Based on decades of research, we now know more than ever about how students learn science and engineering disciplines. We also know more about the effectiveness of innovative instructional approaches based on these findings about learning. Yet these innovations have not spread widely. The problem, writes James Fairweather (2008), a Michigan State University professor who has studied faculty rewards and strategies to improve student learning, “lies less in not knowing what works and more in getting people to use proven techniques.” There are many understandable reasons why instructors or administrators may be daunted by the prospect of reorienting their courses or programs around research on learning.
This chapter offers suggestions for how to get started, drawn from studies of instructional transformation and the experience of practitioners who have successfully incorporated research-based strategies into their own undergraduate teaching.
In the mid-1990s, Deborah Allen1 was asked by a group of biology colleagues at the University of Delaware to join them in implementing problem-based learning, an instructional strategy in which students learn by working in small groups to solve challenging problems. “I was a skeptic,” says Allen. At that time she was, by her own description, a bench scientist who knew little about pedagogy. She was wary of the philosophy underlying problem-based learning—that students can construct their own knowledge by working actively on complex problems. “It’s really saying that learning begins with a problem and that what you learn is what you need to
1 Except where noted, the information in this example comes from an interview with Deborah Allen, April 11, 2014.
resolve the problem,” she explains. “Of course, that’s how you learn in real life, but for a school, it’s very radical to have faith that students can do that.”
Nevertheless, Allen decided to plunge ahead because of concerns about her students’ lack of engagement during her lectures. She suspected that her lecture-based approach to teaching was “reinforcing passive behaviors” among her students. “It seemed like a vicious and futile cycle—the more we tried to help students, the more we inadvertently were not helping them,” she recalls. Problem-based learning, described in more detail in Chapter 4, appeared to offer a way out of that cycle. Allen took workshops on this strategy through her campus center for learning, which she now directs. She collaborated with a core group of faculty to develop biology curriculum around problem-based learning and assess the effects. “I could not have survived without that group of people I could go to,” she says.
This experience “led me to rethink teaching and learning,” says Allen, who in 2013 received the Bruce Alberts Award for Excellence in Science Education. She now uses a range of research-based strategies in her classes depending on which is best suited to a particular learning need. “Problem-based learning was my only option when I was a ‘reformed lecturer,’ but now I feel like I have more options,” she says. Others who are dubious about whether it’s worth the effort to try a new approach to instruction might find encouragement in Allen’s advice to simply “get involved and try it out.”
As the Allen example suggests, the process of changing your approach to teaching and learning begins with a willingness to look at your practices from a new perspective or with a new understanding. “A shift in attitude is really profound in terms of underpinning change in practice,” says Cathy Manduca,2 director of the Science Education Resource Center (SERC) at Carleton College, a national network for professional development, curriculum, research on learning, and community building.
Noah Finkelstein,3 a physics professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, views a shift in mindset as “the first and most important prerequisite for any kind of transition.” In particular, he says, you must be willing to move away from “the idea that teaching is the transmission of information, and learning is the acquisition of information, to the notion that teaching and learning are about enculturating people to think, to talk, to act, to do, to participate in certain ways.”
2 Interview, May 13, 2013.
3 Interview, April 23, 2013.
“You must be willing to move away from the idea that teaching is the transmission of information and learning is the acquisition of information, to the notion that teaching and learning are about enculturating people to think, to talk, to act, to do, to participate in certain ways.”
University of Colorado Boulder
For many instructors, this change in mindset begins with an awareness that their students are not really learning as well as expected. “It takes an effort to change,” says David Sokoloff,4 a physics professor at the University of Oregon. “The first thing is for people to convince themselves that it’s worth the effort.” What convinced him to make the effort was mounting evidence that students who completed introductory physics courses did not understand key concepts.
As part of this shift in attitude, faculty members may need to recognize that many of their students do not learn in the same ways that they did or are not motivated by the same things. Faculty often went into academia because they were good at learning through a traditional lecture model, says Rebecca Bates,5 the chair of integrated engineering at Minnesota State University, Mankato, but “that’s not always the best way for others to learn.” Most undergraduates will not get advanced engineering or science degrees or become academics. “If we think about our students not being like us, not learning like us, not having the same motivations as us, then we start to imagine where they could be, and we can actually reach them more easily,” she notes.
Sara Brownell and Kimberly Tanner (2012) propose that scientists’ professional identities may be “an invisible and underappreciated barrier to undergraduate science teaching reform” (p. 339). These identities are forged by training that emphasizes research over teaching and a culture that views teaching as lower in status than research. Steeped in this culture, some scientists may have qualms about “coming out” as teachers lest they lose an identity they value. Scientists who are grounded in a research identity “may view pedagogical training with skepticism, considering it to be a waste of time and effort, in particular if the training tries to promote teaching methods that depart from the cultural teaching
4 Interview, July 8, 2013.
5 Interview, July 8, 2013.
norm in science: lecturing,” the authors write (p. 343). In this situation, changing one’s mindset involves recasting one’s professional identity to include a focus on effective teaching in training, disciplinary meetings, and scientific journals.
One way to begin reorienting instruction around findings about how students learn is the “teaching as research” model developed by the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL), which is dedicated to advancing effective science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teaching practices in higher education and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). This model frames instructional improvement as “a research problem, to which STEM instructors can effectively apply their research skills and ways of knowing” (Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning, n.d.a, p. 2). The steps of the model include reviewing existing research on teaching and learning; creating student learning goals; developing a hypothesis about ways to achieve these goals; defining measures of success; developing and implementing teaching practices within an experimental design; collecting and analyzing data; and reflecting, evaluating, and adjusting based on the evidence collected.
