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Theoretical Views and Practices Supporting In-Context Developmental Strategies in the Physical Sciences
Allen B. Johnson, Associate Professor
An increasingly diverse group of entering freshmen who are viewed as having the potential to compete in a degree program and ultimately complete a bachelor’s degree are demonstrating serious needs to improve their study skills or strengthen some areas of their basic content knowledge or both in the physical sciences. Several strategies that encourage students to develop and practice effective study skills within the context of a degree-credit physical science course are made possible by adapting course structure and content organization. Strategies include highly repetitive practices of testing and feedback, short-answer type exams requiring extensive use of quantitative information, bridging between the familiar and the unknown, emphasis on the holistic view of the subject, and hands-on practice of the processes of inquiry.
Many American colleges and universities are continuing to experience an increasing need to serve freshmen who are labeled as academically underprepared or less prepared to compete in college courses. Astin, Parrott, Korn, and Sax (1997) found over the past 30 years that the percentage of freshman students who stated that one of the most important reasons for going to college was to improve their reading and study skills has actually doubled, from 22% to 43%. Sax, Astin, Korn and Mahoney (1999) reported in an inventory of freshmen at all institutions that 13% had received tutoring or remedial work in mathematics and over 5% had received similar help in science in high school. When asked if they expected to need special tutoring or remedial work in college, the percentages doubled for mathematics and science at 26% and 10%, respectively.
The widening range of student needs upon entering postsecondary education has placed a strain on the ability of the academic system to accommodate all students equally well. Conflicting views among faculty and administrators raise questions about the appropriateness and impact of a process-oriented curriculum on the quality of the more traditional discipline-based curriculum (Greene, 2000). During the past 30 years, many public universities have adopted variations of a back door admissions policy (Reisberg, 2000) as enrollment demand has increased. This practice allows students who have not met minimum entrance standards to be provisionally admitted for the spring or summer term on a second chance basis where they have an opportunity to show that they can be academically successful. However, due to huge enrollment demands and associated costs, an increasing number of colleges and universities have discontinued this opportunity .
The increase in students requiring additional academic support may be due to a higher percentage of high school graduates going on into some type of postsecondary education because they and their parents are being told by educators, politicians, and executives in the workplace that they cannot command a salary that will meet their needs without a bachelor’s degree or a highly specialized job skill. Astin et al. (1997) found that three-fourths of all freshmen reported that one of the most important reasons for going to college was to get a better job. The same survey also points out that nearly three-fourths of the freshmen said that another important reason to go to college was to be able to make more money. This is in contrast with what freshmen reported 30 years ago, when only 50% said that increased income potential was an important reason for going to college. Whatever the reason, a significant percent of new students have lower high school rankings and possibly lower standardized test scores that resulted from gaps in their prior learning.
Sax et al. (1999) point out that a different reason for the increased number of underprepared students is the alarming increase in academic disengagement that is reported by freshmen as they reflect on their high school experiences. Approximately 40% report frequently feeling bored in class compared to 26% from 15 years ago. In addition, 63% reported occasionally or frequently coming late to class compared to less than 50% from 35 years ago. Finally, those reporting that they have overslept or missed a class or appointment nearly doubled, with 36% now compared to 19% from 32 years ago. Sax concludes that this increasing disengagement dramatically increases student need for remediation courses in the high schools and in college.
Another perspective relating to these trends is addressed by Shea (1993) concerning the widening chasm between student expectations and faculty expectations. In one case, the students asked their geology teacher if he was going to give them a precise study guide that outlined the content to be covered, specifically listing the topics that would be in the next test. He said, “No!” He told them that he would briefly discuss the test during the previous class period and that he expected each student would develop any materials and methods of study that he or she felt would be most helpful. The same professor also had a student ask him if he was sure the exam he was taking was for the geology course he was currently enrolled in because the student thought it was too difficult. The upshot of these incidents is that the faculty member blames the student’s attitude, and although it is not mentioned, the student likely criticizes the professor’s attitude.
