Book 251: Teaching and Learning STEM by R.M. Felder and R. Brent

Teaching and Learning STEM: A Practical Guide by Richard M. Felder and Rebecca Brent

Finished reading on January 6th, 2018

This book provides the tools and ideas about how to design and teach courses in higher education and how to teach so that students would gain professional skills in addition to knowledge about specific subjects. The authors have provided a lot of practical advice starting from how to come up with learning objectives that can actually be tested, to ways how to move beyond lecturing and to start implementing active learning methods in a variety of forms and what to do when students resist those methods.

Since I’m right at the receiving and giving end of STEM education, I found this book illuminating from both the teaching and learning aspects.

The first thing that caught my attention was learning objectives. They have to be clear and observable, so that the student would be able to tell what’s expected of them and so that the teacher could find a way to test or observe whether or not the student has fulfilled the objective.

Reading about Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives prompted me to read the objectives of the courses that I’m currently enrolled in or will be taking in the spring, to see how they fit in that scheme of things. Bloom’s taxonomy has six levels of objectives in case of cognitive skills. Starting from the lowest (but still necessary!) there are: Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating and Creating.

In the case of some of the courses that I’m taking, all the class objectives were about remembering, understanding and applying (which are the three lowest levels), and a few rare examples went beyond that to analyzing, but not to evaluating and creating (the two highest levels); and then there was one, where all types of objectives were represented. The last one baffled me at first, but thinking back on the course and what types of teaching methods were used, it is quite obvious that the lecturers have put a lot of effort into it. And I have an inkling of a doubt that one of the lecturers has possibly read this particular book as well. That makes me feel like a guinea pig, which I don’t particularly appreciate.

This leads me to the teaching methods – flipped classrooms, team-work etc. Now that I’ve read more about them, I see them from a much different point of view – as a student I’m likely to try and expend the least amount of effort to reach a point where I’ve either got an illusion of understanding or when I really understand something, without really distinguishing between the two. Until I won’t actually think about how I’m thinking about it, I might not even doubt that I haven’t really understood something until a test rolls around and it will become quite clear whether or not I have understood it… From the teaching aspect I see that more student centered methods require the student to engage with the subject matter in a more active way, that would lead to better results if it weren’t for the resistance from the students.

I think in the last weeks or maybe a month or so, I’ve been in a way stuck in a metacognition loop – I keep thinking about thinking, and biases etc. I didn’t use to do that, but seeing how important and how helpful it is, I wonder why it isn’t taught or whether it is taught, but I’ve somehow managed to escape it.

That leads to the last part of the book. It’s about teaching professional skills to students. Those might be about how to work in a team, deal with team-mates, how to think creatively or communicate effectively. It demonstrates why those skills have to be taught and how they can be taught intermittently or concurrently with subject matter.

Now it exasperates me to see the differences between various approaches to STEM, where in some courses all that is taught, is the subject matter, which might be a prerequisite for a different course, but doesn’t really teach the subject in a way that would enable anyone to succeed in the latter course because of a lack of THINKING on the students’ part when they/we try to get by with the least amount of effort. But a lot of the time we’re not really taught HOW to think, but just WHAT to think, which doesn’t give the same end result.

I liked the idea of seeing a lecturer who designs a course, teaches it and then tests the students as in a dual role – the gatekeeper – someone whose purpose it is to make sure that those, who have the skills and knowledge pass through the course; and the coach – whose purpose is to make sure that the students gain the necessary skills and knowledge. That person must at the same time do two different and somewhat opposite things – ask that the students know something, and make sure that they do, or at least try to.

The whole book, although at first look, is about teaching and learning STEM, is about teaching and learning anything, and most importantly teaching thinking. Sometimes thinking doesn’t need to be taught, but a lot of times it must be taught. The most tragic thing is, that in a lot of cases students pass courses without knowing how to think about what they’ve learnt. And so have I.

The book is very useful and gives an insight to how students learn when read from cover to cover, but it’s also a great source of ideas and methods to pick and choose and try out in a course.

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