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Taking a Scientic Approach to Science

Education, Part IResearch
Developing expertise requires intense practice that includes doing challenging
and relevant tasks, followed by feedback and reflection on ones performance

Carl Wieman and Sarah Gilbert

During the past few decades, major advances in person cannot quickly recognize how that infor-
the felds of cognitive psychology, brain research, mation can solve a particular problem. Experts
and discipline-based education research in organize information in unique discipline-spe-
college science classrooms are providing guiding cifc frameworks for effcient and accurate re-
principles for how to achieve learning of complex trieval and application. This practice entails
knowledge and skills such as science. In part I, we grouping information according to certain com-
describe the nature of expertise and how it is plex patterns and relationships. Much of what
learned, primarily based on the fndings of cogni- are called scientifc concepts are the way that
tive psychology. We also give examples of studies experts in a feld of science link lots of informa-
in undergraduate science classrooms and the re- tion within a single category, thus allowing them
sulting student outcomes compared with those to decide quickly where that information is rele-
from traditional lecture instruction. vant.
In the second feature of this two-part series, we The third general characteristic of expertise is
will discuss the challenges and opportunities for the ability to monitor ones own thinking. When
making these teaching methods standard prac- working on a problem, a scientist is regularly
tice in undergraduate science classrooms and the asking: Is this approach working? And do I really
results of a large-scale successful experiment in understand this? Experts have the resources to
doing so. answer those questions and modify what they are
doing accordingly.
The Nature and Learning of Expertise Research indicates that everyone requires
many thousands of hours of intense practice
Learning to think about and use science more like to reach a high level of expertise. This require-
a scientist who is already working in the disci- ment to spend so much time in developing exper-
pline is a primary educational goal for most un- tise is set by biology. The brain changes through
dergraduate science courses. But exactly what is this intense practice, and is rewired to build these
meant by thinking like a scientistin other expert capabilities. Much as a muscle develops in
words, what is scientifc expertise? Cognitive psy-
chologists have extensively studied expertise
across a variety of disciplines, including history,
science, and chess. They fnd three components SUMMARY
that are common to all felds: To acquire expertise, one must develop a large body of specialized
knowledge, a specic framework for that knowledge, and a capacity to
large amounts of specialized knowledge monitor his or her own thinking about that eld.
a specifc mental organizational framework,
Teachers need to have mastery of a eld of expertise and convey the
unique to the feld of expertise importance and excitement of that eld.
the ability to monitor ones own thinking and
Many active learning approaches achieve greater learning than conven-
learning in the feld of expertise
tional lectures.
Although the frst component is no surprise, Preliminary ndings indicate that it is better to delay the use of jargon in
knowing lots of information is not useful if a classes until after students are introduced to the relevant concepts.

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response to prolonged intense exercise, the brain moving fluently among specialized represen-
responds to intense mental exercise. tations such as graphs, equations, and special-
In addition to identifying generic components ized diagrams.
of expertise, cognitive psychology research also
We selected these particular examples because
identifed a common process required for devel-
oping expertise, called deliberate practice. It in- they are seldom practiced with feedback in typical
volves many hours of intense practice, but that undergraduate science courses.
practice must have very specifc characteristics. It A highly effective teacher maximizes the
must involve tasks that are diffcult for learners, amount and effectiveness of deliberate practice
requiring their full focus and effort to achieve, but by students. This role requires them to have sub-
that are still attainable. The tasks must also ex- stantially more content expertise than does tradi-
plicitly practice the specifc components of exper- tional teaching by lecture. Teachers must have
tise to be learned. Finally, there must be timely deep expertise in their respective disciplines to
and specifc feedback, typically from a coach or design suitable tasks that provide authentic prac-
teacher, on how well a learner has done and how tice of expert skills for their students at the appro-
to improve, and then reflection by the learner on priate level of challenge. The teachers also must
how to use that guidance. have substantial content expertise to provide spe-
cifc feedback on how well the students are per-
Components of Scientic Expertise
forming those tasks and how they can improve
performance. Finally, since this practice is inher-
A few examples of specifc components of exper- ently hard work, it requires motivation. An ex-
tise in any area of science include: pert in the subject is uniquely positioned to help
recognizing and using concepts and mental provide that motivation by conveying the impor-
models and developing sophisticated selection tance and excitement of the subject.
criteria for deciding when specifc models are
Examples of Studies on Learning
recognizing relevant and irrelevant informa-
in Undergraduate Science Courses
tion for solving a problem
knowing and applying a set of criteria for eval- Here are several examples of studies on learning
uating if a result or conclusion makes sense in science courses. The frst comes from a study


