•   more time spent engaging students in active learning during class;

•   frequent formative assessment to provide feedback to students and the instructor on students’ levels of conceptual understanding; and

•   in some cases, attention to students’ metacognitive strategies as they strive to master the course material.

The extent to which DBER on instructional practices is explicitly grounded in broader research on how students learn varies widely. The committee’s analysis revealed that either implicitly or explicitly, the principle of active learning has had the greatest influence on DBER scholars and their studies. With a deep history in cognitive and educational psychology, this principle specifies that meaningful learning requires students to select, organize, and integrate information, either independently or in groups (Jacoby, 1978; Mayer, 2011; National Research Council, 1999). In addition, the framework of cognitive apprenticeship drives many instructional reforms in physics and thus can help to explain research findings about the success of those reforms. As described in Chapter 5, cognitive apprenticeship is based on the idea that complex skills depend on an interlocking set of experiences and instruction whose efficacy, in turn, depend on the learner and the community of practitioners with whom the learner interacts (Brown, Collins, and Duguid, 1989; Yerushalmi et al., 2007).

Although some DBER is guided by learning theories and principles, reports of DBER studies are typically organized around instructional setting. Following that convention, we organize our synthesis of DBER on instruction by setting—classroom, laboratory, and field—before considering the effects of instructional strategies on different groups.


Most of the available research on instruction is conducted in introductory courses. Sample sizes range from tens of students to several hundred students. The preponderance of this research is conducted in the context of a single course or laboratory—often by the instructor of that course, and sometimes comparing outcomes across multiple sections of that course. Fewer studies are conducted across multiple courses or multiple institutions.

Many studies use pre- and post-tests of student knowledge (often with a comparison or control group) to assess some measure of learning gains for one course, typically lasting one semester. These gains often are measured with concept inventories developed for aspects of the discipline or other specialized assessments (see Chapter 4 for a discussion of concept inventories), or with course assignments or exams. Fewer studies measure longer-term gains, or other outcomes such as student attitudes and motivation to study the discipline.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement