In pursuing your scientific or engineering research you have undoubtedly encountered obstacles: an experiment or design that did not work as anticipated at first, a grant that fell through, a peer review that identified a problem in your methodology. But surmounting these obstacles can sometimes lead to greater understanding, a stronger design, and better results.
The same is true with instructional design. Many leaders in research-based instruction readily admit that some of their early attempts were not as successful as they had hoped, and many faced challenges that rattled their resolve. As in scientific research or engineering design, the best response to the inevitable stumble or obstacle is not to give up but to reflect on what you can do better, make adjustments, and persist.
“Be patient,” advises Alex Rudolph,1 a physics and astronomy professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. “Don’t expect everything to work the first time out. Realize that these things take time to learn and do well…. Be willing to try something and get better at it, because if you do it a few times you almost always get better.”
Just as many of your students need time, guidance, and encouragement to be successful with new ways of learning, you will need time, practice, and support to become more comfortable and competent with new ways of teaching, and even longer to become adept. Ed Prather,2 an astronomy professor at the University of Arizona, tells participants in his faculty development workshops that “while the first time out of the gate it might not be perfect, they’re making slow and steady progress toward a goal that is part of their profession.” Even instructors who have been using research-based approaches for several years continue to tweak their
1 Interview, August 20, 2013.
2 Interview, April 29, 2013.
courses to incorporate promising strategies, fine-tune their curriculum or teaching techniques, and address new challenges.
The advice in Chapter 2 to start small and revise your teaching gradually can help you gain confidence that the changes you are making are “effective, doable, and rewarding,” notes Cynthia Brame,3 assistant director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching. “[E]ven a partial change in this direction can lead to significantly increased learning gains,” conclude Knight and Wood (2005), and can help people adapt to challenges little by little.
This chapter offers a view from the trenches about common challenges to implementing research-based strategies and advice about how to address them. The suggestions come from experienced practitioners who have encountered and surmounted bumps in their own roads and from scholars who have studied faculty innovation.
Not all of the challenges discussed in this chapter can be fully resolved at the instructor level. Some require actions from department heads, institutional leaders, and others with broader influence. This chapter focuses on steps that can be taken at the individual level to advance research-based teaching and learning, while Chapter 7 describes what departments, institutions, and other entities can do to support these efforts.
Studies of faculty adoption of instructional innovations and surveys of instructional practices in science and engineering have identified several factors that instructors often perceive as obstacles to using more research-based practices (for example, Henderson and Dancy, 2011; Jacobson, Davis, and Licklider, 1998; Knight and Wood, 2005):
- Time involved in learning about new strategies and redesigning courses
- Concerns about ensuring that students are taught important content
- Concerns about students’ reactions to an unfamiliar teaching method and the impact on student course evaluations
- Concerns that a different strategy will not work as well, especially if it impacts tenure
3 Interview, April 29, 2013.
- Departmental norms about teaching methods and other expectations
- Class size and classroom facilities
- Course scheduling issues
Although some of these factors are more myth than reality, several can present genuine challenges. Henderson, Dancy, and Niewiadomska-Bugaj (2012) suggest that about one-third of the faculty who try at least one research-based strategy abandon their reform efforts, often when they are confronted with implementation challenges, such as student complaints, concerns about losing important content, or weaker than expected student outcomes. In addition, faculty members frequently modify a research-based strategy to suit their needs—a reasonable reaction, but one that can compromise effectiveness if the modifications omit elements that are critical to the strategy’s success.
The good news is that real challenges can be overcome, particularly if departmental and institutional leaders can be brought on board to address challenges that cannot be dealt with by individuals alone. Of the faculty in multiple science disciplines at the University of British Columbia (UBC) who adopted research-based instructional strategies with the support of the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative, only a tiny fraction—1 out of 70 individuals—quit using them, according to a study by Wieman, Deslauriers, and Gilley (2013). In addition, more than 90 percent of the faculty adopters in the UBC physics and geosciences departments, both of which had grants of five or more years to transform their undergraduate courses, started using research-based strategies in other courses when they had the opportunity, with minimal or no support from the Initiative. Sections taught using research-based instruction had better student attendance, higher student engagement, and greater learning gains than sections taught in traditional ways (Wieman, Deslauriers, and Gilley, 2013). The study authors speculate that the direct support provided to adopting faculty members by a trained science education specialist in their discipline was instrumental in helping them persist through the initial stages of implementation, and that a supportive departmental environment was also a critical factor.
While departmental and institutional support is desirable and helpful, the lack of this support is not an excuse for retaining the status quo. Individual instructors can still adopt and advocate for research-based strategies even without the active involvement of their department or institution. Some well-known pioneers of research-based practices report that when they started out many years
ago, their department provided little to no encouragement for their efforts or took a neutral stance—or “tolerated” them as long as they brought in grant money, as one senior professor of physics at a state university noted.
