is their science capital - the collection of attitudes, experiences and knowledge that an individual has to do with science. Students who choose science tend to earn more in the long run and science capital is highly correlated with high socioeconomic status. It is important to increase science capital in those students who lack it in order to balance the playing field for entry into science.
The issue with having low science capital is that the student will not see science as ’for them’ so a simple way for teachers to address this is to show scientists who are as diverse as their students and to show that the work that scientists do is far more varied than standing in a lab. Pleasingly, it was reported in a different talk that there is indeed a positive effect on aspirations of girls when more female role models are used. What is even more interesting is that there does not seem to be a negative to this as using female role models appears to have no effect on boys aspirations at all.
I hope these tips are useful. Feel free to use the comments to share experience of using this or any other thoughts. Now, I’m off to adapt all my teaching resources to reduce their cognitive load.