What Research Says About Effective Instruction
Based on the National Research Council Report
NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES PRESS
THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES PRESS 500 Fifth Street, NW Washington, DC 20001
NOTICE: The project that is the subject of this report was approved by the Governing Board of the National Research Council, whose members are drawn from the councils of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. The members of the committee responsible for the report were chosen for their special competences and with regard for appropriate balance.
This study was supported by grant number DUE-0934453 between the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation and a grant from the Sloan Foundation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or the Sloan Foundation.
International Standard Book Number-13: 978-0-309-30043-8
International Standard Book Number-10: 0-309-30043-6
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014958653
All websites cited in this book were accessed and available as of December 4, 2014.
Additional copies of this report are available from the National Academies Press, 500 Fifth Street, NW, Keck 360, Washington, DC 20001; (800) 624-6242 or (202) 334-3313; http://www.nap.edu.
Copyright 2015 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Printed in the United States of America
Suggested citation: Kober, N. (2015). Reaching Students: What Research Says About Effective Instruction in Undergraduate Science and Engineering. Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES
Advisers to the Nation on Science, Engineering, and Medicine
The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit, self-perpetuating society of distinguished scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research, dedicated to the furtherance of science and technology and to their use for the general welfare. Upon the authority of the charter granted to it by the Congress in 1863, the Academy has a mandate that requires it to advise the federal government on scientific and technical matters. Dr. Ralph J. Cicerone is president of the National Academy of Sciences.
The National Academy of Engineering was established in 1964, under the charter of the National Academy of Sciences, as a parallel organization of outstanding engineers. It is autonomous in its administration and in the selection of its members, sharing with the National Academy of Sciences the responsibility for advising the federal government. The National Academy of Engineering also sponsors engineering programs aimed at meeting national needs, encourages education and research, and recognizes the superior achievements of engineers. Dr. C. D. Mote, Jr., is president of the National Academy of Engineering.
The Institute of Medicine was established in 1970 by the National Academy of Sciences to secure the services of eminent members of appropriate professions in the examination of policy matters pertaining to the health of the public. The Institute acts under the responsibility given to the National Academy of Sciences by its congressional charter to be an adviser to the federal government and, upon its own initiative, to identify issues of medical care, research, and education. Dr. Victor J. Dzau is president of the Institute of Medicine.
The National Research Council was organized by the National Academy of Sciences in 1916 to associate the broad community of science and technology with the Academy’s purposes of furthering knowledge and advising the federal government. Functioning in accordance with general policies determined by the Academy, the Council has become the principal operating agency of both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering in providing services to the government, the public, and the scientific and engineering communities. The Council is administered jointly by both Academies and the Institute of Medicine. Dr. Ralph J. Cicerone and Dr. C. D. Mote, Jr., are chair and vice chair, respectively, of the National Research Council.
BOARD ON SCIENCE EDUCATION
ADAM GAMORAN (Chair), President, William T. Grant Foundation, New York
GEORGE BOGGS (Retired), American Association of Community Colleges, Washington, DC
MELANIE M. COOPER, Michigan State University, Lansing, Michigan
RODOLFO DIRZO, Stanford University, California
JACQUELYNNE S. ECCLES, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
JOSEPH S. FRANCISCO, Purdue University, Indiana
MARGARET HONEY, New York Hall of Science, Corona, New York
MATTHEW KREHBIEL, Kansas State Department of Education
MICHAEL LACH, University of Chicago, Illinois
LYNN LIBEN, Pennsylvania State University, State College
BRIAN REISER, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois
MIKE SMITH, Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching, Stanford, California
ROBERTA TANNER (Retired), Thompson School District in Loveland, Colorado
SUZANNE WILSON, University of Connecticut, Storrs
YU XIE, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
HEIDI A. SCHWEINGRUBER, Director
MICHAEL A. FEDER, Senior Program Officer
MATTHEW LAMMERS, Program Coordinator
This book would not have been possible without the sponsorship of the Sloan Foundation and the National Science Foundation.
A group of experts in learning and teaching at the undergraduate level served as consultants and provided ongoing input in the development of this book. Special thanks are due to them for their invaluable guidance throughout the process. This group included Ann E. Austin, Professor of Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education, Michigan State University; Melanie Cooper, Professor of Chemistry, Michigan State University; Heather MacDonald, Professor of Geology, College of William and Mary; Karl Smith, Cooperative Learning Professor of Engineering Education, School of Engineering Education, Purdue University, and Distinguished Teaching Professor and Professor of Civil Engineering, University of Minnesota; Carl Wieman, Professor of Physics and in the Graduate School of Education, Stanford University; and William B. Wood, Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, Emeritus, University of Colorado Boulder.
More than 70 individuals participated in the interviews conducted by the author. Their insights and experiences form the foundation for the many cases and examples in the book. A heartfelt thanks to them for the time and attention they gave to this project and their continued commitment to improving learning and teaching in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. (See List of Interviewees)
Deepest gratitude is owed to Heidi Schweingruber of the Board on Science Education, who played an essential role by developing, conceptualizing, and providing wise guidance on the content, organization, and writing of this book. Other Board staff who helped to produce this book include Rebecca Krone, Natalie Nielsen, and Joanna Roberts. Thank you as well to Stephen Mautner of the National Academies Press for his sound advice throughout the project.
This report has been reviewed in draft form by individuals chosen for their diverse perspectives and technical expertise, in accordance with procedures approved by the National Research Council. The purpose of this independent review is to provide candid and critical comments that will assist the institution in making its published report as sound as possible and to ensure that the report meets institutional standards for objectivity, evidence, and responsiveness to the charge. The review comments and draft manuscript remain confidential to protect the integrity of the process.
We thank the following individuals for their review of this report: Ken Bain, President, Best Teachers/Best Students Institute, South Orange, New Jersey; Teri Balser, Soil and Water Science Department, University of Florida; Diane Ebert-May, Department of Plant Biology, Michigan State University; Michael Klymkowsky, Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, Co-Director, CU Teach Science Teacher Recruitment and Certification Program, University of Colorado Boulder; David W. Mogk, Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University; and Lorrie A. Shepard, School of Education, University of Colorado Boulder.
Although the reviewers listed above provided many constructive comments and suggestions, they were not asked to endorse the content of the report nor did they see the final draft of the report before its release. The review of this report was overseen by Joseph Krajcik, College of Education, Michigan State University. Appointed by the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, he was responsible for making certain that an independent examination of this report was carried out in accordance with institutional procedures and that all review comments were carefully considered. Responsibility for the final content of this report rests entirely with the author and the institution.
If you teach science or engineering or have a strong interest in these disciplines, your undergraduate years were likely a turning point. Perhaps the initial excitement you felt as an adolescent when you observed the luminous clouds of the Orion Nebula through your new telescope grew into a desire for an astronomy career in an undergraduate course when you learned how and why this nebula is a place where stars are born. Or maybe a college field trip to a Paleozoic rock outcrop opened your mind to the immensity and longevity of the forces at work in Earth’s formation and spurred you to pursue geosciences. Whatever the inspiration, you persisted through excellent courses and lackluster ones, through stimulating assignments and tedious ones, to complete an undergraduate major in science or engineering and go on to master a discipline.
Based on your own undergraduate experiences, you may assume that most students should be able to learn science the way you learned science, but that is not always the case. For too many students, the undergraduate years are the turnoff point. A single course with poorly designed instruction or curriculum can stop a student who was considering a science or engineering major in her tracks. More than half of the students who start out in science or engineering switch to other majors or do not finish college at all. Maybe they failed a crucial prerequisite course, or found little to engage their interest in their introductory courses, or failed to see the relevance of what they were being taught. For non-majors, an introductory course that confirms their preconception that they are “bad at science” may be the last science course they ever take.
Evidence from research on learning and teaching in science and engineering suggests that a large part of the problem lies in the way these courses are traditionally taught—through lectures and reading assignments, note-taking and memorization, and laboratories with specific instructions and a predetermined result.
A 2012 report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, Engage to Excel, sizes up the issue in this way:
Traditional teaching methods have trained many STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] professionals, including most of the current STEM workforce. But a large and growing body of research indicates that STEM education can be substantially improved through a diversification of teaching methods. These data show that evidence-based teaching methods are more effective in reaching all students—especially the “underrepresented majority”—the women and members of minority groups who now constitute approximately 70% of college students. (p. i)
To learn science and engineering well at the undergraduate level, students must understand in depth the fundamental concepts of a discipline. They must develop skills in solving problems and working with the tools of science and be able to apply these skills to new and somewhat different tasks. They must understand the nature and practices of science or engineering and be able to critically evaluate information.
How do students learn these crucial aspects of science and engineering? Are there ways of thinking that hinder or help these learning processes? Which kinds of teaching strategies are most effective in developing these types of knowledge and skills? How can instructors determine whether their students have met these learning goals? And how can instructors apply these strategies to their own courses or encourage them within their departments or institutions?
To inform these questions, this book offers evidence from an area of scholarship called discipline-based education research, or DBER, and related fields. DBER has arrived at insights about how students learn science and engineering and how to design instructional strategies that build on these insights to improve students’ conceptual knowledge and attitudes about learning. The most comprehensive synthesis of findings from DBER and their potential to improve instruction can be found in a 2012 report by the National Research Council (NRC), Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering. The report was written by an NRC-convened committee of 15 experts from physics, astronomy, biology, chemistry, geosciences, engineering, cognitive psychology, educational psychology, and science education. Over the course of 13 months in 2010 and 2011, the committee members distilled the main findings from peer-reviewed DBER studies and examined the influence of this research on undergraduate instruction in the major science
disciplines and engineering. They also identified issues for future research and considered the resources, incentives, and conditions needed to advance the field of DBER and enhance its impact on instruction. To help inform its work, the committee commissioned new papers and held four fact-finding meetings.