In fact, many of the programs, models, and strategies highlighted in this book began with one or a few instructors who were committed to improving their practice. While “lasting change is not created by lone visionaries” (Chasteen et al., 2012, p. 75), individuals can plant a seed that blooms, propagates, and flourishes with the right sustenance from colleagues and institutional leaders.
“The thing that transforms a department is not the department but the faculty in the department,” says Eric Brewe,4 a physics professor at Florida International University. “If I’m a department chair and I want to change the way my faculty teach, [I] have to support it—commit resources to it. But the research on institutional change says that once you get to 20 percent of an organization, you can start to see some momentum. In a department of, say, 30 faculty members, that’s 6 people. That’s not too much to ask for.” This speaks to the need for instructors in the vanguard of reform to reach out to their colleagues in their own institution.
4 Interview, April 16, 2013.
The sections that follow examine the most common challenges that can be addressed by individuals—those relating to time, content, and student reactions—and offer ideas for overcoming them. In addition, the chapter suggests ways in which instructors can expand their knowledge and skills in research-based practices so they are better prepared to face implementation challenges and to secure funding and other resources to support more ambitious reforms. A final section suggests ways in which individual instructors can help to create a departmental or an institutional culture that fosters research-based innovations in teaching and learning. Broader challenges that require actions from departments or institutions, such as those related to tenure, departmental expectations, class size, and scheduling, are addressed in Chapter 7.
Finding time to learn about research-based approaches and to redesign courses is one of the greatest challenges to implementation. Science and engineering faculty members work an average of 55 to 60 hours per week (Fairweather, 2005). Although they may be interested in research findings about effective teaching and learning, most cannot afford to spend an unspecified amount of work time figuring out how to apply these findings to their own practices (Fairweather, 2008).
Faculty at research universities may be hesitant to take time away from their own research, especially if they’re seeking tenure, and from related tasks such as supervising graduate students and writing papers and proposals. As discussed more in Chapter 7, teaching is often viewed as a lesser priority, and one that is not promoted by the institutional reward structure. Instructors with heavy teaching loads may fear that redesigning their courses could mean they must spend even more time developing materials, preparing for class, meeting with students, and grading assignments and exams. At all types of institutions, faculty have other responsibilities that put additional demands on their time.
It does take some time to become skilled at using new strategies and even more time to redesign a course. But there are ways you can reduce the time involved, allocate your time differently, or share the effort involved in transforming instruction. Here are some suggestions from experienced practitioners and studies of course transformation:
- Use materials developed by others that have been shown to be effective. As noted in Chapter 2, research-validated curricula, assessments, and other instructional resources are available from a variety of sources. While you may want to adapt or add to these materials, starting with existing materials can save considerable time and effort.
- Do what you can with the time and resources available, and then expand. This complements the advice in Chapter 2 to start small. “Think about one new thing you can do during the class period, or one class session you can teach that’s structured a little bit differently,” suggests Derek Bruff,5 a senior lecturer and director of Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching. Bruff gives the example of an engineering professor who worked with the Center for Teaching over a few semesters and “added one layer after another to his teaching over time … making small changes along the way. After a few semesters, his teaching implements more [research-based] practices than it did before.”
- Consider using your preparation time differently. To prepare for a student-centered class, instructors may spend less time creating well-organized and engaging lectures but more time selecting and adapting good questions and activities tied to their learning goals. “It clearly takes effort to change your practices and engage in discussion and reflection,” says chemistry professor Vicente Talanquer6 of the University of Arizona. “If you are motivated, you’re using the time you take to prepare for classes in a different way.” In addition, while it does take extra time and effort to transform an existing course, designing a new course around research-based approaches may not require significantly more effort than preparing a semester’s worth of lectures.
- Obtain support, where available, from education specialists, postdoctoral fellows, or similar positions. The Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative at UBC and a sister initiative at the University of Colorado Boulder provide science education specialists to help faculty with course transformation. At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, graduate student interns in the Delta Program in Research, Teaching, and Learning serve as “capacity building for faculty,” says Don Gillian-Daniel,7 the program’s associate director, by helping faculty create research-based instructional materials. “For some faculty, it’s simply having new materials,” explains Gillian-Daniel. “For other faculty, it’s
5 Interview, April 29, 2013.
6 Interview, April 3, 2013.
7 Interview, April 26, 2013.
an opportunity to start a progressive revision of a course.” People trained in providing this type of instructional support not only can save faculty time, but also can be a source of new ideas and expertise.