“Almost every grad student knows how to perform research, because that’s what you do, but this method applies it to teaching,” says Chris Richardson,6 a former participant in a CIRTL fellowship program at Michigan State and an early career faculty member in the physics department at Elon University. “You have a hypothesis. And in teaching, you have a goal for your students—what you want them to learn. You decide, just as in research, what you’re going to accept as proof that that hypothesis is correct. And in teaching you say, how am I going to assess this?”
Another prominent model designed to guide practitioners through the process of instructional change grew out of research on course transformation across 12 departments participating in the Science Education Initiative (SEI) at the University of Colorado Boulder (Colorado) and the University of British Columbia (UBC). (More information about the SEI appears in Chapter 7.) This model, which has measurably improved learning in several courses and has been adapted by other institutions, aims to bring instructional practices in line with research
6 Interview, May 2, 2013.
about how students learn science. Key steps of the model include the “development of learning goals, instructional materials based on student difficulties, and assessment to see whether the approach worked” (Chasteen et al., 2011, p. 70).
An approach for revising undergraduate biology courses suggested by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2011) blends the “scientific teaching” principles of Handelsman and colleagues (2004) and the “backward design” paradigm articulated by Wiggins and McTighe (2005). (Backward design recommends first setting goals for student learning and then choosing instructional strategies and assessment methods aligned to these goals.)
In geosciences, a process for designing effective and innovative teaching methods is available through workshops and an online tutorial7 sponsored by On the Cutting Edge (Tewksbury and Macdonald, 2007). This process encourages instructors to set goals for courses that focus on developing students’ abilities to think for themselves and solve problems while they master important course content.
While these and other models for transforming instruction differ in their specifics, they generally emphasize certain key steps:
- Establish learning goals that define what students should know and be able to do by the end of a unit or a course.
- Design, adopt, or adapt curriculum materials and instructional strategies that will help students achieve these goals.
- Administer assessments to determine how well these goals are being met.
- Use the results of the assessments to guide subsequent improvements to the course.
The step of assessing the impact of instructional changes is an important one. Although many of the experts highlighted in this book have published formal discipline-based education research (DBER) studies of learning and teaching approaches, you do not have to become a DBER scholar to improve your instruction. Evidence to inform teaching can be collected through less formal means than published research—for example, by administering a standardized assessment of students’ conceptual understanding (see Chapter 5), giving exams specifically tailored to your course, and conducting pre- and post-instruction surveys of students. In addition, it can be helpful for faculty who are trying new instructional strategies to “take notes after class each day on what worked and
what didn’t—it takes six minutes,” suggests Eric Brewe,8 a physicist and professor of science education at Florida International University (FIU).
From the outset, decisions about revising instruction should focus on how students learn in a discipline and what they need to learn well. The how part is discussed in detail in Chapter 3. The what part is addressed by establishing learning goals, also called learning objectives or performance expectations, that define the knowledge and skills students are expected to master by the end of a unit, course, or program of study. These goals will then shape which teaching strategies and assessments you choose.
Before writing learning goals, you will need to consider the context of your course, such as whether it is a prerequisite for later courses; whether your students are mostly majors in the your discipline, non-majors, or both; and whether the course includes a lab component (Tewksbury and Macdonald, 2007). Expert instructors recommend that learning goals focus on the kinds of deeper conceptual knowledge and more complex skills that are consistent with modern practices in a discipline and will help move students toward more expert-like understanding. In addition to addressing concepts and content knowledge, learning goals might also focus on students’ mastery of technical skills in a discipline; “soft skills” such as writing and communication; and affective qualities such as curiosity, motivation to learn a subject, and retention in a discipline.
Learning goals should also “explicitly communicate the key ideas and the level at which students should understand them in operational terms,” according to Michelle Smith, a biology professor at the University of Maine, and Kathy Perkins, a physics professor at Colorado (2010). Based on their experience writing learning goals for Colorado’s SEI, Smith and Perkins recommend that learning goals take this form: “‘At the end of this course/lecture/unit, students will be able to …’ followed by a specific action verb and a task” (p. 32).
These learning goals can pair knowledge of a specific concept in a discipline with a scientific practice, such as creating a model or formulating an argument (Cooper and Klymkowsky, 2013). A performance expectation in cell biology might look like this (Klymkowsky and Cooper, n.d.):
8 Interview, April 16, 2013.
Make a model for how organisms could control membrane fluidity in the face of changing environmental temperatures; identify the factors that would limit the cell’s response.
Faculty often find it useful to consider both course-level and topic-level goals. A typical set of learning goals might include 5 to 10 course-level goals that convey the major learning themes and concepts, along with more specific topic-level goals aligned with the course-level learning goals (Smith and Perkins, 2010). Because courses and disciplines differ in their goals, the learning goals will be different for each course. Box 2.1 shows examples of a general course goal and specific content goals in physics developed by the Carl Wieman SEI at UBC (2009).
BOX 2.1 LEARNING GOALS FROM AN INTRODUCTION TO MODERN PHYSICS COURSE
Course learning goal
Background: A bunch of old curmudgeon engineers complain to the engineering curriculum committee that quantum mechanics is a waste of time for any engineering student to take, claiming that regular engineers only work on things that use classical (non-quantum) physics, and quantum physics is so weird it makes no sense and it is probably wrong anyway.
