What not to do as a STEM educator

In recent years we have seen a massive surge of interest in all things STEM. STEM education has been emphasised as part of the Australian Federal Government’s Innovation and Science Agenda, and schools around the country have benefited from funding to build and fit out specialised STEM education rooms, including maker-spaces and classrooms designed for flexible learning.

In academia, programs like Superstars of STEM have flourished, as have platforms like the STEM Women search engine, which have each fostered outreach and begun to assist in elevating women within STEM disciplines (although see this report on a study about the very real barriers still experienced by women and people of colour in academic hiring).

In spite of this growing national enthusiasm for STEM education, in university classrooms I repeatedly see what can only be described as mediocre facilitation of student learning – not in terms of the materials or activities provided, but in terms of how educators engage with students as facilitators of learning.

“The facilitation foibles I talk through here are easy things to change, but they’re not trivial.”

I need to qualify that this assertion is no slight against the committed academics who run university courses. Academics are usually hired for their ability to do research, not teach. What’s more, academics are not systematically recognised or rewarded for their teaching contributions in ways that can contribute to their career progression. That is, teaching effort does not benefit research-active academics.

And in spite of this lack of systemic value, I see a majority of teaching academics to be highly invested educators who devote huge hours to the development of lectures, labs and tutorial activities. I see many teaching academics proactively attempting to innovate in their approach, with a commitment to achieving best practice.

Before starting my PhD, I worked for three years at Scienceworks Museum and the Victorian Space Science Education Centre in Melbourne. The former is a leading state government-funded science and technology museum, and the latter a Department of Education speciality science centre that uses space science as the context for inter-disciplinary STEM education. In these roles I presented science shows, facilitated workshops and immersive learning experiences, helped to develop STEM programs for both public and school audiences, and contributed to the training and professional development of other STEM educators. I delivered programs to thousands of people across the state of Victoria and received extensive pedagogical training from leading practitioners in the field.

In this article I bring my experience as a science communicator and point out a selection of particularly common facilitation foibles I encounter in university classrooms. My tips on what to try are easy to implement, shift agency and effort from the teacher to the students and are well-supported by research findings about how best to improve student engagement and learning outcomes.

So I offer you this short list. What not to do as a STEM educator.

Teaching robotics en masse, Grand Prix with VSSEC
Teaching robotics en masse at the Grand Prix with VSSEC. If ever there was an exercise in demanding attention, among the bustle of the Grand Prix was it.
1. Talk to the group while the group is talking.

As anyone with a theatre or performance background can relate, one golden rule of presenting is to wait for silence before opening your mouth. Time and time again, I see demonstrators and lecturers at university stand at the front of a room full of chattering students and start announcing or teaching among the hubbub.

Why is this so bad? Well first, your students miss the start of what you’re saying, which could presumably be important. Second, it can feel crappy for you as the presenter, because you’re talking, and people aren’t listening. But most importantly, social etiquette around what it signifies to be spoken over means that by talking without waiting for your students to cede the space to you, you miss a valuable opportunity to foster respect and command authority from them.

Try this: Stand at the front, raise your hands out wide, and say ‘Hello’, loudly. Alternatively, you can loudly clap your hands. The key to either approach, is then to wait for silence.

2. Tell people what ‘not to do’.

The title of this article is a quip. One thing we should endeavour never do as educators is tell our students what not to do. Framing things in the negative means giving instructions like “don’t look through the microscope eyepiece when you’re adjusting the microscope stage,” or “don’t pour your waste chemicals in the sink.”

Why is it such a bad idea to frame things in the negative like this? Because people remember the things we emphasise, particularly when they are stressed, confused or overwhelmed.

Another incarnation of this in STEM education is that we often describe how something works by using inaccurate analogies. We often analogise an explanation to simplify it conceptually. We might say something like “Electrons and protons are attracted to one another. They work just like magnets, even though they’re not really the same as magnets.”

This approach can be really fraught, because just as with ‘what not to do’ instructions, people remember the things we emphasise. What do you remember from the magnets example I just gave? “Protons and electrons are attracted to one another, just like magnets.”

Luckily, the solution here is pretty simple.

Try this: Tell your students what you want them to do or know. Frame things in the affirmative. Sometimes it can be more difficult to communicate in this way when we are accustomed to qualifying things in the negative, but your efforts to communicate in the affirmative will reduce confusion and contribute to a smoother learning experience for all involved.

For the rest of the post, I’m going to follow my own advice and start framing things in the affirmative.