- Share the effort with one or more interested colleagues. Several instructors interviewed for this book worked with one or more colleagues to redesign a course, and in some cases they decided to co-teach or team teach that course. Part of the UBC/Colorado Science Education Initiative involved doing away with the “glaring example of inefficiency [of] the large multi-section, multi-instructor courses where all the instructors prepare independent lectures and exams” (Wieman, Perkins, and Gilbert, 2010).
- Use graduate assistants or undergraduate learning assistants to help with some of the logistical demands of research-based instruction. These types of assistants can assist with a range of the day-to-day tasks in student-centered courses: preparing materials, providing guidance to students as they work in groups, reviewing students’ reflective writing assignments, or managing a course wiki, to list just a few possibilities.
- Consider your priorities for using the time you have. Often the real issue is not so much a lack of time to revise your teaching, but priorities for allocating time. Once they had gotten a taste of the possibilities, some instructors interviewed for this book made a point to set aside time to expand their initial efforts at research-based reform. Some have used sabbatical time or summers for this purpose. Priorities for using one’s time are also shaped by departmental and institutional incentives, so encouragement from these levels can help instructors feel they have the latitude to shift a portion of their time toward improving teaching and learning.
Some of these options may require approval or support at the institutional level, and some may be easier to do for instructors who are not seeking tenure. Thus, departmental and institutional support can be extremely helpful in reserving time for implementing research-based practices. When administrative leaders recognize the value of investing time in making significant course changes, faculty feel supported and the change process can proceed more quickly.
Some instructors fear that if they shift to more student-centered instructional approaches, their students will miss exposure to important content, including content they need to know to be prepared for upper-level courses. Nearly one-half (49 percent) of the physics faculty surveyed by Dancy and Henderson (2012) cited concerns about “content coverage” as a factor that prevented them from using more research-based strategies. Other instructors may worry that the content taught through student-centered activities will be less rigorous than that covered in a traditional lecture.
Scholars and practitioners with experience in research-based course redesign point out that students are not well served by a curriculum in which they are exposed to many topics but gain mastery of none. What really matters is how much content students actually learn, not how much content an instructor presents in a lecture. “[R]ather than worry about cramming more material into an already bloated curriculum, it would be best to focus on teaching a few of the major concepts/principles well in order to help students see ‘the big picture,’” writes Jose Mestre (2008, p. 3). In a paper about insights on implementing small-group learning from successful practitioners, Cooper and colleagues (2000) noted that about two-thirds of the faculty members they interviewed said they covered fewer topics in class when they used group work “but that students learned and retained more of the ‘big ideas’ that they chose to address relative to using lecture formats” (p. 64).
What really matters is how much content students actually learn, not how much content an instructor presents in a lecture.
In a related vein, not all of the material addressed in a typical lecture course is vital for students to learn. In the process of writing learning objectives for an engineering course, Jacobson, Davis, and Licklider “discovered that about 10 percent of course material covered was not connected to a learning objective. We were also able to focus the course on a few key objectives that could be assessed and evaluated throughout the course” (1998, p. 2).
Moreover, using research-based, instructional strategies does not necessarily result in significant reductions in the content taught, as some instructors fear. As documented in a study by Deslauriers, Schelew, and Wieman (2011), an instructor using research-based methods in a section of a physics course covered the same amount of material in the same amount of time as an instructor using a strictly lecture-based approach, but students taught with research-based approaches showed dramatically higher gains in learning.
There are steps you can consider to make sure that students learn the most important content in your discipline and are adequately prepared for subsequent courses.
- Make students responsible for learning some content outside of class. What matters most is what students learn in an entire course, rather than what they learn through “in-class” and “out-of-class” activities. Some content can be covered by homework, reading, or study guides. This is what Knight and Wood (2005) did when they revamped an upper-division biology course to reduce lecture time and include more student interaction. Students were asked to take responsibility for learning some of the material by doing assigned readings (with quizzes to make sure they learned the reading material) and working in groups outside of class to complete homework problems and post their answers on the course website. Students in the interactive course had significantly higher learning gains and better conceptual understanding than a group that previously took the same course taught with a lecture-based method.
- Identify and focus on the most important content. If you begin the process of instructional change by setting learning goals, as recommended in Chapter 2, this will help determine the most essential topics and enduring ideas to be addressed in a course. Topics that are nice but not necessary to know can be omitted. When Mark Leckie8 and Richard Yuretich redesigned their oceanography course to make it more interactive, “it forced us to really identify the absolutely important things” that they wanted students to learn, says Leckie. This was a “refreshing” exercise that made it possible for them to devote class time to interactive learning, he adds.
- Focus on fewer topics in greater depth. Faculty are often concerned that this approach will be less rigorous than traditional lecture, but actually it is more so, says Vicente Talanquer, because the activities focus on developing students’ conceptual understanding. Students learn by going into depth on core concepts rather than by working their way through a list of many topics.
