Framing evidence

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STEM students significantly improve in class after video-based instruction, writes Moshe Pritsker

Science is hard. It involves complicated concepts, intricate experimental methods and advanced equipment that must be understood and used properly. Conducting a successful scientific experiment requires meticulous focus and exacting attention to detail. One minor mistake and the experiment is ruined. The only recourse is to do it all over again.

This is why teaching – and learning – science is also hard, especially for undergraduate college students. In a typical undergraduate science course, there is a lot to cover in a very short period of time, and students who don’t pick up complicated concepts and lab methods the first time quickly fall behind. There simply isn’t time to do it all over again. Once a struggling science student’s head dips below water, it’s very hard to keep them from drowning.

Science instruction – not much different today than in the days of Newton, Darwin, Pasteur and Curie – is still centred around classroom lectures, text-based materials and demonstrations in the lab. This remains true despite the booming multimedia capabilities made possible by the internet, including visual, interactive and mobile learning. Video checks each of these boxes, and has the greatest potential to improve science education for today’s students.

Massive attrition in STEM students

Given our reluctance to set aside antiquated teaching methods, it’s no surprise that nearly 50 per cent of students in the United States who major in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) don’t finish degrees in their field, according to a 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Education. 

That study, entitled STEM Attrition: College Students’ Paths Into and Out of STEM Fields, found that 48 per cent of bachelor’s degree students and 69 per cent of associate’s degree students who entered STEM fields between 2003 and 2009 had left these fields by spring 2009. Roughly half of these leavers switched their major to a non-STEM field, and the rest of them left STEM fields by exiting college before earning a degree or certificate.

The unforgiving nature of science education has no doubt deprived us of some great minds who stumbled early and then couldn’t catch up. The world is in a golden age of discovery in fields like genetics, environmental science, astronomy, aerospace engineering, and information technology – there are no great minds to spare.

JoVE has developed an online video library so faculty can give their students an effective tool to visualise the fundamental concepts and experimental methods required to succeed in laboratory science. JoVE Science Education Library prepares students at their own pace so that they arrive at their labs already confident in their knowledge of the techniques and concepts, empowering them to build quickly on that solid foundation.

To quantify the effect of online video on science education, in 2017 we conducted independent IRB-approved studies at Clemson University and DeSales University in the United States. Based on the results of these studies, we now can say definitively: JoVE Science Education videos dramatically improve students’ performance and confidence in science laboratory courses.

Here’s a representative sample: at DeSales University, undergraduate pre-med students in the molecular biology course learned SDS PAGE - a very common laboratory method for separating proteins by size. The test group watched the JoVE video demonstrating the SDS PAGE experiment ahead of the lab, and the control group studied with a traditional text-based description of the same experiment ahead of the lab.

The test group students who watched a video ahead of an SDS PAGE lab scored:

  • 100 per cent higher on pre-lab assessment compared to the control group; and
  • 76 per cent higher on a second, follow-up quiz after both groups conducted the lab.

The test group students said their confidence in what they learned also dramatically improved after watching the JoVE video:

  • 89 per cent felt more confident during the lab;
  • 91 per cent felt they understood how to conduct the lab better; and
  • 95 per cent found the video was helpful in explaining the core scientific concepts.

The results showed a statistically significant (p <0.001) improvement in performance on exams for students who watched the videos pre-lab. Once all possible variables were accounted for, the data showed that at least 22 per cent of the difference between the performance of the two groups was directly attributable to watching the videos on the first quiz, and 12 per cent on the second.

The results were consistent both in a biology class for freshmen non-majors at Clemson, and pre-med students taking molecular biology at DeSales, with hundreds of students participating in the study in total.

Serve our STEM students better

Students who entered college as freshmen in 2017 were not yet in middle school when JoVE was founded. These students have grown up with videos constantly available at their fingertips, from social platforms like Facebook and Instagram to entertainment services like Netflix and Hulu. Now that they require science instruction with rigorous standards instead of entertainment, why would they regress back to a text-only approach?

Students are most successful when they are able to observe what they are expected to learn – where they want, when they want, on whatever device they want, accommodating a student’s individual pace. Video-based instruction meets these demands.

Teaching and learning science remains daunting; we owe it to our newest generation of science and engineering students to provide them with the most modern and effective teaching resources. We must put the most effective tools possible in the hands of our students, so that they can make the next great contribution to this golden age of science.

  • Moshe Pritsker is CEO at Jove