The United States currently faces a great imperative to improve science and engineering education. U.S. colleges and universities play a vital role in preparing a diverse technical workforce and a science-literate citizenry, and they must provide sustained attention to motivating, engaging and supporting the learning of all students who enter college science and engineering classrooms. Meeting this imperative requires a deep understanding of how people think, learn, and feel about natural and physical processes and phenomena. Discipline-based education research (DBER), which combines the expertise of scientists and engineers with methods and theories that explain learning, helps to provide this understanding. The DBER enterprise already has generated insights into how students learn in a discipline and into effective instructional strategies that can prepare more students to address current and future societal challenges.
DBER investigates learning and teaching in a discipline using a range of methods with grounding in the discipline’s priorities, worldview, knowledge, and practices. It is informed by and complementary to research on human learning and cognition. The long-term goals of DBER are to
• understand how people learn the concepts, practices, and ways of thinking of science and engineering;
• understand the nature and development of expertise in a discipline;
• help to identify and measure the efficacy of appropriate learning objectives and instructional approaches that advance students toward those objectives;
• contribute to the knowledge base in a way that can guide the translation of DBER findings to classroom practice; and
• identify approaches to make science and engineering education broad and inclusive.
DBER can be a field of study within any academic discipline, in the sciences and beyond. However, because this study focused on education research in a select set of science and engineering disciplines—physics, chemistry, engineering, biological sciences, the geosciences, and astronomy—this report uses the term DBER to refer only to these disciplines.
The previous chapters have described the current status of DBER; synthesized peer-reviewed, empirical research on undergraduate teaching and learning in the sciences and engineering; and examined the extent to which this research currently influences undergraduate science and engineering instruction. By presenting conclusions and recommendations that draw on the key findings and directions for future research from previous chapters, we describe here the intellectual and material resources that are required to further develop DBER. The conclusions are grouped into four areas:
1. Defining DBER
2. Synthesizing DBER
3. Translating DBER findings into practice
4. Advancing DBER as a field of inquiry
We end the chapter with recommendations to enhance the impact of the findings from DBER and advance the fields of DBER, and by proposing a future research agenda for DBER.
Conclusion 1: At present, DBER is a collection of related research fields rather than a single, unified field. Most efforts to develop and advance DBER are taking place at the level of the individual fields of DBER.
The term DBER is best thought of as an overarching term that refers to a set of distinct fields that have emerged over several decades across multiple disciplines. The individual fields of DBER share the overall goal of improving learning and teaching in a discipline through the use of findings from empirical research. To meet this goal, researchers in the different fields of DBER build on some common theoretical approaches to learning
and often employ similar research methods. However, each field is tightly coupled to its parent discipline, which gives rise to differences across the fields of DBER, such as in the history of development, professional pathways for researchers, and emphasis of research.
As described in Chapter 2, the fields of DBER share some common milestones in their development that reflect the larger context of science and education. Yet the developmental trajectories of the DBER fields differ. Physics education research was established earliest, followed by chemistry education research and then engineering education research. Biology, the geosciences, and astronomy education research have emerged more recently. The fields that emerged later appear to have benefitted from building on and borrowing from the more established fields in DBER, especially from physics education research.
The parent disciplines for each field differ in terms of how readily they have embraced research in education, and the availability of venues for publishing research. Chapter 2 describes how such differences continue to shape the way research is conducted in each field of DBER and the paths that scholars can follow to gain expertise in DBER.
Conclusion 2: The fields of DBER have made notable progress in establishing venues for publishing and in gaining recognition from their parent disciplines. However DBER scholars still face challenges in identifying pathways for training and professional recognition.
Each DBER field has one or more professional organizations that support education research through policy statements, publication venues, and conferences. As discussed in Chapter 2, many of these professional homes are sections of larger disciplinary professional societies.
