A cynical take on a study about high school science

Jul 27 2007 Published by under Science Education & Outreach

Chad links to an article about a study that shows that good preparation in high school math helps students perform in all science disciplines in college, whereas studying one science in high school doesn't help their performance in other science disciplines in college.

There are a few conclusions that are drawn. The article quotes people who suggest that the "Physics First" movement— that argues Physics should be taught first, with biology and chemistry later— doesn't hold water. Chad resonates with the article, having observed that college students often have woeful preparation in math, and that this disadvantage cripples them and prevents them from moving on.

Let me propose another, cynical interpretation.

First, though, I do want to agree that a solid grounding in math is essential. I have observed, and have heard other faculty comment, that students come into college not understanding algebra. Oh, they probably scored well enough on standardized tests, and they know some of the tricks ("cross-multiplying" is a word that I hear students use a lot), but they don't really understand it. They recognize some of the patterns and know what to do, but by and large they don't know what they're doing. If you really understand algebra, you no longer think about cross-multiplying as a technique, because it becomes obvious.

My mother taught high-school biology for many years. In her last few years of teaching, she moved into the middle school, and was teaching 8th grade physical science. One of the biggest concepts she tried to get across was the concept of density. She told me, dismayed, that many students wanted to memorize the three equations density=mass/volume, mass=density*volume, and volume=mass/density... even though, of course, they are just very simple algebraic manipulations of the one "definition of density" equation. She said, here they are in their pre-algebra classes (or, for the more advanced students, actual algebra classes) doing much more advanced things, solving quadratic equations, but they don't remember, or instinctively recoil at, doing the much more basic algebra that takes density=mass/volume into mass=density*volume.

It's an issue.

But let me suggest that there is another thing underlying the results of this study. That is, high school science is, in general, not taught the way it should be... and, college science is, in general, taught assuming students learned nothing in high school science.

A couple of years ago, I gave a question on a sample test (not a real test, just a study guide) in my astronomy class that used the concept of density. (I was trying to get at an understanding of the fact that while stars themselves are very dense, galaxies have a very low density in comparison.) After I'd passed this out and students had a chance to look at it, one of the students asked me a question in that partially-aggressive manner that students use when they want to accuse you of something "unfair" without coming out and staying it. The question was, "Have we talked about density in this class?" (OK, it could have been more aggressive; I've had other students ask questions akin to, "When have we talked about density in this class?")

My answer was, "No, but according to the admissions requirements you all took at least two years of science in high school. Density is a concept you learn in middle school science."

The assumption that many, or most, students have is that when they come into a college science class, they are approaching science ab initio. Certainly English (and other) professors complain about how woeful student writing skills are... but we do assume that students come into college knowing how to put together a complex sentence. Even in math, while students believe "too much math" is a valid condemnation of a science course, in their math classes it's assumed that they know arithmetic, and indeed algebra is at many Universities considered to be a remedial course which doesn't satisfy any math requirements. And, yet, they come into science classes assuming that it's OK to have learned nothing in high school science. If college science teachers (at least in classes for non-majors) try to base or draw on any knowledge that they should have learned in high school, they're in trouble.

This is a problem. Without impugning the very good high school science teachers out there (including my mother and some friends I've had), I do have this idea that a lot, if not most, of the high school science teaching out there is done poorly. Too many students have the idea that science is about memorizing facts and answers. Where did they get this idea? From each other, certainly, but I suspect also from standardized tests and from their high school science classes. Ideally, a good high school science class should impart, at least to the students who do well in the class, something about the process of doing science, and about what science is. Ideally, also, college classes would impart and test the same things. Alas, this is too rarely true. Too many non-majors college classes are also about memorizing and regurgitating facts and answers. If you remember some of them from your high school class on the same topic, you do well. If, on the other hand, both high school and college classes did a better job of teaching thinking in the scientific mode, then I predict that the results of this study would be quite different.