The teaching of physical science at the freshman college level is complicated due to a view that physical science and developmental education do not mix. This feeling arises because most physical science courses are highly quantitative and require that the student is already proficient in the required level of math and demonstrates the ability and discipline to read and understand science text materials. To make the point, in some secondary schools, students are required to have successfully completed two years of algebra (i.e., through intermediate algebra) before they can take their first high school course in physics.
College physical science instructors, as cited by Shea (1993), expect that students who enter their classes will be proficient in math, at least at the level specified in the course requirements, whether it be through intermediate algebra, or more likely through college algebra or first-term calculus. Text materials are usually written in a quantitative style that is more difficult to read than ordinary prose. This happens because much of the work in the physical sciences involves highly accurate measurements, precise procedures, and detailed analysis. Because of its precise nature, information often must be communicated in numerical form, such as equations, graphs, tables, maps, or charts rather than straight prose. Instructors do not want, or cannot take the time, to teach the math and other topics from basic science that students are expected to have learned earlier. Many introductory physical science courses are part of a sequence for a major so that an instructor is expected to cover certain content during the term. Often these serve as “weed-out” courses, which most often affect students who are least prepared.
There is a pressing need for colleges and universities to accommodate the ever-widening range of incoming freshmen who require extra assistance in skill building. This points to a strong need for bridging the teaching of introductory physical science with the teaching of developmental strategies. As I examine science teaching journals, much of the emphasis is content-centered, not student-centered. On the other hand, the developmental education journals are more student-centered, but they usually do not address the teaching of physical science. The ideal is to get both groups talking to each other and urge them to collaborate at conferences and through their publications.
It seems that much of the developmental support provided in postsecondary institutions is separate from the content courses in which the students need it. Students may be advised to take certain free-standing study skills courses or basic science preparatory courses before they enroll in the degree-credit introductory physical science course they really want. In many cases this may be necessary.
Gebelt, Parilis, Kramer, and Wilson (1996) argue that students may not be adequately motivated in the freestanding courses, whereas if the developmental work is taught in the context of a course offered for graduation credit they might be more motivated because they recognize the purpose for taking it. They assert that the achievement of those students who are required to use study skills directly in the context of the course is higher than it is for those who have taken freestanding skills courses at an earlier time. Levin and Levin (1991) emphasize that study skills tend to be learned more easily when there are opportunities for application of those skills accompanied by frequent feedback and reinforcement. Francisco, Trautmann, and Nicoll (1998) found that students were more willing to address their need for help and participate in opportunities to help their study skills when interventions were closely associated with a degree level science course.
A third problem is that taking these freestanding courses lengthens the time a student must attend college before graduating, which increases the cost of education and uses up financial aid. In addition, at some institutions developmental courses are expensive to teach resulting in an additional fee on top of normal tuition costs.
In-Context Developmental Strategies
The previous section provides some rationale for making the case to provide developmental support within the context of an introductory degree-credit physical science course. General College (GC) faculty at the University of Minnesota have experimented with this in-context method of delivery for more than 20 years. Over time many faculty have adapted the general education curriculum to enable academically underprepared students to learn and practice effective study and learning strategies that can help them succeed in working toward a bachelor’s degree. During the last decade we have seen steadily increasing transfer rates from General College to degree-granting schools and colleges of the University of Minnesota, which indicates that we are increasingly more effective in serving at-risk students. This leads to the following efforts, along with rationale that supports in-context developmental strategies in physical science courses.
Each teacher develops a personal philosophy of what his or her course should look like and how that course should be taught depending on the content, the nature of the students, and the outcomes and requirements that the course must fulfill. A teacher’s beliefs or personal viewpoints are also influenced by the combination of one’s background, attitudes, and experiences. Tobin, Tippins, and Gallard (1994) emphasize that teachers’ beliefs are pervasive in the classroom and influence the role of the teacher, planning and decision-making processes, and ultimately how a course is taught. They highlight the importance of how the personal theories guide each teacher’s practice in the classroom, including how student centered the instruction is.
