What do Northwestern undergrads think about learning and teaching? Read on for reflections from students on what works, what doesn't, and how to keep improving.
On hands-on experience in the classroom
Matthew Cassoli, Mechanical Engineering major, class of 2017
While giving a lecture is an efficient way to dispense information, it is not always the best way to teach. Unfortunately, according to several recent studies, lecture classes are still the primary type of class that STEM students encounter for their first several years of classes. In the end, this contributes to so many STEM majors changing their minds about their degrees.
The problem with lectures in sciences is that it makes it hard for students to relate to the material. Most students enter STEM because they love doing, acting, and problem solving. Lectures do not allow this. A solution suggested, and already partially implemented at Notre Dame, is to break the “deadly lectures” of freshman, sophomore, and junior years by having more hands-on classes. At Notre Dame, freshmen participate in a four-part hands-on course where they build using Legos, learn basic code, and even design bridges.
I would caution Notre Dame, and observers at Northwestern, from relying too much on labs to break out of the lecture hall. While a once-weekly lab is an admirable effort for hands-on experience, if the experiments have been done before, and if it is obvious what the results should be, students find themselves asking, “what’s the point?” Especially frustrating is when students are graded on how “good” their results are based on how much they conform to expectations, and not how they analyze them. Finally, labs don’t give enough of an opportunity to design one’s own experiment, and make the experience a truly exciting hands-on opportunity for students.
To combat these problems – which happen across even the best universities in the country – I would suggest that students remember to engage outside the classroom. Actively going to office hours, joining a study group, or finding an engineering-related club that creates a product all allow students person-to-person interaction and possibly direct real-world experience. In the end, these opportunities allow us to remember why we love science, and why we chose a STEM major in the first place.
On doing while you're learning
Jamie Yarmoff, Environmental Science and Theatre major, class of 2016
Something, or some things, aren’t working quite right. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors in particular are struggling in introductory college courses. According to a 2012 report by the President’s Council of the Advisors on Science and Technology, fewer than 40% of incoming freshmen hoping to earn a STEM-related degree end up actually following through. This poses a rather large problem.
So what is the issue? The first thing to look at is how we’re teaching our students. The Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles found that 63% of STEM professors rely on “extensive lecturing” in their classes. I, for one, was never a student for whom this was an effective teaching mechanism. Having the material thrown at me is often overwhelming, and I find it hard to transform the instructor’s words quickly enough into notes that make sense to me. I need something hands-on.
At dinner tonight in my sorority house, I was talking with some of my sisters about an upcoming theatrical production in which I’ll be performing. I had an epiphany when my pre-med friend said, “You’re so lucky you get to do what you’re doing while you’re learning it. As a pre-med, I sit there, listen, and try to learn, but it’ll be years before I’m actually out there making a difference.”
Why must it be this way? Of course, it wouldn’t exactly be wise to put a first-year pre-med student into surgery, but there has to be a more hands-on approach that will help remind students what they’re working for. I think it’s so easy for STEM majors to lose sight of what they’re working toward when, by the current learning format, the results only come at the end of four years. Clearly, some changes need to be made in the overall structure of our university-level education. Though it’s a challenge to appeal to so many different types of learners, that’s the job of the university. And I don’t really think that our current system is the most accessible method of teaching. Experimentation and collaboration are essential components in building a more effective approach to learning.
On finding balance
Julie Bloom, Biology major, Enivronmental Policy and Culture minor, class of 2015My sophomore year I took CHEM 212, organic chemistry for chemistry majors and ISP students. This course was difficult, overwhelming, and one of the greatest classes I have ever taken. My teachers pushed me to lengths unimaginable; they taught me to appreciate organic chemistry and think of it as a foreign language, something one must practice and speak every day before becoming fluent. I find Northwestern science faculty to be incredibly accessible and dedicated to their undergraduate teaching. Teachers here are inspiring and unique and, most of all, appreciate a passionate student when they see one.
So why is it then that despite the overall interest in my orgo class, three out of four members of my study group dropped their chemistry degree? I find it distressing that intellectually curious students are against majoring in chemistry because it is seen as insurmountable, intangible and not worth the time.
The United States hopes to increase its research by producing some of the smartest scientists in the world. How is this possible when the country’s top universities are demanding an all-or-none performance from their science majors? When I tell people I’m a chemistry major, I often hear condolences almost as if I were heading to a funeral. Critics suggest science classes are too lecture focused, deterring real-world application and driven students.
Science is physical; it is all around us. Organic chemistry is the chemistry of life. Every movement, even when you think you are still, thousands of processes are occurring inside and all around you that enable the world to exist as it does. Then why does everything I learn come from a slide?