- Consult with colleagues to identify the topics students need to know to be prepared for subsequent courses. Instructors who teach introductory courses may hesitate to use a more student-centered approach because they fear their students will seem ill-prepared for upper-level courses in a discipline if they have not studied certain topics. But these expectations about topics may
8 Interview, March 22, 2013.
be based on longstanding tradition or the assumptions of individual faculty about what is important rather than on a real analysis of learning goals. If you engage your departmental colleagues in a discussion about which content is important—or, better yet, in a full-blown effort to identify broad learning goals across multiple courses—the result might be a shorter list than you imagined.
What you are asking students to do in a research-based classroom is not necessarily easy. At first, some students may be puzzled, uncomfortable, or even resistant when they realize they are expected to learn in unfamiliar ways or to prepare differently and participate more actively in class. They can’t get by with just taking notes and cramming for exams. You may hear comments like these:
You’re the expert—I’m paying a lot for you to teach me.
Wouldn’t it be faster if you just told us?
Why should I have to work with someone else who knows less than I do?
Why do I have to do these grade-school-type activities? I’ve done well in my
other classes by doing the homework, taking notes, and studying.
This is biology, not English—why do I need to write something for each class?
I’m shy; I don’t feel comfortable talking in a group.
Why are you doing this to us?!
Many students have grown comfortable with being told facts to memorize, and some pushback from students is understandable (Cummings, 2008). Sometimes the greatest resistance to change comes from the highest achievers or upper-division students, who have succeeded to date through traditional approaches (Silverthorn, 2006).
At institutions where student course evaluations play a role in assessing and retaining instructors, instructors may fear that trying new approaches will lower their good evaluation results. A sense of perspective is necessary, however; often it is a minority of students who balk at new ways of teaching and learning. Faculty who spearheaded the research-based transformation of numerous courses
at Colorado found that ratings on student course evaluations before and after the course transformations “remained essentially the same for the same instructors independent of the pedagogy used,” with two exceptions that appeared to be related to “poor planning and/or technology bugs rather than resistance to the pedagogy” (Wieman, Perkins, and Gilbert, 2010, p. 14). Some studies (for example, Hativa, 1995; Silverthorn, 2006) have documented improvements in student course evaluations after the adoption of research-based teaching practices. At North Carolina State University, students who took a first-semester physics class taught using the Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies (SCALE-UP) model (see Chapter 4) universally selected the SCALE-UP version, rather than the lecture version, for their second-semester physics course. In focus groups, students who had taken the lecture version for their first semester and SCALE-UP in their second semester reported that they were learning at a deeper conceptual level in the SCALE-UP class, a point that is corroborated by evidence of gains in learning (Beichner, 2008).
Seidel and Tanner (2013) reviewed research literature on student resistance to active learning and concluded resistance is often less a reaction to the pedagogy than to negative instructor behaviors in the classroom, such as sarcasm, absenteeism or tardiness, and unresponsiveness or apathy to students. Seidel and Tanner also posit that a faculty member’s own barriers to embracing innovative instruction may find a parallel in students’ attitudes. Priscilla Laws,9 a Dickinson College professor who was an early user of a workshop approach to teaching physics, cautions that any amount of resistance from students “can give disgruntled faculty an excuse to drop what they didn’t want to do in the first place.”
Still, student resistance can be a real issue even when the instructor has a positive attitude about new approaches to teaching. In upper-level biology courses that were redesigned by Knight and Wood (2005), many students at first disliked and distrusted the interactive approach and the group activities. After additional
9 Interview, July 30, 2013.
exposure, however, most students became comfortable with the unfamiliar format and ultimately reported that it helped their learning.
Seasoned practitioners and researchers suggest several strategies that instructors can use to create positive student attitudes about research-based strategies:
- Make clear from the first day why these teaching strategies are effective, and be explicit about how they benefit students, and what is expected of students. “It’s really critical that you explain to students why you’re doing what you’re doing and acknowledge how it may differ from their expectations,” says Edward Price,10 a physics professor at California State University San Marcos. “They must see you are convinced that they will learn more … and must see that you have a specific rationale.” Robin Wright,11 a biology professor at the University of Minnesota, emphasizes the importance of making students feel as if they have teamed with the instructor to foster their own learning. The first day of a course, Wright leads her students in a discussion of the roles and responsibilities of students and instructors and how they differ from what students are accustomed to. She explicitly acknowledges that they may be uncomfortable at first. Suggestions for setting a positive tone for a student-centered classroom on the first day of class can be accessed through the Starting Points module on the Science Education Resource Center (SERC) website (http://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/firstday/index.html).
