Berkeley professor says best approach to learning science is
deeper study of fewer topics
Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs
Students learn more about science - and lifelong learning -
through the carefully crafted, in-depth study of just a few
topics as opposed to tackling several subjects, reports a University
of California, Berkeley, researcher.
C. Linn, a professor in UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Education,
cited her findings Sunday at the 116th annual meeting of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in
Washington, D.C. Her conclusions are based on the results of
a 15-year project and offer a way to better prepare students
to function and compete in the 21st century.
wants the science curriculum to cover the topics in their field
or their interest," said Linn, a AAAS fellow, in a pre-conference
interview. "There just isn't enough time to do all these
things and learn them in-depth."
conducted by UC Berkeley's Web-based Integrated Science Environment
(WISE) program and 8th grade science classes at Foothill Middle
School in Walnut Creek, Calif., demonstrates that well-planned,
in-depth science teaching creates more knowledgeable students
who are better equipped for life-long learning, Linn said.
includes testing results and interviews of students during 8th
grade science and later in high school. Students not only remember,
but extend their knowledge, when they study a topic in depth,
Linn said, while students with traditional instruction forget
what they learn.
reports that the "depth" curriculum helps students
after they leave science class to expand their understanding
of complex ideas, such as the distinction between heat and temperature.
As depth of coverage is decreased, lifelong learning potential
likewise declines, she said.
will not be able to detect benefits of deep coverage by relying
solely on multiple-choice tests, Linn said. The exams don't
distinguish between deep and superficial coverage when students
are in science class, but problems crop up later. Questions
requiring students to connect ideas demonstrate the benefits
of deep coverage immediately and in high school, where these
students dramatically outperform those in traditional programs
on multiple-choice and essay questions.
recognizes that her theory runs counter to standard practice
in most public schools, where teachers are pressured to have
students perform well on exams testing factual knowledge about
a wide range of subjects.
may score high on multiple-choice questions and vocabulary drills,
but falter when quizzed on topics requiring more comprehension
and analysis, she said.
recommended approach already is successful in countries such
as Japan and the Czech Republic, as reported by the Third International
Mathematics and Science Study.
WISE research effort, Linn said, has shown positive results
with a program that:
Chooses accessible topics and uses models students understand.
Makes student thinking visible by using representations.
Helps students learn from one another by using collaborative
tools such as on-line discussions and group projects.
Fosters lifelong learning when students do projects where they
can reflect, design solutions to problems, critique ideas and
revise their insights.
example, Linn said students are asked to research malaria to
determine where it is found, how it spreads, how it compares
to other illnesses transmitted via blood, and to analyze potential
cures. Students use what Linn called the "natural laboratory"
of the World Wide Web and evaluate reliability of different
sites, use a software "activity map" to track their
research, and post work on-line for teacher and classmate review.
typically are asked how best to halt the spread of malaria and
must evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of vaccines, the labor
intensive behavioral solutions such as bed nets, or the pollution
that may be caused by using the pesticide DDT to kill the malaria-carrying
Walnut Creek, students also are debating the merits of genetically
idea is to make young students think, not just memorize, Linn
said, to question their initial ideas about a subject, and to
understand how thorough investigation pays off.
learned an awful lot about the way kids learn," said Doug
Kirkpatrick, a teacher for 37 years and a consultant on the
Foothill project. He said he also has seen growing student enthusiasm
authorities are so pleased that they've expanded the program
to include all science teachers and classes at the school.
the Walnut Creek school project began, other schools have joined
in from locations such as San Francisco, Oakland, San Bernadino,
Michigan, Norway and Israel. Any teacher in the United States
can participate via the program's Web site.
to a new teaching approach will require an investment in computers
as well as teacher development, said Linn, but should quickly
yield tangible returns in student learning.
also will require partnerships between teachers, administrators,
school trustees and politicians controlling educational budgets,
need everybody's voice to solve this problem," said Linn.
is the co-author, along with UC Berkeley professor Sherry Hsi,
of a book, "Computers, Teachers, Peers: Science Learning
Partners," published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.,
that will be released in March.
1998, Linn was chosen by the Council of Scientific Society Presidents
for its first award for excellence in educational research.
Four years earlier, she received an award for lifelong contributions
to science education from the National Association for Research
in Science Teaching.
researches the teaching and learning of science and technology,
gender equity and the design of technological learning environments.