I personally have no opinion on the "Physics First" movement. I sort of like the idea of teaching high school science in the biology, chemistry, physics order, because that's the order of "how advanced of math is needed," and as such it makes sense for students who've had more math to take chemistry and then physics. The "basis in physics" that the movement is after should be coming in a junior high "introduction to physical science" class. All of these classes should be basing what they do on things that students have learned previously; process, and a mode of thinking. College classes should be assuming that students did indeed learn something in high school.

There's a lot of stuff to know in science, a lot of facts and answers. But what's both harder and more satisfying is learning the scientific mode of thinking, learning how to take given facts and correlations and how to draw conclusions or understanding from them.

31 responses so far

  • Without impugning the very good high school science teachers out there (including my mother and some friends I've had), I do have this idea that a lot, if not most, of the high school science teaching out there is done poorly.

    Hear, hear.

    The "basis in physics" that the movement is after should be coming in a junior high "introduction to physical science" class.

    My junior high science classes were marked by good, enthusiastic teachers and rotten textbooks. (It was a bit of a sport among the science-y set to see which of us students could find more mistakes in our books, just going on what we had learned already on our own.) Kids in Alabama did a thing called "integrated science", in which the science class had a few months of chemistry followed by a couple on astronomy, etc. If done well, this could be a very good plan: by covering multiple subjects, the students could learn about the unifying principles which connect all the topics. Unfortunately, the realization fell short of that ideal.

  • Jim Kiley says:

    Rob,
    I agree with the idea that the scientific method is not taught well in schools today. Very few kids or adults are aware that science is a process and not just a body of knowledge.
    I've told my own kids (ages 6 and 10) that the TV show Mythbusters does a better job teaching science than half of what they will learn in school, because Mythbusters starts with a hypothesis, and the experimenters work out a way to test it, and then evaluate their experiments.
    I suspect that my insistence on this has gotten at least one of my kids in trouble, as my kids are the sort to actually mention this in front of their science teachers. But them's the breaks.

  • Rob Knop says:

    Unfortunately, the realization fell short of that ideal.
    Too often true.
    The truth is that it is really hard to implement this. I know that I've struggled with it in my introductory astronomy class.
    It's so easy to teach a recall class-- easier to teach, the students expect it so you get less pushback, easier for the students to figure out how to study for, easier to write tests, etc. etc. etc. When we get swamped for time, that's what we end up doing. Indeed, even though it's bad for education, that's what University professors should do: see http://scientopia.org/blogs/interactions/2007/05/advice-for-junior-faculty-at-a-research-university
    (Short form: junior faculty at Universities are not judged by how well they teach, they're judged by grants and papers and, perhaps, student evaluations. As such, they should find the easiest way to get good student evaluations, and they shouldn't bother worrying about how to teach well-- that takes too much time, is too hard, and distracts you from things that will help you get tenure.)

  • Daniel Harper says:

    Kids in Alabama did a thing called "integrated science", in which the science class had a few months of chemistry followed by a couple on astronomy, etc. If done well, this could be a very good plan: by covering multiple subjects, the students could learn about the unifying principles which connect all the topics. Unfortunately, the realization fell short of that ideal.

    I took IS when I was in seventh and eighth grade in Alabama. (Say 1992-1994-ish, right after the program was introduced, I believe.) It consisted basically of watching entertaining "sciency" videos taken off of APT, then answering a few general questions based on the videos. The content of the videos was problematic, as well, given that the science content would be generalized into very vague areas like "shapes" or "waves" or "patterns"... Nice I suppose for a unification of knowledge, bad in the sense that we never delved into any topic very deeply at all.
    I don't know whether or not schools in Alabama are still doing this, nor what the program might be like today.

  • KKairos says:

    I'm not sure if what you're saying holds true at my University, but I do agree with what you say about Math classes...every year I've had I've been expected to know at least a little bit from the year before.
    I could see how the study might still have one good conclusion, though: math theoretically should be used in just about every science, either in the way of statistics or more directly in equations as in Physics and some Chemistry (for a Math major I don't know science that well; I know physics the best, so forgive me if I over or understate the use of math in Chemistry/Biology...I feel safe, with my experience with Physics, saying it's pretty frequently used there.)

