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2 Identifying Desired Student Learning Outcomes This chapter considers evidence concerning how to develop and define student learning outcomes. In the workshop, participants were asked to identify outcomes that would confirm a program’s effectiveness. We define effective programs here as those that are able to elicit and measure students’ conceptual understanding and their ability to transfer knowledge to new contexts. In an opening presentation, Barbara Baumstark, Georgia State University (GSU), outlined the process for developing learning outcomes. First, an academic team, including administrators and faculty, needs to be designated. Second, the team asks appropriate questions and solicits input from other peers and instructors. Third, the team collaborates to write down their proposed learning outcomes. The workshop participants exemplified this process in their own effort to identify learning outcomes that would indicate program effectiveness. The working groups, segregated by discipline, were unable in the time allotted to define lists of content-specific outcomes. But they came to broad agreement on a set of important cross-disciplinary skills and competencies as learning outcomes for introductory science courses. The workshop participants drew attention to challenges in achieving these outcomes. Instruction that relies solely on lectures and recipe-based labs would need to change to achieve the proposed learning outcomes. Students are often resistant to changes in instructional approaches. Many have become accustomed to memorizing terms and facts and receiving information from the instructor in a one-way fashion and have developed strategies to succeed in such courses. These strategies often fail in courses with more learner-centered forms of instruction. A second challenge lies with students’ preconceptions,
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which are unlikely to change unless specifically addressed by instructional strategies. Persistent preconceptions often limit student’s conceptual understanding and ability to apply new knowledge appropriately to new contexts. In the pages below an expanded summary of Baumstark’s presentation, the learning outcomes proposed by workshop participants, as well as additional ideas and cautions put forward by participants during plenary discussions, are detailed. STUDENT LEARNING OUTCOMES When a conscientious college instructor designs a course for undergraduates, the usual questions are: “What topics do I need to cover for these particular students? What are the prerequisites for the course, and do they serve as prerequisites for other courses? What textbook or materials should I use? Should the course include a lab experience? If so, to what extent is it possible to correlate the material covered in the lecture with that in the lab?” Rarely, however, is much thought given to answering two other crucial questions: “What, explicitly, do I want the students to know and be able to do at the end of the course?” and “How will I assess whether they have achieved those learning outcomes?” Yet answers to the latter questions are critical in determining what is taught and how it is taught (Wiggins and McTighe, 1998; Huba and Freed, 2000; NRC, 2001). This is not a new or radical view. In a now classical text on instructional methods, Tyler (1949) describes the logic of starting with learning outcomes: “Educational objectives become the criteria by which materials are selected, content is outlined, instructional procedures are developed, and texts and examinations are prepared…[the objectives] indicate the kinds of changes in the student to be brought about so that instructional activities can be planned and developed in a way likely to attain these objectives” (pp. 1, 45). The Process of Developing Learning Outcomes Barbara Baumstark, Georgia State University (GSU) What then are the processes by which a college instructor develops a series of learning outcomes for a course? In her workshop presentation Wandering Through the World of Standards, Baumstark described her experiences with Quality in Undergraduate Education (QUE) (http://www.pewundergradforum.org/project9.html).