3. DO give people context!

Omg! How hard is this?! Almost without fail when in a university classroom, I see the most well-intentioned, thoughtful teachers diving into explanations of content or lab activities without providing any context for why this information is significant and/or how it fits in from the students perspective.

And almost every day I am in a university classroom, I see students reeling, confused, and falling behind the discussion as they scramble to claw for context and catch up again. This is a lost opportunity for all involved.

Try this: Think about why your students are doing an activity or learning about a given topic. Why might it be interesting to them? Where does it sit in the narrative of their understanding? Once you have found a clear and engaging answer…. Tell. Them. Give the students context for what they are about to learn.

Tell them before you start delivering the content. Tell them again during the session when they are progressing through the most challenging part of their knowledge-development. And heck, tell them again at the end – revisit the goal of the lesson with your students. Empirically, this simple step will improve the learning outcomes of students in your course.

4. DO ‘access’ prior knowledge and check progression.

Educators tend to have a general idea – or hold keen assumptions – about the level of prior knowledge students have coming into a course, lecture or lab session. Perhaps for this reason, university educators don’t make a habit of interrogating the knowledge of their students at the outset of each lesson.

Foremost, ‘accessing’ prior knowledge – which means asking students what they know, think and feel about a topic – is an opportunity for us to check our own assumptions as educators about the development of our student’s skills and knowledge. It also allows for camaraderie among students, who can identify with others in the cohort about their own progression. And most importantly, accessing the prior knowledge of your students provides context for the learning that you intend to impart.

Try this: Ask students what they think. There are a lot of techniques to do this. An easy way is to ask students to raise their hand. Ask them to raise a hand if they feel like they could confidently explain concept X and follow this by asking students to raise their hand if they feel a bit confused about the same concept.

Then, ask one of your self-proclaimed-confident students to explain to the class or group what they understand about the topic so far. Ask if others have anything to add. Ask the students to reiterate why the present topic might be of importance. You might well be surprised what you find out.

5. DO get students talking.

I cannot count the number of times I have heard lecturers and demonstrators complain about a lack of discussion and student replies to questions in labs and tutorials. It appears that many university educators respond awkwardly to this silence, electing to reduce the amount of student discussion they offer under the assumption that it ‘doesn’t work’.

While understandable, this couldn’t be further from being the correct response. Interactions and discussion between students boost learning outcomes tremendously. This element is called ‘cooperative learning’, and there is plenty of research to support its impact. Cooperative learning fosters accountability, positive interdependence (‘we’re in this together’), promotive activities among students (helping one another learn) and more.

But what to do with those blank faces staring back at you?!

Fostering cooperative learning is not necessarily an easy road. Discussion with students requires that we build a culture of conversation in our learning spaces. Teaching academics aside, students too are often ill-equipped to interact in this way, having passed through school and university systems that poorly cater to this type of high engagement interaction.

Try this:  Lean into silence as an opportunity for students to pause for thought. Ask a question and wait for a reply. Slowly count to 10 in your head. If there is still no reply on offer from the group, choose a student and ask them specifically. Press them – for any thought or association they might make in response to the question at hand. They are adults. They can handle a bit of awkwardness. And if the student you’ve singled out really has no idea on the question? Ask the cohort who can help them out.

Try this: When you get an answer – don’t accept it right away!! Instead, you can answer with ‘Okay, that sounds interesting’ or ‘Yes, that seems to make sense’. But then ask other students to contribute. Ask the cohort ‘How does Imelda’s answer sound to you?’ or ‘Does anyone have a different idea?’ Be bold, be kind and be patient.

Geology with the Australasian Society of Aerospace Medicine
‘Students’ identifying Martian rocks in the VSSEC lab, in an effort to piece together the history of Mars. They led the investigation, I followed and promoted their journey with questions.

Learning is journey, not just a destination. Universities deliver the highest formal education we can receive. But I don’t think this puck should stop with the knowledge on offer. It should extend to the manner of delivering that knowledge, including how participation in learning is facilitated in our university classrooms.

What’s more, as the seat of our ‘highest education’, universities have the ability to foster student’s skills in the process of thinking and critical dialogue – key elements of the academy. Improving discussion among students and the quality of engagement in our classrooms can do nothing if not foster these elements, feeding back to the quality of research output by our institutions. 

The facilitation foibles I talk through here are easy things to change, but they’re not trivial. If you want to read more about the possible percentile point gains in student performance at stake here or other elements of the research behind this rave, check out the McRel White Paper (2018) ‘Student Learning that Works: how brain science informs a student learning model’ and the classic text ‘Classroom Instruction that Works: research based strategies for improving student achievement’ by Marzano, Pickering and Pollock (2001). 

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