Scientists are big on evidence; after all, we’ve each been trained (in our own highly specialized field) to accept nothing unless evidence shows – beyond a very high statistical cut off – that the particular thing in question is likely a real phenomena. And even then, we are trained to say that the evidence ‘supports’ that particular phenomena, not that it ‘proves’ it. All of this shows that we should have a very high threshold for skepticism, and a huge disapproval of ‘anecdata’ – that is, the ‘data’ of our personal experiences, not supported by evidence.
Scientists abhor when the general population ignores the overwhelming evidence on the safety and importance of vaccinations, the reality of human-caused climate change, or the mechanisms of evolution. But when it comes to research on education, evidence shows that scientists are the new climate-deniers (Terry McGlynn put in nicely here). In fact, even when scientists want to be better instructors, they resort to anecdata (e.g. “I saw my students become more engaged in the classroom when I switched to case studies”) and not the extensive literature that may document a similar trend (Andrews and Lemons 2015).
In my mind, it isn’t a tragedy when instructors are choosing to switch to evidence-supported, effective teaching methods based on personal experiences. This is roughly the equivalent of someone saying, “In my experience, the weather has gotten hotter every year that this coal plant has been in operation near my house – so I’m going to switch entirely to renewables.” Sure, you wish they looked at the papers showing the real evidence about climate change – but the net outcome of this scenario is uninformed, yet ultimately positive, action being taken.
But it is a tragedy when instructors are using anecdata to switch to practices that are not supported by the evidence, wasting valuable time and educational resources, and when instructors use personal experience to justify sticking with lecturing and other methods that have been shown to be ineffective at increasing student learning when compared with active learning strategies (Freeman et al 2014). It is not a tragedy for the instructors, but for the students – who are 1.5x more likely to fail when teachers use traditional lecture styles as compared to active learning.
Oftentimes, scientists are compelled to ignore the education literature because it seems ‘unscientific’ – there are too many uncontrolled elements, or the research uses qualitative or observational data instead of quantitative data (which wouldn’t fly in the peer-reviewed journals many of these scientists are publishing in). In reality, we’ve each simply gotten comfortable with the specific issues that plague our fields and methods – no biology or even physics study is perfectly controlled (though math might be able to make some claims towards perfection), yet we still recognize the validity of a statistically significant result! The goal of experimentation is never perfection – otherwise we would never be able to say anything conclusive about our world.
In regard to qualitative data, many of the first naturalists simply sat and observed their quarry – yet still came up with important, reproducible results about the natural world that later scientists relied on and replicated when better or different techniques became available. Just like in chemistry, biology, or physics, it’s the accumulated results of multiple independent and peer-reviewed education studies that should be considered as a guiding light, not any single piece of work or classroom; the strength of qualitative data grows through repeated observation, just as that of quantitative data does. And oh boy is there a large body of evidence for many active learning strategies!
An additional problem is that some ‘revolutionary’ new teaching practices that are promoted are not necessarily evidence-driven, leading to well-meaning and hard-working teachers getting duped into using unsupported teaching practices. Ever heard of ‘learning styles’ or been asked some variation of: ‘are you a visual, verbal, or kinetic learner?’ I’m guessing most of us have.
Yet there’s not much (any?) evidence out there showing that matching your ‘presentation style’ to a student’s self-reported ‘learning style’ actually increases student learning. Despite the lack of evidence (reviewed nicely by Pashler et al 2008), learning style curriculum and self-assessments are all over the educational sphere, and have invaded the ‘mainstream’ understanding of how people learn – to the point that learning styles are accepted as evidence-based, even when they are not. In fact, approaching people with the idea that learning styles are not supported by evidence is often met with shock – and denial. Sentences like ‘Well, I just know I’m a visual learner’ abound – for many of the reasons pointed out in the Pashler et al 2008 report. Tons of academic resources are being wasted as money and time are being poured into learning styles classroom work – and none of it is effective or supported by evidence.
So what are some evidence-based teaching approaches? Active learning strategies like Peer-Led-Team-Learning, Problem-Based Learning, Process-Oriented-Guided-Inquiry Learning, and more have been shown in a variety of contexts to improve student learning outcomes among other metrics (Eberlein et al 2008). Despite the fact that we’ve known about these techniques for centuries, we’re still waiting for the denial-ism to quit and for scientists to start implementing these evidence-based teaching techniques in their classrooms. In future posts, I’ll talk more about these techniques, the research behind them, how to use them, and how to start using them (yes, these are different).
It’s time to put our scientific mindset to task, stop the anecdata, and focus on the evidence: evidence based active learning is the future of STEM education.
Andrews T, Lemon P (2015). It’s Personal: Biology Instructors Prioritize Personal Evidence over Empirical Evidence in Teaching Decisions. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 14, 1-18.
Eberlein T, Kampmeier J, Minderhout V, Moog R, Platt T, Varma-Nelson P, White H (2008). Pedagogies of Engagement in Science: Comparison of PBL, POGIL, and PLTL. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 36, 262-73.
Freeman S, Eddy SL, McDonough M, Smith MK, Okoroafor N, Jordt H, Wenderoth MP (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. PNAS, 111, 8410-5.
Pashler H, McDaniel M, Rohrer D, Bjork R (2008). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Pyschological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-19.
Many of you have probably heard of the STEM pipeline dripping – that is, the idea that we’re losing lots and lots of students at each step of the educational process. Perhaps the step that is most relevant to me as someone who wants to go on to be a professor: only about half of those students who enter college in a STEM major will graduate with a STEM degree. This is already a sad pronouncement – we are losing so many of our students to things like poor class and assessment design, a lack of awareness of mental health issues, and a dearth of research opportunity to keep people engaged. These are all problems that, as a student of the PROFESS program at Drexel, I aim to learn about fixing.