Goal: You will be able to convince the engineering curriculum committee that the ideas of quantum physics are true and that it is useful for engineers to know about them.
Specific content goals (related to emission and absorption of light by isolated atoms)
Be able to …
- Explain how the discrete colors produced by neon signs, mercury and sodium streetlights, and other discharge lamps rule out Rutherford’s model of the atom as like a miniature solar system with electrons orbiting the nucleus.
- Relate the colors of light produced by a hydrogen discharge lamp to energy levels of the electrons in the atoms in the lamp.
- Explain why such light sources are so much more efficient than incandescent lightbulbs.
- List the basic assumptions of the Bohr model of the atom and explain how those assumptions are consistent with the light emitted by a hydrogen discharge lamp.
- Provide a basic design for a gas laser, giving the basic components and qualitative requirements for it to operate.
The goal-setting process can be particularly effective if a group of faculty can reach consensus about a minimum set of learning goals for a particular course, while leaving flexibility for individual instructors to add their own goals. To transform a junior-level course in electricity and magnetism at Colorado, for example, a group of several faculty, including many who had previously taught the course, met several times to discuss and review learning goals for the course. Analyses of the SEI suggest that faculty can often agree on about 75 percent of course goals, which allows individuals sufficient flexibility and creativity to put their own stamp on the remaining goals (Chasteen et al., 2011).
“If we think about our students not being like us, not learning like us, not having the same motivations as us, then we start to imagine where they could be and we can actually reach them more easily.”
Minnesota State University, Mankato
Instructors use different means, and often more than one means, to communicate learning goals to students. The goals might be included in the course syllabus or written on the board at the beginning of class. Homework and in-class activities might include the appropriate goals targeted by an assignment or an exercise.
Research shows that the use of learning goals can have a positive impact on both students and instructors (Simon and Taylor, 2009). Nearly all of the students in three classes analyzed by Simon and Taylor saw learning goals as very valuable, particularly in helping them “know what to know.” Students also frequently reported that learning goals helped them study, get more out of lectures, and determine the most important material to learn. Faculty indicated that learning goals were useful in communicating course material to students and other faculty and creating course assessments.
The value of learning goals depends not only on how well they have been developed, but also on how effectively they are used. The experience of David McConnell, a professor of geology at North Carolina State University and a science education researcher, shows how well-chosen learning goals can guide efforts to make instruction more effective and engaging in a course with an enrollment of nearly 100.
When students walk into David McConnell’sa introductory course in physical geology at North Carolina State University, the first thing they see on the lecture room screen is a slide with the day’s learning goals. For a lesson devoted to volcanoes and volcanic eruptions, they find these goals:
- I can compare and contrast the features of a shield volcano and a composite volcano.
- I can define viscosity and give examples of everyday materials with high and low viscosity.
- I can explain the relationship of gas content, viscosity, magma type, and plate tectonic setting in volcanic eruptions.
- I can list the features and processes that geologists study when trying to predict an eruption.
Students can also access a complete list of the course learning goals online to help them do homework or prepare for exams. “Think of this as your study guide,” McConnell tells his students.
These goals not only signal to the students what they should understand by the end of the lesson, but also shape how McConnell, a science education researcher as well as a geology professor, designs his curriculum, teaching strategies, and assessments.
The central role of learning goals
McConnell’s main advice for instructors who want to improve their teaching? “Have and assess learning goals—that drives everything.” The first step to redesigning one’s teaching is to think about what you want students to learn. From there, he says, you think about what tasks will help students meet that goal and what questions you need to ask to determine whether they have met it. “Have a clear objective matched with a clear assessment.”
McConnell recommends that learning goals be more challenging than just requiring students to memorize facts. They should aim for students to comprehend and apply important concepts and analyze information. When instructors write these kinds of learning goals, he says, “it makes you think about your instruction, and you’re much more intentional.” It leads the instructor to ask what kinds of activities will help students achieve a particular goal.
In each class, McConnell presents several ConcepTests—multiple-choice questions that focus on one key concept of the major learning goals for a lesson (McConnell et al., 2006). Students use clickers to give their individual response, then discuss their answers with their peers and vote again. A typical class may also include short lectures with photographs, video clips, and animation; open-ended questions that require students to collaborate on analyzing information and applying their learning to real-world situations; and a “minute paper” in which students reflect on the most important thing they learned that day. “It’s never just me standing up and talking for the whole time,” he says. “We’re always jumping back and forth.”
McConnell did not always teach this way. He started out by recognizing room for improvement in his teaching, researching various strategies to address the problem, and attending workshops to learn more.
a Except where noted, the information in this case study comes from an interview with David McConnell, June 8, 2013.
From skeptic to advocate
About 10 years into his teaching career, McConnell, who was then at the University of Akron, realized that although he still enjoyed teaching and was getting decent results, “something was missing.” He had not changed his lecture-based teaching strategies in a decade, and he felt his classes lacked the kind of interaction that occurs in a lively seminar. He reviewed the research on various active learning strategies and decided to try ConcepTests. At that time, in the late 1990s, published DBER research was limited, especially in geology, but ConcepTests had been shown to improve student learning and increase student engagement in physics (Mazur, 1997). To stimulate student discussion of ConcepTest questions, McConnell chose the Think-Pair-Share approach, in which students first consider their answer on their own and then discuss it with a neighbor before settling on a final answer (see Chapter 4 for a fuller explanation).
