Sunday, February 19, 2012

"Well I see your point, but we discussed this in class..."

What Biology education needs to function properly.

Let us take a case study:
Take a typical biology class and your professor is talking about enzyme kinematics. He tells you that the optimum output is found when the system stays constantly at half its K and shows you the equation to solve for output.
The professor then writes the exam with the poorly written question:
What is the optimum output of this chemical reaction?

What happens when the typical biology student meets poorly written question?
They scratch their heads and assume the professor is silly for asking something outside the scope of the class and put down K/2

What happens when the self-directed learner meets poorly written question?
They answer the question that the professor asked, spending 45 min deriving an equation to solve for the optimum output of the reaction.

Who gets full points?
The student who puts down K/2
Because actually solving for the optimum output is beyond the scope of the class.

We see situations like this in many classes around campus... where classes no longer are places where you learn to use problem solving skills to resolve questions, they are places where you absorb vast amounts of information and then spit it back out again on exams, only to forget that knowledge in a couple of weeks. How can we foster the problem solving skills that are necessary for us to become useful in society? As much as we'd like to have a life where memorizing vast amounts of information and dispensing it at the appropriate time could be a fulltime occupation, the real world needs problem solvers, not information dispensers.
My suggestion? Get rid of 'info dump' exams. If you want to have an ecology class where the students truly understand what it is like to be an ecologist, then get them out in the "field" and have them analyze a proper ecosystem in the way a true ecologist would. Have them come to conclusions about the status of the ecosystem and explain their reasoning. You have to understand the same amount of information as you did for the multiple choice exam with short answer questions, but you learn how to use that information to solve a problem in the way a true scientist would understand it.
In the 1800's you didn't have to go to a school and dispense information to a teacher for people to know that you were good at something, you had to actually go out into the field and do things. If you wanted to be a carpenter, you went to apprenticeship with a master carpenter and you learned the skills of the trade on the job and as you go... so that by the end of your apprenticeship you were able to creatively solve the problems that your chosen profession required you to do. Today we do have Internships and REU's that help scientists learn what they will actually be doing for the rest of their lives... but we need more than just a couple of summers of experiences to really stoke the creative juices so that the information stays useful instead of useless.

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