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Reading lessons for scientists

On our blog in September, Ben Rogers asked: do students need to be taught to read scientific texts? Here’s how you responded.

As always, some people were straight to the point. Liz Coppard said:

Definitely yes! In my opinion we should be using textual material much more in science education from KS2 to KS5.

Valerie Finnerty went into more depth on why reading is important, and not just for future scientists:

I think it is important to teach students to read – critically – a wide variety of scientific texts, from lab papers and scientific studies to newspaper articles and health reports. It’s not enough for them to just understand what the selection says, they also need to be able to evaluate the credibility of the information and to use the information to make decisions.

Even if a student does not end up working in a science field, they will need to be able to read to understand, evaluate, and make decisions about scientific information. For example, they will need to read information related to their health, in order to make purchase decisions (an electric vehicle or a hybrid?) and to decide how to vote on an issue.

It’s not just Ben that has been examining why students need to be taught to read scientific texts. John Pedrazzini wrote:

The essential problem appears to be that teachers of science (without wanting to be judgmental) appear to come pre-programmed with an assumption that because children learn their literacy skills in primary schools and with their English teachers in secondary schools, they know how to read, comprehend and most importantly compose texts of various kinds.

In terms of what we as teachers require from them (ie effective scientific communication) – this is simply often not the case. If you think about it, this is often the only way we evaluate their science ability – their responses to written questions or their practical reports.

To make matters worse, and speaking from personal experience, teachers of science are generally not well trained (if at all) in how to actually teach basic literacy skills. Unless you do some work on your own ability to directly teach this, some of those fundamental skills get missed and will hold perfectly good young scientists back from achieving their potential. Science literacy is distinctive and nobody else teaches it – it’s up to the teachers of science to do so.

Ben has highlighted a crucial element – the difference between teaching the subject (science) and teaching the child. Once the problem becomes clearer (literacy ability) the solution becomes more obvious - ie science teachers need to spend significant time teaching science literacy.

Is it the job of science teachers to teach reading skills? Tom Husband said:

It’s worth it just to improve comprehension of exam questions.

Some teachers disagreed, like leeshis0019 on Reddit:

There’s a scientific text about reading scientific texts. It was brilliant. Basically, we don’t need to teach them in school. Generally, students learn to read them when they actually need to read them, and that’s in college. Only the cream of the crop students will need to read scientific texts/articles in order to meet some standard for an assignment.

The real focus shouldn’t be on reading scientific texts, but reading in general.

A couple of teachers took the discussion further and made the connection between reading and writing. David Hopkins commented:

Reading absolutely has its merits, but often missing from these types of discussions is the act of doing scientific writing. Learning what makes technical writing unique – brevity, clarity, clear distinctions between objective data and interpretation of data – aside from sharpening thinking in general, these themes can be taught at any level and applied across any number of subjects.

Also on Reddit, BrerChicken wrote:

I actually created a new class this year to teach scientific writing. If the writing is clear and follows certain principles, it is easy to read. Unfortunately, most scientific writing is not done this way.

As far as reading goes, every one of my classes starts each chapter by outlining the entire thing and writing a main idea for each heading and subheading in each section. That way they know where we’re going and they learn the very useful skill of extracting the important information from a selection of text.

Evaluating the evaluators

Over two blog posts, Simon Lancaster explained his problems with student module evaluations. These included ‘the absurdity of averaging Likert scales’, ‘the lack of actionable insights’ and how they ‘can exhibit shocking and groundless inequality’.

Tina Overton replied:

This is a great critique of the poor practice of averaging Likert scales. This isn’t restricted to student evaluations. We see it all too often in conference presentations. To be fair many institutions report frequencies rather than averages, my current and last employer among them.

Katherine Haxton described the situation at Keele University:

We generally don’t have scales on our module evaluation forms – all free text really and limited inclusion of National Student Survey style questions. I’m curious though, what is a better way to evaluate modules?

Simon responded:

That sounds like a better way! What I’d like is an instrument that actually indicates whether something is noteworthy rather than making every module indistinguishable and perform similarly year after year. Benchmarking would be problematic, but it would be more valuable, in identifying ‘appreciated practice’ to actually do what we pretend the evaluations do and ask student to rate out of five.

Tomos Morgan added further concerns to the discussion:

I think addressing the bias is important but what you’ve touched seems more telling of an overall problem with student evaluations in general, if the evaluation is useless then what difference does bias in that evaluation make?

Not speaking for all students but I took no offence to anything written, why would I be good at judging how well I’m taught? I’m sitting here with a module synopsis, and for 200 hours of expected work, 27 hours of that are in lectures. Who’s doing the teaching here?

The idea of giving a non-biased evaluation becomes much harder when giving any evaluation is hard enough. Is the lecturer there to introduce me to (not teach) many concepts, for me to go home and learn them? Or are lecturers meant to teach a small number of concepts, and for me to go home and reinforce them?

I’ve had the pleasure of being lectured by Simon and he falls into the latter category; he lectures well, is knowledgeable, and does not like the prospect of learning by rote. He focuses on teaching a few concepts well and expects the student to extrapolate this knowledge to many different situations.

This is a very different style from other lecturers I’ve had who will show many concepts (for example last year I think it was generally accepted that you were expected to know the 100+ organic mechanisms we were introduced to) and expect the learning to happen at home.

I’m sure I’ve sent in plenty of useless/biased module feedback forms but really, which lecturer is doing things the right or wrong way? Or does it come down to course? The bias is telling, but I think it 

boils down to how feedback (but mostly education!) needs to change rather than a different way to view feedback.

Good enough

Duncan McMillan wrote on the concept of ‘good enough’ in education– as students progress through science education, the models they are taught develop in order to explain more complex ideas:

Someone once told me that teaching chemistry is the act of telling a series of lies of increasing complexity. With each new level the student is cheerfully told to forget everything they thought they knew … This year zero approach disparages prior learning and conceptual scaffolding, without acknowledging its constructive value. It plays into a student’s tendencies to view their new knowledge as the most advanced, and that those who went before, no matter how prominent, were misguided or naive.

Daniel Friedman identified a possible issue:

[…] Perhaps the error we make in education is to declare at each level ‘this is the way it is,’ implicitly closing the door to a deeper understanding that can only come from continued study.

David Reid agreed:

Daniel’s concluding sentence is spot on. His earlier clause ‘I can only do what I can to bring the appropriate concepts into focus at an appropriate level’ is what a good teacher should do, but rarely does a teacher get to determine what her students studied before. I have many a time been frustrated when I learn what fallacies my students have been exposed to beforehand.

Daniel responded:

Determine? Indeed not. ‘Diagnose’ is more like it. I am constantly amazed at the difference between what earlier grade level teachers say they ‘covered’ and what students actually brought with them from those grades. One of the daunting tasks at the start of every new school year is to unearth what your students know and what they don’t.

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