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John Pollard, associate professor of practice, teaching a chemical thinking course at the University of Arizona

Association of American Universities

Science instructors increasingly are moving beyond the lecture to more innovative -- and effective -- teaching methods. But professors with a taste for change often enact it alone, as their colleagues continue to lecture.

The Association of American Universities wants to change that. In 2011, it launched its Undergraduate STEM Initiative to encourage systemic reforms to science education to improve teaching and learning, especially in first- and second-year courses.

Early feedback was promising, and AAU is this week releasing a formal five-year status report detailing progress at eight project sites: Brown University; Michigan State University; the University of Arizona; the University of California, Davis; the University of Colorado at Boulder; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the University of Pennsylvania and Washington University in St. Louis.

Mary Sue Coleman, president of AAU, wrote in the report that the initiative is a “significant test of the degree to which a group of prominent research universities can work collectively with their national organization to improve the quality of teaching in undergraduate STEM courses, especially large introductory and gateway courses, thereby enhancing the learning experiences of many thousands of their undergraduate students.” And so far, she said, results “indicate a resoundingly affirmative answer to this test.”

Additionally, she said, the initiative has helped AAU understand how it, as group of research universities, can better help to “support meaningful change at various institutional levels to improve undergraduate STEM education.”

Higher education is “now reaching a major tipping point,” Coleman added. “We cannot condone poor teaching of introductory STEM courses because we are trying to weed out the weaker students in the class or simply because a professor, department and/or institution fails to recognize and accept that there are, in fact, more effective ways to teach.” Failing to adopt evidence-based teaching practices in the classroom “must be viewed as irresponsible, an abrogation of fulfilling our collective mission to ensure that all students who are interested in learning and enrolled in a STEM course -- not just those who will choose to major in or pursue an advanced degree in that discipline -- are provided with the maximum opportunity to succeed,” she said.

The report says that participation in the initiative beyond the eight project sites has been high: all 62 AAU institutions now have a designated STEM campus point of contact, for example. Some 55 member institutions have participated in the initiative in some way, including more than 450 faculty members and administrators. Departmentwide innovations are becoming institutional priorities, teaching and learning centers are being redesigned, and data and analytics are being used to monitor and improve student learning.

Campuses are also exploring new hiring practices to advance improvements in STEM education, learning spaces are being reimagined and campuses are addressing the critical issue of meaningful evaluations of faculty teaching, by AAU’s accounting.

Every project site reported some improvement in student learning outcomes, according to the report. Degree of improvement varied, but “dramatic reductions in achievement gaps especially for women, underrepresented minorities and first-generation students” were observed in some sites. Reports of decreased D’s, F’s and withdrawals were common, as were increased persistence and success in subsequent courses.

Project Sites at a Glance

Improved performance on exams sponsored by disciplinary societies was observed, as was stronger performance on key disciplinary concepts, the report says. And some sites that managed to track the effects of instructional interventions on more general psychological factors reported increased self-efficacy, metacognition and attitudes toward science among students.

The initiative looks different on every campus but everywhere hinges on evidence-based practices. Arizona, for example, has focused some of its efforts to redesign classrooms into collaborative learning spaces: there are currently 10 such spaces, ranging in size from 30 to 264 student seats (10 additional spaces are planned). AAU’s report quotes Zoe Cohen, a professor of immunology at Arizona, as saying that she’s been thinking about trying a “flipped” classroom and applied for one of the new rooms. Once she started teaching in 2015, she said, it “changed me as an educator.”

Cohen joined a faculty learning committee and an educational faculty learning committee and learned and developed active learning techniques. As a result, she said, she’s seen her students earn more A’s and B’s and fewer D’s on the final exam for her physiology of the immune system courses. Students also report more active and meaningful engagement and understanding.

Cohen’s experiences match those of other Arizona professors teaching different courses in other departments, including physics, chemistry, molecular, cellular biology and engineering, according to AAU.

North Carolina, meanwhile, has taken a mentor-mentee approach, embedding fixed-term faculty members skilled in teaching within departments to train colleagues. Failures and D’s in redesigned courses dropped from 11.5 percent in 2013 prior to the AAU project to 9.5 percent in 2016, while the learning gains in these courses were 13 percent higher than in traditional courses, the report says. Departments have promoted training by giving faculty members course releases to compensate for the course they are revamping that term.

Teaching assistants at Davis trained to use active learning practices and adaptive learning technology were able to raise student outcomes in introductory biology by half a letter grade. Washington University, meanwhile, found that clicker-based active learning in high-enrollment introductory science courses was positively associated with exam performance. Boulder’s Departmental Action Teams worked toward department-level consensus on learning goals, pedagogical approaches and assessments aligned with learning goals. Results from the physics department there indicate that students from all four courses had post-test scores between 25 percent and 30 percent higher in reformed courses.

Michigan State started with faculty discussions of core ideas in each discipline, and the ways that knowledge is used, rather than changing pedagogical approaches and assessments: the assumption was that teaching changes would happen naturally when professors were thinking about big ideas and scientific practices. Other changes include the formation of an institute, CREATE for STEM, to coordinate science education activities across campus, and they’ve had a large-scale impact, according to AAU.

And at Penn -- which AAU says is the most faculty-centric of all project institutions -- individual faculty members within six departments are change agents, and their nexus is the Center for Teaching and Learning. The center administers Penn's four-year-old Structured Active In-class Learning (SAIL) program, which assists instructors as they develop, adopt and evaluate active learning activities to transform their classes. SAIL classes are designed to allow students to struggle through the application of course content, an often difficult part of the learning process, with the guidance of instructors and help from peers, and require students to do work outside class time to prepare for in-class activities, according to AAU.

Common Themes

Half of the project sites expanded their reach to departments not originally included in their proposals. Graduate and undergraduate assistants were called upon across campuses to help with the initiative. “With more trained individuals in the room, the capacity to facilitate and evaluate evidence-based pedagogy increases,” the report says. “The experience also benefits the students themselves by reinforcing core concepts and helping them to learn effective teaching practices.”

Recurrent themes among institutions include a shift from individual to collective responsibility by departments for introductory course curriculum, hiring educational experts within departments to bolster reforms, and a harnessing of (not just collecting) institutionwide data to support student learning.

Institutions were also found to have reorganized administrative support services to better support departmental reform efforts, such as by connecting centers for teaching and learning with department-based instructional efforts. Crucially, too, institutions found ways to better manage the simultaneous pursuit of high-quality teaching and research and signal the value of both. Washington University’s Center for Integrative Research on Cognition, Learning and Education (CIRCLE), for example, includes tenure-track faculty, in addition to permanent research scientists. Consequently, according to AAU, the campus has been able “to focus on curriculum and scaffolding rather than individual course reforms as well as target sustainability and cultural [reform].”

Over all, said Coleman, of AAU, while there is much work to be done to realize “a ‘new normal’ -- one characterized by personal and institutional expectations that all faculty members will both use and be rewarded for using evidence-based approaches to instruction -- our initiative suggests that progress is being made.”

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