- Show students evidence of how research-based strategies will help them learn and prepare for their future life. Some instructors share evidence with their students of increased learning among students in research-based classes. Karl Wirth,12 a geosciences professor at Macalester College, shows students lists of the skills that employers want and how those correlate with the activities they will do in his class. Stephen Krause,13 an engineering professor at Arizona State University, displays a graphic that compares the work environments of “yesterday’s engineer” and “tomorrow’s engineer” and correlates the former with teacher-centered instruction and the latter with student-centered learning.
- Use a variety of interesting learning activities. “[D]ifferent teaching approaches and activities are likely to resonate in different ways with different students,” write Seidel and Tanner (2013, p. 592). They suggest that varying the
10 Interview, August 23, 2013.
11 Interview, April 12, 2013.
12 Interview, July 8, 2013.
13 Interview, July 9, 2013.
teaching approaches used throughout a course may “provide points of access to positive classroom experiences for diverse populations.”
- Encourage word-of-mouth among upper-level students who have already taken the course. Many instructors interviewed for this book talked about the power of the student grapevine in convincing other students to enroll in courses that use research-based approaches. After a few years of teaching a SCALE-UP biology course, Wright noticed that students who had previously taken the course were succeeding in upper-division courses, including courses taught in a more traditional way. Eventually, she says, the upper-division students tell the lower-division students, “You’re going to work your butt off, you’re going to be really frustrated sometimes, but it’s really worth it because it will prepare you well for what you’re going to do next.” Undergraduate learning assistants and graduate teaching assistants who have helped to facilitate student-centered classes can also spread the word about the benefits of this approach.
- Listen to students’ concerns and make changes to address legitimate ones. The first few semesters of teaching more interactively may be somewhat rough. Virtually all of the instructors interviewed for this book continued to refine their approaches after their initial effort to introduce a research-based strategy. While some pushback from students may stem from their lack of familiarity with new teaching strategies, other student criticisms may be legitimate responses to aspects of a class that could be improved. Price reports that “the reaction from students has been generally positive, and as we have listened to them and refined what we’re doing, it’s become more positive.”
- Make sure that grading and other policies are fair. In classes that involve extensive collaborative work, some students may resent having a portion of their grade depend on the contributions of others, especially if their team includes a weak or lazy student. As discussed in Chapter 5, it is important to assign students an individual grade even in a collaborative learning environment, and to ensure that a grade for group performance does not unduly penalize a student (Smith, 1998). Seidel and Tanner (2013) suggest that instructors provide students with clear and explicit criteria, or rubrics, for how their work will be evaluated before they start a task.
Professor Dee Silverthorn at the University of Texas (UT) uses a combination of strategies to help students adapt to the interactive strategies used in her physiology class.
On the first day of Dee Silverthorn’sa upper-division physiology course at the University of Texas (UT), she informs her students this will be a different kind of class. “You spend a lot of your career at UT going to class, taking notes, going home and rewriting notes, and then memorizing them,” Silverthorn tells her 200-plus students, most of whom are majoring in biology or health care fields like nursing, pre-med, or physical therapy. “And then you get a test that’s short-answer, multiple-choice, and there’s going to be enough content on the test that you’re going to be able to recall what you’ve memorized. This class is not like that. On the test you’re going to get a piece of paper—one page with three lines of text at the top—and the rest of the page is blank. For the rest of your life no one is going to be telling you what need to know…. You’ve got to have the information stored and organized [in your brain] and be able to retrieve it flexibly.”
“And the students don’t believe me,” says Silverthorn, who has been teaching since 1986. In the weeks that follow, students come to realize that their professor meant what she said. She spends minimal time lecturing, and many of her slides consist of figures and graphs. Students are expected to learn basic facts, such as definitions or functions of major bodily systems, outside of class by doing reading assignments. She makes sure they do the assignments by requiring them to take online, open-book quizzes on the readings that must be completed before class starts and that factor into their grade. A portion of their grade is also determined by their attendance in class.
In class, students answer clicker questions that target common misconceptions and then find another student with a different answer and do a Think-Pair-Share exercise, as Silverthorn wanders through the large lecture hall with a cordless microphone. “It’s really loud and noisy and a lot of fun,” she says. Then the students vote again on the correct answer.
Students also work on more demanding problems in class. After studying normal and abnormal electrocardiograms (ECGs), for example, students are given one of six different abnormal ECGs to analyze. Working in teams, they try to determine the heart rate and rhythm, label all the waves, compare their abnormal ECG with a normal ECG, and decide what physiological problem caused the abnormality. “The more you can make it practical, the more you teach them to think critically in context,” says Silverthorn. She once received an email from a student who attended a Johns Hopkins University summer program and was excited that he knew more than the Hopkins medical students in the program, she reports.