David McConnell discussing a ConcepTest with his class.
Around the same time, two faculty members from the biology department persuaded him to accompany them to a workshop held in Kentucky and sponsored by the Faculty Institutes for Reforming Science Teaching (FIRST) at Michigan State. “We were a little skeptical when we went,” says McConnell. “We thought it was going to be this old touchy-feely, self-esteem kind of stuff, but it turned out to be very different from what we had anticipated. We all left as rabid reformers, but we didn’t really know enough to do anything at that point.”
It took a few years of trial-and-error and additional workshops for McConnell and David Steer, a fellow geologist at Akron, to hone their approach. Initially, the biggest challenge for McConnell was giving up some classroom control to allow for student discussion. “One of the things about controlling the classroom is that you know what’s going to happen, and you can dictate the process and the timing and everything else. Once you let that go, you have to be ready to do almost anything…. Chaos could ensue if you have not planned well.”
McConnell and Steer applied for and received a grant to buy clickers and began developing their own ConcepTests because these materials were not readily available in geosciences at that time. Along the way they hit a few snags. “The first half of the ConcepTests we made, we tried in class and they didn’t go well. So we made new ones,” says McConnell. At first the students were surprised that they were being encouraged to talk to each other
in class, but they soon adapted and seemed to enjoy the new approach. “When you have 160 kids in an enclosed space and they turn and start talking, it’s a real adrenalin rush,” says McConnell. “The noise goes up, and it’s like, yeah, that’s learning right there—that is what it looks like.”
McConnell also stresses the value of connecting with disciplinary colleagues who are pursuing research-based reforms. “Working with others who are teaching similar classes gives you someone to bounce ideas off of and compare notes with,” he says. The collaborations that McConnell forged with Steer and other colleagues benefited his teaching and research and led to the creation of a textbook (McConnell and Steer, 2014) with learning objectives, ConcepTests, and exercises for active learning, many of which McConnell uses in his own class.
Learning activities inside and outside of class
During a class on plate tectonics, students consider this sample ConcepTest:
Examine the map and answer the question that follows. How many plates are present?
In their initial individual responses to this question, 44 percent of students in a small environmental geology class chose the correct response, C. After discussion, the percentage of students who chose this answer increased to 75 percent (McConnell et al., 2006).
McConnell alternates among delivering short lectures on a particular topic, posing more ConcepTests, and making time for students to work on other problems. In a unit on volcanoes, for example, students fill in a Venn diagram showing which characteristics are common to both composite volcanoes and shield volcanos and which are distinct to one type. In another task, students compare and contrast the perceptions of risk among four constituencies—scientists, government agencies, businesses, and the general public—in the weeks preceding the Mount St. Helens eruption. Later, working in groups, they try to figure out why one city near a volcano is devastated by an eruption while another city of similar size near a different volcano suffers only light damage when its local volcano erupts. McConnell addresses any student misconceptions before moving on to the next segment.
He emphasizes to students that it’s okay to make mistakes in class; the activities done in class do not count toward their grade. “I encourage them to fail brazenly in class and not worry about it—it’s part of the learning process,” he says. “The point is to recognize when you don’t know something so you can fix it.”
Other important learning activities take place outside of class. Students complete “learning journals” that encourage them to reflect on what they learned from the assigned readings. For example, after reading portions of textbook chapters on earthquakes and a news article about Italian scientists being put on trial for failing to predict a deadly earthquake in the town of L’Aquila, students must answer three questions:
- In your own words (and using complete sentences), what is this trial about?
- What would be the biggest challenge associated with making predictions about the potential for a future earthquake?
- L’Aquila has many buildings that are hundreds of years old and a history of past earthquakes. If Raleigh were in a similar situation, who would you think should be responsible for determining a possible course of action following a series of small-to-moderate-sized earthquakes? (Rank the responsibility level of the citizens, the scientists of the state’s geological survey, city and state government officials, and local news media.)
As part of their learning journals, students also take short online quizzes consisting of questions about the content of reading assignments, as well as questions that ask them to reflect on their learning, such as describing the most interesting thing they learned from the reading. The quizzes are graded automatically online while short-answer questions (like those above) are graded by teaching assistants. McConnell reviews the results before the next class to determine how well students understand the material.
As part of his research for the Geoscience Affective Research NETwork (GARNET) project, which is studying the impact of student attitudes and motivation on learning, McConnell asked his students whether they would do the out-of-class assignments if they were optional. Almost all of them said, “No, we would probably not do it on our own, but keep making us do it,” he reports. This led him to conclude that students recognized the benefit of these assignments to their learning. He shares the results of his research with his students so they can see that those who complete the assignments do better in the course.
Course assessments and evidence of effectiveness
In addition to obtaining feedback on students’ learning from the ConcepTests and learning journals, McConnell administers “two-part” exams that count toward students’ grades. All but a few of the simplest questions on these exams are tied to the course learning goals. Students first do a version of the exam in a group with their neighbors and hand it in; the group exam accounts for roughly 25 percent of their grade on the test. In the next class period, they take a different, longer version of the exam individually and hand it in to determine the other 75 percent of their exam grade. “Because they have to do the group exam a day before the regular exam, they are actually studying twice, which is good because they are hopefully retaining the information better,” McConnell explains. If a student does better on the individual exam, the score on the group exam is ignored; otherwise, the student will gain a small benefit from the group exam grade. Students like the group exams, McConnell says, and often have animated discussions about what they have learned.