  • I had only one good science course before I got to college. My high-school chemistry teacher was committed to giving us a proper education which often required him to go over the math we should have learned the year before.
    I went into college with a completely inadequate scientific education. I had to struggle to get up to the point I was expected to be for a couple of the intro classes because my college had several excellent science departments. I consider my high-school education to be above average in most other respects but the following sentence will tell you most of what you need to know about my science experience:
    My biology teacher was a creationist.

  • Rob Knop says:

    I could see how the study might still have one good conclusion, though: math theoretically should be used in just about every science
    Heh... there's been this push for a while to have "writing across the curriculum." Indeed, some of the English teachers and such at Vanderbilt thought the scientists were cheating by justifying lab notebooks in class as "writing" -- and they were, but it was a ridiculous requirement that required cheating.
    I like the idea; writing is so important, and it does make sense to have it across the curriculum, within reason.
    I'd like to see "math across the curriculum."
    -Rob

  • PuckishOne says:

    I was accepted at a good public university having taken two algebra classes, one biology class, and one "Earth science" class (taught by a misogynist) in my public high school. It's no wonder Astronomy 101 gave me fits, but even more of a wonder that I am still interested in learning and knowing about anything scientific. If our education system continues to present science and math as a dry collection of facts to be memorized by rote -- rather than understood, absorbed and enjoyed -- imagine what the state of the nation's industrial and scientific achievements will look like in another 25 years or so.

  • I try my best in my HS Physics classes to teach process, to teach scientific modes of thinking, to teach inductive reasoning, and to avoid at all costs the "collection of facts" approach. And I think I succeed, at least with most students. But my problem has always been assessment. I find it very difficult to write valid, reliable exam questions that assess students' understanding of *process* (and that I can grade in a reasonable amount of time). Sure, I evaluate students as they are doing inquiry-type experiments, and I read their lab reports, in which they are required to analyze data and reach a conclusion. But as we all know, students think that the only important outcomes of any class are the ones that are *on the exam*. Anybody with any suggestions?

  • mollishka says:

    What exactly does "writing accross the curriculum" mean? When I went through, MIT had a requirement that you had to do a "communication intensive" something within your major. In physics, this meant giving presentations on labwork and writing a 20 page term paper for the third term of quantum.

  • Rob Knop says:

    I find it very difficult to write valid, reliable exam questions that assess students' understanding of *process* (and that I can grade in a reasonable amount of time).
    Yes, I feel your pain. It's very tough to come up with that kind of thing.
    The way I've tried to do it is by asking questions that require students to think through things rather than asking them to remember something, or even just remember a procedure for solving a problem. But, yeah, it's real tough.
    What exactly does "writing accross the curriculum" mean?
    In principle, it's supposed to mean that we teach good writing in every course. In practice, it means that courses are mandated to have at least X pages of writing before they will be accepted by the college curriculum committee.

  • Rob Knop says:

    My biology teacher was a creationist.
    Fear/Loathing

  • PhysioProf says:

    "She told me, dismayed, that many students wanted to memorize the three equations density=mass/volume, mass=density*volume, and volume=mass/density... even though, of course, they are just very simple algebraic manipulations of the one "definition of density" equation. She said, here they are in their pre-algebra classes (or, for the more advanced students, actual algebra classes) doing much more advanced things, solving quadratic equations, but they don't remember, or instinctively recoil at, doing the much more basic algebra that takes density=mass/volume into mass=density*volume."
    We have first-year medical students (at an Ivy League university medical school) who need remedial work on how to figure out the relationship between volume of a liquid, concentration of a solute, and the total mass of the solute present in the liquid. Four years from now, patients will be relying on these people to save their lives.

