Science Teaching Series

Internet Resources

I. Developing Scientific Literacy

II. Developing Scientific Reasoning

III. Developing Scientific Understanding

IV. Developing Scientific Problem Solving

V. Developing Scientific Research Skills

VI. Resources for Teaching Science

Passive vs. Active Learning

comparison of amount learned



The Student

  • "students are assumed to enter the course with minds like empty vessels or sponges to be filled with knowledge" (TPE p.424)*
  • "traditional class": lecturing instructor verbalizing information to passive note-taking students
  • mostly verbal lectures
  • instructor is "verbal" textbook
  • instructor reads definitions to the class
  • student is an "empty" vessel
    to be filled with knowledge
  • student is passive "tape recorder"
  • on exams, students regurgitate what the instructor tells them







The Student

  • The instructor strives to create "a learning environment in which the student can learn to restructure the new information and their prior knowledge into new knowledge about the content and to practice using it" (TPE p.425)*
  • students activities during class time;
    in my classes, examples are
    • the Daily In-class Quizzes
    • the Modified Socratic Method
  • students are expected to look up definitions and vocabulary before and after class
  • the instructor provides examples and illustrations of geologic concepts, processes and features
    • visual aids, demonstrations, etc., integrated into class presentations
  • the instructor explains concepts, principles and methods for geologic interpretation
  • students practice applying these skills to geologic interpretation
  • "facts and concepts must be tested and used to be learned" (TPE p. 425)*
  • "students develop skills in constructing and using knowledge with the instructor's guidance" (TPE p. 425)*
  • "various active learning methods, including lecturing" (TPE, p. 425)*
The instructor (after TPE p. 426*)
  • there is a general expectation that the instructor will have total mastery of the discipline and that any such expert can teach
  • the instructor only needs to know their discipline -- they do not have to know how to teach
The instructor (after TPE p. 426*)
  • is current in knowledge of content and attempts to master the content
  • develops, learns and employs pedagogical content knowledge (has thought about HOW to teach each topic)
  • sets explicit standards for learning and classroom environment
  • facilitates and guides (but does not provide all of the answers or examples)
  • is a coach and a facilitator (not a verbal textbook or an answer machine)
  • "mentoring means turning students into lifelong learners and, for the students majoring in the discipline, it means [turning] them into apprentices on the way to becoming colleagues"
  • learns how to teach
  • reflects more on their teaching
Students are expected to Students are expected to
  • "care deeply about their own education"
  • "learn to monitor and discuss their own learning"
  • collaborate with "other students to discover and construct a framework of knowledge that can be applied to new situations"
  • (after TPE p. 426*)

Such teaching is considered to be a routine activity (after TPE p. 426) where professors can compile their course notes over a year or two and then repeat the course - year after year with little or no effort.

Such teaching is considered to be complex and professors can not simply compile their course notes over a year or two and then repeat the course year after year with little or no effort. Such teaching is dynamic and the continual revisions to teaching and delivery methods, visual aids, demonstrations, etc. are endless.

Lab courses taught in this fashion are not true labs -- labs are where the students figure it out...however, most students find this process difficult and frustrating and many instructors resort to "Cookbook Labs" that give step-by-step instructions and the students ape the motions but do not learn the concepts

  • "the instructor provides considerable guidance" (TPE, p. 430)* which usually leads to students going through the motions with little understanding or comprehension of concepts or the actual purpose of the activity
  • A great analogy
  • Labs


Lab courses, by definition, should follow the Student Active Learning methods.  "The labs should begin with questions, posed by the instructor, the lab manual or field guide, or by the students" (TPE p. 430)*.  "The objectives are for the students to grapple with the situation before them, using their previous knowledge"..."and their reasoning ability to decide what should be observed, make observations, develop conceptual models to explain the phenomena, [and] test the models". (TPE p. 430)*
  • "The instructor may provide guidance through a sequence of questions, especially at the beginning of the course, or leave the exercise unguided and give the students ownership of the exercise, which increases their interest in its completion" (TPE, p. 430)
  • A great analogy
  • Labs

* TPE= "The Two Paradigms of Education and the Peer Review of Teaching", by Dean A. McManus, School of Oceanography and Center for Instructional Development and Research, University of Washington, Box 357940, Seattle, WA 98195-7940; in the NAGT Journal of Geoscience Education,Vol. 49, No. 6, Nov 2001, pp. 423-434.

Material obtained from: