Required introductory courses—that’s how most students meet our disciplines or, as John Zipp says (he’s writing specifically about sociology), they are the “public face” of the field.
This study begins with some pretty bleak facts. It lists other research documenting the failure rates for introductory courses in biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, and physics. Some are as high as 85 percent; only two are less than 30 percent. “Failure has grave consequences. In addition to the emotional and financial toll that failing students bear, they may take longer to graduate, leave the STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] disciplines or drop out of school entirely.” (p. 175) The question is whether there might be approaches to teaching these courses (and others at the introductory level) that reduce failure rates without decreasing course rigor.
Each year Magna Publications sponsors an award recognizing an outstanding piece of scholarly work on teaching and learning. Authors received the award and its $1,000 stipend at the 9th annual Teaching Professor Conference this past weekend in Washington, D.C.
In general, would you agree that these introductory courses are some of the most poorly taught in the curriculum? And that really shouldn’t be a big surprise. First, there is no academic glory associated with this teaching assignment. In fact, it is often the newest (and least experienced) member in a department who gets “stuck” with the big introductory course, even though these courses happen to be among the most difficult in the curriculum to teach.
I just read a study that pretty much blew my socks off. An article highlighting the details will appear in the March issue of The Teaching Professor. I’ll give you the nutshell version here. The researchers were interested in finding out if there was empirical evidence to support the frequent criticism that introductory courses are fact filled with little content that challenges higher order thinking. Beyond anecdotal evidence, this research team didn’t find much empirical documentation so, being biologists, they decided to look at introductory-level biology courses.
Dan Klionsky makes some excellent points in a letter to the editor published in Cell Biology Education. He’s objecting to how departments design curricula. He’s writing about biology, but what concerns him doesn’t just happen in biology. “Curricular development … no longer involves rational and integrated course design. New courses are added based on faculty