The number of journals that publish DBER varies by field, but currently all of the fields have at least one peer-reviewed journal that publishes DBER. Some tension exists between publication venues intended to share research findings among researchers and venues intended to inform instructors of the findings of DBER that might be useful in their classrooms.
Pathways to establish interdisciplinary research such as DBER are not straightforward. Tenure and promotion committees may not take into account the time and energy necessary to become acculturated into a new field, which poses particular challenges for nontenured DBER faculty. In a different vein, institutions and disciplinary departments do not always recognize the distinction between education specialists whose primary focus is on teaching and DBER scholars who conduct research on teaching and learning. As a result, expectations for DBER faculty regarding teaching, research, and service can sometimes be imbalanced (see Chapter 2).
Conclusion 3: DBER encompasses a range of research goals and emphases that span the continuum from basic research that provides insights into fundamental learning processes to applied research on effective designs for instruction carried out in actual classrooms.
Although an overarching goal of DBER is to improve undergraduate learning and teaching, individual studies do not always have a directly applied component. Instead, as in other areas of science, the DBER that is synthesized in Chapters 4 through 7 includes a blend of studies with immediate application in the classroom and those that explore more basic questions. Basic research in DBER might examine why students hold particular understandings, beliefs, and ideas (some of them incorrect) or why one instructional intervention is more effective than another.
Conclusion 4: High-quality DBER combines expert knowledge of a science or engineering discipline, of learning and teaching in that discipline, and of the science of learning and teaching more generally.
A long-term goal of DBER is to understand how people learn science and engineering in order to improve learning and teaching. Research that advances this goal must be grounded in an understanding of what it means to develop expertise in a discipline and the challenges inherent in developing that expertise. At the same time, individual studies must be informed by a working knowledge of existing findings related to learning and teaching in a discipline, and more broadly, an understanding of the methods that are appropriate for investigating human thinking, motivation, and learning. These methods are often drawn not from the parent science or engineering discipline, but from disciplines in the behavioral and social sciences such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and education.
Bringing together the diverse expertise required poses a challenge that can be met in a variety of ways. As described in Chapter 2, individual researchers can begin to develop the necessary expertise through well-crafted graduate and postdoctoral programs. The required integration of expertise can also be accomplished through collaborations that range from two individuals in different disciplines (e.g., physics and psychology) to larger, strategically assembled teams of researchers.
Conclusion 5: Conducting DBER and promoting change by applying the findings from DBER to improve instruction are distinct but interdependent pursuits.
In Chapter 2, the analysis of the DBER fields using Fensham’s (2004) criteria for characterizing the emergence of new disciplines reflects the
predictable tension between advancing the research itself and increasing the use of DBER findings. Many DBER scholars, their disciplinary colleagues, professional societies, and funding agencies are motivated by the need to reform science and engineering education in ways that are informed by DBER findings. And, as in any discipline, DBER scholars strive for high-quality research. Education research centers, funding programs, and some journals blend both of these goals. Clearly articulating the distinction between discipline-based education research and the application of DBER findings—and embracing the value of both—is important for ensuring continued advancement of the research, promoting improvement in undergraduate education, and enhancing synergies between these efforts.
Conclusion 6: In all disciplines, undergraduate students have incorrect ideas and beliefs about fundamental concepts. Students have particular difficulties with concepts that involve very large or very small temporal or spatial scales, in part because they lack an experiential basis from which to develop an understanding about these concepts. Not all incorrect ideas and beliefs are equally important in terms of understanding students’ learning in a discipline, however. Across all disciplines, the education community needs a better understanding of those that pose the biggest challenges to learning at the undergraduate level, how they arise, and how to help students align them with scientific explanations.
Undergraduate science and engineering learning, like all learning, occurs against the backdrop of prior knowledge. Students at all levels, from preschool through college, enter instruction with various commonsense, but incorrect, interpretations of scientific and engineering concepts, as well as personal beliefs that can affect their learning.
Similar to researchers at the K-12 level, DBER scholars have devoted considerable time to investigating undergraduate students’ conceptual understanding. DBER studies have identified a wide range of incorrect ideas and beliefs related to such fundamental concepts as electricity, magnetism, the nature of matter, phase changes, evolution, and deep time. As discussed in Chapter 4, DBER clearly documents students’ difficulties in understanding interactions that involve very large or very small spatial or temporal scales. Notable examples include misunderstandings of Earth’s history and myriad learning challenges in chemistry that result from difficulties in understanding that matter is made of discrete particles.
The most productive lines of research involve concepts that are central to the discipline and focus on incorrect understandings that are widely held
and resistant to change. By drawing on expert knowledge of which concepts are central to a discipline and expert understanding of those concepts, DBER offers a unique contribution to this research. DBER scholars in engineering, biology, the geosciences, and astronomy are beginning to identify incorrect ideas and beliefs to determine which concepts are more difficult to learn than others. This research often is coupled with instructional techniques that are targeted at eliminating a specific erroneous belief. In physics and chemistry, some DBER scholars have begun exploring whether some classes of misconceptions are connected by a common underlying cognitive structure. Identifying such common structures may facilitate the development of instructional strategies that address large classes of misconceptions, rather than addressing them one at a time.
Physics education research has shown that several types of instructional strategies can promote conceptual change, or help to align students’ understandings with scientific explanations. These strategies, described in Chapter 4, include interactive lecture demonstrations, interventions that target specific erroneous beliefs or incorrect ideas, and introduction of linking concepts to bridge students’ incorrect idea with the accepted scientific explanation.
Conclusion 7: As novices in a domain, students are challenged by important aspects of the domain that can seem easy or obvious to experts, such as complex problem solving and domain-specific representations like graphs, models, and simulations. These challenges pose serious impediments to learning in science and engineering, especially if instructors are not aware of them.
The ability to solve complex problems is central to science and engineering. Problem solving has been extensively studied in cognitive science, physics education research, chemistry education research, and engineering education research. It is an emerging area of study in biology education research and geoscience education research. A considerable amount of cognitive science and discipline-based education research addresses well-defined quantitative problems. Except in engineering and chemistry, considerably less research exists on ill-defined, open-ended, or context-rich problems, which are more characteristic of what scientists and engineers encounter in their professional lives. Chapter 5 shows that across the disciplines, students have difficulty with all aspects of problem solving and they approach problem solving differently than experts.
Equations, graphical displays, diagrams, and other representations feature prominently in problem solving and other scientific and engineering activities. The disciplines differ in terms of how problems are specified and the conventions for representation, and many of these representations are
unique to a given discipline (e.g., Lewis structures in chemistry, cladograms in biology, and models of the Earth’s structure in the geosciences). To flourish in science and engineering courses and careers, students must become fluent with the discipline-specific approaches and representations used by experts in the field. Students begin this process as novices, and, with targeted assistance, can move toward expert-like understanding. Along the way, how students create, use, and interpret representations can provide insight into their understanding of important concepts in a discipline.
Although equations, graphical displays, and other representations may seem easy to understand for undergraduate faculty who are domain experts, the research discussed in Chapter 5 shows that students have difficulty extracting information from these representations and constructing appropriate representations from existing information, regardless of discipline. For example, in chemistry, students have difficulty constructing particulate-level diagrams of chemical and physical phenomena. Students also have difficulty understanding the commonality of the underlying structure across different representations of the same phenomenon, such as imagining the three-dimensional distribution of earthquake epicenters when given a map showing earthquake depth and magnitude using both colors and symbols.
Conclusion 8: Improving undergraduate science and engineering education involves integrating proven strategies for general instruction with strategies designed to explicitly target challenges that are unique to science and engineering or to a specific discipline.
