Expectations shape our responses. I come to supper thinking we’re having salmon, and instead it’s chicken thighs. I’m not smiling. A student studies for the exam, feels prepared, breezes through the questions, and anticipates a good grade. If the grade ends up a C, the student will not be smiling. Students come to college full of expectations—about their social life, having more freedom, their major, and what will happen in their courses. Mostly they expect their courses will be harder than they were in high school.
To find out more about what students expect will happen in their courses, a group of STEM faculty surveyed more than 1,500 undergraduates during the first week of science courses at three research universities (Meanders et al., 2019). Students reported how they anticipated class time would be spent. Overall, they predicted that for 64 percent of class time, they’d be listening to lecture. Of particular interest to the research team were the estimates of first-semester college students (61 percent) and first-generation students (59 percent). These beginning students predicted lecture amounts that varied widely. Using a unique classroom observation tool, the researchers documented that on average, students in these courses were listening to lectures over 68 percent of the time, and those differences are statistically significant.
The dropout rate in introductory science courses has been a concern for some time now. In survey data from the 1990s, students reported that poor instruction was one of the reasons they left science courses and majors. Any course that fails to meet student expectations carries implications for continued coursework in that field, in the major, and at the college.
The researchers explore the two obvious solutions to expectations misaligned with actual experiences: clearer, up-front communication about what’s going to happen in the course and a change in the instructional methods used in the course. The students surveyed did say that they based their expectations lecture time on what was happening in the course, what the instructor said, what appeared in the syllabus, and what they’d heard from other students.
Changing the instructional methods faculty use has proved to be difficult. For more than 20 years, there has been a concerted effort in the STEM fields to move faculty in the direction of more active learning. A plethora of good research documenting the efficacy of active learning approaches has come out in many of these fields, and still lecturing remains the most common way students are taught. Faculty continue to say they don’t use active learning because students resist those approaches, and yet that’s what these beginning students expected—to be working individually or in groups for 28 percent of the time. Related research cited in the article reports that in 480 middle school classrooms, lecture took up only 32 percent of class time.
It’s tempting to look at this research and conclude that faculty in the STEM fields, faculty who teach introductory sciences course, and faculty who teach at research universities have a problem. Although I could not locate any other field-based analyses of beginning student expectations about teaching methods, it’s easy to find evidence that lots of lecturing occurs in introductory courses in most fields and in major courses as well.
One rarely discussed benefit of teaching and learning scholarship is the broader relevance of the research questions from a given study. Any field or individual faculty member could profitably ask some of the questions posed in this research: (1) What types of instructional practices do students predict for their college STEM courses? (2) Do student predications about instructional practices vary by student demographics or course characteristics? (3) To what extent do the learning environments provided in introductory STEM courses align with student expectations?
All things said, these students still expected lots of lecturing in their first college science courses even if they underestimated the actual amount. Not surprisingly, in this is study they expected more lecturing if the class was large. And given the snail’s pace at which instructional practices change, expecting to have to listen and learn from lectures is realistic. Teachers who want to help students do that should take a look at Bill Cerbin’s outstanding article “Improving Student Learning from Lectures.” It’s full of concrete, pragmatic suggestions students can use before, during and after lecture. The irony? Learning from lecture requires deep cognitive involvement, the hallmark of active learning.
Cerbin, W. (2018). Improving student learning from lectures. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 4(3), 151–163. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000113
Meaders, C. L., Toth, E. S., Lane, A. K., Shuman, J. K., Couch, B. A. Stains, M., Stetzer, M. R., Vinson, E., & Smith, M. K. (2019). “What will I experience in my college STEM courses?” An investigation of student predictions about instructional practices in introductory courses. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 18(4). https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.19-05-0084