McConnell, Steer, and several other colleagues have studied the impact of using ConcepTests in a range of geosciences courses at different types of institutions by examining pre- and post-test data from the Geoscience Concept Inventory (GCI) and qualitative feedback from students and instructors (McConnell et al., 2006). Students in classes that used ConcepTests did better on the GCI than students nationally or in two “control” sections of a course taught by the same instructor. Attendance and student satisfaction also improved according to qualitative evidence.
In McConnell’s course he combines several research-supported practices, such as clearly defined learning goals, ConcepTests with peer discussion, collaborative activities, assignments that encourage students to reflect on their learning, and frequent assessment that provides feedback to the instructor and the students. Here are some particular points from his experience that may be helpful to instructors at the early stages of implementing student-centered instruction:
- Establishing learning goals at the outset will guide decisions about the best instructional strategies to help students reach these goals and assessments to measure effectively how well they have met them.
- Telling students explicitly what the learning goals are and reminding them often can reinforce what they need to study and make them more likely to buy into new ways of teaching.
- The first steps of applying a scientific or engineering mindset to your teaching often include identifying any problems with your teaching, reviewing prior research on effective strategies, attending workshops or other developmental opportunities, and collaborating with colleagues who have similar educational interests.
- Even if you are initially dubious about these new instructional approaches, it is worth attending a workshop to learn more about them.
- You may find it difficult at first to develop and incorporate student-centered activities, but the result can be exciting and rewarding for both you and your students.
- Many effective instructors use a mix of research-based strategies. The specific strategies may evolve over time as you gain more experience, analyze their impact, and discover which options work best for you.
Many instructors who have effectively used research-based pedagogies began by implementing one idea on a small scale, such as adding thoughtful clicker questions or tutorials to their lectures or setting aside time during one class period a week for a group activity. Others have piloted a new research-based approach with one section of a large class. By phasing in reforms, these instructors gained the confidence needed to make greater changes. “The biggest help for me was recognizing that
students still need to learn content,” says Christopher Swan,9 a Tufts University professor who incorporates small-group work on projects, often with a sustainability focus, into his engineering courses. Swan still maintains some traditional assignments and exams but incorporates shorter projects throughout a course and a longer project near the end that are designed to help students learn important content.
Many instructors who would like to try out active learning strategies are intimidated by what Robin Wright,10 an associate dean in the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota, calls a “big misconception”—namely, that faculty who have effectively taught a well-designed lecture course for several years “think they’ve got to throw all of that away and start from scratch.” But that is not the approach she and her colleagues took when preparing to teach in a new building with classrooms designed especially to facilitate active student engagement. Rather, says Wright, they started by making students responsible for learning through homework some of the less demanding content that was previously included in lectures. This freed up a portion of class time for activities designed to help students discover the more challenging content. “Most of the activities we do in class are derivative of lectures…. I call it starting where you are,” Wright says. “Don’t lose the content, but cover it by giving students a quiz at the beginning of class. Then have students wrestle with data instead of having you explain how to wrestle with data.”
Several experienced practitioners interviewed for this book reported that after they tried one or two research-based strategies and saw what a difference they made, they became excited about doing more. “You don’t even have to go all the way in. Even a little bit is good. And then you get addicted and you keep doing more,” says Elizabeth Derryberry,11 a biology professor at Tulane University.
Taking those first steps toward research-based instruction can be easier with the encouragement, guidance, and support of colleagues. “Often teachers feel they are working alone in the dark. If they can instead work with a team, it can enhance their motivation and the quality of the outcome,” says Cynthia Brame12 of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching.
9 Interview, August 27, 2013.
10 Interview, April 12, 2013.
11 Interview, May 1, 2013.
12 Interview, April 29, 2013.
Many expert instructors started out by collaborating with faculty who already had some experience in or passion for implementing new teaching strategies. Relationships formed in this way may last for years and lead to further refinements in course design and teaching techniques. Several instructors began by doing graduate work with or being mentored by senior colleagues who were leaders in research-based instruction; many of these graduate students or junior faculty went on to become leaders in the field themselves and to serve as mentors to others.
The forms and benefits of these collaborative relationships vary. Several instructors interviewed for this book found inspiration from sitting in on a colleague’s class. Eric Brewe of FIU maintains that having faculty observe research-based classes is a good way of getting buy-in from those who may otherwise be hesitant to change. At the University of Minnesota, the first teaching assignment for newly hired, tenure-track professors in biology is to team teach an existing course aligned with their interests, explains Wright. “We hope that this will help change the ‘secret’ culture that teaching often has—that people would be threatened by someone else there watching. We’ve got to get over that,” she says.
Many expert instructors have arranged to co-teach one or more courses with like-minded colleagues. As discussed in Chapter 6, this approach enables them to share the workload involved in developing materials and redesigning a course and makes it easier to address implementation challenges. Team teaching has been enormously valuable to the College of Biological Sciences at Minnesota, says Wright. “You’ve got somebody right there to help you trouble-shoot based on student performance.”
And, as emphasized in Chapter 7, various types of support from a department or institution can be extremely helpful for instructors who are just getting started with revising their instruction around research.