As discussed in Chapter 6, a considerable amount of DBER examines instruction that is based on established learning theories and principles. Consistent with research from cognitive science, educational psychology, and science education, DBER indicates that involving students actively in the learning process can enhance learning more effectively than traditional instructional methods, such as lecturing by a professor. Exemplary methods include making lectures more interactive, having students work in groups, incorporating authentic problems and activities, and promoting metacognition. These strategies are not discipline-specific, and range in scope and complexity from slight modifications of instructional practice—such as beginning a lecture with a challenging question for students to keep in mind—to completely redesigning the learning space. Overall, DBER does not yet provide evidence about the relative effectiveness of various student-centered strategies or whether any of these strategies are differentially effective for learning certain types of content. The findings and the gaps in current understanding discussed in Chapter 6 suggest that effective instruction includes a range of well-implemented, research-based approaches.
Discipline-specific research in physics and chemistry indicates that students can be taught more expert-like problem-solving skills and that scaffolding, or providing appropriately structured support to learners, appears to be beneficial in this regard. Similarly, Chapter 5 discusses specific instructional strategies that have been shown to help students create, use, and interpret graphical representations. In all disciplines, instructors can improve students’ learning by building some of these approaches into their teaching.
Conclusion 9: The use of learning technology in itself does not improve learning outcomes. Rather, how technology is used matters more.
Chapter 7 shows that evidence on the efficacy of widely used technologies such as animations and personal response systems (clickers) is mixed. Clickers are small handheld devices that allow students to send information (typically their response to a multiple choice question provided by the instructor) to a receiver, which tabulates the classroom results and displays the information to the instructor. The most compelling evidence on their use shows that learning gains are associated only with applications that challenge students conceptually and incorporate socially mediated learning techniques, such as having students work and be assessed collaboratively. The use of animations also has been studied and shown to enhance learning in some circumstances, but to be ineffective or even detrimental to students’ learning in other situations. Taken together, this research demonstrates that how technology is used matters more than simply using technology. For technology to be effective, instructors must be aware of the conditions that support the effective use of technology and incorporate it into their lessons with clear learning goals in mind.
Conclusion 10: Across all disciplines and all topics of inquiry in DBER, relatively few studies explore whether or how learning and responses to different instructional approaches vary by key characteristics of students such as gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. As a result, current knowledge of similarities and differences among student populations is severely limited.
With few exceptions, DBER has not examined variation across different populations of students, such as those with different demographic characteristics or ability levels. Similarly, very little DBER conducted in the context of introductory courses distinguishes among outcomes for majors versus nonmajors.
The relative lack of attention to group or individual differences reflects, in part, the foci of DBER to date. Early DBER has studied major trends in learning and teaching before undertaking explorations of subgroups. In
addition, in some cases the sample sizes of certain groups are too small to provide statistical power. These gaps preclude a complete and nuanced understanding of undergraduate science and engineering education.
Conclusion 11: Determining the extent to which DBER findings have been translated into instructional practice requires more nuanced, multifaceted investigations than are currently available.
Determining the extent to which DBER has informed teaching practice is difficult for many reasons. First, as discussed in Chapter 8, a limited empirical baseline exists to document faculty members’ instructional practices in science and engineering. Few studies have rigorously examined instructional practices within disciplines, and even fewer have studied practices across disciplines at the undergraduate level. Second, because faculty members may draw on similar findings from DBER, cognitive science, educational psychology, science education, education, and/or the scholarship of teaching and learning to inform their practice, it is difficult to disentangle the effects of DBER from related research fields. Third, DBER and related research can influence teaching practices to varying degrees, from increased awareness of students’ learning challenges to complete transformation of instructional approaches. And finally, as research on higher education policy and organization has shown, instructional decisions—including the decision to incorporate DBER and other research—are influenced by many more factors than the mere availability of research findings. The factors discussed in Chapter 8 include institutional leadership, departmental peers, reward systems, students’ attitudes, and, of course, the beliefs and values of the individual faculty members themselves. Any study of DBER’s translational role must take these challenges and factors into account, and must rely on more than faculty reports of their instructional practices.