The exams generally consist of an essay question, including some that require students to make concept maps. For example, students might be given a question about a clinical scenario: somebody gets lost in the desert and becomes dehydrated. Students must map the physiological responses that the person’s body goes through as it tries to adapt to a decrease in blood volume and water volume and an increase in osmolarity. “I tell them the tests are a teaching tool as well as an evaluation tool,” says Silverthorn. She informs her students that “I’m pushing you out of your comfort zone, but if you’re not challenged, you don’t know where you need to improve.”
a Except where noted, the information in this case study comes from an interview with Dee Silverthorn, June 25, 2013.
Most students accept the reality of the course structure and begin to adapt, writes Silverthorn (2006). At this point, she says, the instructor needs to be ready to help by encouraging students and giving them alternative ways of approaching the course, such as new study strategies. Once students’ attempts to adapt meet with some success, most regain their confidence. “Often these students have to redefine what ‘success’ means. Before this class, success was making an A on an exam. Now success is measured against progress (‘I’m doing better than I was’) and is related to mastery of the material,” writes Silverthorn (2006).
Despite her efforts to prepare students from the beginning about how the class operates and why she teaches as she does, some students have difficulty adapting. After the first test, when some students are disappointed in their grades, she talks to the class again about the rationale and evidence for interactive teaching and learning. “You have to keep telling them over and over what you’re doing and why and that it’s okay.” High achievers in particular, including pre-med majors, may become frustrated when they suddenly are not doing as well as they expect in a class that requires them to learn in a different way. Many students have not learned to study for understanding, she points out.
Silverthorn’s advice to other instructors who are implementing research-based strategies is to challenge students but be fair about it. Instructors need to examine why students develop misconceptions and how they can address them. While many students later say that this physiology course was one of the hardest undergraduate classes they took, they also give it good evaluations. “Students can appreciate being pushed as long as they know it won’t hurt their grade,” she says.
It took Silverthorn several semesters of observation and experimentation to develop her teaching strategy. Even now, she continues to tweak aspects of the course. “Teaching is an interactive process,” she says, “and I believe that when we stop trying to improve our teaching, it is time to retire.”
The ability to handle challenges generally improves as instructors gain more experience and knowledge of practices based on discipline-based education research (DBER) and related research. In addition, many instructors have collaborated with more experienced colleagues and participated in faculty development—not solely to get started, but also to get better. These modes of self-improvement are not just for novices at research-based teaching and learning; they can also benefit instructors who are well under way with implementation and want to learn new strategies or master approaches they have already tried.
“Effective teaching needs to be seen as a scholarly pursuit that takes place in collaboration with departmental colleagues, faculty in other departments in the sciences and engineering, and more broadly across disciplines,” notes a National Research Council (NRC) report on improving undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teaching (2003, p. 31). “Faculty can learn much by working with colleagues both on and beyond the campus.” For example, the report notes, colleagues can help improve the effectiveness of teaching by directly observing each other’s instruction, analyzing course content and materials, discussing problems they encounter, and other means.
The learning communities discussed in Chapter 2 not only can support faculty’s initial forays into research-based instruction, but also can offer advice on dealing with challenges that arise during implementation (Vergara et al., 2013).
Another way to find and give collegial support for research-based approaches is by observing the classrooms of other instructors who are implementing these strategies or by inviting colleagues to observe your own classes and offer feedback. Some instructors do two-way observations and critiques of each other in real time. Instructors have also videotaped their classes and arranged for trusted people to give them feedback on their own time.
Becoming a skilled user of research-based approaches often requires following up an initial workshop with more in-depth faculty development. Steve Pollock at Colorado went through such a progression. He received his first exposure to using ConcepTests with colored cards (a low-tech predecessor to clickers) from a colleague in the physics department in the 1990s. He began reading more of the physics education research literature. Next he took a course in theories of learning from Valerie Otero, a faculty member in the School of Education at his university. “This awakened me to the research base, and I submitted an application to the Carnegie teaching scholars program” run by the
Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. That experience consisted of two one-month learning opportunities during consecutive summers, with work in between on an individual implementation project. Later on, after receiving tenure, Pollock spent two months of his sabbatical visiting institutions that were leaders in physics education research (PER). “I really tried to observe as much as I could about what PER groups were doing. I came back and I started implementing it in my classroom and engaging in a more serious level of research,” he says.
While it is not necessary to delve as deeply into the scholarship as Pollock has, it is helpful to continue taking advantage of faculty development opportunities after an initial exposure, particularly ones that are taught using the same methods of active learning, group work, and intellectually rich activities that you are seeking to use with your students (Felder and Brent, 2010). Chapter 7 describes additional short- to longer-term professional development options offered by individual institutions, professional societies, foundations, and other entities.
