Stacy Palen is an award-winning professor at Weber State University. She received her BS in physics from Rutgers University and her PhD in physics from the University of Iowa. As a lecturer at the University of Washington, she taught Introductory Astronomy more than 20 times over 4 years. She spends most of her time thinking about the application of science in everyday life and puts that to use on her small farm.
I know just how difficult it can be to stand in front of a large classroom of diverse students —most there just to fulfill a credit requirement—and wonder how you will facilitate their learning. My college, Weber State University in Utah, is an open enrollment institution that provides accessible educational opportunities and high-quality degrees to the students seeking them. What that means for my classroom is that I usually have students at all different levels of experience and all kinds of backgrounds.
As an author on W. W. Norton’s astronomy textbooks Understanding Our Universe, 21st Century Astronomy, and Learning Astronomy by Doing Astronomy, I’ve been intentional about bringing flexible materials to the book and resource packages that will serve all types of learners. In the book franchise and in my own classroom, I strive to engage and reach every student.
When I teach, I’ve adopted a multimodal approach that comes from observing how students learn the content and recognizing the attitudes and skills we want them to carry away from general education classes. One of the most important observations that I’ve made is that different students learn different material differently.
For example, you can have any two students sitting next to each other; one of them might learn best just by reading, and the other might learn the very same material better by doing something or carrying out an experiment. Conversely, the first student might need to learn a different subject by experimenting while the second student might need to learn it by reading. This is not, in my experience, an issue about coherent learning styles. It’s not that some students learn by seeing and some students learn by doing. It’s usually a matter of experience or background in related topics.
Because my students come from such a wide range of backgrounds and levels, what resonates most with them will vary, whether it’s seeing, hearing, reading, doing, moving their bodies, or touching. There is no accurate way to predict what instructional method will work best—it just depends on where they are in their education and what they already know when they walk in the door. With this in mind, I’ve tried to incorporate as many different types of teaching approaches as possible into my classroom and homework materials. These are carried into the books and resources that I publish for astronomy, but the idea can be carried into other general education courses, too.
This idea of including many different instructional methods may be overwhelming for some instructors, but the point is not to use every method every single time, instead you mix and match methods for the students who are sitting in front of you. This means being dynamic and flexible in response to the unique makeup of your class from semester to semester.
For example, when astronomy instructors are teaching about center of mass, students might get a lecture where they are likely to see and hear about center of mass. From there, they might get a chance to DO something—perhaps a hands-on activity from a workbook or engaging with a simulation. Maybe they will access a video or interactive online. In this phase, it is likely that they will ask a lot of “what if” questions. From there, they might use an online homework system (like Norton’s Smartwork) that has consistent vocabulary and visualizations from the textbook related to center of mass to strengthen their problem-solving and critical thinking skills. They could do some scenario solving, where they try to extrapolate what kinds of systems they are looking at from different kinds of graphs.
I will also present my students with metaphors from daily life so that they can get a clearer idea about what’s going on—even if they don’t fully understand it—in the context of what they already understand. In this example for center of mass, I’ll show a picture of a young girl being spun around by her father who is holding her hands and, thus, lifting her feet off the ground. I’ll then take my students outside and have them hold hands and spin around. In this real-life mini experiment, they can imagine what it would be like if one of them was much smaller. Soon enough, they’re applying what they’ve learned about center of mass and internalizing what it means in the context of astronomy.
The point is not just that they correctly answer the question about center of mass and pass the class. The point is that they understand how astronomy (or whatever subject you’re teaching) relates to their lives and gives them an appreciation for the discipline that they might have otherwise skipped. In my opinion, the only way to accomplish that is by using as many different approaches as possible. The lecture-study-test model that dominated education for so many years leaves many students behind, lacking in confidence, and struggling to retain important information. The only way to truly reach every student is to teach the information in a way that they can understand.