How important is effective teaching to science professors anyway?

Lately, I've been blogging a bit about science teaching. Most of my focus has been on teaching at the secondary level, but it turns out that there are issues to be tackled with science teaching at all levels, including the college level. You'd think, then, that when a scientist who has proven himself in the research arena (and even picked up a Nobel Prize) wants to direct his formidable talents toward improving undergraduate science instruction, he'd be in a good position to get things done.

Sadly, you'd be mistaken.

From Inside Higher Ed comes the story of Carl Wieman, a physicist at the University of Colorado and 2001 Nobel Prize winner (for producing the first Bose-Einstein condensate). Wieman thought the career capital he earned from his Nobel might help him get the necessary support to pursue some science education projects. His experiences satnd in contrast to his initial hunch.

Wieman figured science's most revered award would give him a platform to "change the way institutions function." Reams of research show that undergraduate science instruction is not living up to its potential. In most large lectures, students learn by rote from instructors who have no idea whether concepts are sinking in or not. "If the research tells us anything," Wieman says, "it tells us that to be effective, instruction requires you to know what students are thinking." Real-time feedback for teachers, Wieman says, should be standard. But the Nobel didn't turn out to be the pedagogy boon Wieman had hoped for.

First, he contributed $250,000 of his Nobel Prize award to the Physics Education Technology Fund supporting classroom initiatives at CU-Boulder. He hoped it would prompt other donations, but the momentum never materialized.

Last year, during his sabbatical, Wieman wrote 35 proposals for funding for teaching projects. All he got was one small grant from the National Science Foundation to develop computer simulations. "That probably triples the unsuccessful proposals for physics research I'd written in my entire career," Wieman says. "It seemed like I was somewhat naïve in thinking I could get more resources and attention to have a reasonably large impact in this area."

Here's a guy who actually cares about improving undergraduate teaching -- and he can't get the funders to care. (Maybe they think good research in science is a completely separate issue from good science education in the training of those researchers.) At least, he couldn't get funders in the U.S. to care; the University of British Columbia has promised him $12 million for a five year science education project. (And, Colorado has managed to find $5 million to support another five year science education project, for which Wieman will be visiting monthly.)

It seems like Wieman should be the sort of guy who could help make changes in pedagogy that do have an impact on student learning -- and that keep student in science classes long enough that they actually get a chance to do research. He's traveling in that middle between the folks who are heavy on pedagogical know-how but light on their understanding of science and the folks who are heavy into science and relatively innocent of pedagogies, and he assumed (as would I) that his credibility as a researcher would help research-oriented scientists take his call to improve teaching more seriously.

Currently, most faculty members who give unique methods like peer-instruction a try are tenured, and willing to put in a lot of work, often with no funding, to get started. Wieman said that the fundamental vision, which will begin as a collaboration of education science projects between Colorado and UBC, is to "work with departments" to develop conceptual knowledge assessment tests for all scientific disciplines; "really good clicker questions," [to use with electronic clickers that let instructors assess how well students in big lecture classes are understanding concepts while the lecture is in progress]; and a detailed archiving and dissemination system. Wieman plans to hire and train people to develop concept tests and implementation schemes.

Wieman thinks that, because he doesn't have a pure education background, researchers will listen to him, and he'll understand their constraints. Ultimately, he wants to make the better teaching techniques as "painless" as possible, and to push the academy toward rewarding good teaching. He hopes the assessment tests can help with that. "Right now, we don't have [good teaching evaluations]," Wieman says. "The typical person gives students a final exam, and they grade it on a curve. It really doesn't tell anything whatsoever about any objective way you can evaluate faculty in terms of what students have learned." Science teachers, Wieman says, tend to be very unscientific about their teaching. Teachers shouldn't "decide what's right and wrong by tradition, or superstition, or anecdotes...that 2 out of 100 students told you they liked it. We know how to evaluate these things better."

If better assessments exist, Wieman reasons, professors might have more incentive to teach well, and departments might take teaching evaluation more seriously.

I'm glad Wieman is undertaking this research, and that his enthusiasm for it seems undampened. I'm glad UBC was clever enough to see that this is research (and a researcher) worth funding.

But I'm a wee bit disappointed that Wieman didn't have lots of company in spearheading this research. Have scientists at research-oriented universities simply decided that undergraduate science education is unimportant (thus not worth bothering to improve)? That the next generation of scientists are the ones who will distinguish themselves by surviving sub-par instruction? That all that book-learning has no meaningful connection at all to what's happening in the lab?

With this kind of attitude toward the value of good science teaching, does it make any sense that we ask people to major in a science before they can come to a graduate program and get involved in research (the thing that really matters, apparently)?

