9 Major Takeways From “An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching”

I recently completed my first MOOC (!), “An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching,” which was offered by Vanderbilt University via Coursera. The course was absolutely fantastic! It was put together by a team of traditional STEM professors and STEM education researchers who belong to the CIRTL network. The goal of the course was to introduce graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty members to a wide range of research on best practices in STEM education and look at how these practices can be implemented in different contexts. I think that the later aspect was what made the course great – after several videos where a lead instructor discussed a particular STEM education idea or practice, there would be several videos that looked how these practices play out in real classrooms – either through candid interviews with faculty and TAs or through recordings of actual classes. This would be followed up by the opportunity, via an assignment or forum prompt, to think about how you would apply the idea or practice in your own teaching. Though the course covered a huge range of interesting and useful topics (I took nearly 25 pages of notes!), I have attempted to extract the top 9 ideas from the course that I will be carrying into my classroom in the future. Here they are (in no particular order):

  1. Peer instruction. In the peer instruction approach, students answer a question individually, then discuss the answer with a partner, revise their answers, and then participate in an instructor-guided class-wide discussion. Peer instruction has been shown to produce significant gains in learning over traditional approaches where students answer questions individually. This is one of easiest ways to implement effective active learning in large lecture courses.
  2. Growth mindset. Many students have a “fixed mindset” regarding their abilities generally or in particular subjects – meaning that they view their skill level as being tied to innate ability (“I’m just not a math person”). As teachers, we can try to change this mindset to a “growth mindset” by emphasizing the process of learning and developing as a thinker within a discipline. By teaching the appropriate study skills and by talking about your own struggles with learning particular subjects, students can start to see that being successful in particular STEM subjects is a process that takes a lot of discipline and work, rather than something that is only possible for a select few.
  3. Student misconceptions. Just about anyone who has done much teaching is aware that students come into the classroom with misconceptions about their subjects. What you might not know is that there are commonly-held misconceptions in every subject and that these common misconceptions have been the subject of fairly extensive research (for example, these studies of student misconceptions in evolution: Speth et al, Nehm et al). This literature provides a valuable resource for deciding where to focus teaching activities and provides ideas for test questions that probe specific misconceptions.
  4. Practice and feedback. Effective learning requires frequent opportunities for practice and feedback. I think that most courses do well with providing opportunities for practice – clicker questions, homework sets, quizzes, and practice exams come to mind. However, I think quality feedback is often lacking – often the only feedback is a posted answer key, which will tell students what they got right and wrong, but not do much to help them understand why. To address this issue, I think allocating time in class to discuss (as a whole class, in pairs, or in groups) practice problems should be a priority.
  5. Inquiry-based labs. This is a really cool concept, and one I was not familiar with prior to taking this course. In inquiry-based lab courses, students are given more freedom to make decisions about what they do in the lab. This might involve a teacher assigning a research question and then having students develop experiments to answer it, or it could have students developing research questions of their own and then designing experiments to answer those questions. The key here is that students are learning to solve problems like scientists, though the research doesn’t need to be new to the field, just new to the students. I think that this is a great antidote to boring cookie-cutter labs where students follow a protocol and get an expected answer (If that was how real science worked, I would have had my PhD years ago!).
  6. Bloom’s taxonomy is actually pretty useful. Bloom’s taxonomy is a tool that has been around for a long time – it seeks to classify learning objectives and test questions into categories based on the level of thinking involved. Bloom’s becomes quite useful when working to develop specific, measurable learning objectives – if you’ve ever written a series of learning objectives that all start with “students should understand …”, then Bloom’s is for you!
  7. Group work can be good – if done well. As a student, I was never been a big fan of group work, but this course has made me rethink it as useful teaching tool. The most compelling argument made in the course for group work is that it mimics the working environment of STEM professionals. Our students will be doing science in teams when they graduate, so that is something we should prepare them for. This means that we shouldn’t just tell them to work in groups – we actually need to teach them how to do it effectively. This can be done by establishing guidelines for how to interact with group members and coordinate work, as well as by providing both individual and group accountability for outcomes.
  8. Lowering the stakes can help students learn. Many students are highly motivated by grades. This can have several effects – it can lead to stress and anxiety around major exams, and can result in strategic learning, where students focus on earning points, rather than deeply engaging with the material. One solution to this issue to lower the stakes. This is particularly applicable to many in-class assessments that are aimed at helping students learn. So, rather than grading students on individual responses to clicker questions, you can implement ungraded peer instruction and shift the focus away from points and towards understanding the problem at hand. Another method of lowering the stakes that I would like to try is allowing students to resubmit exams with written explanations of why their answers were wrong (for partial credit).
  9. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel! Thinking about implementing new teaching methodologies can be pretty intimidating – developing high quality clicker questions, case studies, inquiry-based labs, or exams that test student misconceptions is not an easy task. The good news is that STEM teaching professionals have been doing this for years and have developed resources that you can use to get these approaches up and running in your classroom. I will be writing some posts in the future about resources for specific approaches, but in the meantime, you can check out my resources page.

*Honorable mention: Backwards Design. This is one of the key ideas of the course and a crucial tool that can help you rationally design effective courses. I include it as an honorable mention, because I was already familiar with backwards design before taking the course.

As I said at the outset of this post, I found this course to be truly outstanding. If it is offered again, I highly recommend taking it to anyone that is involved in undergraduate STEM education. Thanks to all of the instructors who made it possible!

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4 thoughts on “9 Major Takeways From “An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching”

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  2. I took this MOOC, too!

    I thought it was pretty great, especially how it made us practise the skills we were trying to learn and get our students to use. I took an in-person course at the U of Manitoba this summer with a similar focus – backwards design, peer learning, constructive alignment, etc.

    While I’m enthusiastic about the changes we can make once we are the course instructors, I have found it hard to persuade some colleagues that departing from the typical “stand and deliver” model is valuable for students. I just now typed out and then deleted a long anecdote about a fellow grad student not getting the point of bloom’s taxonomy in relation to class objectives, but that is the point I wanted to make. We can’t force our colleagues to care or learn about new methods, so how do we foster a community of interest in changing instructional techniques/ideas?

    • I think that taking courses on teaching methodologies, such as the MOOC, and the summer course you mentioned are a really great way to improve our own teaching and connect with people who are interested in new and better ways of teaching. I have also found that Twitter is a great way to connect with folks who are interested in improving college teaching – seeing the daily parade of tweets from like-minded biology educators is really validating. In my case, I have found that writing this blog and interacting with UC Davis professors on Twitter has actually served as a catalyst for conversations about changing classroom methodologies. As a grad student, there is little you can do to force change, but you can put yourself out there as a knowledgeable resource for people who are willing to try something new, but maybe don’t know where to start.

  3. Pingback: Helping grad students interested in teaching careers: a proposal | The Prospective Prof

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