Depth more important than breadth in HS science

by David Safier

Let me begin with the caveat that studies are never conclusive. That being said, I find this one very thought provoking.

A recent study of high school science instruction concludes that students benefit from studying fewer topics in depth rather than lots of topics more generally. (The article is in Education Week, a subscription-only site.)

High school students who focus more intensely on core topics within their biology, chemistry, and physics classes fared better in beginning college science than those who delved a little bit into a larger list of topics, the study found. Observers say those findings could offer direction to developers of science curricula, tests, and textbooks.

A central finding is that "breadth-based learning, as commonly applied in high school classrooms, does not appear to offer students any advantage when they enroll in introductory college science courses," the authors conclude, "although it may contribute to scores on standardized tests."

That makes sense to me. A once-over-lightly curriculum gives a generalized snapshot of a scientific field, with little insight into how the concepts were arrived at. Digging into a few topics reveals more about the scientific method and the intricacies. It's easier to generalize from deeper understanding than to reach a deeper understanding from a long list of generalizations.

It also makes sense that standardized tests would favor the student with the broader, more superficial knowledge, which points up one of the many weaknesses of standardized tests.

The study even attempts to quantify the differences.

In-depth teaching can have a major impact, the authors maintain. Students who experience deeper coverage of physics in high school perform in college as if they had received two-thirds of a year more preparation than those who had the opposite mix of depth and breadth. In chemistry, students appeared to gain the equivalent of one-quarter of a year’s worth of study from in-depth lessons, the authors found.

In biology, students taught under an approach emphasizing breadth performed as if they had received a half-year less preparation in high school in that subject.

0 responses to “Depth more important than breadth in HS science

  1. David Safier

    Time is the answer. The hours in a day, the class periods in a year. Do you spend two weeks looking at gene mapping, for instance, or cover it in two days and move on to another topic? You literally can’t do it all.

  2. Why not both depth and breadth? Seems to me they are not mutually exclusive.

    Bill Astle

  3. bigbearchaseme

    Nice sheapenny. Deflect much?

  4. sorry; my fingers mis-typed “Learning.”

  5. It might not be all the students fault when it comes to leaning;the elimination of monopoly control of Government education by applying the antitrust laws to the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers would challenge the monopoly of this tenure based education restricting competition and individual thinking by our students enrolled in failed Government Schools that are unresponsive to the taxpayers who fund them!