So why don’t many chemistry faculty pay attention to the substantial evidence that active learning improves student performance in STEM courses?
It’s not whether those faculty consider active learning to be “settled science”; it’s whether we’re even talking about the same goals. The kind of curriculum and teaching methods they often promote focus on what I call “selection”. That simply identifies that narrow set of students who can survive–who typically already have the background and mindset to know how to navigate the system and figure out exactly what’s being asked for. Everyone else is simply not good enough. All the burden is on the students; none on the faculty.
What many faculty want instead is a curriculum that focuses on “education”. We assume that students are in our classes because they all have the potential to do well. We see our task as faculty is to give them the best opportunities to unlock that potential, learn new material in a way and at a pace that gives them the best chance for success, and not assume that they all are supposed to follow a path that leads to chemistry research and industry.
Anyone who is focused on selection doesn’t even think about active learning or really any information about how students learn. That’s not their role; they simply have to skim the “top students” from the masses. And that perpetuates a narrow vision of what a “top student” is. That a student may blossom late, may not have had the advantage of a supportive family background, may have been in really bad schools all their lives, all of that doesn’t matter. You either survive or you don’t.
So requiring students to complete general chemistry and organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry and quantitative analysis and a year of physics and a year of calculus all by the end of their sophomore year may identify some really good students. As well as some students who have good survival instincts, but not much scientific creativity. It will definitely miss many students who could be (and should be!) really good if we actually focus on education, not selection.
Melanie Cooper’s J. Chem. Ed editorial from 2012 on “negativity dominance” has influenced my thinking quite a bit. Here’s the quote that sticks with me: “We must teach the students we have, not the students we want (or the students we imagine we were back in the mists of time).” But go read the whole editorial–it won’t take long. It reminds me that we need to focus on what our students need. And most of my students need me to be an educator. And since I don’t know how to bridge this gap between education and selection, that – along with supporting fellow educators who want to “teach the students we have” – is probably the best thing for me.