May 12th, 2011

Learning Skills: Necessary but not Taught


Here are some survey results worth mulling over. A group of life sciences faculty were asked about teaching students “science process skills”—identified as data interpretation, problem solving, experimental design, scientific writing, oral communication, collaborative work, and critical analysis of primary literature.

Researchers selected this group because they “are the fundamental skills upon which the conceptual framework of scientific expertise is built.” (p. 524) The collection does tend to be a bit science-specific, although some of these skills are more generic. The initial list was elaborated into a larger 22-item skill-set. Faculty were asked how important it was for undergraduates majoring in life sciences to acquire these 22 skills before they graduated.

Using a Likert scale with 5 being very important and 1 unimportant, only two skills on the list were rated less than 4 and those two were rated 3.6 and 3.5. Problem solving/critical thinking shared top spot with interpreting data from graphs and tables: both were rated 4.9. They were followed by interpreting data, specifically the ability to construct an argument from data, which was rated 4.8.

When asked for the three least important skills, faculty respondents identified different skills but many pointed out this was difficult to do as students needed all the skills on the list. Fourteen flat out refused saying it was “impossible.”

But here’s the corker: Despite overwhelming agreement that students need to acquire these skills, 67% of the faculty respondents felt they did not spend enough time teaching the skills. Why aren’t faculty devoting more time to teaching these important skills? The most common answer: teaching the skills is too time consuming. Another 30 percent agreed that students must learn the content before they can learn the skills. A little less than 20% agreed they would have to rework all their course materials and close 15% admitted they didn’t know how to teach these skills. Respondents could also propose reasons of their own and 65% of those who did indicated they simply had too much content to cover. Here’s what the research team concluded: “Collectively it appears that the need to cover content outweighs faculty’s desire to teach the process of science even when faculty feel it is critically important that students learn these skills.” (p.527)

We’ve tackled topics like this in previous blog posts, I know. But results like this raise such important issues. How are students to acquire these skills if we don’t teach them? It happens magically? By osmosis as they are exposed to examples? That may have worked previously but it doesn’t work effectively with most of today’s college students.

Do you think this is only a problem with instruction delivered in science courses and all the rest of us devote appropriate amounts of time and energy teaching the learning skills central in our field? I don’t think so, although probably a good number of my blog readers could be exempted from this critique.

Two issues are central from my perspective: we still aren’t dealing with the question of how much content is enough, in everything from beginning to capstone courses. We do discuss the assumption that more is always better when it comes to content, but so far those discussions have not changed practice in most classrooms. Until the assumption is successfully challenged, coverage will continue to trump learning-skills acquisition to the detriment of students. It’s not that we abandon one for the other. We just need a better balance between teaching content and process, and a realization that some learning activities can be used to accomplish both simultaneously.

And second, although not very many made the admission in this survey, I believe many more faculty don’t know how to teach learning skills. Content transfer seems easy by comparison, but teaching students to think—you don’t accomplish that by telling them to think. Telling may get them started but then they need practice and feedback. When students are learning by doing, that calls for a very different set of teaching skills.

Reference: Coil, D., Wenderoth, M P., Cunningham, M., and Dirks, C. (2010). Teaching the process of science: Faculty perception and effective methodology. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 9 (Winter), 524-535.