Improving science education one researcher at a time
By Anne Craig, Communications Officer
A team of Queen’s and Harvard researchers has identified important gaps between education research and teaching practices that are impeding the adoption of novel teaching strategies in post-secondary science education. Research-based instructional strategies have been validated in many classrooms, including large enrollment first-year courses, but these highly interactive approaches have been slow to spread.
James Fraser (Physics) and the Queen’s University-Harvard University team are proposing ways that education research can better serve front-line teachers, as well as approaches faculty members can take that will provide better learning opportunities for their science students.
“About 60 per cent of students who enter college intending to major in a science-related field do not graduate with a science degree,” says Dr. Fraser. “The continued prevalence of the traditional lecture approach is surprising given the dramatic gains achieved by highly interactive approaches in improved conceptual understanding, and increased retention in enrollment.”
Working with Harvard University researcher Eric Mazur, Dr. Fraser explored particularly successful practices and ways to improve their dissemination. The researchers synthesized results from studies of instructional techniques from a wide range of North American schools.
The review identified three major barriers to improving education in the science fields: the challenges of validating teaching approaches in real classrooms (with many uncontrolled variables), a professor’s lack of specific and timely feedback about the learning environment of their students, and the time limitations of faculty who cannot put their teaching and research roles on hold to become education research experts.
“There are real barriers for a professor to adopt an interactive teaching approach. Education research has tested methods of overcoming some of these obstacles so we need to better disseminate the successful results,” says Dr. Fraser. “But other obstacles remain and education research needs to do a better job at addressing these issues.”
The research looked at a number of schools including Harvard, Ohio State, Indiana University and Arizona State. Queen’s was not included in the study.
The paper was published in the journal Reports on Progress in Physics. In addition, Dr. Mazur has been named one of the plenary facilitators at the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Annual Conference that will be held this year at Queen’s from June 17 to 20.