In the “situated apprenticeship” workshops offered by Prather, director of the Center for Astronomy Education, participants receive feedback as they practice implementing research-based strategies in a simulated classroom environment. In this way, faculty gain a better understanding of the kinds of challenges that they and their students will face in a more interactive classroom.
In the workshops offered by the Center for Astronomy Education, instructors struggle in real time with the implementation issues they’re likely to have with using active learning strategies in their own classrooms. During the workshops, they are surrounded by other faculty whose role is to observe, question, critique, and “highlight when things are going awry,” says Ed Prather,a who leads the workshop, directs the Center, and serves as an astronomy professor at the University of Arizona. The “situated apprenticeship” model developed for these 2-day, 16-hour “boot camp” workshops uses a mock class environment in which participants take turns playing the roles of instructor, students, and friendly critics. The goal is to promote real change in instructional practices and skills by evoking and examining participants’ ideas about implementation of a particular instructional strategy.
In one version of the workshop, participants gain experience with developing and using Think-Pair-Share questions. In a plenary session, participants first critique questions provided by workshop leaders. Next they develop their own questions in collaborative groups. To guide the development process, participants are prompted to consider these questions:
- What discipline topics could an Astro 101 student realistically understand at a deep conceptual level?
- What would a student need to say to you to convince you that he or she had a deep understanding of the topic?
- What are students’ common conceptual or reasoning difficulties about the topic?
- What are the essential discipline ideas that illustrate or define the topic?
- What question would serve as a vehicle to promote a rich discussion among your students about the topic that would address the difficulties students have?
Each group then takes a turn practicing implementation of its question while the rest of the participants assume the roles of students in a mock class, a colleague who critiques the implementation, or critiquers of the Think-Pair-Share question itself. This process enables participants to see firsthand the kinds of errors that instructors commonly make when they implement a strategy like Think-Pair-Share. For example, some instructors reveal the correct answer to the “students,” as well as the percentage of students who chose that answer, before the students have had a chance to discuss and debate their answers with one another. “Providing students with this information before they talk to each other and before they are encouraged to defend the reasoning behind their vote has the potential to take the intellectual responsibility off the students and turn the pedagogical value of TPS [Think-Pair-Share] into a thought-less migration toward the most popular vote” (Prather and Brissenden, 2008). In this situation, the workshop leaders have found that a powerful way to instigate an immediate, lively discussion among students is to use a verbal prompt such as “turn to your neighbor and convince them you are right, and if you have the same answer, that
a Except where noted, the information in this case study comes from an interview with Edward Prather, April 26, 2013.
does not mean you are right, so be sure to explain your reasoning.”
“One thing that is quite clear is that a professional development environment has to be as well-informed and intellectually rich as you would hope your classroom would be,” says Prather. The mock classroom exercises and peer feedback are intended to foster change in implementation knowledge and skills by creating a situation in which participants encounter cognitive dissonance, much as students would in a research-based learning environment.
The current workshop design “came out of this moment when I was disenchanted with what I knew was happening in the workshop, in much the same way that a faculty member has to become really dissatisfied with what they see in their classroom,” Prather explains. In the earlier iteration of the workshop, Prather used a more traditional approach of telling participants about the implementation issues they were likely to encounter—which was “essentially a glorified lecture environment about interactive teaching,” he says.
Participants who have attended other workshops on Think-Pair-Share report that after attending the Center for Astronomy Education workshops, “they feel much more confident in their ability to successfully implement this instructional strategy in their own classes” and “are better able to fully articulate the underlying pedagogical reasons for its use” (Prather and Brissenden, 2008).
In another version of the workshop, participants practice implementing tutorials. The participants are divided into teams of three and are told to do the tutorial but to “write all your answers as if you’re only as good at astronomy as a good 101 student,” Prather explains. Participants are also asked to write in the margins what they would ask a student who is stuck on that question. “If you can’t write out an answer in Astro 101–speak about these topics or envision what [students] might be struggling with when they get to that question and what you would ask, then you’re not ready to use it in the classroom,” he adds.
In a follow-up activity, participants who did not do that particular tutorial play the role of students doing the tutorial for the first time and ask questions of the instructor based on what they think students would struggle with. The workshop leaders then analyze whether the questions the “students” asked are legitimate issues that students would have trouble with.
The length and intensity of the workshops are critical, says Prather. It takes a while for faculty to be “willing to let their guard down enough to be honest with each other; it can’t happen in a one-hour workshop,” says Prather.
