Imagine you are a school student walking around the chemistry department here at the University of Bristol. Everywhere you look there are big, complex, expensive-looking machines, gleaming labs and PhD students peering into beakers of brightly coloured and strange-smelling chemicals. It’s all quite enticing – this sort of thing certainly impressed me when I was visiting labs as a school student.
Another thing you would notice are the posters dotted around everywhere. (You can see a couple of examples that I’ve crudely photographed spaced throughout this post). Looking at them as an impressionable young student, you could be forgiven for thinking that as a qualified chemist, you’ll be designing new materials for surfboards or working on big questions like – what’s the chemical basis of fear?
The real reason there is a drive to encourage people to study things like science and engineering is because they are hard – not because they are easy or fun. Some argue that, currently, not enough people are studying these subjects. That means we don’t have enough people with STEM skills to meet demands of society . In short, we want people to study science because we need them to.
To be disingenuous about these motives is to treat students rather poorly. It’s unlikely that much of a degree in chemistry, for example, will be particularly ‘fun’. For me the terms ‘hard work’, ‘interesting’ and periodically ‘rewarding’ might be applied, but ‘fun’? To be truthful, no.
Frank Furedi has recently written that simply making students feel ‘satisfied’ does them no favours either, and as such, he argues that we should not be looking at measures like the National Student Survey to understand how good particular degree courses are. James Ladyman, everyone’s favourite dreadlock-sporting professor of philosophy, put it nicely when he wrote:
“…whether or not a degree program is appropriately rigorous, or has enough logic, or Kant, or whatever ought not to be for students to decide any more than it is for my son to decide whether he has enough chips in his diet”.
Ladyman’s point is that students are not in a position to make a fair assessment of their own degree experience. They’ve generally never been to another university, so they have no reference point from which to judge their own experience. Nor have they had a chance to see how well their education will serve them in their future lives. They may have had sympathetic lecturers, with sleek powerpoint slides containing all the information they need for their exams. They’ll feel justly satisfied, and probably give their institution a high score on the student survey. But those same actions could leave them incapable of taking the initiative to ever learn independently.
On top of that, some research I read a while ago comes to the conclusion that students who see science as a ‘struggle’ often relate better to it, see scientists as more ‘human’ and find learning the subject easier .
The psychologists who conducted the study divided a set of physics students in to three groups. The first was presented with a simply with some facts to learn. The second were taught the material through a discussion of the lifetime achievements of the scientist who discovered the facts. The third group had the same material again, but were taught it in conjunction with the story of how the discovering scientist struggled to understand their data and make sense of their results.
The students who learnt about the struggles of the scientific pioneers not only found them more likeable human beings, but could also better recall the facts they’d learnt and solve physics problems better than those in the other groups.
So should we replace the posters of surfboards with images of weeping students hunched over impossible tutorial questions? Well, no, but perhaps we should just be honest with them, and admit that science is sometimes just plain difficult?
2. X. Lin-Siegler and H. Huang-Yao, Journal of Educational Psychology, 2011, DOI: 10.1037/a0026224