Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Evidence-based teaching

A lot of people have spent a lot of time and effort studying undergraduate education. Why not pay attention to what these experts have to say? There's a good book on the subject published by the National Academies (USA). It's called Reaching Students: What Research Says About Effective Instruction in Undergraduate Science and Engineering (2015).1

Here's are some excerpts from the Preface.
This book is based on the 2012 NRC report on DBER [discipline-based education research], as well as on interviews with expert practitioners who have successfully applied findings from DBER and related research in their classrooms, departments, or institutions. The goal is to summarize the most salient findings of the NRC committee and the experience of expert practitioners about how students learn undergraduate science and engineering and what this means for instruction. This book presents new ways of thinking about what to teach, how to teach it, and how to assess what students are learning. To encourage instructors and others to apply this information in their institutions, it also includes short examples and longer case studies of experienced practitioners who are implementing research-based strategies in undergraduate science and engineering courses or across departments or institutions. Although these findings could apply to a variety of disciplines, this book focuses on the disciplines addressed in the NRC study-physics, astronomy, biology, chemistry, geosciences, and engineering.

This book is intended for anyone who teaches or plans to teach undergraduate courses in science and engineering at any type of higher education institution or who is in a position to influence instruction at this level. Throughout the book, the term “instructor” is used broadly to refer to the full range of teaching staff—tenured, non-tenured, or adjunct faculty; lecturers and similar teaching positions; and postdoctoral scholars or graduate students with teaching responsibilities. Although many of the strategies and ideas in these pages are geared to instructors, others with an interest in science and engineering education will find suggestions for encouraging or supporting research-based instruction. These other audiences might include department heads; faculty development providers; provosts, deans, and other higher education administrators; leaders of professional societies and associations for science and engineering; and those with policy roles in higher education or science education.
There's lots of interesting stuff in this little book but the main emphasis is on teaching fundamental concepts rather than facts and on student-centered learing (active learning).

The report recognizes that university lecturers need to change the way they are teaching and it won't be easy.
Throughout the chapters you will find concrete examples and case studies that illustrate how skilled instructors and leaders from various disciplines and types of institutions have used findings from DBER and related research on learning to design and support instruction in their classrooms, departments, or institutions. These examples may inspire, intrigue, challenge, or provoke you. Whatever your reaction, the examples are intended to encourage reflection and discussion about effective ways to help students learn science and engineering.

This type of reflection is not always easy. Instructors may be unaware of this body of research. Even if they aware, they may be disinclined to change teaching methods that are familiar or ubiquitous in their departments and seem to be working, at least for some students. Departmental and institutional cultures may also present obstacles to changing practice, as discussed in later chapters.

On a positive note, however, as a scientist or an engineer you already have the intellectual tools and experience needed to examine students’ learning and your own teaching from a research perspective. Every day, you tackle research problems in your discipline, consider various strategies to solve those problems, try out a strategy, and revise that strategy based on the results. Why not apply this same mindset to your teaching? The research is there, and so are a variety of curriculum materials, professional development opportunities, and other resources. With some effort, the rewards will be there, too—better educated students, greater professional satisfaction, and a brighter outlook for society.

1. You can download the book for free. All you have to do is sign in.

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