As stated in Chapter 1, two long-term goals of DBER are to help identify and measure appropriate learning objectives and instructional approaches that advance students toward those objectives, and identify approaches to make science and engineering education broad and inclusive. This research is motivated, in part, by ongoing concerns that undergraduate science and engineering courses are not providing students with high-quality learning experiences or attracting students into science and engineering degrees (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012). Indeed, a seminal three-year, multicampus survey examined the reasons undergraduate students switch from science, mathematics, and engineering majors to nonscience majors (Seymour and Hewitt, 1997). The survey revealed that nearly 50 percent of undergraduates who began in science and engineering shifted to other majors. Their reasons for doing so were complex and numerous, but pedagogy ranked high among their concerns. In fact, poor faculty pedagogy was identified as a concern for 83 percent of all science, mathematics, and engineering students. Forty-two percent of white students cited poor pedagogy as the primary factor in their decision to shift majors, compared with 21 percent of non-Asian students of color, who tended to blame themselves and suffered a substantial loss of confidence in leaving the sciences (Seymour and Hewitt, 1997).
Recognizing these challenges, many institutions are working to identify effective approaches to improve undergraduate science and engineering education (Association of American Universities, 2011). DBER, by systematically investigating learning and teaching in science and engineering and providing a robust evidence base for new practices, is playing a critical role in these efforts.
Most DBER studies on instructional strategies are predicated on the assumption that students must build their own understanding in a discipline by applying its methods and principles, either individually or in groups (Piaget, 1978; Vygotsky, 1978). Consequently, with some variations, these studies typically examine student-centered approaches to learning, often comparing the extent to which student-centered classes are more effective than traditional lectures in promoting students’ understanding of course content.
A student-centered instructional approach places less emphasis on transmitting factual information from the instructor, and is consistent with the shift in models of learning from information acquisition (mid-1900s) to knowledge construction (late 1900s) (Mayer, 2010). This approach includes