Conclusion 12: DBER and related research have not yet prompted widespread changes in teaching practice among science and engineering faculty. Strategies are needed to more effectively promote the translation of findings from DBER into practice.
To date, the most common strategy for translating DBER into practice has been to develop new teaching approaches and materials, research them, and then make the most promising ones available to faculty, primarily through workshops. Relying largely on faculty self-report data, evaluations of programs that use this approach in physics, the geosciences, biology, and
chemistry indicate that they have generally been more successful in making participants aware of existing research than in convincing participants to adopt new, research-based teaching practices (see Chapter 8). Even for the programs that appear to have influenced practices, the durability of those changes is not well documented. Moreover, efforts to scale professional development to the level that would influence large numbers of faculty across different institutions are still in the early stages.
As discussed in Chapter 8, some initiatives have attempted to shift the socialization of prospective faculty toward greater commitment to good teaching, including the use of research-based practices. Although the evidence from these efforts is still too limited to draw conclusions, altering the preparation and expectations of doctoral students for teaching in science and engineering potentially represents a more efficient way to influence future instructional practice than changing the teaching behavior of already active faculty.
Conclusion 13: Efforts to translate DBER and related research into practice are more likely to succeed if they are (1) consistent with research on motivating adult learners, (2) include a deliberate focus on changing faculty conceptions about teaching and learning, (3) recognize the cultural and organizational norms of the department and institution, and (4) work to address those norms that pose barriers to change in teaching practice.
The research discussed in Chapter 8 suggests that faculty members are unlikely to change their teaching practice without opportunities to reflect on their own teaching practice, compare their practice to research-based, more effective approaches, and become dissatisfied with their own practice. This process of conceptual change for faculty parallels the process of conceptual change to help students develop scientifically correct understandings of natural phenomena.
Conclusion 14: Ph.D. programs and postdoctoral opportunities in the individual fields of DBER are important mechanisms to provide high-quality education for future DBER scholars.
Scholars have entered DBER through a variety of pathways, including “border crossing” by researchers in the parent discipline who develop expertise in education research, postdoctoral opportunities, and Ph.D. programs that combine training in the parent discipline with training in
education research (see Chapter 2). In the past, the prevalence of these pathways has varied across the fields of DBER. As DBER gains status in the parent disciplines and the fields mature, Ph.D. programs and postdoctoral opportunities are increasingly important to prepare future scholars and advance the research. These two pathways provide mechanisms to systematically integrate knowledge and methodologies from the parent discipline with those from education research, and to enculturate new scholars into a broader professional community.
Conclusion 15: Collaborations among the fields of DBER, although relatively limited, have resulted in shared methodology and shared insights into achieving instructional change and building students’ understanding of science and engineering. Understandings and perspectives from cognitive science, educational psychology, social psychology, organizational change, education, science education, and psychometrics have similarly enhanced the quality of DBER.
Collaboration across the fields of DBER has varied by discipline and over time. For those fields that emerged first, particularly physics education research, opportunities for collaboration were limited because so few DBER scholars were active in other disciplines. Research in these early fields did, however, draw on theories and findings from psychology—particularly cognitive psychology, and subsequently, cognitive science. DBER fields that emerged later have benefited from the more established DBER fields by using specific findings and gaining guidance on how to build the field.
Opportunities for interaction across DBER fields are increasing through journals and through meetings and conferences that bring DBER scholars together (see Chapter 2). These kinds of opportunities hold promise for advancing DBER because they enable scholars to share findings and build an understanding of which findings can be applied across disciplines and which are discipline-specific.