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Designating the Academic Team A national project, QUE engages faculty at selected four-year public institutions and their partner two-year colleges in drafting voluntary discipline-based standards for student learning for undergraduate majors. Her university partnered with Georgia Perimeter College to develop standards to be achieved by the end of the sophomore year (Level 14) in biology and history. Asking Appropriate Questions Baumstark’s group, which developed the standards for biology, began by trying to establish its own definition of the term “standards,” and soon decided that the meaning commonly used by K– 12 educators was adequate: “what a student should know and be able to do.” They considered whether the standards should represent minimum levels of competency. Realizing that the QUE effort was looking for more than minimums, they determined that their standards should not be limited to a list of content terms, but should instead comprise a mutually supportive framework of facts, concepts, thinking skills, and abilities. They wanted their standards to represent learning as a process of asking questions, drawing on one’s background not only in biology but also in an array of disciplines (including perhaps history and literature), and relating new knowledge to existing knowledge. To prepare standards for Level 14, Baumstark and her colleagues solicited input from both upper and lower division instructors, asking them to describe the knowledge and skills they would like students to have before entering their upper division courses and similarly those that they wanted students to gain from their introductory classes. In the discussion, Michael Zeilik, University of New Mexico, pointed to the need to identify the audiences of introductory science courses, which often include future scientists, students who will pursue studies outside the sciences, and preservice teachers. His concern was about how to integrate these diverse students and meet their needs in the same set of courses. Writing Down the Outcomes Baumstark directed workshop participants to the QUE website as she pointed out that those involved with the QUE project found “the process of writing the standards [in] itself rich and stimulating.” The GSU faculty agreed that three areas of learning are critical: scientific process, content, and application. As defined by Baumstark, scientific process describes students’ familiarity with “the hypotheses, [experimental] techniques, and data analysis that have formed the basis for what the upper division [faculty] were going to teach [as well as]
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currently accepted scientific principles.” Content refers to the essential knowledge base required to facilitate assimilation of new concepts; application represents the skills students develop as they apply their understanding to solve new problems or extend their investigations. Some of the standards, or “learning outcomes” as they were later called by her team, included students’ demonstrations that they have developed the skills necessary for scientific inquiry, reasoning, and communication; a knowledge of the history and nature of biology; a recognition of the correlation of biology with other sciences and technology; a recognition of the personal and societal impacts of developments in biology; and the knowledge of appropriate information content to facilitate assimilation of new concepts and content in the future. Discussing the Program, Not Just Individual Courses In her presentation, Baumstark emphasized the importance of defining desired learning outcomes for entire programs, not just individual courses. Baumstark’s QUE project group had determined that by Level 14 students should have had opportunities to take ownership of a knowledge base sufficient for further study and the skills necessary to use this knowledge. By Level 16, students will have identified areas of interest within biology and become proficient in scientific process skills through a focus in these areas. To their surprise, when the group examined the current GSU biology curriculum, lower to upper division, they discovered that the scheduling of upper division specialty electives caused them to conflict with one another: students often took random electives that fit their schedules rather than selecting those that might form a coherent approach to the subfields of interest. The group then assembled faculty in each subfield (for example, neurobiology) to identify courses they would recommend to interested students. Once these courses were classified, the GSU biology program took steps to schedule specialty electives such that those in a given subfield would not conflict with each other. By considering outcomes for a program, faculty not only identified a scheduling problem that was easy to fix, they started important conversations, developed relationships with colleagues, and learned from each other. Baumstark pointed this out in recounting her experiences: “We identified courses that we thought would be very good for our students in molecular genetics to take, and also by discussing these courses, we began to realize what the other courses had to offer. Faculty tend to be very proprietary about their courses, but when you think of it as we are all working toward a common goal,
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…we would start sharing with each other. This is an example of something I found worked in my course. Maybe you can adapt it to another course.” The Mapping of Learning Outcomes Across a Four-Year Curriculum Gloria Rogers, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology Rogers, in her presentation outlining the process for evaluating student outcomes (see detailed presentation in Chapter 3), also stressed the importance of examining (“mapping”) the entirety of the four-year curriculum in order to identify courses where students have opportunities to learn and demonstrate the desired knowledge and skills. Through such mapping, a program will be able to define and articulate what skills and knowledge a graduate of their program will have achieved in four years. It can identify within the curriculum what is already being done appropriately and where gaps persist. Through continuous mapping, feedback, and program adjustment, the faculty can demonstrate to themselves that desired outcomes are being achieved within their program. Rogers suggested that if a program takes the final step of presenting the map to students, the students would also become aware of their learning objectives and the opportunities to demonstrate the desired outcomes. Sarah Elgin, Washington University, agreed that a program should be examined as a whole, as an interconnecting sequence of individual courses. She suggested that departments examine course prerequisites by considering the reasons for such requirements and developing a progression of learning outcomes throughout programs. David Brakke, James Madison University, extended this idea by suggesting that institutions should seek input from their own faculty and administration about what they are trying to accomplish in the programs they offer. An inward look by college faculty and administrators (as also proposed in NRC, 2003), would lead to examination of existing policies and programs and raise appropriate questions regarding student learning outcomes. Brakke pointed to undergraduate research programs as an example of effective learning environments when conducted correctly. The compositions of and reasons for adopting undergraduate research are wide-ranging, according to Brakke. Many institutions support and include undergraduate research experiences on their campuses; however, few stop to think why they offer such programs or what larger goals they are trying to achieve.