  • JuliaL says:

    students come into college not understanding algebra. Oh, they probably scored well enough on standardized tests, and they know some of the tricks ("cross-multiplying" is a word that I hear students use a lot), but they don't really understand it. They recognize some of the patterns and know what to do, but by and large they don't know what they're doing.

    When my son was ten, he came to me one day with a serious face, and asked if we could talk. I sat down with him, and he said, "Mom, tell me - what are logarithms really? I use them all the time, but really what are they?"
    I arranged for my son to meet with a friend, an algebgra and calculus instructor at the community college where I worked. When they emerged from the classroom, my friend said, "It's nice to have somebody who wants to learn. You know, I was able to teach your son more actual math in an hour than many of my students are willing to learn in a semester. They just want to memorize."
    That was more than 25 years ago. It sound like maybe things haven't improved much.

  • 2bc says:

    ""unfair" without coming out and staying it."
    "stating it" or "staying it?"

  • Rob Knop says:

    stating it. Oops.

  • I agree with you Rob, that there are lots of things that students should know. But, since I have children in public schools, I'm only too aware that the high school requirements for science and math vary a great deal.
    Colleges do have a minimum math requirement that students have to meet before they can take college science courses but I don't think that anyone would confuse the ability to pass the test with knowing how to use math in a practical setting.
    I would rather err on the side of ab initio instruction than exclude students who went to the wrong high school,

  • David Williamson says:

    I'm sure this isn't news, but the state of high school science and math education is deplorable. At the high schools in this part of the Bay Area, they are both afterthoughts. My youngest stepdaughter has been taking algebra classes from the football coach - he had to be teaching *something* to be able to coach at the HS. That's an improvement from the previous year, where she went through something like seven or eight teachers for her math class.
    Until we take the teaching of math and science seriously, assuming that college freshmen have had zero beyond very basic math isn't a bad move.
    My own HS education was extraordinarily hit or miss. I had a junior math teacher who can only be described as a draft dodger. On the other hand, my senior year math teacher (for Calculus 2) was the department head with a PhD, and a good teacher on top of it.
    Personally, I'd really like to see a lot of the math and science taught as a single course. Most algebra has some use in actual reality, like the density example. If we used words like "mass" and "volume" instead of variables like "x" and "y", I think we'd win over more students. I know I didn't get a lot of math until I had a science class to go with it...even in college. At HMC, the linear algebra class I had was extraordinarily dry. Okay, I learned a bunch about crazy thing to do with matrices and eigenvalues, and all that fun, but it didn't make sense until I took quantum. About two weeks into that class, the light bulb simply turned on.
    Hey Rob, ever consider teaching HS? Seriously - it might be much more rewarding than your current gig.

  • Rob Knop says:

    I would rather err on the side of ab initio instruction than exclude students who went to the wrong high school,
    I realize -- but I wish we'd treat it the way we treat english and math. If a student doesn't show adequate preparation in either, there are "remedial" courses they have to take. (Not really remedial, but they are basic writing or math courses they have to take as prerequisites for the other courses, and these prerequisites generally do not count towards required numbers of distribution courses.)
    -Rob

  • Rob Knop says:

    Hey Rob, ever consider teaching HS? Seriously - it might be much more rewarding than your current gig.
    Though about it, but the fact that medical expenses are our #1 line item (above mortgage) means that we couldn't afford to live on a HS teachers' salary. In TN, HS teachers are really not paid well at all. It is true that my sister in CA made more as a high school teacher than I did as an assistant prof at Vanderbilt, but their mortgage payment is also something like three times mine (and more than our medical expenses).
    In any event, I have high hopes that my current gig (i.e. the new one -- Linden Labs) is going to be very stimulating and rewarding. There were a lot of rewarding things about being a college professor, but there were also a lot of active negatives.
    -Rob

  • Biswajit says:

