Most university faculty struggle to balance their research and teaching. Now two Brigham Young University professors are using a new federal grant to do both at once.
The U.S. Department of Education awarded half-million dollar grant to John Bell and William Bradshaw to implement new teaching methods that improve the analytical thinking skills of college students. The grant will fund a three-year study to be conducted at six major universities that will evaluate the effectiveness of the newly developed approaches in teaching critical reasoning.
Although both lead researchers are professors of biology at BYU, they believe their work will translate well to other universities and disciplines.
"We are delighted to see this important national support coming to BYU," said Kent Crookston, dean of BYU's College of Biology and Agriculture. "William Bradshaw and John Bell are unusually dedicated educators who have gained recognition for their innovative research on effective teaching. The results of their work will not only bless this college, but teachers of all disciplines, anywhere."
Bradshaw and Bell's research reflects a growing national concern about the reasoning ability of college students. At many universities, large general classes in the sciences or humanities have come to emphasize rote memorization of bland factoids from in-class lectures. To break out of that stale teaching trend, Bradshaw and Bell tried to find innovative ways to change and elevate the in-class participation of students while also helping them develop a solid background in critical reasoning. They believed that their students' performance would improve with improving their teaching.
"We both realized that students didn't get a lot out of a class where all they were required to do is show up, take notes, read the book and take the tests," Bradshaw said. "We weren't challenging the students, we weren't making them think. So what we've tried to do instead is to turn the classroom into a problem-solving workshop. The teacher isn't so much an instructor, but is more like a coach, helping his students reach a specific goal."
Bradshaw and Bell each taught a section of introductory biology and then would sit in on each other's classes, carefully critiquing the course content and how the subject was taught. They came to see the classroom as a laboratory to test out ideas to improve their teaching. They increased classroom participation by randomly calling on students to explain a concept or placing students in small groups to solve a problem. To improve analytical thinking, the professors began to confront their students with challenging problem-solving exercises.
"We've pushed our students to draw conclusions from experimental data – things like photographs, tables, numbers, graphs – just as scientists do," said Bradshaw. "This gives them extensive practice with forming solutions from hard evidence, with taking a set of facts, analyzing them and then making an interpretation."
The initial success of Bradshaw and Bell's new teaching methods led to this new grant which will fund a broader study where their approach will be tested in the classrooms of the University of Washington, Youngstown State University, the University of Utah, Texas Tech, Cal State-Fullerton and UC-Riverside.
David Morton, assistant professor of neurobiology at the University of Utah School of Medicine, will use the new teaching methods with first- and second-year medical students.
"A university is an institution of higher learning and should challenge students to not just memorize facts but to logically think through problems," Morton said. "I am enthusiastic to be working with Bill Bradshaw and John Bell on this project. The new methods will help encourage medical students to incorporate the basic sciences into more clinical problem solving scenarios."
Both Bradshaw and Bell are confident in the significance of their work.
"It is absolutely critical that students learn how to think analytically," said Bell. "It doesn't matter if they're studying science, business, law, the humanities or the arts –it's essential that students learn to use their minds. Our job is not to just teach students biology, but to get students to think like biologists, to look at the cold facts and then figure out a solution."
The dollar amount of federal funds for the project is $526,695. The percentage of the total cost that will be financed with federal funds is 55. That leaves 45 percent that will be financed by non-federal sources: 45 percent.
Writer: Brad Jensen