was team teaching; now FACTS?

Robinson, Dr. David drobinson at BELLARMINE.EDU
Wed Jul 14 09:42:21 EST 1999

But isn't Purves' emphasis on teaching "skills" (and his de-emphasis of
"facts") going to result in college graduates who might be excellent at
problem-solving, but who will have a poor grasp of what the "problem" is
that they are trying to solve? Since Bill is now recommending this same
approach be applied by high-school science teachers too, what he is
essentially saying is that we are expecting students to postpone "learning
the facts" until graduate school. But graduate school is a time for
specialization (once there, a student only focuses on one particular facet
of biology). I still say that the undergraduate years are the best time for
students to become generalists in their major. Higher-order thinking is only
going to be successful when they can speak "the language", and if you've
ever studied a foreign language you know that learning (yes, even
memorizing!) vocabulary is a critical part of that process.
                                            Dave Robinson, Bellarmine

> -----Original Message-----
> From:	purves at thuban.ac.hmc.edu [SMTP:purves at thuban.ac.hmc.edu]
> Sent:	Tuesday, July 13, 1999 9:30 PM
> To:	plant-ed at net.bio.net
> Subject:	Re: was team teaching; now FACTS?
> Pardon me for taking up yet more bandwidth, but the discussion is growing.
> Dave put one nickel in me, and another member of the group said to me
> in a private e-mail, earlier today:
> >Bill,
> >
> >Thanks for saying the things you have.  I feel somewhat more
> >comfortable with what I've done academically for my students (and
> >professionally) but could you expand a little (I wouldn't mind a lot,
> >actually) more on the "HOW to ACQUIRE skills?  I know, I know.  I am a
> >"There is always one of those."  I quess I want to see "educating" from a
> >perspective different from the ones I have so far considered.  Perhaps
> >after reading your answer I'll get another "better idea." 
> >
> >Best wishes.
> I'm responding to him as follows and figured I may as well share the
> thoughts with the group.  Some you've heard before...
> Skills won't come from listening to lectures, nor will facts.  Lectures
> sure are fun to give, but... perhaps their best contribution might be
> the generation of interest among some of the students.
> Skills come from practice.  The first place that comes to mind is
> the lab/field.  Some courses work; some don't.  I suspect that some labs
> that are ineffective in one setting may be effective in another.
> A brief description of a lab approach I like (hey, I used to teach in
> that course) appears on p. 35 of "Beyond Bio 101," the HHMI publication
> that also appears on the web.  It's the one used at Harvey Mudd.
> In that course, students work intensively on a rather small set of
> lab/field skills, AND on the skills associated with analyzing data
> and writing technical publications.  The course is also writing-
> intensive.
> Suppose we give up one or two of the lectures (each week) formerly
> used in conventional ways.  Without adding to the students' contact
> hours, that time can be used to have students do projects in small
> teams.  The projects can culminate in posters, web pages,
> in-recitation-section presentations,...  It is important that the
> students see what other groups have done.  During project development
> (while students are seeking information--"facts"!--from books, from
> other library sources, from the DANGEROUS but important Web, from
> faculty/gradstudents, from CDROMs, whatever...) students can discuss
> their progress in recitation sections.  Peer feedback can be very
> useful.  Students might do, say, three such projects per semester.
> Labs and recitations can be resource-intensive for a department.  What
> other avenues might we pursue?
> * Exams should be learning devices.  DURING AN EXAM is when every
>   student feels a need to LEARN.  I agree with Quent that open-book
>   exams make sense--although I'd modify that to allow open notes
>   and perhaps discourage/prevent having books open in exams.
>   It is likely that different courses might find open books of
>   different utility.  For my introductory biology course, I found
>   it a terrible waste of student time for them to be madly flipping
>   pages in my huge book--it was the WRONG RESOURCE for them during
>   my exams.  Notes were much more useful, for many students.
>   I'd suggest using open-notes exams and ALLOWING TIME IN CLASS
>   after exams have been graded to discuss how students might have
>   made best use of their notes--how best to have LEARNED from them
>   on the spot.  And how best to prepare notes for use in exams in
>   that particular course.  You can go for broke and have students
>   take exams as student pairs--I was experimenting with that in
>   my last couple of years at Mudd and would cheerfully experiment
>   with an expansion of it.
> * When I switched to open-book or open-notes testing, it didn't
>   cause me any extra work in exam preparation.  For my taste,
>   the most useful exams are ones that involve SKILLS:  I like
>   quantitative problems (hard to come by in many important topic
>   areas, of course) and "things to figure out," such as having
>   students reason from data.  Explaining things in brief essays
>   is also a skill, or a set of skills.  Yes, it IS much more
>   time-consuming to grade such exams, but it can be done.  Even
>   in very large classes.  The time spent that way is partially
>   recouped by giving up some of those lectures ;-)
> * Different strokes for different folks... but there are some
>   interesting ideas in "Beyond Bio 101" (among other sources).
>   There are some I look at askance, but they may very well work
>   for the instructors who use them!
> * Consider NOT assigning the textbook as a string of chapters
>   to be read/learned/memorized/whatever.  How about saying
>   that it's A source, and then giving examples of how to look
>   something up in it? and encouraging students to seek help in
>   making use of the book?  Some students will want to read the
>   book in a conventional way.  Good for them... maybe.  They're
>   likely to be reading it very passively.
> * How about replacing normal class expectations in an intro course
>   by assigning a small number of projects, to be done in teams,
>   as the GUTS of the course?  (I'm just speculating here.)  You'll
>   need to figure out how to help the students get the information
>   they want (that could even involve an occasional ten-minute
>   LECTURE on something where students indicated a real need for
>   background/orientation).
> * I agree that facts are essential.  But I firmly believe that
>   facts are LEARNED at the student's whim.  I'd like her to
>   decide what facts she wants/needs in order to get through some
>   reasonable projects.  Another student may get another set.
>   But they will have gotten the sets because THEY wanted to.
>   It's our job to help the students get them.  One of the best
>   ways is to let the students know you're there to help them
>   find out what THEY seek.  Then they can start helping each
>   other.
> (bill)
> p.s. We're not teaching kindergarten, but Quent has a point about
> those teachers managing to reduce content.  The most horrifying
> thing I've ever heard was said by a friend of mine, who teaches
> AP bio in one of the academically hottest public high schools
> in greater L.A.  He told me, and I've heard him tell his classes,
> that he will "hold them responsible for every detail" in my
> book.  I'd have gotten in trouble with the law if I'd killed him.
> William K. Purves      Vice President/Editorial Director
> The Mona Group LLC                     West Coast Office
> 2817 N. Mountain Avenue              phone: 909.626.4859   
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>               e-mail: purves at monagroup.com
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