If you are itching to try out new strategies but sense you will need encouragement and additional knowledge in the process, or if you feel that you require a more structured, collegial relationship to follow through on your intent to change your teaching methods, then you may find what you need in a formal or an informal learning community or similar network. Learning communities are an effective form of ongoing professional development that bring together instructors—and in some cases, graduate students, post-docs, and others—to learn about and try out new
instructional approaches and generate new knowledge (Austin, 2009; Beach and Cox, 2009). They can be important forces in promoting instructional reform (Fairweather, 2005). These communities may be live or virtual. They can exist within a department or an institution or through an external network, such as a disciplinary society, online resource center, or other professional organization. Some learning communities are forged by people who met at an initial professional development workshop and then made a commitment to help each other implement and expand on what they learned.
Within an institution, even a few interested colleagues can create an informal learning community to support and learn from each other, share materials, and provide momentum for reform. In some institutions, faculty interested in research-based teaching meet periodically for informal lunches or “journal clubs.”
If others in your department do not share your interest in research-based instruction, external learning communities can help fill this void. The On the Cutting Edge program, for example, supports virtual communities of learners in geosciences through online journal clubs, webinars, and active listservs. Sometimes the disciplinary affiliation is as strong as the departmental affiliation. The point is to build community either live or virtually.
Allison Rober,13 a biology professor who began teaching at Ball State University in 2013, is an example of an instructor who has found ideas and support through an online community forged with mentors and colleagues who met through the Future Academic Scholars in Teaching (FAST) fellows program at Michigan State. “One of the things I valued most from FAST and similar programs is the community,” she says.
To be effective, the members of a learning community must engage in meaningful interactions that are focused on accomplishing particular goals within a course or learning activities. Within a community, all participants take responsibility for achieving the learning goals. Members support each other, but also may challenge each other’s ideas (Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning, n.d.b).
Instructors who want to implement reforms rooted in research on how students learn their discipline do not have to develop curricula from scratch, as their predecessors had to do several years ago. A variety of resources to support this type of instructional reform are available in published form or on the Web through cen-
13 Interview, April 29, 2013.
ters like the Science Education Resource Center (SERC); through projects devoted to specific instructional strategies, such as The Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) Project or Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies (SCALE-UP) (described in Chapters 4 and 5, respectively); and through professional organizations and networks. These resources include curricula and learning activities, tutorials, assessments, videos, and other materials. Many of these materials have been validated by research studies or cited as exemplary through peer reviews.
Several of the instructors interviewed for this book started out by using curriculum materials developed by others, an approach that is time-efficient and cost-effective. “Stand on the shoulders of giants,” emphasizes Noah Finkelstein, a professor of physics at Colorado. He offers this analogy: Although lasers are used in his physics classes, he does not build a laser system from scratch. “I build on the work that others have done on that system…. I go to the laser expert; I don’t want to have to become the laser expert.”
At the same time, instructors often adapt existing materials or modify implementation of an approach to suit their particular students, learning goals, context, and resources. Although the learning materials developed for The POGIL Project have been carefully constructed, says Rick Moog, a chemistry instructor at Franklin & Marshall College and the Project’s executive director, users are encouraged to modify the implementation of the pedagogy to suit their own needs. “The [POGIL] approach is philosophical and pedagogical; it’s not a set of directions on what to do,” says Moog. “You have to figure out what works for you.”
When adapting materials, however, one must be careful to recognize and maintain the elements that research has shown to be critical to realize the improvements in student learning that others have achieved.
Most instructors who use research-based strategies in their courses participated in professional development about these strategies at some point in their careers, and some went on to lead professional development activities themselves. Attending a workshop or institute was often the catalyst for practitioners to adopt research-based strategies. It is only a first step, to be sure; implementing meaningful change in practice requires sustained opportunities for faculty development, access to resources, and a supportive community, as discussed later in this book.
Stephen Krause,14 an engineering professor at Arizona State University, calls his initial participation in an NSF-funded workshop on rigorous research in engineering education a “transformative experience.” Krause now conducts workshops on evidence-based approaches to engineering education.
Alex Rudolph,15 a professor of physics and astronomy at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and a frequent workshop leader, says he was “won over” after first participating in a workshop on research-based teaching and learning offered by the Center for Astronomy Education. “I went ahead and incorporated the entire set of pedagogical strategies they had developed—lock, stock, and barrel.” Rudolph encourages instructors with an interest in trying new strategies to first attend a workshop. “Those two days of immersion make all the difference in the world,” he says. “It gives you a basis on which to start, without feeling like you’re picking up a hammer when you’ve never been a carpenter and you’re being told to build a house.”
Professional development activities vary considerably in their focus, duration, delivery methods, extent of follow-up, and other characteristics. They also vary in their effectiveness, as discussed below.
A wide array of professional development opportunities—ranging from daylong workshops to fellowships extending over one year or more, and from efforts on one’s local campus to large-scale national programs—are available to instructors who want to learn more about research-based approaches to teaching and learning. These programs are sponsored by individual institutions, disciplinary societies and professional organizations, networks of practitioners using a particular instructional approach, and other entities. Some professional development efforts are geared to instructors with little or no experience in research-based approaches, while others are aimed at more seasoned innovators and alumni of previous workshops who want to go into more depth.
Several professional development initiatives are described in Chapters 6 and 7. The example below of the Summer Institute for Undergraduate Education in Biology sponsored by the National Academies and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute gives a taste of the experiences available to instructors through a multi-day workshop in research-based teaching approaches.
