The Case for Section Caps in the Sciences

November 21, 2014

By KAREN A. MCKINNON and JACK NICOLUDIS

Unfortunately, some members of the Harvard community have suggested in The Crimson’s news and opinion pages that section caps are unnecessary in the physical and natural sciences because “what is needed in a philosophy course may be quite different than, say, a statistics or math course,” because “sections [in the sciences] are about the transmission of information,” and because “a statistics teaching fellow, for example, can expound equations to 18 or 20 pupils with ease.” The belief that science courses will not benefit from smaller sections seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the goals of a science education; one where the teaching fellow could be replaced by a textbook recitation.

As teachers, students and scientists, we know that this is not an effective method for teaching science to undergraduates. Our experiences as teaching fellows in Earth and Planetary Sciences, Chemistry and Chemical Biology, and Molecular and Cellular Biology inform us that science education at Harvard will improve with smaller section sizes.

The sections that we have taught involve as much discussion and interaction as those in the humanities, because we have found that students learn better via active engagement, rather than passive memorization. As we guide our sections in learning specific concepts, we encourage our students to ask each other questions, and explain their answers.

We have found this method of teaching to be more effective than “expounding” from above because the members of the section are exposed to a diversity of ways of comprehending scientific concepts, and each student can discover which path of understanding is most helpful for him or herself. While efforts can be made to educate teaching fellows about skills for encouraging active learning in sections, we feel that the sheer size of many sections is a barrier to using these methods.

Furthermore, learning science at a college level is not simply about memorization and regurgitation of facts; rather, we are training students in the practice of scientific inquiry.

As an example, a science section might focus on helping students build the skills necessary to read and critique published papers in the scientific literature. A published paper invariably contains advances in the science as well as questionable assumptions or methods, and it is important for scientists to be able to disentangle the two. This, however, is not a skill that can be taught by a teaching fellow simply outlying his or her analysis and critique of the paper, but one that requires discussion and debate among the members of the section. These valuable skill-building activities are most effective in small sections, where every student can be engaged and active.

Laboratory section sizes should also be reduced. In introductory chemistry courses, it is common to have sections with more than 15 students. The layout of the undergraduate laboratories makes it difficult for teaching fellows to observe all student experiments in large sections. In laboratory courses students must analyze their observations and adapt procedures in response to the reality of their experiment. These experiences provide a pedagogical advantage to learning the natural and physical sciences, but require the teaching fellow to guide them.

Large laboratory sections prevent the teaching fellow from providing individual instruction. Large sections can also distract teaching fellows from ensuring safety in lab and correct disposal of hazardous waste. Smaller sections would allow teaching fellows to more readily monitor laboratory safety while maintaining attention to each student’s conceptual understanding and technical grasp of the experiment at hand.

While we sympathize with the desire to individualize section size for a given course, we hope that the size distinction is not made along discipline boundaries. Section sizes in the sciences should be reduced to effectively teach undergraduates scientific concepts, to simulate the scientific method, and to safely oversee laboratory procedures. The Harvard Teaching Campaign’s proposal will serve as a safety net across the University to preserve the high standard to which we hope to hold our undergraduates.

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