As many pre-medical students at NU are aware, a new biology sequence has been put in place. With my freshman class used as the “guinea pigs,” I was frustrated with group assignments and the lengthened curriculum. However, I now appreciate these changes and see their benefits. Group work facilitates discussion and allows for perspectives to be viewed and shared. Additionally, extending the sequence enables students to delve deeper into the material, in my opinion, allowing for a more thorough and greater appreciation for the subject.
Hurtling through fall quarter of my junior year I constantly question: Where has the time gone? Recalling fondly the many hours I have spent in Tech each day, I cannot imagine going to a school with better professors and more interesting research than Northwestern. However, I do believe that there is always room for improvement in departments, especially for pre-meds. A balance must be found between fostering intellectual curiosity and maintaining a stimulating course load in order to challenge students and encourage them to continue to pursue the sciences.
On changing course as a science major
Samantha Montag, class of 2014, Biological Science major with adjunct major in Science in Human Culture
As a freshman, I thought I knew how my life would unfold. I would complete my four years here at Northwestern to go on to graduate from a great medical school, after which I would settle down to start a family. I would have never believed anyone who told me that I might do better or even be happier [gasp!] in another field. Life, however, had other plans for my future. I can identify with the large numbers who change their majors from science fields to something else, as Christopher Drew describes in his 2011 New York Times article "Why science majors change their minds (It’s just so darn hard).”
It is not just that science courses are difficult – all courses are difficult in their own way – but rather that science courses move at an intense pace with great amounts of pressure (specifically that this one grade could ‘ruin’ one’s future endeavors). Science lectures often do not stop for students to ask questions or express confusion about the explanation given.
Another factor is that students entering college may have poor conceptions of what a scientific profession entails. I personally felt disappointed that real biological experiments often do not have the immediate, solid conclusions that high school–level biological experiments exhibited. A researcher can work their whole life on a question and never know the solution, because the technology to solve it does not exist, or because the foundation on which they are approaching the problem is part of an old, inadequate paradigm.
I know that while I enjoy science and have a scientific curiosity, I am more likely suited for an interdisciplinary field where the curiosity that motivated me to be a biology major can be complemented by my interests in other fields like statistics and history.
On connecting academics to the real world
Edward Pang, class of 2015, Materials Science and Engineering major
I see a large disconnect between what is taught and emphasized at school and what is valued and needed to succeed in the real world. I believe that the structure of the educational system is not geared to adequately prepare us for life after school. Many of my classes have been lectures with little real-world application, and we are evaluated almost solely on what we can scribble and recite in an hour on a piece of paper, also known as an exam. All of this has no place in the real world and the workplace, and the resulting incentives are sending the wrong message to students.
After getting a chance to taste the real world at my past internships at NASA and Boeing, I have come to realize that my perception of what I was doing at school to earn my degree was greatly mismatched with what was expected of me at the workplace. In the workplace, I was never asked to remember specific facts about a material system. I was told I could look that information up. What was valued, however, was my ability to gain a deeper understanding and take that knowledge and apply it to develop creative solutions.
We are not in school to have a whole list of facts memorized. We are here to learn skills like how to gain a deeper understanding, how to think critically, but most importantly, how to learn. We should reevaluate the system to help ensure that what it teaches students aligns more closely with what we really want to give students as part of an undergraduate education.
On being a peer learning mentor
Joanna (Asia) Jaros, Class of 2014, Biological Sciences and Spanish double major
Joanna Jaros has been a mentor in Searle’s Academic Mentoring Program (AMP) for several years. She writes here about her experiences facilitating a small group of students in an introductory-level course:
My favorite part of AMP is the knowledge that I have contributed to the success of a fellow student in the course and inspired self-confidence in and outside of the classroom. One of my first students had really struggled initially in the course. After joining AMP, she ended up succeeding in both the study sessions and the course. She really became a powerful presence in the classroom and confident in her abilities – and she subsequently became a mentor herself. I felt so proud that I had been able to contribute to her success in the course, and to inspire such an enthusiasm for it!
I see my role as a mentor as a facilitator and instigator rather than a “dictionary of answers.” I have found that my students get more out of teaching and reviewing with one another, rather than listening to me review the PowerPoint slides.
I am also the “last resort” or “panic button” for students the night before the exam when last-minute doubts or questions arise. I strive to make myself available via email on a daily basis to answer any questions or simply to offer motivation and support.
It is my deep conviction that any student can succeed in the course with hard work, good study habits, and the proper preparation. I like to foster an environment where my students feel comfortable “getting the wrong answer” or debating a certain concept in a constructive way. My goal as a mentor is to empower my students to approach the material with a positive attitude and help them develop the right set of tools to succeed.
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