We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Lever

Julia M. Williams,
Interim Dean of Cross-Cutting Programs and Emerging Opportunities & Professor of English, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

leversOn May 7 and 8, I joined a group of STEM educators for the inaugural “Levers for Change” meeting, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  The goals for the meeting were clear:

  • To capture a snapshot of the current state of research-based reform in undergraduate STEM instruction within six clusters of STEM disciplines: biological sciences, chemistry & biochemistry, engineering & computer science, geosciences, mathematical sciences, physics & astronomy.
  • To identify key levers of change that are seen to have been effective in reaching this state, and to identify additional levers—less-tapped or untapped—that may be useful for fostering further change in the next decade.
  • To convene a group of leaders with experience in research and practice on STEM instructional change in higher education, to learn from, inspire and connect with each other.

In advance of the meeting, certain individuals were asked to write a white paper in each of the six cluster areas, a paper that attempted to demonstrate the current use of research-based reforms, particularly the use of RBIs, or Research-Based Instruction practices, in STEM classrooms.  As the meeting commenced, “Faculty Focus” published a report on the work of one of the Levers attendees [3].  Dr. Marilyne Stains (University of Nebraska) and colleagues had just published the most comprehensive study of the use of RBIs in STEM education, in the journal Science (March 29, 2018).  In that study, “the largest-ever observational study of undergraduate STEM education,” researchers monitored “nearly 550 faculty as they taught more than 700 courses at 25 institutions across the United States and Canada.”  The results of the study were not promising:

55 percent of STEM classroom interactions consisted mostly of conventional lecturing, a style that prior research has identified as among the least effective at teaching and engaging students.  Another 27 percent featured interactive lectures that had students participating in some group activities or answering multiple-choice questions with handheld clickers. Just 18 percent emphasized a student-centered style heavy on group work and discussions. The predominance of lecturing observed in the study persists despite many years of federal and state educational agencies advocating for more student-centered learning, the researchers said. [3]

Given that Dr. Stains was among the meeting attendees (and the author of the white paper on the use of RBIs in chemistry and biochemistry), and given that nearly all the attendees were familiar with the Science article, the news wasn’t a surprise.  But now everyone else knew.  Everyone else—students, parents, administrators, funders, industry, advisory boards, alumni, higher education policy makers—every stakeholder who sees STEM as the driver of technological innovation, the engine of the US economy, the escalator for social mobility, they all knew.  Now they knew that the least effective way to teach STEM was the predominant mode of instruction.

This revelation gave the Levers for Change project even greater urgency.  If the efforts of the past twenty years had produced only this level of change, what could this group identify as better and bigger levers to promote the use of RBIs in STEM?  Perhaps instead we needed to ask different questions.

  • Why do so few faculty employ RBIs in their classrooms?
  • Why do faculty who experiment with RBIs eventually abandon them, reverting back to the ineffective lecture format (see Figure 1)?
  • Do student course evaluations, specifically student complaints about the use of RBIs, stifle faculty use of a validated, superior pedagogical practices?
  • If funding and research are not enough to transform the STEM education landscape, what represents the bigger, better lever?

figure1Figure 1—35% of faculty discontinue their use of research-based instructional practices.  [2]

The conclusions of the Levers of Change meeting are not yet final, but several discussions from the meeting make me cautiously optimistic about the path forward.

First, communication about STEM education reform is the responsibility of each of us who work in the field.  Stakeholders, particularly students, need to know why RBIs like active learning are a better way to ensure that they are engaged with their learning.  RBIs also make STEM more accessible to women and members of under-represented groups.

Second, we need to rethink what “faculty development” means in the context of encouraging the use of RBIs in STEM.  Yes, we need to train faculty in the effective use of RBIs, but we also need to support faculty tolerance of risk and failure.  A community of practice, formed around the use of RBIs, can help faculty feel less alone when they try and fail and try again.  Perhaps in this context, we can find solace in the words of the Irish writer Samuel Beckett[1]:  “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

  1. Samuel Beckett.  1983. “Worstward Ho.”
  2. Cutler, S., Borrego, M., Henderson, C., Prince, M., & Froyd, J. E. (2012). A comparison of electrical, computer, and chemical engineering faculty’s progression through the innovation decision process. Proceedings of the Frontiers in Education Conference, Seattle, WA.
  3. Faculty Focus.  “Massive Study Finds Lectures Still Dominate STEM Education.”  https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/massive-study-finds-lectures-still-dominate-stem-fields/.  May 7, 2018.





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