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LEARNING OUTCOMES PROPOSED BY WORKSHOP PARTICIPANTS Examples of desired learning outcomes were presented throughout the workshop in formal presentations and in the breakout summaries. For example, in the second breakout session, the discipline groups were assigned two tasks: to prepare a consensus list of student outcomes for the discipline and to identify conceptual and cognitive outcomes that might serve as cross-disciplinary learning goals. The Summaries of Breakout Groups Paula Heron, University of Washington, and Jack Wilson, UMassOnline, summarized the discussions of the physics working group. The group identified the following learning outcomes as necessary for appreciating the nature of physics: students should recognize (1) the experimental applicability and universality of a few idealized models to a wide range of phenomena in physics and other disciplines; (2) the value of physical meanings of formal representations such as mathematical equations, diagrams, and graphs; (3) the inevitability of uncertainty in measurement; and (4) physics as an ongoing human endeavor. The group also described content appropriate for algebra-or calculus-based introductory physics courses and confirmed the agreement that already exists within physics communities on the content for these courses. Cross-disciplinary learning outcomes are described at the end of this section following the summary of discussion stemming from the work of the breakout groups. The participants representing chemistry and those representing the geosciences combined as one working group for the second breakout session. David Brakke and Michael Zeilik summarized the discussions of this joint group. The group reported learning outcomes already developed in the chemistry department at St. Mary’s College of California and through a project of the American Astronomical Society bringing together chairs of astronomy departments (Partridge and Greenstein, 2001). By examining these outcomes, the group distinguished between learning outcomes specific to particular disciplines and those appropriate to all science disciplines. Those learning outcomes traversing disciplines are described at the end of this section. Katayoun Chamany, Eugene Lang College, and Gordon Uno, University of Oklahoma, summarized the discussions of the life sciences group. Rather than “reinventing the wheel,” that group looked at learning outcomes that had already been published by previous
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programs and projects1 and generated its ideas from these (the recorded outcomes are described below). They used the Summary from University of Wisconsin Forum on Teaching Biology for Breadth (see Tables 2-1 and 2-2) as a starting point for their discussion. Many members felt the content outcomes listed in this table did not have to be achieved in every introductory biology course. The group chose to focus on process goals such as those listed in the table as “Ways of Thinking.” Uno noted that professionals within the life sciences argue endlessly about content. M. Patricia Morse, University of Washington, commented that since biology is continually changing, consensus about the content of introductory courses is difficult to establish. The life sciences field appears to consist of a collection of topics, according to Chamany, that exhibit a complexity that permits educators to develop a myriad of approaches to teach a particular topic, with each instructor choosing to emphasize different aspects or perspectives. Therefore, the group decided to divide learning outcomes into broad categories of content, skills, application, and epistemology. Although workshop participants were successful at developing and defining desired learning outcomes, they did not pursue in the available time how best to measure these outcomes. Possible measurement tools include Likert scales as well as methods detailed in Rogers’ booklet (2002) and listed in Chapter 3. The Desired Learning Outcomes The learning outcomes identified by the breakout groups are described below. Though the groups worked independently, the outcomes were remarkably similar across the disciplinary groups, as noted by Carl Wieman, University of Colorado. While some of the desired learning outcomes expressed by workshop participants were content- or discipline-specific, the emphasis remained on the skills that transcend scientific disciplines, and those are the ones listed. After an introductory science course, students should know that: Science is an evidence-based way of thinking about the natural 1 The programs and projects identified included Beyond Bio101: The Transformation of Undergraduate Biology Education (Jarmul and Olson, 1996; Available: http://www.hhmi.org/BeyondBio101/ ); BIO2010 (NRC, 2002a); Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (Available: http://www.bscs.org/); Coalition for Education in the Life Sciences (Available: http://www.wisc.edu/cels/); Quality in Undergraduate Education (Available: http://www.pewundergradforum.org/project9.html ); and Science as a Way of Knowing (Moore, 1999).
