Evidence Points to Benefits of Active Teaching in STEM Education

An exciting new report was released today by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academies.  The report, “Discipline-Based Education Research; Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering,” provides some clear direction, backed by extensive evidence, on how to improve science and engineering education in this country.  Improvement in this domain has long been a national goal. But despite good intentions and the launch of numerous programs over the past few decades, progress has been too slow.

The new study summarizes a large body of research and concludes that, across the science and engineering disciplines, scholarly studies clearly indicate that “student-centered instructional strategies can positively influence students’ learning, achievement, and knowledge retention, as compared with traditional instructional methods.” It specifically cites such approaches as making lectures more interactive, having students work in groups, and incorporating authentic problems and activities into coursework as being superior to traditional lectures, which remain the mainstay approach to teaching in too many classrooms.

That these superior instructional strategies are not in widespread use today would come as no surprise to anyone who has strolled across the campus of a major university and observed what was happening in the science and engineering classrooms. Nor would it surprise anyone who has talked to university administrators or others about the barriers that interfere with adoption of superior instructional strategies, including the problems posed by current institutional priorities and reward systems.

The implications of this report are profound.  It says that there is compelling research showing that there are instructional strategies that, when widely used, will give clear improvement in all aspects of undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.  And unlike many past efforts to improve STEM education that have been largely based on hunches and unsupported opinions, this report uses research to identify how STEM education can be improved and what must be done to achieve that improvement.

Importantly, the benefits of better STEM teaching can reach well beyond the narrow goal of giving STEM majors a better education. For one, use of superior teaching strategies can lower the attrition rate among STEM majors—an important goal articulated in a recent report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. That report found that close to 60 percent of students who enter college as STEM majors change their major by the time they graduate, in no small part because poor teaching practices leave them uninspired and confused. Another benefit is that improved undergraduate STEM teaching can provide future K-12 teachers with a much greater mastery of the science they will teach, while demonstrating a better model for how science is best taught and learned. 

Congratulations to the National Research Council for a job well done. If its recommendations are implemented, the repercussions of this report will go far beyond undergraduate STEM education.

To read a news release about the new report, click here.

Carl Wieman is Associate Director for Science at OSTP

Your Federal Tax Receipt