Monday, March 16, 2015

Teaching Science* at the College Level

This is a revised post from my second blog, Healthy Science, which is now the official site of the Clinical Health Psychology Research Team at the University of Scranton.
It's Spring Break time at my institution, and I have that strange sense that the semester is both flying by and crawling along. This semester is much busier than the last, though I've managed to stay (mostly) afloat as I progress toward the end of my first year. One topic that's been on my mind for a while now (i.e., from before I started here) is how to teach and mentor in the scientific method, in a way that students find engaging?
By "science*," I mean scientific thinking in any discipline. In the physical sciences (biology, chemistry, etc.), it's reasonable to expect that students come to college with at least a rudimentary understanding of what it means to "do science" - run an experiment, write up the results, etc. And those who are majors should be moderately interested in doing this regularly. We wouldn't necessarily have the same expectation of an English or history major, but the methods for these disciplines are more similar than people think. But it seems that psychology is in a unique gap between the perceptions of hard sciences and the perceptions of liberal arts. But unless they had fantastic high school teachers, few students come to psychology with an understanding of what it really MEANS that "psychology is the scientific study of human behavior." And the vast majority haven't a clue that psychology involves biology, chemistry, physics, math, and other subjects they think they want to avoid.
One experience in particular brought this to mind before I started my current job. In my effort to start thinking and acting like a professor, I attended an interesting seminar on the subject of involving more students in research experiences at the undergraduate level. Dr. Jennifer Stanford, a biology professor at Drexel University who researches STEM educational practices, presented evidence that supports the positive relationship between research experiences and graduation rates. (Both student-selected experiences and university outreach programs.) She also noted that these experiences are time- and resource-intensive on the part of faculty, so few are willing to extend their expertise.
More recently, I've spent a lot of time talking with psychology students about what it means to "think like a scientist." I was surprised to realize that even bright students who sign up for research assistantships - who have taken several history, methods, and statistics courses (and some of whom have worked in other research labs) - have a difficult time answering this question. It's clear to me that they recognize the importance of the topic. So why the lack of confidence in their answers? Does this essential, fundamental issue fail to meet the long-term retention threshold? On the contrary, it seems that the answers that make sense to them never are encoded in the first place. My discussions with students continued through Socratic questioning, thought experiments, and examples using topics of individual interest. I'm pleased that these discussions seemed to be productive, and engaging to the students. But why was this the first time they had participated in such a conversation? They're not new to this!
And of course, this brings us back to Dr. Stanford's seminar. One reason that intensive research experiences can be so beneficial is that they allow time for the kind of discussions I had with students, which not all students have access to. Moreover, even students who have access to research positions don't always get the kind of attention they need to facilitate independent thinking. Problem: Being a good teacher and mentor takes time and effort, which many professors don't have. Not putting in the time and effort means we're not doing justice to the mission of higher education. Putting in the time and effort means that something else has to give. Or does it?
For my money, the most helpful aspect of Dr. Stanford's seminar were her suggestions for creative ways to involve large numbers of students in "research" by giving them opportunities to think like scientists. For example, rather than writing a typical research paper at the end of the semester, students at any level write a hypothetical research proposal: an interesting question, a bit about what we know and don't know, and how we would test a hypothesis. This isn't exactly a novel idea, but we tend to reserve it for advanced seminars. Opening it up to introductory courses and allowing students to write about what they find most interesting could have multiple benefits. I planned to use this in my Intro Psych class in the fall, though I switched as the semester approached. In the future, gearing the semester toward this assignment could help to connect the disparate sub-disciplines in psychology, which introductory textbooks (and classes) often fail to do. I did recently use it in my new Health Psychology course, where students did an excellent job of generating original research ideas.
What other ideas are out there? Save me some time by linking to journal articles and other blogs that offer similarly creative suggestions - I know they're out there :)