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TABLE 2-1 Question: “What, if any, might be the concepts, information, and issues that every biologically literate citizen needs to know?” Concept Information Issues Evolution Living systems change through time, resulting in diversity (process of evolution, natural selection, biodiversity) Preservation of species Interdependence and interaction Ecological interactions (organism/organism, organism/environment) Human population explosion, place in the biosphere, human-animal interactions Basic genetics Generations of living systems are related to each other by passing on genetic material through reproduction (molecular genetics) Genetic engineering, nature vs. nurture Cell biology Machinery within cells and interactions between cells define the properties of living organisms Energy and matter How living systems generate energy from their foodstuff: energy and matter is required for maintenance of the organism (metabolism) Nutrition Organization and operation in living systems Living systems can be complex and require organization and regulation to maintain themselves (information flow, structure/function, development) Health and disease SOURCE: Data from summary of reports from a total of 55 UW-Madison faculty and staff (9 small groups of 5–7) and discussion, Forum on Teaching Biology for Breadth, January 18, 1995, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Undergraduate Biology Education Committee (UBEC) and Center for Biology Education. Reprinted with permission. world and understanding how it operates. A scientific viewpoint about the physical world is different than other viewpoints (for example, a religious viewpoint), in that ideas and opinions are based on observation, evidence, and theories (or models). When scientists are faced with evidence or observations that are not consistent with currently accepted models, they have to modify their models or find appropriate rationale to dismiss the evidence or observations. Science is a process with rules of operation that allow our understanding of the natural world to evolve. The process of science is ongoing. It successively revises tenta-
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TABLE 2-2 Question: “What, if any, might be the ways of thinking that every biologically literate citizen needs to know?” Ways of Thinking Process of science Process of gaining and evaluating information, “thrill of the hunt,” scientific method (experimental and comparative), quantitative analysis, and reasoning (inductive and deductive) Progress of science Science changes with time, modeling, and continual revision Patterns and trends within specific discipline Critical thinking Integration of concepts, assessment of scientific information, decision making, healthy skepticism based on reason Link importance to everyday life and societal issues SOURCE: Data from summary of reports from a total of 55 UW-Madison faculty and staff (9 small groups of 5–7) and discussion, Forum on Teaching Biology for Breadth, January 18, 1995, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Undergraduate Biology Education Committee (UBEC) and Center for Biology Education. Reprinted with permission. tive conclusions and ideas about the world. Science has not been all figured out. Scientists continue to explore the physical world and develop models about it. Students should understand how to record data, how to put together evidence and observations to create models, and how to test models. The process includes experimental methods and systematic observations as well as communication and collaboration. Science is based on reproducible evidence and observations that contain uncertainties. Uncertainty in science arises from two major sources: measurement error and nonreproducibility. Any measurement must be seen as only an approximation, because no matter how accurate a measurement of some quantity may seem, new methods will inevitably be found for measuring the same quantity with even greater precision. Also, some observations, such as astronomical events that took place in the past, are historical. These cannot be reproduced, yet they can be used to develop and revise current models. The sciences are related to each other, mathematics, and everyday life. To teach effectively, faculty need to make these connections clear
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and devote more attention to how their discipline uses models and concepts from other disciplines. Science is driven by globalization, technology, and new instrumentation and measurement tools. The relation between technology and science is reciprocal; developments in science produce new technologies, and these new tools allow further progress and developments in science. Scientific meanings of theory and law are different than popular meanings. Many incoming students believe that theories are speculative and laws are proven or absolute. To scientists, a theory (or model) is a way of explaining an aspect of nature and making predictions about it. After a theory has withstood many tests, it may be referred to as a law2 (the law of gravitation, for example), but even laws are subject to revision if new evidence requires it. After introductory science courses, students should be able to demonstrate: Ability to think critically and apply knowledge to new problems. Participants often spoke in terms of students developing a functional understanding. Functional understanding was defined as the ability to apply concepts or principles to situations that had not been previously considered. Confidence in and ability to do the process of science at an introductory level. Students should understand what constitutes an explanation and be able to construct a logical argument. They should be able to distinguish between observation and inference. They should be able to identify the data required to answer simple questions and which techniques would best gather that data. Ability to design a simple experiment. Students should be able to perform a simple experiment, analyze the results, and identify approximations and sources of uncertainty. They should develop an understanding of variables and demonstrate knowledge of instruments needed. Ability to communicate with multiple representations. Students should be able to express their ideas through equations, graphs, and diagrams and be able to describe the physical meanings of these representations. 2 These are the definitions verbalized by participants during the workshop. The reader should note that the NRC (1998) report Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science publishes different definitions: “Laws are generalizations that describe [how aspects of the natural world behave under stated circumstances (p. 5)], whereas theories explain [the behaviors]. Laws, like facts and theories, can change with better data. But theories do not develop into laws with the accumulation of evidence. Rather, theories are the goal of science” (p. 56).