Learning gains on concept inventory for introductory physics course sections taught by 9 instructors who switched
from traditional lecture instruction (avg. gain 0.3) to an interactive method (avg. gain 0.6). (Adapted from
Hoellwarth, C., and M. J. Moelter. 2011. The implications of a robust curriculum in introductory mechanics. Am. J.
Phys. 79:540 545.)

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conducted by Chance Hoellwarth and Matthew emphasize that this change occurred with the
Moelter in an introductory physics course at Cal- same set of instructors who changed the teaching
ifornia Polytechnic State University. Their study methods that they were using, after which their
involved many different instructors of physics students learned far more of the concepts being
across many sections and looked at the amount of covered.
learning before and after these same instructors Our second example is from the work of Beth
changed their teaching methods. Simon and coauthors in Computer Science at
Hoellwarth and Moelter used a validated and
University of California, San Diego. Simon spent
widely used concept inventory test to measure
student learning gains on core concepts covered a year working with us and learning about the
by the course. The learning gain is a measure of active learning technique for teaching introduc-
the fractional amount a student improves be- tory physics called Peer Instruction. This ap-
tween their pre-course score and post-course proach involves regularly posing questions to
score on the test, with a gain of 1 meaning a students during classes, having them answer with
perfect score on the post-test. Hoellwarth and clickers that record their responses, and then
Moelter collected such data for students for a having them discuss the material in small groups
number of years while classes were taught using before re-answering those questions.
traditional lecture instruction (Fig. 1, the Cal Poly Simon worked with six other instructors to
Trad. Avg. line). The average learning gain was a introduce this method in four core courses in
bit less than 0.3, which is typical for a well-taught computer science. There was a dramatic decrease
lecture course on introductory physics. in the drop and failure rates across all four
Next, all the instructors switched to a studio courses, with the overall average being about 1/3
approach, in which the students worked in small of what it was previously (Fig. 2). This fgure
groups to carry out a common set of carefully represents a very large number of students who,
designed tasks, and the instructors served as fa- only because the instructors changed their teach-
cilitators/coaches. After this switch, the average ing methods, are now successfully pursuing de-
learning gain doubled to 0.6 (Fig. 1). We want to grees.


Failure rates for 4 computer science courses when instructors used standard instruction vs. interactive Peer
Instruction. (Adapted from Porter, L., C. Bailey-Lee, and B. Simon. 2013. Halving Fail Rates using Peer Instruction:
A Study of Four Computer Science Courses. Proc. 44th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education
(SIGCSE 13), p. 109 114.)