Along the way, the committee realized that its findings could have a far-reaching impact on those who teach undergraduate science and engineering or have an influence on instruction in these disciplines. This book for practitioners grew out of that realization.
This book is based on the 2012 NRC report on DBER, as well as on interviews with expert practitioners who have successfully applied findings from DBER and related research in their classrooms, departments, or institutions.1 The goal is to summarize the most salient findings of the NRC committee and the experience of expert practitioners about how students learn undergraduate science and engineering and what this means for instruction. This book presents new ways of thinking about what to teach, how to teach it, and how to assess what students are learning. To encourage instructors and others to apply this information in their institutions, it also includes short examples and longer case studies of experienced practitioners who are implementing research-based strategies in undergraduate science and engineering courses or across departments or institutions. Although these findings could apply to a variety of disciplines, this book focuses on the disciplines addressed in the NRC study—physics, astronomy, biology, chemistry, geosciences, and engineering.
This book is intended for anyone who teaches or plans to teach undergraduate courses in science and engineering at any type of higher education institution or who is in a position to influence instruction at this level. Throughout the book, the term “instructor” is used broadly to refer to the full range of teaching staff—tenured, non-tenured, or adjunct faculty; lecturers and similar teaching positions; and postdoctoral scholars or graduate students with teaching responsibilities. Although many of the strategies and ideas in these pages are geared to instructors, others with an interest in science and engineering education will find suggestions for encouraging or supporting research-based instruction. These other audiences might include department heads; faculty development providers; provosts, deans, and other higher education administrators; leaders of professional societies and associations for science and engineering; and those with policy roles in higher education or science education.
1 All of the interviews cited in this book were conducted by Nancy Kober between March 2013 and March 2014.
If you are a newcomer to research-based instruction, this book will introduce you to the main ideas about learning and teaching that are emerging from DBER, as well as strategies you might try in your classroom or institution. If you are already somewhat familiar with these ideas, you will find additional evidence-based approaches for addressing particular student needs, as well as advice for overcoming challenges that are bound to arise. If you are experienced in implementing this type of teaching, you may discover insights from other practitioners that could enrich your own practices.
Chapter 1 lays out the reasons why instructors and instructional leaders might consider evidence about how students learn science and engineering as they design their instruction. It introduces some of the main findings from DBER and gives examples of how instructors have applied these findings in a variety of settings. Chapter 2 shares suggestions from researchers and expert practitioners about how to get started with implementing research-based strategies and how to make the process less intimidating.
Chapter 3 summarizes general evidence from research on how people learn and specific findings about how undergraduates learn science and engineering. It also discusses how insights from these research fields have informed the design of instructional strategies that seek to improve students’ conceptual understanding, problem-solving skills, and use of models and other visual and mathematical representations. Chapter 4 describes a range of research-based instructional strategies in science and engineering, including strategies to make lectures more interactive, use student group work to promote learning, and make learning more relevant, among other goals. Chapter 5 examines related aspects of effective instruction, including assessment, appropriate uses of technology, and changes in the learning environment.
Chapter 6 looks at some common challenges in implementing research-based instruction and ways to overcome these challenges. Chapter 7 discusses actions that departments, institutions, and outside groups can take to encourage and support effective undergraduate instruction in science and engineering. A concluding section recaps the main messages of the book.
Throughout the chapters you will find concrete examples and case studies that illustrate how skilled instructors and leaders from various disciplines and types of institutions have used findings from DBER and related research on learning to design and support instruction in their classrooms, departments, or institutions. These examples may inspire, intrigue, challenge, or provoke you. Whatever your reaction, the examples are intended to encourage reflection and discussion about effective ways to help students learn science and engineering.
This type of reflection is not always easy. Instructors may be unaware of this body of research. Even if they aware, they may be disinclined to change teaching methods that are familiar or ubiquitous in their departments and seem to be working, at least for some students. Departmental and institutional cultures may also present obstacles to changing practice, as discussed in later chapters.
On a positive note, however, as a scientist or an engineer you already have the intellectual tools and experience needed to examine students’ learning and your own teaching from a research perspective. Every day, you tackle research problems in your discipline, consider various strategies to solve those problems, try out a strategy, and revise that strategy based on the results. Why not apply this same mindset to your teaching? The research is there, and so are a variety of curriculum materials, professional development opportunities, and other resources. With some effort, the rewards will be there, too—better educated students, greater professional satisfaction, and a brighter outlook for society.