As the syntheses in Chapters 4 through 7 illustrate, interaction and collaboration between DBER and related disciplines also are inconsistent. Drawing on research in related disciplines such as cognitive science, psychology, sociology, and K-12 science education is important for several reasons. First, research in these disciplines can provide theoretical frameworks for explaining basic principles of cognition, learning and teaching with which DBER must be consistent. Second, established findings in these disciplines can help to shape and refine the questions that DBER scholars pose, and serve as corroborating evidence for findings in DBER. Third, these disciplines have long traditions of studying human cognition and learning and have developed robust methods for doing so. These methods can prove valuable for DBER scholars.
Collaborations among DBER scholars and researchers in these related disciplines, although relatively limited, have been productive. For example, geoscience and geography education researchers collaborated with psychologists to produce a report on spatial thinking (National Research Council, 2006), and collaboration between geoscience education research and psychology continues through the National Science Foundation-supported Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center. As the fields of DBER advance, these kinds of collaborations as well as collaborations and interactions across fields within DBER merit continued support.
Conclusion 16: Advancing DBER requires a robust infrastructure for research that includes adequate and sustained funding for research and training, venues for peer-reviewed publication, recognition and support within professional societies, and professional conferences.
As with any field of research in the sciences and engineering, funding is an essential element of a robust DBER infrastructure. However, as Chapter 2 demonstrates, funding across the fields of DBER is uneven. Adequate support to enable the growth of DBER includes funding for the kinds of studies identified in the research agenda at the end of this chapter, training for Ph.D. students and postdoctoral candidates, and ongoing professional development for active faculty. Continued funding to support programs and initiatives that are designed to translate DBER findings into practice also is important.
The number of venues for publishing empirical research has expanded as the DBER fields have matured. Within a given DBER field and across fields, these journals vary in their standards for research. Because advancing research and applying the findings of this research are important goals of DBER, it is important to strike a balance between journals that publish empirical research primarily to share findings among researchers and journals that publish research in formats accessible to those interested in applying the findings.
Recognition from professional societies that DBER is a viable research field in the science discipline can be important for advancing research and for attracting scholars to the specialty. Such recognition is distinct from acknowledgement that science education in general is important. The fields of DBER all have been recognized by professional societies in the parent discipline as valid and important fields of research.
Based on our findings and conclusions, we offer a series of recommendations to advance DBER as a field of inquiry, increase the use of DBER
findings, and develop a research agenda for DBER. Enacting these recommendations will involve numerous stakeholders, primarily by enhancing their relevant individual efforts, but also by promoting more collaboration among them.
Advancing Discipline-Based Education
Research as a Field of Inquiry
Advancing the individual fields of DBER and DBER as a whole requires simultaneously supporting current DBER scholars and adequately preparing future DBER scholars. These efforts involve providing institutional, material and intellectual support and recognition.
Recommendation 1: In their respective roles, science and engineering departments, professional societies, journal editors, funding agencies, and institutional leaders should clarify expectations for DBER faculty positions, emphasize high-quality DBER work, provide mentoring for new DBER scholars, and support venues for DBER scholars to share their research findings at meetings and in high-quality journals.
Translating Discipline-Based Education Research into Practice
The committee’s recommendations for translating DBER findings into practice involve broader changes to higher education institutions and systems. Implementing these recommendations should blend a top-down and bottom-up approach, take into consideration the factors at work within the multiple contexts that affect faculty members, and strategically use multiple levers for effecting change (see Chapter 8 for a more detailed discussion). Approaches to change that are restricted to a linear path, relying on one factor or intervention alone, are unlikely to lead to the desired outcome.
Recommendation 2: With support from institutions, disciplinary departments, and professional societies, current faculty should adopt evidence-based teaching practices to improve learning outcomes for undergraduate science and engineering students.
Recommendation 3: To increase the future use of DBER-based teaching approaches, institutions, disciplinary departments, and professional societies should work together to prepare future faculty who understand the findings of research on learning and evidence-based teaching strategies, and who value effective teaching as part of their career aspirations.
