Student-centred science classes flourishing at UBC, despite slow adoption across North America

At UBC 85 per cent of classes surveyed had incorporated at least some elements of interactive teaching.

A new study in Science is highlighting the University of British Columbia's success in adopting student-centred teaching in science classes.

The analysis of more than 2,000 classes at colleges and universities across North America found that 55 per cent of science classes continue to be dominated by lecture-based teaching, despite substantial research that suggests active, student-centred classrooms are more effective for student learning.

The picture is very different at UBC, where only 15 per cent of the classes surveyed continue to be dominated by lectures.

"North America wide, we have quite a way to go to realize truly student-centred science education across the board," said Patricia Schulte, a professor of zoology and science education researcher at UBC and one of the authors of the paper. "But the good news is that investing in instructional support and training and focusing on incentivizing evidenced-based teaching practices can work—and it has worked at UBC."

Across North America, 27 percent of classes were based on lecturing but also incorporated some elements of interactive learning, such as multiple-choice questions using clickers. Only 18 percent of classes emphasized what the researchers categorized as student-centred practices—classes designed to focus on group work, discussion, and problem solving. At UBC, 85 per cent of the classes had incorporated at least some elements of interactive teaching—such as clicker questions with group work and in-class worksheets and case studies.

While most previous studies of teaching practices have relied on faculty member surveys, the Science study was based on observations of actual classes. Much of the UBC data came from large, early-year classes, many of them in biology.

"Instructors at UBC, many of whom are biologists, were very open to participating—perhaps because biologists are accustomed to performing observational studies in nature. So it wasn’t much of a stretch to view their classrooms as an experimental system for observation," said Schulte. “More than 30 lecture sections were surveyed multiple times, often by different observers."

According to the North America data, mathematics, geology and biology classes were making the most use of interactive or student-centred practices, while traditional lectures were more common in chemistry classes. Instructional styles didn’t change much by year level. And although previous, survey-based studies had suggested large classes and fixed classroom layouts were barriers to adopting interactive teaching practices, this study found that even in small classes with flexible seating, over half the classes were still taught in a traditional lecture style.

This suggests that simply providing infrastructure that supports student centred learning doesn’t necessarily lead to change in instructional styles. Instead investments in changing instructor behaviors, as have been pursued at UBC, may be more effective.

The study, led by Marilyne Stains at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, involved classroom observations at UBC and more than 20 institutions across the United States. At UBC, this research was supported through multiple science education initiatives and primarily conducted by UBC-supported science education post-doctoral fellows who are now faculty members at Universities across Canada and the USA.

About UBC Science’s education initiatives

At UBC, long-term science education initiatives—working with departments and students—have transformed more than 180 courses to improve the learning and success of 16,000 students a year.

The good news is that investing in instructional support and training, and focusing on incentivizing evidenced-based teaching practices can work—and it has worked at UBC.

Chris Balma
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