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UC Berkeley professor says best approach to learning science is deeper study of fewer topics
20 Feb 2000

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- 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.

Marcia 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.

"Everybody 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."

Research 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.

Data 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.

Linn 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.

Teachers 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.

Linn 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.

Students may score high on multiple-choice questions and vocabulary drills, but falter when quizzed on topics requiring more comprehension and analysis, she said.

Her recommended approach already is successful in countries such as Japan and the Czech Republic, as reported by the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

The 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.

For 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.

Students 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 mosquito.

In Walnut Creek, students also are debating the merits of genetically modified foods.

The 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.

"I've 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 for science.

Foothill authorities are so pleased that they've expanded the program to include all science teachers and classes at the school.

Since 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.

Switching 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.

It also will require partnerships between teachers, administrators, school trustees and politicians controlling educational budgets, she said.

"We need everybody's voice to solve this problem," said Linn.

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.

In 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.

Linn researches the teaching and learning of science and technology, gender equity and the design of technological learning environments.


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