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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Editorial: For US to compete in science, reconsider lecture format

    In order to contribute to fields such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics, universities should start by making sure the classes in those fields engage students.

    A survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, shows that more instructors in STEM fields than instructors in other disciplines rely on a lecture format to teach. About 37 percent of faculty in non-STEM fields said they used “extensive lecturing,” compared to 63 percent of STEM professors.

    The survey, released last week, is conducted every three years. During the 2010-11 academic year, 23,824 full-time and 3,547 part-time faculty at four-year institutions responded to the survey.

    STEM programs and increasing their number of graduates has been a focus of recent presidential administrations in updating education policy, and yet those fields continue to struggle. According to a report by the President Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, less than 40 percent of students entering college as STEM majors complete a degree in those fields.

    At the UA, students often repeat courses like math and chemistry. Between fall 2004 and spring 2008, more than 36,000 courses — mostly math, science and general education courses — were repeated using the Grade Replacement Opportunity process, according to data collected by the Undergraduate Council.

    This may be because STEM fields are intellectually much more rigorous than other disciplines, and that students often aren’t fully prepared for the academic intensity of these courses. This is plausible — incoming freshmen often have to take remedial courses to make up for being unprepared for college math and science classes.

    But it may also be because lecturing is often an antiquated and ineffective method of teaching.

    Some professors are really excellent lecturers — they crack jokes and ask thoughtful questions to engage their students. But a lot of professors can be really terrible lecturers — the kind who turn their backs to the class in order to write on a whiteboard or only read off PowerPoint presentations.

    And let’s face it. No matter how much you love math and science, if all you’re doing is listening to someone talk as you watch his or her back, the more likely you are to get really, really bored. Even worse, bad lecturing can drive students to stop going to class altogether after deciding they’re better off trying to learn the material on their own.

    Think about it this way: would a photography major ever graduate without applying what’s learned in the classroom by actually taking photos?

    Learning by doing is critical to all disciplines, but it’s especially so in STEM fields because experiential learning allows students to connect abstract concepts with tangible results.

    The U.S. is struggling to compete with its peers, especially emerging global powers such as China and India. More than half of U.S. patents in 2009 were awarded to non-U.S. companies, according to a 2010 report by the National Academy of Sciences. Increasing the number of graduates in STEM fields and rethinking the way they’re taught should be top priorities in forming educational policy, for both lawmakers and for universities.

    — Editorials are determined by the Daily Wildcat editorial board and written by one of its members. They are Bethany Barnes, Kristina Bui, Jason Krell and Alex Williams. They can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu or on Twitter via @WildcatOpinions .

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