    Someone talked about bad textbooks in one of the comments. If you are in the US, there are excellent undergraduate texts in math and the sciences which a high school student will be able to grasp. I am amazed by the beautiful illustrations in today's texts and the relatively lucid writing (compared with texts from 20 to 30 years ago). I don't think that the issue is about the resources that high school students have access to.
    The issue is whether students want to learn science. I feel that too many people are being forced to learn math and science who are not particularly interested in the physical sciences. The reason is purely economics. As a result you get disinterested students. And as soon as they realize they can't coast in your class you also get some aggressive students 🙂

  • DuWayne says:

    Biswajit -
    I don't think it's a problem of kids not wanting to learn math and science. The problem is, and has gotten worse with "no child left behind's" requirements to teach tests, that the way it is taught is exceedingly dry and boring. Were it not for the fact that I had a lot provided me outside of school, I would never have garnered an interest in math and science. Many kids don't get those kinds of external influences. All that they are exposed to, they're exposed to in school. Boring teachers, translates into no interest in either.
    Too, the pressure to do learn the way the curriculum requires, means that kids who think a little differently, or learn differently, get left behind. That happened to me in math. It turns out that I do really well with advanced maths. The problem was, that I couldn't get past algebra. I could do the problems, do them in my head for the most part. But the teachers wanted me to do it all their way. While I could write down the steps I took to complete problems, they weren't the right steps - damn the results. So I failed and wasn't allowed into advanced math or science as a result.

  • Melissa G says:

    I feel it was the biggest mistake of my high school career opting to take pre-calc in my senior year instead of calculus.
    Calculus was, for me, far easier than other branches of math, and it was like a beautiful new world opened up when I took it! I devoured three semesters of it when I went back to school, and I only wished I had been turned on to it earlier.
    I have little call for calculus in my daily life, alas, but I still use algebra practically every single day.
    I am, by the way, an artist. An artist who gets really peeved at hearing people bitching about math who understand neither its usefulness nor its beauty.

  • adam says:

    I was a highschool physics teacher (and a maths and chemistry and biology and electronics teacher, on occasion, but more physics than anything else), in the UK. In the UK, students do all three sciences (in equal proportion) from the age of 5 (although, to be fair, it's not very complicated stuff that the 5 year olds are doing, as you might expect) to 16; at 16, they can choose to specialise in 3-5 subjects, which may include physics (most popular subject of all is normally maths, though, and biology is the most popular science). My experience of it is that where it's done well, the students leave school knowing a heck of a lot more physics than is the case for US students (even those that were taught well). However, it's hardly the case that it's always done well, particularly the physics component; there are plenty of individuals who manage to leave school at 16 with 11 years of physics behind them without appreciating, say, what inertia is, let alone understanding electricity.
    Another thing I'd note, which is almost completely tangential but which occurred to me recently in a conversation about homeschooling (which is common in this area, despite it having one of the best schools for miles around) is that most teachers, including me, think that they're good teachers. Clearly, however, a lot of those are mistaken. Perhaps even me. But I jest. Ho. Ho. The problem is that good teachers critically evaluate themselves and poor ones tend not to (because self-evaluation combined with a desire to improve tends to lead to improvement); if one is teaching in a field where there are not many candidates for employment, the incentive to self-evaluate in the necessary manner is rather reduced; in any case, as things go on and become more comfortable, critical self-evaluation is easy to let slide (it only leads to needing to change, after all). It's hard to get good physics teachers; there aren't that many physicists and most of them can earn a lot more money doing something else.

  • Rob Knop says:

    I am, by the way, an artist. An artist who gets really peeved at hearing people bitching about math who understand neither its usefulness nor its beauty.
    Heh -- but you're an artist with some post-graduate education in science 🙂
    It's hard to get good physics teachers; there aren't that many physicists and most of them can earn a lot more money doing something else.
    ...and a lot of them aren't good teachers, either. Teaching and physics are two different skills. You have to understand physics to teach it, but you also have to know how to teach!
    -Rob

  • Melissa G says:

    Heh -- but you're an artist with some post-graduate education in science 🙂
    This does not change the fact that, intrinsically, math rules. =D
    Teaching and physics are two different skills. You have to understand physics to teach it, but you also have to know how to teach!
    You know, I was about to go off on a description of my high school physics experience, about how he was a brilliant man but his teaching was abstruse. But the more I think about it, the more I realize I learned-- and RETAINED!-- from his classes! Astounding. I'm a little freaked out, in fact, and am going to go conduct a ripple tank experiment.