But to actually have an impact, I will need to become a professor – and the STEM pipeline prognosis for women, and for minorities, is sadly far worse than that for overall scientists. According to a UC Berkeley study on chemists, women make up roughly 50% of college graduates in the field – but only 37% of PhDs, 22% of associate professors, and a measly 12% of tenured professors. There are many things that explain this ‘drip’ of women from the field (feels more like a gush than a drip, honestly) – they include everyday sexism from the ‘good old boys club’ of science that goes all the way to the top, wanting to earn higher salaries outside of academia, or needing time to start a family – which might not be compatible with the format of tenure-track jobs.
What I think this study, and others like it, show is that we’ve done a good job with outreach to girls to get them interested in science – despite the fact that female scientists are historically forgotten about in favor of their male counterparts (*cough* Rosalind Franklin *cough*) in our culture and the classroom, and despite the fact that science is more actively marketed to boys, we still see about 50% of our undergrads are women in several (though not all) STEM fields. Certainly, more outreach to young girls would not hurt, particularly in fields like IT, Engineering, and Physics where women are still under-represented even in bachelors programs. But this quote really resonated with me, about what the actual problem is here:
“You can tell a girl she’s smart her whole life, encourage her in school, buy her a chemistry set, send her to math camp, help her apply for college scholarships in STEM fields, and she’s still eventually going to walk into a classroom, a lab, or a job interview and have some man dismiss her existence, deny her funding, pass her over for a promotion, or take credit for her work. How about you work on getting those [people] out of power and quit telling me not to call girls pretty” – kelsium
And this idea, that men in science are actively not supporting women in science, has some pretty significant data behind it. An article in PNAS showed that elite labs run by men (and regular labs run by men) were significantly less likely to hire/train women PhD and postdocs than those run by women. In contrast, elite labs run by women were more likely to hire women than men – but by a less significant margin; and non-elite labs run by women showed no bias, unlike non-elite labs run by men. This problem is multiplied by the fact that there are more Academy/elite male scientists than females (in Chemistry, females make up only 6% of the National Academy of the Sciences chemists) – which means that in 94% of elite labs there’s an anti-woman bias.
The study in PNAS does indicate that they don’t know how many women applied to work in these labs – though they cite high rates of sexual harassment and negative attitudes towards maternity as reasons why many women may steer clear of male-dominated labs. The bottom line is that women in STEM are not being treated fairly or given access to equal opportunities – not really surprising, given how recently women were even allowed to start having careers at all.
Undeniably, women have made incredible strides in the last sixty to eighty years – at least at the undergraduate level. But the anti-woman bias held by the ‘good old boys club’ that has been the norm for the past 600 years of science needs to change and effort needs to go into enacting policies that work from the top down. Policies that support women in cases of sexual harassment, hiring bias, and family planning. Until these policies are enacted, no matter how many chemistry sets we give our young girls, we will not see a change in the gushing STEM pipeline for women.
It seems that our society is growing more dependent on science even as we grow increasingly distrustful of the news media that are generally reporting the latest scientific advances. I can’t blame us – often the headlines we are fed make it seem like cancer is cured, all bees are going extinct, and the zombie virus is knocking on our doors. How do we communicate the small steps that make up real scientific progress accurately, but still engage our readers?
That’s my goal here; to communicate the beauty of science through poetry, plays, articles, and more. I want to make the boundary between the fields of STEM and creative writing more porous. I want to discuss the important ethical questions of science and writing, too. What is literary citizenship? Does the end justify the means? What is the line between fiction and nonfiction, and when is it appropriate to use one or the other? Are our scientific discoveries neutral? What is the moral responsibility of the scientist, and the writer, to society?
There’s a lot to unpack here. On this blog I’ll be writing about scientific advancements, literary citizenship, the writing process, other written works, and perhaps a few odds and ends like gaming and gin and cats. Who doesn’t love cats?
About the Writer:
I am currently earning my PhD in Biology at Drexel University in Philadelphia – I’ll be at that for a long while. I earned my B.S. in Biology and English/Creative Writing from the State University of New York at Geneseo, where I was a member of the Honors College. At Geneseo, I was a founding member of NeuWrite/Edu, the first undergraduate chapter of the international science-writing collaboration group. I was also inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in 2015, my junior year, and served as a writing intern for their online news site, The Key Reporter in the spring of 2016. I wrote for my school newspaper, The Lamron, serving as an assistant editor from 2012-2013.
I’ve completed three ecology studies so far while in undergrad. The first is my honors capstone in Biology: Effects of the Emerald Ash Borer on Nations Road Research Reserve; the other two are directed study research projects: Native Bee Diversity and Abundance at SUNY Geneseo and Determination of Colony Structure in Formica pergandei using Microsatellite Markers to Estimate Worker Relatedness. I have presented my research at regional and local conferences. I look forward to getting to do more research as I earn my PhD! I’ve also had the opportunity to teach undergraduate biology majors lab for three semesters, serve as the assistant instructor for a semester, and as a supplemental instructor for the freshman biology majors lecture for a semester. I can’t wait to keep teaching in my PhD program!
Lastly, I am an alumni member of Alpha Delta Epsilon regional sorority. I served as President, Vice President, Treasurer, New Member Educator, and Service Chair while an active member from Spring 2013 – Spring 2016. I owe so much to this group of my peers, who pushed me to be my best (and weirdest) self and consistently supported me in my writing and my research.