Recommendation 4: Institutional leaders should include learning and evidence-based teaching strategies in the professional development of early career faculty, and then include teaching effectiveness in evaluation processes and reward systems throughout faculty members’ careers. Disciplinary societies and the education research communities within them should support these efforts at the national level.
Research Agenda for Discipline-Based Education Research
DBER already has added to current understanding of how people learn in the disciplines of science and engineering. Much of this research overlaps with and builds on findings and approaches from cognitive science, K-12 education, and other related fields. Discipline-based education researchers, with support from government and private funding entities, can further enhance the value and impact of DBER by conducting additional research that builds on the directions for future research discussed in Chapters 4 through 7. Specifically, the following cross-cutting themes emerged from those discussions:
• Research is needed to explore similarities and differences among different groups of students. With few exceptions, across all disciplines and all topics addressed in this report, there is a dearth of research that explores potential differences among different student populations (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender, majors vs. nonmajors, students of different abilities, etc.).
• Research is needed in a wider variety of undergraduate course settings. Existing DBER provides excellent insights into students’ understanding and learning of introductory course material. However, gaps remain in the understanding of student learning in upper division courses. In addition, for most of the disciplines in this study, understanding of how students learn in laboratory and field settings is minimal. Activities in which students conduct inquiry on large, professionally collected datasets (such as genomics data and those served by the U.S. Geological Survey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and various university consortia) have grown in prominence in recent years, but have been understudied. It also is important to augment current understanding of which field activities generate different kinds of learning and which teaching methods are most effective for different audiences, settings, expected learning outcomes, or types of field experiences. DBER scholars also should explore K-12, graduate, and informal education, as appropriate.
• Longitudinal studies, including those that investigate the transition from K-12 schooling to undergraduate programs, are required to fully understand some phenomena and outcomes that are important to science and engineering education. Longitudinal studies would enhance current understanding of concepts such as the transfer (or lack thereof) of knowledge from one setting to another, including from K-12 to undergraduate education; the persistence of incorrect ideas and beliefs, and the process of conceptual change; and the effects of student-centered learning on longer-term outcomes such as retention of conceptual knowledge and attitudes about science and engineering. Longitudinal studies also could yield insights into reasons for retention in or departure from science and engineering majors.
• DBER should measure a wider range of outcomes and should explore relationships among different types of outcomes. As Chapters 4 through 7 indicate, the vast majority of DBER measures gains in students’ knowledge, conceptual understanding, or academic performance. Rigorous research is needed to examine outcomes associated with the affective domain, including students’ attitudes about learning. Moreover, it would be helpful to explore relationships among different outcomes, such as the relationship between certain types of skills (e.g., problem solving, spatial ability, competence with science and engineering practices) and outcomes such as students’ dispositions toward science and engineering, persistence in the major, or overall understanding of scientific concepts and disciplines. And finally, given the importance of and interest in recruiting and retaining students in the sciences and engineering, additional research is needed that examines outcomes that may provide insight into these issues. Some of these outcomes include declaring a major, decisions to pursue further study in the discipline, and skills in the practices of science and engineering.
• The emphasis of research on instructional strategies should shift to examine more nuanced aspects of instruction. The research on instruction described in Chapters 4 through 6 demonstrates that student-centered learning can be more effective than traditional lecture. Now, a more nuanced view of instructional strategies is needed to advance knowledge of student learning in the sciences and engineering. Existing DBER should be expanded to address a broader range of pedagogical techniques and learning progressions that promote conceptual change by moving students toward scientifically normative conceptions; to identify a range of instructional approaches that might help students to use visualizations or solve problems; to describe which kinds of learning environments
promote metacognition; and to identify more effective means of engaging students in the practices of science and engineering. In addition research should address whether certain strategies are more or less effective for different types of learners, as well as the learning conditions that appear to support successful outcomes.