14 Interview, July 9, 2013.
15 Interview, August 20, 2013.
At the annual National Academies Summer Institute for Undergraduate Education in Biology, faculty and other instructional staff from around the country spend an intensive week learning about and gaining experience in “scientific teaching.” This approach encourages instructors to improve their undergraduate science classes by applying the same rigor, creativity, critical thinking, and scientific spirit that they use in their biology lab work (Center for Scientific Teaching, 2014).
First offered in 2004 and currently sponsored by the National Academies and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Summer Institute (SI) was the first major national professional development program for life sciences faculty. The SI emphasizes active learning, methods for assessment of student learning and teaching effectiveness, and instructional strategies that engage a diverse group of students. Participants work in small groups to develop instructional materials with clearly defined learning goals, which they can take back to their home campuses and use right away. In addition, they learn how to lead workshops on scientific teaching (National Academies, n.d.).
“One difference between the SI and many other professional development workshops is that we model scientific teaching rather than simply telling participants about it. So, for example, participants in an active learning session actually experience what it’s like to be a student in an active learning classroom,” says Bill Wood,a a University of Colorado Boulder biologist and a co-founder and former co-director of the SI. With this type of preparation, participants “are better able to implement active learning later in their own teaching,” explains Wood.
For the first several years, the SI was limited to biology faculty and offered at a single site, the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In order to reach a greater number of faculty, the sponsors expanded the program in 2011 to include workshops at several regional sites (Howard Hughes Medical Institute, 2011). While biology remains the main focus, some regional workshops have recently included multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary activities.
“Teaching in the light”
When Michelle Withers, now a biology professor at West Virginia University, arrived at the first SI in 2004, she knew she needed to improve her teaching methods. “I was still rewriting the book on PowerPoint slides. I was still the talking head,” she says (Howard Hughes Medical Institute, 2011). Attending the Institute “was sort of like someone flipped the light switch for me, and I went, ‘Oh, okay, this is what it’s like to teach in the light, and I’ve been teaching in the dark and didn’t realize it,’” she says (Mazella, 2013). Withers not only implemented the strategies she learned at the SI in her own classes, but also set up workshops on scientific teaching for the faculty and teaching assistants at her home campus. She now runs one of the regional SI workshops at her home institution.
Clarissa Dirks,b a biologist at The Evergreen State College in Washington State and leader of a regional SI workshop, describes her experience in
a Email from Bill Wood to Nancy Kober, March 23, 2014.
b Interview, March 24, 2014.
the first SI cohort as “life-changing.” Although she had previously used some active learning strategies in her courses, the SI workshop helped her realize “there are all these tools for doing things differently in the classroom, and the literature shows they’re more effective.” For example, she says, the SI experience helped her design better curriculum and instruction for a workshop for students from underrepresented groups. By examining assessment data, she determined that weaknesses in science processing and reasoning skills were a major stumbling block for many of these students. “I designed an entire program to teach these kinds of skills, and as a result, they went on to become incredibly successful in introductory biology,” Dirks explains. Currently Dirks is designing a national assessment to measure scientific process and reasoning skills in biology.
Changing practices and influencing others
Since 2004, roughly 1,000 biology instructors have participated in the SI, notes Wood.c All but a few of the major research universities, as well as other types of institutions, have sent instructors to the SI. Typically, two or three instructors from the same institution attend together so they can support each other in implementation after they return home.
To encourage SI participants to become agents for change at their home campuses, the program asks them to make a commitment to use and evaluate the impact of the materials they developed at the workshop and to coordinate a workshop on scientific teaching at their own institution for faculty, post-docs, or graduate students.
The SI has had several “spinoff” effects, says Dirks. She and several other alumni have gone on to engage in DBER scholarship, publish their findings in journals, and assume leadership roles in efforts to improve science education.
Evaluations of impact
Surveys of the first five SI cohorts conducted before, shortly after, one year after, and two years after their participation show a substantial increase in scientific teaching practices over time (Pfund et al., 2009). For example, two years after participating in an SI, more than 68 percent of alumni reported using three main strategies emphasized during the
c Email from Bill Wood to Nancy Kober, March 23, 2014.
workshops—active learning, assessments of learning and teaching effectiveness, and diversity strategies—in at least half of their class sessions. A large majority of SI alumni also reported that they had mentored a colleague in teaching and presented a seminar or workshop about teaching, according to self-reported survey data (Pfund et al., 2009).
A study of the impact of professional development on participants in the National Academies SI and a related professional development effort, the NSF-funded Faculty Institutes for Reforming Science Teaching (FIRST II), used videotaped observations of classes in addition to participant surveys to address some of the limitations inherent in self-reported data (Ebert-May et al., 2011). Findings from this study were mixed. Although more than 75 percent of participants reported frequent use of learner-centered and cooperative learning on the surveys, the observational data, which were analyzed using an established protocol, found that up to 18 months after the workshop, the majority of study participants still used mainly lecture-based instruction.
In addition to the obvious differences between self-reported survey data and observational data, these two evaluations also differed somewhat in the cohorts of participants studied and the time elapsed after the workshop. The design and delivery of the workshop continued to be refined over time, says Dirks.d It is also noteworthy that SI alumni often say that it took them three or more years of experimenting before they felt they could effectively use learner-centered teaching strategies (Pfund et al., 2009). As the National Research Center (NRC) report on DBER concludes, “These results suggest that measuring the influence of DBER and related research on teaching requires a nuanced, longitudinal model of individual behavior rather than a traditional ‘cause and effect’ model using a workshop or other delivery mechanism as the intervention” (National Research Council, 2012, p. 173).
d Interview, March 24, 2014.
