was team teaching; now FACTS?
James W. Perry
jperry at UWC.EDU
Tue Jul 13 16:34:07 EST 1999
My congratulations to Bill Purves for raising this extremely important
topic. And I encourage him to use this as a springboard for submitting an
article to the Botanical Society's Plant Science Bulletin. It deserves a
full airing to all botanical educators, not only those on Plant-ed.
Each year I struggle with the issue of concept vs. content. I really WANT
to reduce the incredible number of facts that I love so dearly, that make
my life richer for knowing, but which *most* students will not recall past
more than a few months beyond the end of the term. But where to draw the
line, ah, there is the $64,000 question.
The American Society for Plant Physiologists worked on critical concepts
for an introductory botany course a couple years ago. I went to their web
site <http://www.aspp.org/education/educatio.htm> to find information
concerning that effort. It's rather general, but it is there.
The issues that Bill raises is exactly why the 'A' word in higher education
(Assessment) is so important. If we can develop some agreed upon goals for
the concepts that our students should be taking away from our courses, both
majors and the much larger number of non majors, then we will be on our way
to ensuring a scientifically literate populace. In order to make sure we're
doing what we want to do, let's develop an agreed upon assessment (a
practical tool that does not cost a fortune to administer) and then let's
Stepping off the soapbox now...
At 03:45 PM 7/12/99 -0700, Bill Purves wrote:
>>On July 9th, Bill Purves wrote: "I'm not a believer in
>>>having the accumulation of specific facts be the point of a course.
>>>Put a nickel in me, and I'll bore you to tears explaining why
>>>I think there is virtually NOTHING specific anybody needs to know
>>>at the undergraduate level."
>>PLOPPP.......(the sound of a nickel).....I wonder if Bill could expand a bit
>>on this? Aren't we preparing biology majors for MCAT & GRE exams, and for
>>careers in biology that require knowledge of some "specific facts"? And
>>wouldn't we like non-majors to be at least conversational on biological
>>topics? Bill's statement is a little disconcerting to someone who actually
>>learned alot as an undergraduate, and now spends a lot of time trying to
>>prepare accurate, well-organized, up-to-date lectures to undergraduates!
>Thanks for the welcome nickel, Dave! All donations gratefully accepted :-)
>It won't surprise anybody to hear that I made that assertion assuming that
>at least one nickel would come in. I was about to say that I hope we'll have
>an interesting discussion, and then I realized that to a considerable
>extent I'd be preaching to the choir, given this group's interest in
>Of course, a person who knows NO facts is probably in a bad situation ;-)
>although we might agree that there are more important SKILLS than important
>FACTS. When I said that "there is virtually NOTHING specific anybody
>know," I did include the word "virtually." But what if we dump the
>"virtually"? What FACTS are the irreducible minimum? For me, perhaps the
>bottom line is that I would hate to have a student's (major OR nonmajor)
>undergraduate biology experience not include a serious consideration of
>evolution, at some level. (In my 1952-56 undergraduate education as a
>bio major at Caltech, I think almost the only time I heard mention of
>evolution was in a geochemistry course taught by Harrison Brown--but, then,
>the big shift in biologists's attitudes toward evolution was just happening
>in those days.) If the student can't be given a good, serious consideration
>of evolution, I'd as soon she not be given ANY consideration of it.
>Part of my attitude is a reaction to other attitudes I've encountered.
>At an HHMI meeting a few years ago, biologists at a fine (and here anonymous)
>university were describing the ideal introductory bio course they had
>devised. I was startled by the extent of the content, so I asked whether
>a particular lecture might not be dispensable (cheer up--it was a
>zoological topic ;-) One of their faculty said, "We couldn't accept a
>student into our graduate program if he hadn't had that material!"
>I pointed out that if that was their criterion, then (1) they'd probably
>rarely accept a student from any other institution and (2) they'd find
>few of their own students remembering all that stuff three years later,
>when they got into grad school--because they felt the students HAD to
>learn it in the intro course. Of course, we arrived at no real
>consensus in that session...
>Now I'll try to start being more concise:
>* We must remember that our classes are not, by and large, homogeneous.
> Even if we narrow the discussion to introductory biology for majors
> of some kind, there are students with many different goals, motivations,
> and abilities. I believe that we should try to serve them ALL.
> At most institutions, not all will take MCAT or GRE.
>* The people who are/were most capable of learning under a heavily
> fact-oriented, lecture- and textbook-dominated curriculum are, I think,
> those of us academics who have chosen to take our undergraduate teaching
> seriously. It's easy for us to believe in it, because we were good
>* I'm this, like, OLD dude, and I've known an awful lot of scientists,
> teachers, and students. I've seen no positive correlation between
> research success and typical undergraduate information-retention
> measures. (Sure, I've known top scientists with blockbuster undergraduate
> records, but they haven't been the rule.) Almost none of my current
> scientist friends around the world whom I consider to be real hotshots are,
> in fact, working in areas in which they even HAD undergraduate or grad
> school experiences.
>* Yes, a lot of our students need to perform very well on MCAT/GRE/etc.
> And it's true that a lot of content for those exams is right there
> in those bloody encyclopedic introductory textbooks ;-) and in the
> courses taught in many schools. I don't think that the students
> stop (or in many cases even START) learning them in the intro
>* I'm not against students learning "facts." I'm all FOR it! But I do
> believe that most of them will learn the ones they WANT to learn,
> and they'll learn them ONLY when THEY want to, in service of some
>* By the same token, I believe that faculty WILL set forth "facts,"
> ideas, skills-to-be-learned, etc. whenever we teach. But each of
> us has her or his own set that we want to work from. Students
> are unique, and so are professors. That's why I believe in letting
> faculty members chart their own paths (assuming they WANT to),
> if a department can agree not to be disrupted by this.
>* Those individual faculty members, tripping along their paths, should
> not, I think, expect all students to carry away the same "kits"
> at the end. But they must try to make sure each student carries
> away SOME kit!
>* It's a separate topic, and one we revisit periodically, but I'll
> say parenthetically that I view lectures and reading-the-textbook-
> chapter-after-chapter as the least effective of the tools at our
> disposal for helping students learn.
>* Finally: No, I don't think there are specific facts that a student
> MUST learn in the introductory course. But they must learn HOW to
> ACQUIRE the skills and facts they need by the time they're needed.
> A truly great course or curriculum will leave the students with
> that skill and a desire to use it.
>With my usual apology for my incurable logorrhea,
>William K. Purves Vice President/Editorial Director
>The Mona Group LLC West Coast Office
>2817 N. Mountain Avenue phone: 909.626.4859
>Claremont, CA 91711-1550 fax: 909.626.7030
> e-mail: purves at monagroup.com
James. W. Perry, CEO/Campus Dean
Professor, Department of Biological Sciences
University of Wisconsin - Fox Valley
1478 Midway Road, P.O. Box 8002
Menasha, Wisconsin 54952-9002
jperry at uwc.edu
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