Maybe it's not that researchers see science instruction as unimportant, but that the system doesn't support the choice to care about teaching. Sure, if one is slogging away in the lab to build a tenure case, seeming too enthusiastic about teaching (or about initiatives to improve pedagogy) can be a dangerous move at a research school. But dammit, it's still a school. Students are paying tuition to sit in classes, where they hope there is a likelihood that someone will teach them something. Some of the world-class researchers must have had good teachers; is there no impulse, on the rare occasions when one can't actually wriggle out of teaching a class, to try to do a good job teaching, as a way of giving back? Once one has tenure, are there no professors inclined to come out of the closet as educators? Is the peer pressure at the research universities really that strong?


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The system *doesn't* support the choice to care about teaching, that is true. Even at a place like Vanderbilt, which cares more about teaching than most large research Universities, teaching is given short shrift. It's a box to be checked for tenure -- be at least acceptable at teaching. Being a very good teacher won't help your tenure case any more than just being acceptable, however. What's more, teaching effectiveness is based on student evaluations, which aren't really correlated with how much the students learned-- meaning that teaching effectiveness is not measured in the tenure criterion, but something that allows the University's marketers to disingenuously claim that teaching effectiveness is measured. If I were smart, I would just give public lectures (about which I always get positive feedback) in my intro astronomy class, and on tests I'd ask factual questions that the students had memorized (which students who do well on SATs and think they are good students would be good at), and everybody would be happy; I'd get good evaluations, and the students would think the course was good even if they didn't ultimately learn very much.

But there *are* groups out there doing Physics education research, and Astronomy education research. I've paid attention to some of that; I've used Eric Mazure-style "Peer Instruction" in my large astronomy classes, and have used the CAPER group at Arizona's "Lecture Tutorials" to very good effect. I very much believe in "active learning"; not hands-on, necessarily, as much as "brains-on". I can't make the students learn, I can only help enable it. They have to do the learning themselves.

I will say that the fault isn't only on the professors. There's been a culture shift in the last few decades that it's no longer the students' responsibility to learn, but the professor's responsibility for the students to learn. In reality, the responsibility should be shared-- but the students have to take some of it. Some of the older professors in my department have commented on this. The professor's responsibility is to structure "lecture" (or classtime) such that it really does enable the students to learn. But if the students then don't take advantage of it... that's not the professor's fault.

I think that the "everybody needs self-esteem" movement over the last few decades has some negative side effects. Students think that they are entitled to good grades if they show up. They think that it's "unfair" if you challenge them in a course outside of their major. No, not all of them, but a disturbingly large number of them seem to. In courses outside their major, they *want* courses where they are shown the rote hoops to jump through, so that they can check off requirements without having to go through the painful and challenging process of thinking in different ways. Again, not all of them, but the culture is that a lot of them want that. And if you don't give them that, and aren't amazingly good at casting the active learning and peer instruction techniques to keep them happy, you suffer in your student evaluations.

Some physics and astronomy educators talk about the "hidden curriculum," which is basically the contract that the professor will tell the students what to memorize, the students will memorize it and repreat it on a test, the professors will give the students a good grade, and the students will give the professor a good student evaluation. None of which really has much to do with effective science teaching.

It's tough. I'm trying to be an effective science teacher, and I know I've had some success. On the other hand, some students in my intro class have really hated me-- generally the argument is that I'm "too hard" and "unfair", although the fact that the best students in that class are not Physics majors belie some of the comments I get. I'm still working on it, and will always continue to work on it. The sad thing is, I *do* know how to give very good public lectures, but I also know that that doesn't make an effective science class, so I don't just do that.

I am rambling without organization, and probably should have put this on my own blog....


I wonder if Weiman was being multidisciplinary in his grant writing? By that I mean - did he have anyone who does have a background in pedagogies of College Level Education on his team as a collaborator for his projects? Whether we like it or not, I think he'd have to have someone from the College of Education on his team to get any funding for developing new approaches to education. Maybe that's why the grants got turned down? If you just say 'things need to change', but you can't back it up with data from Education Research about exactly how, you're not going to get funded.

Probably you know, but at a research university, for a young researcher, spending time on teaching is not only unrewarded, but actually counts negatively. It really seems that given two people with roughly equal research accomplishments and potential, if one person is additionally spending time on teaching related professional development, that person will be seen as less serious, as headed to a "community college" career. This effect is even worse if the researcher spending time on teaching is a woman. All the people I know who cared about teaching ended up being pushed towards teaching-only jobs, and out of research, even though some of them had much better research than some of the folks who couldn't give a rat's ass about teaching.

Myself, although my first interest is research, I started off putting both research and teaching professional development (high school outreach, curriculum development, teacher training) on applications for jobs and other programs, and I got the feeling this was happening. (In particular I was being offered "teacher-track" jobs I hadn't applied for and wasn't interested in.) A couple of years later I left off the teaching stuff, and my response has been much better, even though my research accomplishment hasn't changed much.

