Friday, January 19, 2007

The Problem of the Modern Science Student

"Education is what remains when what has been learned has been forgotten"
B. F. Skinner


Students that are the product of the modern education systems almost all suffer from the same problem that continues through their educational career up through University. They have all been carefully taught that there are no consequences to forgetting material that they have learned.

Almost all the public education models build up the student as a person by affirming that what they have learned is sufficient and that large concepts can be broken down to testable smaller concepts. Such education models have effectively produced legions of students that are like computers with huge RAM memory but tiny hard drives. The consequence is that they can memorize huge amounts of information for short periods of time but they can also completely forget the information when they "turn off the computer".

Thus, any topic in which knowledge is truly accumulative, where the degree depends on a sequence of courses that require intimate knowledge of material previously taught, will be left only to the naturally adept. These programs, such as the languages, mathematics, engineering and the physical sciences will all suffer (and are suffering) not because they have somehow failed to adjust their programs to fit the new students but because the actual nature of what graduates must know cannot be negotiated.

It is my opinion that interest in Chemistry has not decreased but the disciplined / trained ability of students to accumulate content / knowledge has eroded. This more than anything else results the in the dramatic drop - fail rates in our introductory courses.

2 comments:

ss said...

Unfortunately, this isn't limited to undergraduates. I have seen a number of associates in industry who are so dependent on SciFinder that they can't remember basic experimental conditions.

Liberal Arts Chemist said...

Now that is an interesting point. I have had conversations along this line with industrial chemists and they have noted that in many situations that working from memory alone is dangerous unless you have a perfect memory. They were of the opinion that a worker that can quickly and efficiently use resources are better and safer co-workers than those that work from memory but may forget some details.

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.