Learning involves changing your thinking. As students progress through the undergraduate years, we not only expect them to change their knowledge and ways of thinking in the disciplines they study, but we also hope they will mature and develop attitudes and behaviors that will prepare them for the next stages of their lives. If you are an instructor, you expect students to undergo conceptual changes that lead to greater understanding of key ideas in your discipline. If you are a higher education leader, you expect your students to grow during their time at your institution in ways that will ready them for graduate education or careers.
A willingness to change your thinking is also integral to the practice of science or engineering. If you test a hypothesis or a prototype and the results differ from what you expected, you need to revise your hypothesis or alter your design—perhaps multiple times. Recognizing the need for change is a strength that produces better outcomes.
So it is, too, with teaching. A compelling body of evidence, drawn from research on how people learn science and engineering, shows that student-centered methods of teaching and learning are more effective than a traditional, passive approach that depends mostly on the instructor delivering information through lectures.
This book makes a case for instructors to hold themselves to the same expectations that they have for their students and to apply the same mindset that they use in their disciplinary research to their roles as teachers. In short, this book advocates that faculty and administrators be open to using research on learning to guide their conceptions about the best way to teach.
The reasons for changing instruction and suggestions for how to do this can be boiled down to these:
- Effective instruction starts from an understanding of how students learn science and engineering. Research has yielded insights about how students construct knowledge based on prior understanding, what types of misconceptions students commonly have, how novices differ from experts in their conceptual understanding and problem-solving approaches, and other aspects of learning. These insights provide a blueprint for revising instruction.
- Changes can be implemented gradually, without taking too much time or causing unnecessary upheaval. Many expert practitioners started small by incorporating one research-based strategy, such as ConcepTests with Peer Instruction, and then adding other research-based approaches as they became more comfortable with interactive methods. Even partial changes can significantly improve student learning.
- Establishing challenging goals for what students should learn will guide choices of instructional methods and assessments. Setting learning goals that emphasize the comprehension and application of important concepts is an important first step in identifying activities that will help students achieve these goals and the types of assessments that will best measure students’ progress.
- Research-validated instructional strategies and curriculum materials are already available. Instructors do not have to start from scratch when designing new teaching approaches. The strategies described in this book have been used successfully by numerous practitioners and can be adopted and modified to meet the needs of local students and institutions. Materials are also widely available to help implement these strategies.
- Research-based strategies can work in a variety of settings, including large introductory courses. Many of the strategies described in this book have been effectively implemented in classes with hundreds of students as well as small classes; in regular classrooms as well as redesigned learning spaces; and in different types of institutions, from community colleges to large research universities.
- Challenges to using research-based instructional strategies can be surmounted. Many of the common reasons people give for why they cannot use student-centered instruction are myths. Genuine challenges, such as concerns about student resistance or the time required to revise your teaching, have been successfully addressed by thoughtful instructors.
- Assistance with the implementation process is available. Many expert practitioners eased their jitters about transforming their teaching by participating in professional development, seeking assistance from supportive colleagues, and other strategies.
- Departments, higher education institutions, and outside organizations can support instructors’ efforts to change their teaching. Examples of such support include making grants to encourage departments to redesign courses, providing professional development, or revamping policies for faculty work schedules, instructor evaluations, and release time, among others. Even if a department or institution is not overtly hospitable to changes in teaching practice, instructors may still receive support from like-minded colleagues inside or outside the institution, disciplinary societies, collegial networks, and other sources.
Change can be uncomfortable, but it can also be exciting and inspiring. Imagine a physics class in which students work in groups to calculate where to place an airbag to safely catch someone shot from a cannon with certain specifications. Or an engineering class in which an undergraduate designs a light board for a disc jockey service as a final project. Or a biology course in which students apply what they have learned about human physiology and data analysis to solve a hypothetical problem about how an alien life-form’s kidneys would work.
All of these activities and countless more have been done by practitioners who have successfully implemented research-based instruction. Changing your instruction toward more student-centered approaches can improve your students’ learning and stimulate their interest in science or engineering—and inspire you in the process.