Professional development can take forms other than attending traditional workshops, institutes, and seminars. Obtaining regular and timely feedback from experts on how one is implementing changes in instruction is a powerful form of professional development (Henderson, Beach, and Finkelstein, 2011). Prather and Brissenden (2008) suggest a model of “situated apprenticeships” in which instructors actively practice teaching strategies and critique each other’s implementation through an ongoing peer-review process.16 Other options include reviewing videos of skilled instructors teaching in their classrooms with expert commentary, or reviewing videos of one’s own teaching with feedback from a mentor.
Evidence of the effectiveness of different types of professional development comes largely from self-reports from participants, which must be interpreted with caution, and in a few cases from more detailed types of follow-up and observations of instructional practices of former participants. In general, this evidence suggests that professional development activities have been more successful in increasing instructors’ awareness about research-based strategies than in changing teaching practice. A limited amount of evidence suggests, however, that professional development efforts can have a positive impact on practice, particularly if the professional development program is longer in duration and incorporates the components described in the next paragraph. (For a more detailed discussion of studies of professional development, see Chapter 8 of the 2012 NRC report on DBER.)
How do you go about choosing an effective professional program? You can start by looking for programs focused on research-based approaches in your discipline, because they will be more likely to address principles of teaching and learning that are specific to the courses you teach. Although additional research needs to be done on the relative effectiveness of different kinds of professional development, programs with some evidence of success in changing faculty practices generally include more than one of the following components (Henderson, Beach, and Finkelstein, 2011; Loucks-Horsley et al., 2009; Wilson, 2011):
- A duration of four weeks or more (although not necessarily all at the same time)
- A focus on making participants aware of the learning principles underlying an innovation and changing their conceptions about teaching and learning, through opportunities for self-reflection or other means
16 Connecting with like-minded colleagues, discussed above, facilitates the process of obtaining feedback from experts.
- Modeling of the instructional practices that participants are expected to use—for example, by teaching the workshop through active learning and engaging participants in the types of activities students would do
- Expert leaders with a strong grounding in the discipline and experience in implementing the specific strategies they are teaching to participants
- Opportunities for participants to practice new instructional approaches in the workshop and receive expert feedback as they do this
- Use of research-validated techniques to motivate adult learners, such as relevant content, opportunities for reflection, and group work (Wlodkowski, 1999)
- Activities that encourage participants to articulate clearly how they will put what they have learned into action after the workshop (Hilborn, 2012)
- Follow-up activities for workshop alumni, such as peer mentoring, Web networks, and gatherings
The trajectory of Karen Kortz,17 a geology professor at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI), illustrates how an instructor with a strong desire to increase her students’ learning and engagement but with little previous exposure to DBER relied on several of the suggestions described in this chapter.
As a new faculty member at CCRI in 2001, Kortz wanted to be a great teacher, but she was not certain what that entailed. Many of her students were working or raising families while attending college, and most were taking her course primarily to meet a laboratory science requirement. She hoped to be able to dispel her students’ fears about science and give them a compelling reason to attend class. “I knew courses should be interactive, but I didn’t know how to do that,” she says.
Kortz began by attending a workshop for early career geosciences faculty offered by On the Cutting Edge, a professional development project of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers. “That really opened my eyes,” she says. There she learned more about how to design interactive instruction and was inspired by people who were doing DBER. (“I had no idea there was such a thing,” she adds.)
17 Except where noted, the information in this example comes from an interview with Karen Kortz, April 5, 2013.
After that workshop, Kortz started changing her courses a little at a time. One of the first things she did was develop worksheets that students would do in small groups between lecture segments. At another workshop on interactive teaching of astronomy, Kortz learned about lecture tutorials, which are designed explicitly to tease out students’ inaccurate ideas about science concepts and lead them to deeper understanding (Prather et al., 2007). “I thought, this is what we need in geology,” she says.
Kortz and her colleague Jessica Smay of San Jose City College began turning their initial set of informal worksheets into a more formal series of lecture tutorials that targeted common student misconceptions in geosciences identified by research. Their tutorials have been made available on the SERC website18 and have also been used by other instructors and published as a book (Kortz and Smay, 2012). One study across multiple institutions revealed that the use of these lecture tutorials improved students’ test scores in introductory geosciences courses (Kortz, Smay, and Murray, 2008).
In the meantime, Kortz introduced other interactive techniques into her classes, including clicker questions, Think-Pair-Share, and the jigsaw approach (all explained in Chapter 4). In a few cases, she abandoned techniques that were not worth the class time they required. Eventually, she completed a Ph.D. in geosciences education while continuing to teach. Acknowledging that in her early career she sometimes spent unnecessary effort trying to “reinvent the wheel,” she also advises instructors to “build on the work that’s already out there.”
Kortz, who has won awards for her teaching, now leads On the Cutting Edge workshops herself. “So it’s come full circle,” she says. Her students show higher-than-average improvement in their scores on the GCI, a standardized assessment designed to diagnose students’ conceptual understanding and learning in entry-level Earth science courses. Kortz tells instructors who want to improve their teaching: “Don’t give up.”
Resources and Further Reading
The Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL) Network www.cirtl.net
Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering (National Research Council, 2012)
Chapter 8: Translating Research into Teaching Practice: The Influence of Discipline-Based
Education Research on Undergraduate Science and Engineering Instruction
The Science Education Resource Center (SERC) at Carleton College www.serc.carleton.edu