In this science class, students learn from each other


Heather Miceli knows these challenges well. A lecturer in general education science at Roger Williams University, Miceli has been teaching science to non-majors for 13 years. For many years, she says, she ran a traditional classroom, complete with textbooks, projects and exams. Insight into student work, combined with interests in open pedagogy and “non-grading,” led Miceli on a journey to revamp his course. The result, she says, has increased her students’ enthusiasm for science because it puts them in the driver’s seat.

I met Miceli through the OpenEd21 conference, which focused on the use of open educational resources in higher education. Miceli has moved to open pedagogy. But she’s also made key changes to the way she teaches to reduce what she calls “science anxiety” among her students, fueled by difficulty with high school science lessons. She attributes that anxiety, in part, to a mismatch between student interests and traditional science textbooks, which are often written at too high a standard to engage non-science majors.

Miceli’s first idea came when she noticed that every year after the students made a poster presentation of their projects, they threw their posters in the trash. All that knowledge, she thought, is being thrown away. Inspired by a lecture she heard about textbooks written by students, Miceli wondered how she could adopt this concept in her classroom.

Miceli is lucky, she says, because the CORE 101 course is designed to allow faculty members to teach whatever they want, as long as they meet larger learning goals. “I flipped that,” she says, “and allowed students to vote on what they want to cover in class.”

Students’ interests reflect the current moment: space exploration. Climate change. Artificial intelligence. Vaccines. Sources of energy. Miceli says she makes it clear that she’s learning alongside them, which means letting go of the idea that she’s the expert in the room. “When we started, I knew next to nothing about space exploration,” she notes. “But for many, it’s their favorite topic of conversation.”

Miceli assigns students to groups and tasks them with creating a website around their topic or improving an existing site built by the students in a previous semester. Her colleague Lindsey Gumb, a scholarly communication librarian, leads a workshop for students so they can learn about intellectual property, copyright and creative-commons licensing.

When students work on their websites, they know their fellow students are their audience, which helps them write about what they learn in an engaging and accessible way. “Websites are the quotes from the textbook,” says Miceli. “I tell them, ‘This was written for you. It was not written by scientists for general students. In fact, this was written by classmates for you.

The course is now in its fourth year, with 11 websites operational. Several things, says Miceli, make this structure work. First, students learn from each other, often making connections between the topics they research and then presenting them to their peers. Second, students pass on their knowledge, from semester to semester. On the space exploration page, for example, students in one semester can focus on NASA history and the next on private space exploration.

“They love it,” says Miceli. “They’re the same age, going through the same things, especially with the news. They know they’ll go to the climate change page and read about the California wildfires over the past two years.

Third, Miceli believes in “downgrading,” the concept that grades should be less accented to improve student learning. To that end, she eliminated exams and replaced them with writing and thinking throughout the semester. “It doesn’t matter if they memorize what ACGT represents in DNA,” she says. “What’s more important to me is whether they can create a cohesive argument for whether or not to choose GM foods.”

She clearly explains what the assignments and expectations are throughout the course, she says. Then, at the end of the semester, she asks the students what mark they would give themselves based on their degree of achievement of these objectives. Almost always, she says, they choose a rating that she feels accurately reflects their work.

Miceli began doing pre- and post-class surveys to gauge students’ confidence in learning science. Although data is limited, in part due to the shift to online learning during the pandemic, she found an increase in measures of trust in science, such as their belief in their ability to apply scientific concepts to science. everyday life.

During her one-on-one downgrade sessions, Miceli asks them what they hope to get out of the classes. She thought they might be talking about a particular scientific topic. “But 75% of them say, ‘Science is cool.’ Or, ‘I didn’t think science was something I could do. And this course showed me that science is important and relevant in my life.

“That’s literally the goal,” she says. “That’s the goal of general education.”

No textbooks, no notes, no right answers

Heather Miceli’s experience designing a course that puts students in charge of their learning reminded me of one of my favorite stories to tell: “No textbooks, no lectures, and no right answers. Is this what higher education needs? »

Over the course of a semester, I watched teams of students from X-Labs at James Madison University delve into complex topics — homelessness, education, nonprofit work — through unscripted exploration and research-oriented. It was fascinating to see such an unconventional college course in action.

Did everything go perfectly? Not at all. “I’m used to teachers telling me what they want, I do what they want, and I get a grade,” one student told me. “Now it was about working with them and trying to find a solution to a problem that no one else had a solution to.” But the frustration was part of the learning experience.

Here is what I wrote at the time: “University students lack neither ambition nor creativity, say the professors here, but the education system has trained them to think within existing limits and frameworks. If you task them with figuring out what they need to learn, they are ready to struggle with uncertainty, challenge themselves, and work long hours to find answers.

Did you find that to be true? If you give your students open-ended problems and give them control, have you found that they rise to the challenge? If you have a story to tell, email me at [email protected] and your experience could appear in an upcoming newsletter.


  • In her latest story, Beckie discusses how the pandemic has caused many faculty members to be more flexible with traditional course rules regarding things like deadlines and grading.
  • Why is a common core important for a new generation? Roosevelt Montás of Columbia University argues in this Chronicle Review test.
  • Students tend to hate group projects. In this the Chronicle adviceJane S. Halonen and Dana S. Dunn discuss how better design and instruction could change that.
  • Do you want to improve school perseverance? Involve department heads. Georgia State University’s Allison Calhoun-Brown explains why this matters in this the Chronicle piece of advice.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have any suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at [email protected] Where [email protected].

— Beth

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