  • mollishka:

    What exactly does "writing accross the curriculum" mean? When I went through, MIT had a requirement that you had to do a "communication intensive" something within your major. In physics, this meant giving presentations on labwork and writing a 20 page term paper for the third term of quantum.

    Hey, don't knock the CI requirement! I'm about to recycle my quantum term paper for about six blog posts. 😉
    Melissa G:

    I feel it was the biggest mistake of my high school career opting to take pre-calc in my senior year instead of calculus.

    For me, and for everyone else I've met, "pre-calculus" was a waste of time. My coworker in the next office (a fellow MIT physics major) went through pre-cal his junior year of high school in Florida, just as I did in Alabama, and he says that he knew less math coming out than he did going in.
    My pre-cal class consisted of rehashing the material we had the year before (in "Algebra II/Trig"), plus a couple weeks on limits. Now, nobody explained why we'd be interested in these "limit" things, and in almost all of the problems we were given — busy-work if I've ever seen it — one could evaluate the limit just by plugging the desired x-value into the given equation. The rest of the problems were really the definition of the derivative: you just had to take the limit as h tends to zero of [f(x + h) - f(x)] / h, for some polynomial or trigonometric function f. Now, if you already knew what derivatives were, and you had learned the basic rules which come on the inside front cover of a calculus textbook, you could do all these problems in a single line of work — and get them right every time — while everybody else was spending six lines on each one and making mistakes all over the place.
    Of course, if you did this, you were marked down for "not doing the work the way we were taught in class."
    DuWayne:

    The problem is, and has gotten worse with "no child left behind's" requirements to teach tests, that the way it is taught is exceedingly dry and boring.

    The requirement that AP classes "teach to the test" effectively ruined most of the "advanced" classes I was able to take in high school. Because the final exam can only include questions which can be asked on a standardized test, and since time pressure prevents teachers from covering anything which couldn't appear on that exam, the classes are horribly constrained, not just in terms of material but also with regard to the kinds of problems which can be presented and the styles of problem-solving which can be addressed.
    It's nice to know that NCLB has spread the disease which ruined the "advanced" classes to everybody else.
    Got to go — category-theory seminar!

  • mollishka says:

    Hey, don't knock the CI requirement!

    I'm not knocking it... I think it was great! And you'd be amazed how many people from elsewhere get to grad school having never used LaTeX or having given a science-y presentation.
    As for "pre-calculus" ... I'm sitting here wondering why my pre-college education didn't have a stronger emphasis on linear algebra.

  • nancy knop says:

    Rob, thanks for saying your mom was a good science teacher. Now I am teaching kids one on one and following cognitive and neuroscience, especially as related to math thinking and learning. Watch the next 20 years for the development of good math pedagogy - the methods for investigation are available and there is money for research. Lots is already done. But good research does take time, and translation to pedagogy takes longer. In the meantime, a rare few do it intuitively. You and your correspondants have some good ideas. And I, for one, do support "math across the curriculum." However it gets interpreted, it will help, especially in elementary and middle school, where so many attitudes get established. Mom

  • miller says:

    Too many students have the idea that science is about memorizing facts and answers. Where did they get this idea? From each other, certainly, but I suspect also from standardized tests and from their high school science classes.

    I think that idea comes from much earlier, from elementary school. From what I recall, science was basically a collection of interesting words, facts, and theories. Even the "scientific method" was something to be memorized. But then, elementary schools have other things to worry about too.

  • dan says:

    I do have this idea that a lot, if not most, of the high school science teaching out there is done poorly.
    Spoken like someone who has not taught high school science, perhaps? I have not either, but I have known enough teachers to know that there are many pressures at work against them, and you're not describing any of them.
    Dan