Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Book review of Improving How Universities Teach Science Part 2: Criticisms and comparison to the ISTLD

As far as pedagogical literature goes, Carl Wieman’s Improving How Universities Teach Science - Lessons from the Science Education Initiative was among my favourites. It keeps both jargon and length to a minimum, as it is barely more than 200 pages without counting the hiring guide at the end. The work and its presentation are strongly evidence-based and informative, and the transformation guide in the appendices provides possible actions that the reader can do to improve their own classes. Most of it is applicable to most of science education.

 I have some criticisms, but please don’t take this as a condemnation of the book or of the SEI in general.

The term ‘transformation’ is vague, despite being used extensively throughout the first two thirds of the book. This is partially forgivable because it has to be vague in order to cover what could be considered a transformation across many different science fields. However there could have been more examples or elaboration or a better definition of the term early on. First concrete examples to show up and clarify what transformation meant are found in the appendix, 170 pages in.

Dismissal of the UBC mathematics Department, and of mathematics education in general.

The metric Wyman used primarily the proportion of faculty that bought in to the program. That is the proportion of Faculty that transformed their courses, because typically faculty transformed all of their courses or none of them. Many departments were considered a success in that 70% or more of the faculty transformed their classes. Those that were under 50% were mostly special cases where they had entered into the Science Education initiative later and hadn't had the opportunity to transform. Among the All-Stars was the UBC statistics Department 88% of their 17 faculty with teaching appointments transform their classes. Among The Faculty of the UBC mathematics Department however only 10% of their 150 + strong Department bought in and transformed their classes. To contrast 1.2 million dollars was spent on the mathematics Department while $300,000 was spent on the statistics Department, so the mathematics people got more in total but the statistics people got more per faculty. It's not the failure to transform the mathematics Department that bothers me but the explanation for it.
Wieman boils down the failure to transform the mathematics department into two factors. First was the culture within that particular department, which was one that did not emphasize undergraduate education and seemed to assume that mathematics was an innate ability that either students had or had not regardless of the amount of effort put in. Before Wieman started attempting to transform this department it had a policy of automatically failing the bottom few percentiles of every introductory calculus class regardless of performance. The second factor Wieman uses to explain the failure is that mathematics is inherently not empirical, which means that a lot of the active learning meant to make Concepts more concrete would not have applied.

Having taught and been taught in both mathematics and statistics departments at multiple institutions myself I don't buy these arguments. From personal experience the most engaging and active classrooms I experienced have spread equally across mathematics and statistics. With in mathematics the most memorable was abstract algebra which by definition is non-empirical. Furthermore, at Simon Fraser University it's the mathematics department that has been leading the way on course transformation.
As for the argument about innate ability, this is an idea that spreads far beyond just university departments. I have no qualification to claim how true or false it is. However it's not a useful assumption, because it makes many things related to teaching quality in mathematics automatically non-actionable.
Finally it seems like a strange argument for a professor of physics to make about mathematics. I would have like to see more investigation and perhaps it's covered in some of his other literature, but then I would have like to see more reference towards that literature if it exists.

Compared to the Institute for the Study of Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines (ISTLD) at SFU, Wieman’s SEI is several times larger in scale and tackles the problem of university teaching entire departments at a time. The SEI works with department chairs directly and with faculty actively through their science education specialists. The ISTLD’s projects are self-contained course improvements, where staff and graduate student research assistants provided literature searches, initial guidance, and loose oversight over the course improvement projects. Both initiates fostered large volumes of published and publicly presented research.
The funding for course improvement projects through the ISTLD was non-competitive; the only requirements to receive a grant were to submit a draft proposal, to attend some workshops on pedagogy and to submit a new proposal guided by these workshops. Grants from the SEI at both UBC and CU was a competitive process, which Wieman used because, in his words, it was the only system familiar to science faculty.

In case you missed it, here is the first part of this book review, which discusses the content more directly.