My university has actually implemented a College Teaching Certifcation program for graduate students in about 6 colleges, and it started in the Nat Sci college, so that might be a good sign. The fact that it's available in my college (Social Sci) and I can't find any information about the requirements for it suggests to me that I'm the first in my college to show an interest in it, which is a bad sign.

I would question why most graduate programs don't offer/encourage teacher training. Obviously not all PhDs are going to become professors, nor are they all interested in that. But perhaps if more graduate students were encouraged to think about College teaching, and to develop teaching philosophies, etc..., we would end up with more professors interested in improving their teaching. I think we start the encouragement of research over teaching the second a student enters a grad. program, and perhaps we should start there.

Perhaps Wieman is a better physicist than a science educator. Many people have spent entire careers focusing on that issue. Perhaps Wieman's ideas in his proposal weren't as good as those presented by other grant proposals--education researchers tend to get short shrift in the science community.

Again, probably something you know, but there are plenty of researchers who like teaching, or are at the very least willing to do a good job of it (and who do indeed see it as "giving back"). My current PI is a good example. The problem is that research, by which of course I mean research grants, bring in money the school cannot do without, so staff are expected to win independent funding (there's one full time career) AND teach, often a full load (there's a second) -- something's gotta give even if one has tenure already, and if one doesn't it's no secret where the university wants your priorites to go.

Second problem: what are we going to do with all these bright-eyed well-taught young scientists once we get them? What's the average success rate for NIH grants these days, 20%? Less? How many people from YOUR graduating class have tenure? Unless there's a career structure and jobs for them to go to, perhaps we shouldn't be steering kids into science. We already have more scientists than we know what to do with.

Thought I'd come over from my new blog and add my own two cents as I was a junior prof at another CU campus when Wieman won the Nobel. People within the CU system really try to be good teachers in spite of a system that, as yagwara stated, allows even the best teaching to be a neutral factor in tenure decisions and a negative factor if you are a poor teacher. CU has a great reputation for having senior researchers involved in teaching: another CU Nobel laureate, Tom Cech, still taught freshman chemistry before he became pres of HHMI. I myself got tenure in the CU system by striving to be a good teacher in spite of what was required for tenure (getting a new R01 a few months before the final tenure committee meeting didn't hurt).

Janet may not be aware that Wieman did indeed have institutional help in this educational realm: before he won the Nobel, Wieman was elected to CU's President's Teaching Scholars Program, a system-wide academy of tenured research professors dedicated to furthering educational activities in the university. Since these folks have to be tenured for election, they can serve the junior faculty to help encourage their teaching aspirations while mentoring them to do what is necessary to achieve tenure. It's only a start, but at least a subset of research-centered profs in one state university are trying to buck the trend by nuturing a culture of good researchers who want to be great teachers. Knowing what it takes to get in to the PTSP, I can say you've got to be a pretty damn good educator - so I'd venture to say that Carl's educational grant applications were likely to be as good as any of his research grant apps.

Just to plug the CU PTSP and a fellow new blogger, Ewen Callaway at Complex Medium, Ewen interviewed one of the best-recognized CU PTSP scholars, immunologist JJ Cohen, MD, PhD, on the Cafe Scientifique phenomenon for his KGNU radio program, How On Earth. Cohen is the best professor I have ever known from my four universities and has the research distinction of having described the process of apoptosis around the same time as Andrew Wyllie. Cohen created the Mini-Medical School public outreach effort now adopted by over 80 US med schools and continues to bring science and medicine to the people. JJ Cohen and a few other senior colleagues were the catalysts for my election into the PTSP in 2000. Sadly, neither tenure at Colorado nor being a PTSP scholar was of any help to me when family health issues required me to relocate to another area rich in research universities.

The bottom line is that Cohen and Wieman had to have tenure to make teaching an important part of their careers. I worry about junior faculty who don't have that luxury or who aren't rewarded for outstanding educational skills in major research universities.

This could be seen as evidence of the fairness of the funding process. Despite his renown, his lack of experience and publications in the area of education handicapped his quest for grant funds.

My own view is that we could do with a bit less of that kind of fairness. I think that anybody who wins a Nobel prize should be spotted a full score point on any subsequent grant proposal. I'm willing to live with the slight reduction in my own funding chances.

Quality of teaching is just not valued at major research universities. While certain individuals in the university might be passionate about teaching, good teaching does not win tenure. And so ambitious assistant profs are steered into devoting all their energy to research. One career seminar I attended advised future assistant profs to "just make sure their teaching evaluations weren't in the bottom 50%."

What could change the system is if universities start seeing an effect on their bottom line. If undergraduate students (and their parents, who are now paying $35,000+/year for their children's education) demand more innovative, high-quality teaching, the universities will have to listen.