In Brief

How professors teach undergraduate science is just as important as the content of their courses, say students surveyed by University of Missouri researchers.

Carol Anne M. Kardash, PhD, and Michael L. Wallace designed an 80-item paper-and-pencil questionnaire--completed by 922 undergraduates--on undergraduate science class content; how professors present information and whether they are interested in teaching; and students' interest, perceived competence and effort in science. Overall, the students' perceptions were generally consistent with those reported in earlier studies--they say there's room for improvement in science faculty's pedagogical practices.

"A lot of the recent reform efforts, especially in science, math, engineering and technology, have really been focused on trying to acquire technological resources and changing the focus of what is being taught in the classroom," says Kardash.

But the survey's results, she says, indicate that "changing the content and learning goals for undergraduate science classes may be insufficient to change students' perceptions of science classes. Rather, such changes must be accompanied by concomitant changes in faculty's pedagogical practices."

For example, Kardash says professors should be clear and up-front about their expectations for the class. The survey found that when students felt that science faculty used cognitively-based principles of instruction, such as being explicit about expectations, they were more likely to feel that faculty were interested in teaching and in students and that grades were an accurate representation of their work, effort and learning. These students were also more likely to enjoy their lab experiences.

Women were less likely than men to believe that science faculty emphasize conceptual understanding, rather than memorization of facts. They were also less likely to view grades in science classes as good indicators of the quality of their work, effort and overall learning.

Across genders, the more experience students had with undergraduate science classes, the less they agreed that science classes were taught effectively or that science faculty were interested in teaching well. "This brings us back to the fact that, from the student's perspective, the focus still has to be on how faculty are teaching," says Kardash.

The survey and its findings are discussed in "The perceptions of science classes survey: what undergraduate science reform efforts really need to address," in the March Journal of Educational Psychology, (Vol. 93, No.1).