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Those two studies, the frst by Hoellwarth and ticing scientifc thinking and receiving feedback
Moelter and the second by Simon and her collab- from their fellow students and an informed in-
orators, looked at the fnal results of students structor.
taking full courses. However, a great deal of After the week-long experiment, the students
learning takes place outside classrooms while were given a pop quiz at the start of the following
doing homework assignments and studying for class, a quiz that the instructors jointly developed
exams, for example. This raises the research ques- to probe the mastery of the learning objectives
tion, how much difference do these research- during the experiment. The difference in perfor-
based teaching methods make in the learning that mance between the control and experimental sec-
takes place only in the classroom, which is the tions is very largean effect size of 2.5 standard
main focus of most instructors attentions? deviationsand is reflected in the entire distribu-
This classroom component of learning was tion moving up (Fig. 3). This result reflects what
measured using two large sections (270 students also is seen elsewhere, namely, these teaching
methods are not just benefcial for a subgroup of
each) of the introductory physics course taken by
students, they are much better for all students.
all engineering students at the University of Brit-
This broad applicability is not surprising; the
ish Columbia, by one of us (CW) and collabora-
teaching methods are based on research on how
tors L. Deslauriers and E. Schelew. Before the
the human brain learns. In this study, the average
experiment, the performances by students in two
level of engagement of the students was also mea-
separate sections were carefully measured and sured and, as one might expect, it was much
seen to be nearly identical. Thus, within the small higher (85%) in the experimental section than in
statistical uncertainties of such large classes, their the control section (45%). Many other studies
scores on tests of conceptual mastery, on two show similar results, including many in biology,
midterm exams, attitudes about physics, atten- according to numerous reports in the journal
dance, and engagement in class were nearly iden- CBE-Life Sciences Education.
One section was taught by a senior professor
who taught this class many times with good stu- Impact of Jargon when Teaching Biology
dent evaluations. Another, experimental section We are involved in another study evaluating the
was taught for only one week by someone with a impact of jargon on learning in biology. This
Ph.D. in physics who had limited teaching expe- work was inspired by cognitive psychology re-
rience but was trained in the principles of learn- search studying the limits of the short-term
ing and research-based teaching practices in the working memory.
program that we ran. Both instructors agreed on In simple terms, memory can be described as
the same set of learning objectives to be covered having two components. Long-term memory has
in the same amount of class time. The timing of enormous capacity and lasts for decades. The sec-
our experiment was set so that students would be ond component, short-term working memory, is
unlikely to do much studying outside class during what we use on short time scales, such as time
the week that the experiment took place. spent in a class, to remember and process new
The instructor of the experimental section information. In contrast to the long-term mem-
used a number of common features of research- ory, the working memory has extremely limited
based teaching. Students were assigned short, tar- capacity, around 57 new items for the typical
geted readings before class and given a quiz on person. As the working memory also processes
the reading. During class they were given ques- information, it operates analogously to a PC with
tions to answer, where they would respond with very little RAM. The more it is called up to re-
clickers or by completing worksheets. This pro- member and process, the less effectively it can
cess involved each student in individual work and function.
discussions with their neighbors, during which Many studies show that anything that in-
time the instructor would circulate through the creases demands on the working memory unnec-
room listening to those discussions. There was essarily during a learning activity reduces learn-
considerable instructor talking, but predomi- ing. We, with Lisa McDonnell and Megan Barker,
nantly as follow-up discussion to the activity, not designed an experiment to test if reducing the
preceding it. So in this way, students were prac- amount of jargon introduced in a biology class

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Test scores for students taught an introductory physics module using standard instruction vs. students taught
using interactive engagement techniques. Random guessing would produce a score of 3. (Adapted from L.
Deslauriers et al., Science 332:862 864, 2011.)

would improve learning of the biology concepts. search-based principles for smart teaching. Wiley, San
Although the study is ongoing, preliminary re- Francisco, Calif.
sults show large benefts from introducing rele- Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI).
vant jargon only after students are introduced to 2015. Resources, references, effective clicker use book-
the concepts. let, and videos.
Colvin, G. 2008. Talent is overrated: what really separates
These are just a few examples. As shown in a
world-class performers from everybody else. Portfo-
meta-analysis by Scott Freeman and coauthors,
lio, New York.
there is a vast literature of similar studies across Crouch, C. H., J. Watkins, A. P. Fagen, and E. Mazur.
the science and engineering disciplines, provid- 2007. Peer instruction: engaging students one-on-
ing overwhelming evidence that interactive one, all at once. In E. F. Redish and P. J. Cooney
teaching approaches are much more effective (ed.), Research-based reform of university physics.
than conventional lectures at achieving learning American Association of Physics Teachers, College
of complex subjects. Park, Md.
Deslauriers, L., E. Schelew, and C. Wieman. 2011. Im-
Carl Wieman holds a joint appointment as Professor of Physics
and the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University,
proved learning in a large enrollment physics class.
Stanford, Calif., and Sarah Gilbert is a senior advisor at the Carl Science 332:862 864.
Wieman Science Education Initiative, University of British Freeman, S., S. L. Eddy, M. McDonough, M. K. Smith,
Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. This feature is based in part on N. Okoroafor, H. Jordt, and M. P. Wenderoth. 2014.
a talk given during the 2014 ASM Conference for Active learning increases student performance in sci-
Undergraduate Educators. ence, engineering, and mathematics. Proc. Natl. Acad.
Sci. USA 111:8410 8415.
National Research Council. 2012. Discipline-based edu-
Suggested Reading
cation research: understanding and improving learn-
Ambrose, S., M. Bridges, M. DiPietro, M. Lovett, and ing in undergraduate science and engineering. Na-
M. Norman. 2010. How learning works: seven re- tional Academies Press, Washington, D.C.

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