Wednesday, February 06, 2013

The curation problem in science education

Maths I'm not losing sleep over it, but I keep chewing over the "too much to learn" issue which arose from a student survey last week which I described recently

In one way, student complaints about "too much to know" are an entirely predictable response to information overload which is a consequence of the massive expansion of scientific knowledge since my time as a student. They are also entirely predictable from research findings (see: Why email rules the DarkSocial). I don't know of any students who have an adequate bookmarking or tagging system for information recall. Nearly all those I have asked hope to rely on squirreling stuff away in a Word document, much as I would have done as a student over 30 years ago. This surely represents a failure of education, although it must be said that the same is true for most of my academic colleagues.

But the thing that keeps me coming back to the survey results is that this is my problem rather than the student's problem. In science education (maybe in all education, but I'm restricting my thoughts to my own experience at present to help me get a handle on the problem), skills are fine, but facts are needed to build "scientific literacy" - it does matter whether students know the basic framework for building knowledge. But what are the basics that students need to know? The "core knowledge" bears no relationship to the limited fact set I was expected to absorb as a student.

I'm paternalistic enough to believe that teaching is essentially a curation activity. Hence, my students comments represent, at some level, my failure to curate the knowledge that they "need to know". If they learn the textbook they will pass the course. But knowing what I do about withdrawal as a strategy for coping with information overload, am I doing an adequate job as a teacher?


  1. An interesting piece of reflection about a perennial problem Alan. I don't know what prompted me to respond (or whether I am qualified to do so as I'm neither a teacher or scientist*) but here are some quick reflections based on this and the other post.

    Isn't this about setting expectations: your students need to recognise why you are teaching them in this way. What the use of words like 'memorize' and 'daunting' tell me is that the students haven't yet reached a shared understanding about how they will be taught on this course. From your other posts I know that you do invest a lot of energy in supporting your students learning but maybe they still need more (leaving less time for teaching virology).

    Do you know anything about their expectations - do you talk to them about what they want out of the course and about the different strategies they might use to achieve their goals - getting them to take ownership of their learning is vital if you are to improve the balance between your teaching and their learning.

    It sounds like you also need to coordinate with the other teachers on the course to make sure the students aren't getting mixed messages about how/what to study across the different modules they are taking (or at least that the students understand why the different teachers adopt different approaches - and that they are allowed to).

    One final point. Without mentioning 'learning styles' it is important to remember that different students learn in different ways. My older brother and I both did the same degree course (different specialisms), yet discussing our experience of the degree many years later we found that we had approached our studies in different ways. He was strategic, listening for cues from the lecturer about what would be in the exam, while I always went in ready for any topic to come up (for the record he got a better degree than me). As a teacher you can only do so much (support a range of different strategies for participating on the course), then, it is up to the student to do the work.

    * I said I wasn't a scientist but that's only partly true, as my first degree and PhD are in Genetics/Mol Biol.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response Colin. When this group of students pitches up with me at the end of their three year degree course, their strategies and expectations have, I feel, already been set by prior experiences, and are unlikely to change much. I feel that you're absolutely right to highlight the importance of setting expectations and the difficulty of consistency across a degree course where the teaching is delivered by many different people. We like to think we are clear (through our assessment criteria) what "extra reading" is and what it will get them. The evidence from the student side is that they are much less clear than we would wish them to be.

  2. Also a good discussion of this post over at Google+

  3. Hello AJ, thank you for sharing your thoughts on how to use curation to improve your teaching effectiveness. What I'd like to suggest, is to test also the opportunity to see curation as a "learning approach" for your students, in which they are not simply assigned curated content to memorize, but they are assigned issues or topic to explore, and in which they should select, after reading them, different opinion and viewpoints. Students should be allowed to explore and make sense themselves of a specific interest area and to dive into it so deeply as to be able to then take their own stand as to how they see the issue, problem or solution approach.

    Check this: