Most universities have separate biology classes for non-majors, which are often taken by students who need to fulfill a “science” requirement to complete their degree. Are non-majors really different from biology majors? Several previous studies seem to say no, but a new study from the University of Colorado says yes, and explores why this might be.
The authors studied two genetics classes taught at the same university, one for majors and the other for non-majors. Though the classes were taught by different professors, they both used a similar variety of active-learning strategies and addressed similar material. The authors were able to insert some of the same test items in each class, as well as surveys of attitudes and work habits, and were able to visit the classes to watch the students working. It turns out the majors and non-majors started in the same place – on pre-tests at the beginning of the class, they performed just about equally. And both groups of students improved their understanding by the end of the term. But by the end of the class, and on several tests during the term (lab quizzes, mid-terms), the majors did better. Moreover, the majors kept improving throughout the term, whereas the non-majors improved immediately after learning some material (on quizzes), but that was the pinnacle of their achievement – they didn’t keep getting better.
Why were majors learning genetics better than non-majors? There’s a good body of literature that says student attitudes have a lot to do with student performance, and in fact, student attitude is now one of the standard things measured in educational studies. The most interesting observation the authors made was that non-majors working in groups would often simply copy down answers from their partners without questioning or trying to understand those answers. The authors never observed majors doing this – the majors would argue with each other and take turns explaining their answers to the others in their groups. On surveys, majors also spent more time out of class on the material and thought genetics more relevant to their future careers. The bottom line was that majors (at least at this one school) were more interested in genetics than non-majors. Who would have thunk it?
The thing that caught my eye about this study is the contrast with the literature they cite. They discuss several previous studies where non-majors equalled, or even out-performed majors. But in those previous studies, the non-majors class was more active and/or conceptual. In this study, both classes used similar active learning techniques (in-class small group problem-solving, clicker questions, etc.). So the real story here may be further evidence that active learning techniques, and focusing on key learning goals, may help students learn regardless of the class level. Professors often feel freer to innovate in a non-majors class – those students are not taking upper level classes, there is no pressure to force-feed them a large bolus of content. The professor in a non-majors class can try new teaching techniques and focus on the concepts they feel are most important. Perhaps that is to the advantage of the typical non-majors class, and further evidence that freeing majors classes from the constraints of coverage would end up producing better majors as well.