Mallow (1986) expands on this notion by emphasizing that the teacher’s self-perception can ultimately have a profound impact on the student’s attitude toward science. The teacher’s attitude influences whether or not the student develops confidence in his or her ability to learn science. Mallow also notes that a major contributor to the student’s development of science anxiety is the teacher who conveys the message that he or she is elitist and tries to impress the student that he or she is smarter than the student.
Each teacher is unique, so no two teachers will view or design a course exactly the same way. This diversity allows one to teach to his or her strengths and, at the same time, forces one to change and improve how he or she serves students because they are also different from each other. By the time students have completed two years of work in GC, they will have been exposed to diverse areas of knowledge, study-skill strategies, and will have experienced diverse ways of thinking about themselves, their place in the world, and their future roles in society.
A teacher’s personal philosophy is guided by the mission of the college and by departmental philosophies. In turn, that philosophy influences the following parameters one establishes for his or her courses. Included are the (a) organization of the course content and order of topics, (b) degree of difficulty and sophistication of the course, (c) types and methods of study skill strategies to be implemented, (d) methods of instruction, (e) level of expectation of student performance, and (f) methods of assessing student progress and achievement.
A physical science course that is designed to help students improve their study skills and their understanding of basic science and mathematics—which at the same time enables them to learn the principles, concepts, and terminology associated with the particular subject matter—involves adaptations to how content is taught and how student learning activities are incorporated. In practice, the developmental support runs simultaneously with the content portion of the course.
Typically, a class of 40 to 60 students exhibits tremendous diversity in basic science background, scientific and quantitative aptitude, maturity, attitude toward course and instructor, confidence in doing well in the course, and willingness to get involved in the course. My experience with these students is that they usually fit into one of three categories of those who will (a) achieve well academically from the start, will not need intervention, and will earn a good grade; (b) do poorly early, but then will respond to suggested intervention strategies, make changes, and end up with a good grade; and (c) begin poorly, but will not, or refuse to, take advantage of suggested intervention efforts and will fail or do very poorly at the end of the term.
In-Context Developmental Strategies
Any developmental strategies are intended to motivate students to buy into the educational opportunities that lie before them so that they take ownership in their own educational endeavors. Motivation can take on many forms. It can result from the student realizing that a teacher cares enough to provide the necessary help, or a student understanding, for the first time, a concept or procedure that he or she earlier thought was too difficult to master. Student needs arise for many possible reasons, but we should not concern ourselves with the causes or placing blame. In some cases, no one is at fault. Instead, we must do our best to assess their needs and enable students to develop the confidence, competence, and attitudes that will help them overcome or bridge their gaps.
As a teacher, one of my goals has always been to enable underprepared students to learn and develop confidence in new and effective study skills. Continued practice of those new skills, accompanied by some academic success, can motivate the student to become comfortable in using them. In this way, the student is more likely to abandon the old nonproductive study skills that did not lead to earlier academic success. Students need help to buy into the new strategies, and in some instances students must be taught how to use new study techniques. It is not enough to say to them, “You have to study harder,” “You must work harder,” or “You must change how you study for this course,” and then turn and walk away, leaving them on their own to determine how to accomplish this. In some cases they do not know how to study harder or how to change their behavior.
The practice of frequent testing and feedback has been used in GC 1111: Science in Context: Weather and Climate, in which students take an exam each week in the quarter system (i.e., nine per quarter) and biweekly in the semester system (i.e., seven per semester). The repetitive use of study skills associated with mastering short-answer type exams encourages students to practice those strategies that lead to understanding rather than focusing mainly on rote memorization. A typical exam tests content and process that is presented in lecture, text materials, and labs. Each exam is one class hour in duration and is mainly a short-answer type with very few objective questions. Each short-answer exam is only partially factual, with the first being the most factual. With each subsequent exam the questions become increasingly demanding with the questions asking students to draw conclusions based on information from maps, charts, data tables, and diagrams that are available to them during testing. Most frequently the questions contain the words: how, why, when, explain, define, and describe. Some problem-solving questions begin with “Suppose that...” that ask the student to conclude or predict what will happen.
The pattern of testing described above places increasing demands on students to develop and use specific study strategies and increase the level of application of knowledge repetitively week after week. Wambach, Brothen, and Dikel (2000) point out the value of increasing demandingness and frequent feedback as necessary for helping students to become self-regulating, and thereby successful, in their academic endeavors.
Another benefit resulting from this testing practice is the fast start, immersing students in the course very early. In other words, “They hit the floor running.” I believe that many of our students do not know how to handle the dead time that elapses between the first day of class and the first major exam or the time between consecutive major exams. They think they understand what is taught but tend to let certain important learning activities slide, and consequently do not do well on the exams. I believe that it is necessary to shorten that initial dead time as much as possible. Having the first exam during the second week of a 15 week semester allows students an opportunity to recover if they did not do well. If they received a good grade on the first exam, they will be greatly encouraged and motivated.
I have designed the first exam to be quite factual and difficult, but not a “killer.” It is necessary to push students carefully into the unfamiliar early in order for them to experience growth. The content tested in the first exam is new to them. If they have studied the assigned material and completed the first lab, they will do well and they will be motivated by a sense that their effort has paid off and that they have learned something new. If they do not do the work, they will not do well. For those who do not do well on the first or second exams, I try to initiate dialogue to diagnose what went wrong. Usually the reasons are apparent, and we discuss strategies to correct the process. Some will conscientiously follow advice while others will not; it is their choice. Those who do adopt new strategies often see an improvement in their grades even though the exams are increasingly difficult. They learn very early what it takes to succeed in the course. Levin and Levin (1991) emphasize that students who receive direct guidance in establishing new and more effective learning strategies are better equipped to succeed academically in future courses. I include the following quote by a former student in the course syllabus: “The course is relatively easy if you take it seriously and do the assigned work. It is a very difficult course if you do not put the effort into it.”
The repetitive nature of three classes per week, a two hour lab per week, an exam every other week, and one written critique on current topics due every other week helps students actively establish a weekly routine in the course. They know what to expect each week. This process provides special opportunities for them to develop strategies that help them overcome difficulties they may have with test taking, overcoming test anxiety, note taking, time management, or improving their concentration and attention span.
I believe that frequent test preparation enhances learning. With biweekly testing, students focus most of their attention on what has been assigned over the prior two-week period. It is easier for them to get their heads around the knowledge and processes that will be tested. It also allows for more in-depth testing of the topics compared to what can be accomplished in a one-hour exam covering several weeks of work. It should be pointed out, however, that each exam draws from content studied earlier in the term. If the students understand the earlier topics better they will perform better on subsequent exams.
Higher Order Thinking Skills
Bloom (1956) stresses that even though the gaining of information and knowledge is important, the primary goal of instruction is to enable students to do something with that information and knowledge. It is expected that students will select appropriate techniques, information, and knowledge when encountering a new problem or situation.
Furthermore, Zoller (1997; 2000) maintains that the primary goal of current reform efforts in science education is to strengthen our students’ higher order thinking skills. This means enabling students to participate effectively in the decision making and problem solving processes in our society. Likewise, the developmental education program in General College is intended to facilitate students’ ability to move into a college-level program and ultimately complete a bachelor’s degree. This means that they need to be able to master new knowledge and the applications of that knowledge, as well as compete successfully with other students. Once they transfer to a degree-granting program, they will begin pursuing a major, and must have perfected their own study strategies and basic knowledge to a level at which they have confidence in themselves as competitive students. With this premise, I feel that it is necessary for them to be well acquainted with short-answer exams because they will encounter mostly short-answer and essay exams in their future work. I do not believe that multiple-choice and true-false exams prepare them adequately because of the differing thought processes involved.