Since its inception in 2004, the Center for Astronomy Education has provided comprehensive, multi-day professional development to more than 2,200 astronomy and space science instructors, post-docs, graduate students, and other professionals. The workshops are jointly funded by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Implementing a research-based approach involves both actual and opportunity costs. While many instructors have developed research-based strategies and materials without any dedicated time or funding or other supports such as release time, it is obviously easier to do this with resources.
Once you have taken initial steps to implement research-based strategies, funding or in-kind resources can provide the impetus to go deeper into redesigning a course or to expand into additional courses. Many people highlighted in this book applied for and received grants or fellowships to subsidize some of the time and other costs involved in studying research-based strategies, designing or redesigning courses, developing materials, purchasing learning technologies, and pursuing other activities associated with instructional reform.
In some cases, grants, release time, or other types of resources may be available from one’s own institution. In many cases, instructors have sought external support. NSF has been and continues to be a notable source of funding for reform of science education. Other sources include disciplinary societies, professional associations, foundations, or other government agencies. Chapter 7 gives some examples of the types of support that are available from institutional and external sources.
The attitudes of one’s peers and the culture of a department can facilitate or impede efforts to implement research-based strategies. Based on interviews with faculty about constraints on their use of STEM innovations, Henderson and Dancy (2011) conclude that it is easier for instructors to use research-based methods if other members of their department are also doing so, but it is much more difficult if traditional methods are the norm. While research evidence about increased student learning can be persuasive, colleagues often have a major influence on whether instructors use an instructional innovation: two-thirds of the faculty surveyed by Henderson and Dancy reported learning about an innovation through a colleague.
Based on her current work on innovative strategies in materials science engineering courses, Cindy Waters14 asserts that instructors are more likely to see the value of changing their teaching if others in their faculty peer group also value that effort. Moreover, she notes, the faculty who continue a research-based inno-
14 Interview, September 3, 2013.
vation once they have started are often those who “feel that someone who is their superior has acknowledged its value.”
Although a department typically cannot be turned around by an individual instructor, there are things individuals can do to build support for research-based practices and to contribute to changes in their department’s culture.
- Start building an informal community around research-based practice. Having a critical mass of faculty in a department that can demonstrate positive results may be enough to spur wider change and convince a department or an institution to provide funding, programs, or other supports to foster and sustain research-based approaches.
- Share evidence about the effectiveness of instructional improvement efforts. Collecting evidence of the impact of your efforts is an important part of research-based teaching and learning and can help to persuade some other instructors of its value. David Sokoloff,15 a professor at the University of Oregon who leads workshops on physics education, acknowledges that while it is not always easy to convince other faculty to consider research-based approaches, the evidence is a natural starting point. “There’s so much evidence out there that traditional strategies don’t work. And so if you have people who have an open mind and are willing to listen to that, eventually you get them to do it…. If you see the research results and are kind of hit over the head with them, the best thing is for somebody to go back from a workshop and test it with their own students.”
- Recognize that evidence may not be enough. As the 2012 NRC report on DBER makes clear, evidence alone has been insufficient to spur widespread changes in teaching and learning practices. During presentations about his physics SCALE-UP program at NC State, Robert Beichner16 has encountered some faculty who are skeptical about findings from cognitive science research in general. “A faculty member may say, ‘After you get done with games, when do you actually teach?’” When confronted with that attitude, Beichner suggests that users of research-based approaches “show them things your students can do that their students can’t.”
- Invite colleagues to observe your class. One way for your colleagues to see what students in a research-based environment can do is to observe, or even
15 Interview, July 10, 2013.
16 Interview, March 26, 2013.
volunteer in, a class. “Faculty members typically have misunderstandings about research-based innovations,” says Waters.
- Talk to your department chair and other academic leaders about major changes you plan to make. Some instructors are afraid that if they try something new it could lead to a rocky semester or two, which could be particularly problematic for faculty who have not yet gotten tenure. Barbara Tewksbury,17 a geosciences professor at Hamilton College, advises instructors in this situation to “address the issue up front” and explain to your department chair, and perhaps to a division head or academic dean, what you are planning to do and why. “The response you get will guide how much risk you want to take.”
This chapter has focused on “bottom-up” approaches that you can pursue individually or with colleagues to address common challenges to implementing research-based practices. The suggestions in this chapter may assuage some of your concerns about finding time to improve instruction, covering important content, and managing student reactions, and may help you gain expertise to meet other challenges.
But, as the 2012 NRC report on DBER emphasizes, efforts to promote research-based practices are most effective when they are also reinforced by “top-down” actions to address the complex factors that affect instructors’ work. Chapter 7 provides several examples of ways in which departments, institutions, and other entities can initiate broader reforms to improve the effectiveness of undergraduate teaching and learning in science and engineering.
Resources and Further Reading
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
17 Interview, March 28, 2013.