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How can science education research be used for improving college teaching?

Ashish Nerlekar

Science education research delves into a multitude of ways through which the teaching practices in a science classroom can be better aligned with its learning goals. In this article, Ashish Nerlekar, a doctoral candidate and a Teaching Assistant studying grassland ecology at Texas A&M University, USA, describes some of the ideas provided by such research, to improve college teaching.

An outdoor classroom at the Pench Tiger Reserve.
An outdoor classroom at the Pench Tiger Reserve.  (Photo: Ashish Nerlekar)

If you are teaching in higher education, I have a question for you — how much of your teaching is guided by research on how to teach? While most of the approaches used in research in any field are based on previous research, teaching decisions that most college teachers make are not quite based on science education research and considered greatly subjective. This has given rise to a multitude of misconceptions about how to teach effectively. In this article, I will share some research-based teaching decisions that will help achieve the goals we have for our students.

A large proportion of college science teaching remains ineffective-often leading to cascading impacts on the national research output. The problem with most of our teaching today actually is our approach, and not goals. Most professors are clearly not inclined to ruin the learning experience for their students. They, in fact, want students to think critically, understand the subject content, develop analytical skills, communicate well, and be better citizens. Teachers are met with several barriers and concerns when they try to meet these goals. Here are three common concerns, which can be overcome using research-based approaches.

How do I get my students to respond and interact?

By behaving with them differently! Here are two among many ways in which you can do that.

1) Watch your questions: Let’s say you are teaching the concept of ecological succession. The first thing you may instinctively ask (assuming you ask questions at all) is either Have you heard about succession?’ or What do you know about succession?’ In the first case, you would get some indistinct nods. In the second, usually, you would be met with silence, which is bound to make you wonder why this happens. The first question requires binary thinking (a yes/​no answer), whereas, by asking the second, you are mistakenly assuming that students already know about the succession concept. Now, if you are planning to pose questions requiring an extended answer later, don’t use these binary questions as ladders- they simply provide no material to build on. Instead, go for the why’/‘how’ questions right at the start. For example, you can frame the same question as How do you think might an abandoned agricultural field look like after 10, 50 and 100 years?’ Education research shows that a great way to explain concepts is by using a series of well-crafted extended answer questions and building on student ideas. For example, in this case, asking students why’ questions for the responses to the first question, and then discussing these mechanisms is an effective way to explain the concept.

2) Silence matters: If you are asking questions, all the right ones, and your students are still not speaking up, it probably means you need to stop talking! Pausing enough after you ask questions leads to miracles. Not only will you get more students to talk, you will also usually get the shy ones to interact. Waiting shows that you actually care for an answer. How much should you wait? Research shows most teachers pause for less than a second after asking a question, and pausing for at least 3 – 5 seconds is recommended. So try pausing after you ask a question, and also after a student completes their reply to your question (this is way harder).

A wonderful tool to understand how effective our verbal behaviour is, is to record any 15-minute section of your teaching and SATIC-code it (Figure 1). You would be surprized to know how much you over-estimate your wait time! Comparing our verbal patterns with research-based ideal patterns helps to evaluate if we are getting better at promoting our goals.

Figure 1: SATIC coding for two of my recordings of an Ecology-lab course. The bars represent frequencies of that particular behaviour in the 15-minute recording. Arrows point out some of the desirable behaviour patterns. Notice that the November pattern is relatively better than the September pattern, although the frequencies of some behaviours in the November recording like responding using student ideas’ needs to be even higher. Some types of behaviours have been omitted here for the sake of representation.

How well do students learn through self-learning’?

Turns out, not quite well. If that was the case, we simply wouldn’t have taken centuries to figure out that the earth wasn’t flat! Over the years we have understood quite a lot about how people learn. One of the most effective ways is by addressing students’ prior misconceptions about the subject and constructing meaningful activities that help them change their prior ideas. As an aside, simply engaging in hands-on’ teaching does not guarantee that students learn well.

In my lectures, I have explained the idea that grasslands are ancient and slow to recover once destroyed, in the following way. First, working in groups, I ask my students to give me a value in years they think it would take for a tropical forest to recover completely once destroyed (showing an image of a forest). I calculate the class average, put it up on the board, jotting down their reasons. Then, I repeat the same steps, but with an image of a grassland instead of a forest. Typically, students think forests take centuries and grasslands hardly a few decades to recover. I then present evidence that directly contradicts these misconceptions to show that grasslands too take centuries to assemble.

How can we identify an effective teacher? 

Effective teaching can only be identified if you see your decisions (behaviour, strategies and activities) promoting the goals you have for your students (some listed in the second paragraph), and if these decisions are guided by what we know about how people learn.

How do we currently identify effective teaching? First, we recruit professors on the basis of subject tests (NET) and/​or a PhD. Neither of these indicates how well the candidate can teach-something which a professor is primarily hired to do. Then, we assess professors based on years/​courses taught: how long one teaches has no correlation with how effectively one teaches. Lastly we also use student evaluations as a metric. To promote their goals, an effective teacher tries to change students’ deep-seated prior misconceptions, which can be a stressful and uncomfortable experience for students. Contrast this with a teacher who simply lectures and doesn’t do any of that. Students typically love the latter and hate the former. Now you can predict how the evaluations for these two teachers would look, and appreciate how faulty a metric this is. For assessing teaching efficiency, we must, therefore, use a research-based framework (which also includes metrics derived from the SATIC coding) that evaluates how closely our teaching decisions align with our goals.

Agreeably, the present system we have is not the best. But, it’s important to understand the ideal way you would like to teach, and then try to follow that as much as you can. Instead of trying out different unscientific recipes’ for teaching, science education research will provide you with an ideal direction. You would never try out random recipes for your research, so why do that for your teaching? Implementing this is surely not an easy task, but if one has a strong motivation to teach effectively, there are quite a few tricks of the trade available.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Dr. Joanne Olson for exposing me to the Science Education literature, and changing several of my prior notions about teaching, and Vignesh Kamath for reviewing an earlier draft of this article.