• Better instruments are needed to measure a variety of outcomes. As discussed in Chapter 3, concept inventories have proliferated across the disciplines in this study. Although they are useful for identifying a suite of previously articulated misunderstandings within a group, they have limitations. To probe student understanding more deeply, faculty and DBER scholars need additional tools for qualitative and quantitative analyses that are widely available and easy to use. As discussed in Chapters 4 through 7, it would be helpful to have instruments for assessing skills that well-designed laboratory instruction can promote, in addition to tools that better measure metacognition, the transfer of knowledge, and gains in spatial thinking and interpretation of representations in the context of undergraduate science and engineering courses. Another pressing need is for instruments that will allow instructors to measure problem-solving skills for large numbers of students in an authentic classroom setting. However, even the best multiple-choice instruments are relatively coarse and can yield inconsistent results (Huffman and Heller, 1995). DBER scholars should recognize the need to continually extend the resolution of these instruments, through such mechanisms as follow-up interviews in which students explain their choices and thinking processes.
Looking across the body of DBER as a whole, the committee also recommends that
• Additional basic research in DBER is needed on teaching and learning in undergraduate science and engineering. Most of the studies discussed in Chapters 4 through 7 measure specific outcomes, such as whether particular interventions lead to greater learning gains, or how well students perform on a task or use representations. As those chapters showed, fewer studies focus on “how” or “why” a specific phenomenon or outcome occurs, such as how (if at all) different student populations vary or why technology is not always effective. By asking these questions of “how” and “why,” basic research provides the foundation for designing effective learning environments, curricula, or instructional materials, and for making modifications when circumstances change. Decades of basic research in educational psychology and cognitive science have
generated theoretical understandings that can be used to examine successes and failures and to guide future research and development efforts in DBER.
• Interdisciplinary studies are needed to examine cross-cutting concepts and cognitive processes. DBER scholars have no shortage of discipline-specific problems and challenges to study, but cross-cutting concepts (such as energy or systems) and structural or conceptual similarities that underlie discipline-specific problems (such as concepts in different disciplines that involve very small or very large scales of measurement, or deep time) also merit attention. Interdisciplinary studies could help to increase the coherence of students’ learning experience across disciplines by uncovering areas of overlap and gaps in content coverage, and could facilitate an understanding of how to promote the transfer of knowledge from one setting to another.
• More investigations are needed of teaching and learning across multiple courses in a discipline. Most of the research that the committee reviewed focused at the level of a single course. Cross-sectional studies of multiple courses within a discipline, or of all courses in a major, would enhance the understanding of how people learn the concepts, practices, and ways of thinking of science and engineering and of the nature and development of expertise in a discipline.
• Additional research is needed on the translational role of DBER. To achieve the goal of translating DBER into practice, some research needs to examine organizational and behavioral change. Such studies should draw on existing research on higher education organization and policy examining the influences on faculty decision-making. That research could inform, and enhance the effectiveness of, future efforts to increase the impact of DBER. Future research and development of change initiatives in DBER should
• include systematic national surveys or studies of science and engineering teaching practice in each of the disciplines;
• build on DBER and also on the related fields of faculty development (including the scholarship of teaching and learning), higher education studies, and organizational change;
• develop and test a range of initiatives aligned with different theories of change;
• provide empirical data to support claims of success; and
• address a strategic gap in the research by studying new recognition and reward systems designed to encourage research-based improvements in teaching.
The types of studies that the committee recommends would involve different levels and structures of funding than are currently the norm for DBER. Time and money are required to develop and refine measurement instruments and to conduct longitudinal studies; studies that generate sufficient statistical power to make inferences about different student populations; studies of teaching and learning across multiple courses, institutions, or disciplines; and interdisciplinary studies. The committee is confident that with sufficient support, these and the other types of studies on this research agenda have the most potential to build on existing DBER and related research in cognitive science, K-12 science education, psychology, and organizational transformation to generate further insights that can lead to significant improvements in undergraduate science and engineering instruction for all students.
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