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Capacity to know when they do not understand. Students need to be able to distinguish between understanding and familiarity. To do this they need to have had the experience of understanding a body of material at a deep level. The Outcomes as a Set of Learning Skills Throughout the workshop, many other participants reinforced the idea that desirable outcomes should include helping students to learn how to learn, to appreciate learning for its own sake, and to develop the skills necessary to understand both when they have learned and when they do not understand.3 Richard McCray, University of Colorado, emphasized that introductory science courses need to focus on students’ learning skills in scientific reasoning and information gathering as much as on science content, and on helping students take greater responsibility for their own learning. The content in science fields is growing so rapidly that it has become virtually impossible to transmit it all. Some students are beginning to recognize the importance of learning skills and are placing less demand on content. Katayoun Chamany recalled the survey at her institution that asked students what they needed to learn in biology to be a contributive member of society. Expecting responses regarding content, she was surprised to discover that many students thought they should learn skills to critically evaluate information and to make personal and policy decisions. Robert Zemsky, University of Pennsylvania, whose experience is with institutional reform of medical and business schools, recognized the emphasis medical schools now place in their curricula on information transfer, to the extent that their publications speak in terms of teaching and developing skills that resemble those of librarians. New physicians are trained to know how to ask the question, how to find the answer through resources, and how to determine the appropriateness of the answer within known constraints. Such changes reflect the recognition in recent decades that the goals of education must change from teaching science to equipping students to learn science. According to Lillian McDermott, University of Washington, these learn- 3 Learning scientists often refer to this ability of students to assess their own learning and what still needs to be learned as “metacognition.” A large body of scholarly research has examined the development of metacognition in students and how the education process can foster its development (White and Frederickson, 2000; Klahr, Chen, and Toth, 2001).
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ing skills are most effectively taught through discipline-specific examples. Agreeing with McDermott, Priscilla Laws of Dickinson College noted that her past efforts to create introductory interdisciplinary courses ended up as survey courses where students failed to learn the techniques or modes of thinking that they can transfer later to other fields. She prefers to identify key concepts in introductory physics that will be useful to both students who continue in physics and those who choose other fields. Robert DeHaan, National Academies, added that some courses simply cover the nature or philosophy of science and are so abstracted from anything real in science that students often do not develop a functional understanding of science. He expressed concern that the importance of content within each specific discipline would decrease in the face of an emphasis on general learning skills. Brian Reiser, Northwestern University, put the workshop participants’ effort into perspective: “I agree with [McDermott’s] point that you are not going to get at these [learning skills] by starting [with them]. You have to bring them out of specific examples. The reason to put them on a list like this…is to remind us that we don’t usually get [from the specific topic to the general learning skill]. We usually stop at making sure [students] understand…motion, theory of natural selection, or whatever.” THE CHALLENGES TO ACHIEVING DESIRED LEARNING OUTCOMES In his welcoming comments to the workshop participants, Bruce Alberts, President of the National Academy of Sciences, identified several barriers to instructional reform in colleges and universities. He drew attention to the problems of incoming students and the often inadequate science backgrounds they bring with them. In K–12 science courses, students are typically faced with covering every fact of each topic in a rapid didactic mode. Alberts noted that many K–12 science teachers do not have a true feel for the nature of science and have never experienced inquiry-based instruction in their own educations. Consequently their students rarely have opportunities for such experiences themselves. Many students have become accustomed to didactic teaching even though they find many lectures boring and difficult to follow. Students Are Accustomed to Didactic Teaching and Resistant to Change Throughout the discussions at the workshop, participants continued to identify aspects of students’ attitudes
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that, as a result of their educational conditioning, influence their reactions to changes in curriculum. Teaching by inquiry methods, learning through collaborative work with peers, and using continuous student feedback to adapt curriculum, all approaches cited in earlier NRC reports (1999, 2002b), represent strategies that evoke resistance in many students, according to Elaine Seymour, University of Colorado. In her presentation (see Chapter 4), Seymour further explained that since students equate learning with memorization and perceive delivery from instructors as an important source of information, they fear practices that deviate from their expectations. To offer an explanation for students’ resistance to reformed instruction, McCray added that many students place responsibility for learning on teachers and may thus expect them to teach in the form of lectures. Proposing another explanation, Alan Kay, Viewpoints Research Institute, Inc., commented that the established practice of curve grading, which pits students against one another, might encourage them to resist collaboration and group learning activities. Probing more deeply into the issue of undergraduate resistance to alternative teaching methods, Reiser argued that students may be uncomfortable about sharing ideas and participating in collaborative activities because they fear that they might not articulate the “right” answers and thought processes in front of their peers. Moreover, students tend to be suspicious of instructors who admit that they do not know the answer; many may believe teachers know all of the answers and should supply them. Reiser found this attitude of students an extension of current grading practices that encourage students to focus on the products, assignments and exams. Since exams are often graded on final answers, one would naturally seek out the “right” answers and worry less about demonstrating how one arrived at them. Students’ Preconceptions and Prior Beliefs Affect Learning Several workshop participants mentioned that their groups considered students’ preconceptions when they were developing appropriate learning outcomes and discussed effective instructional methods. How would students’ preconceptions conflict with their ability to achieve desired learning outcomes? What type of instruction or project would surprise students such that they would reconsider their previously held beliefs? For over a decade, scientists, psychologists, and science educators have researched how students learn science concepts, particularly in physics (Halloun and Hestenes, 1985; see Appendix B, this volume). They have discovered that persistent
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difficulties, stemming from strongly held preconceptions and beliefs that conflict with science concepts, are common and are not easily overcome by instruction. Presenting the correct information, either orally or in written form, is seldom effective in achieving desired learning outcomes (Minstrell, 1989; Mestre, 1994; NRC, 2003). This evidence has shown that to be effective, instruction must directly confront and deliberately address students’ preconceptions and difficulties. Such instructional methods are discussed in Chapter 3. SUMMARY The following is a summary of the major ideas voiced by workshop participants regarding how to define desired learning outcomes. An essential first step for faculty in preparing any program is to identify explicit learning outcomes—what students should know and be able to do at the end of each course or instructional unit and the program. Clearly defined learning outcomes become the criteria by which to select materials, make decisions about content, develop instructional procedures, and prepare learning assessments. Educational value is gained by sharing learning outcomes with students so they become aware of and can take ownership of specific learning objectives. Learning outcomes should not be limited to a list of content terms, but should comprise a mutually supportive framework of facts, central concepts, reasoning skills, and competencies in three areas of learning: content, scientific process, and application (learning how to learn). Faculty collaboration is required to ensure that learning outcomes are mapped out for entire programs, departments, or even for a complete four-year curriculum, rather than only for individual courses. Frequent problems in mapping learning outcomes across courses are: (1) faculty’s sense of proprietary ownership of individual courses; (2) disagreements about how to meet the needs of diverse audiences such as majors, nonmajors, and preservice teachers; and (3) differences of opinion regarding the need for prerequisites for courses. Drawing on their own experience and expertise, workshop participants from different science disciplines were able to come to agreement on a set of learning outcomes and competencies for students in any introductory science course. The group concurred that desirable outcomes should include helping students to learn how to learn, to appreciate learning for its own sake, and to develop the skills necessary to understand both when they have
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learned and when they do not understand. Participants identified two challenges in achieving these desired outcomes. First, many students are resistant to learner-centered instruction, often because they have had little opportunity prior to college to develop independent learning skills or because they have been trained to focus on memorizable facts rather than on conceptual understanding. Second, students’ preconceptions can be highly resistant to change, even with instruction that provides strong evidence that their interpretation is incorrect. As we will illustrate in the next chapter, carefully designed science education research4 identifies specific student difficulties and develops instructional strategies that are effective in correcting such misconceptions. 4 To distinguish between disciplinary research conducted in the subject area of specific science fields and research conducted on teaching and learning of the discipline, the terms “science research” and “science education research” are used respectively. If implemented according to well-established principles, both kinds of research can be “scientific” (NRC, 2002c).
Representative terms from entire chapter: