National Academies Releases Report on Discipline-Based Education Research

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Publication date: 
10 October 2012

The National Research  Council (NRC) of the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) convened a Committee  on the Status, Contributions, and Future Directions of Disciplined-Based  Education Research (DBER) lead by Natalie Nielsen, senior program officer of  the NRC Board on Science Education.  The  Committee recently released a report entitled “Discipline-Based Education Research:  Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering.”  The report examines the emerging field of DBER,  a field which combines expertise in science and engineering with methods and  theories of how students learn.  DBER “investigates learning and teaching in a  discipline from a perspective that reflects the discipline’s priorities, worldview,  knowledge, and practices” according to the Executive Summary of the  report.   

The committee defined the goals of  DBER, which are to “understand how people  learn the concepts, practices, and ways of thinking of science and engineering;  understand the nature and development of expertise in a discipline; help  identify and measure appropriate learning objectives and instructional  approaches that advance students toward those objectives; contribute to the  knowledge base in a way that can guide the translation of DBER findings to  classroom practice; and identify approaches to make science and engineering  education broad and inclusive.”  The  field of DBER focuses on learning at all levels including K-12 as well as  higher education.  For the purposes of  this report, the committee focused on learning at the undergraduate level. 

The report describes the status of  DBER research in the context of the national need to improve science and  engineering education.  “There are persistent concerns that  undergraduate science and engineering courses are not providing students with  high-quality learning experiences, nor are they attracting and retaining  students in science and engineering fields,” notes the President’s Council  of Advisors on Science and Technology.  DBER  relates to cognitive science research, educational psychology research,  educational evaluation and science and engineering disciplines.

The report provides a history of  physics education research and the role that the American Association of  Physics Teachers (AAPT) and the American Physical Society (APS) has played in  improving the teaching of physics on pages 20-22.  Details as to the role of the American  Geophysical Union (AGU) in the field of geoscience education research appear on  pages 28-30 and the role of AAPT, APS and the American Astronomical Society  (AAS) in astronomy education research are described on pages 30-31.  APS, AAPT, AGU, and AAS are all Member  Societies of AIP.  A history of education  in chemistry, engineering, and biology was also presented in the report.  DBER is in different stages of development in  each of these disciplines as a field of inquiry. 

The report outlines current physics  education research topics as:

  • “characterizing  students with respect to conceptual knowledge, problem solving, use of  representations, attitudes toward physics and toward learning more broadly,  knowledge of scientific processes, and knowledge transfer;
  • defining  goals for physics instruction based on rates of student learning, needs for  future learning, transfer, or population diversity;
  • developing  curricular materials and pedagogies to facilitate conceptual change, improve  problem-solving skills and the use of representations, improve attitudes toward  physics and general learning, or provide experiences with the practices of  science;
  • investigating  how students and instructors use curricular materials and pedagogies such as  textbooks, problems, group work, or electronic feedback;”   

As for the field of geosciences education  research, there is currently a challenge “because  there is no central ‘canon’ of knowledge that is encompassed by the disciplines  that study the earth… Geoscience content may be taught in a variety of courses,  in different departments.”  Astronomy  education research has focused on identifying students’ conceptual  understanding. 

The strengths of DBER include “its contribution of deep disciplinary  knowledge to questions of teaching and learning. This knowledge has the  potential to guide research that is focused on the most important concepts in a  discipline, and offers a framework for interpreting findings about students’  learning and understanding in a discipline. In these ways, even as an emerging  field of inquiry, DBER has deepened the collective understanding of  undergraduate learning in the sciences and engineering. When explicitly  leveraged, the overlap of DBER with research from K-12 science education,  educational psychology, and cognitive science can highlight findings that  appear to be robust across different disciplines and learning contexts, and can  help to identify differences that merit further exploration.”

Some problems in the field of DBER  include that the scale of the studies are small and therefore there are  challenges in generalizing the results and translating the results into  practice.  Many of the DBER studies have  been done on single courses, but there are significant variations in the way  courses are structured and taught.  Studies  between multiple academic institutions, rather than within one university, are  not the norm in DBER but they do exist. 

Key findings on the issue of  conceptual understanding include:    

  • “In all disciplines, students have incorrect  ideas, beliefs, and explanations about fundamental concepts. These ideas pose  challenges to learning science and engineering because they are often sensible,  if incorrect, and many are highly resistant to change.
  • Many robust misunderstandings and incorrect  beliefs have been identified, but not all are equally important. The most  useful research focuses on ideas, beliefs, and understandings that involve  central concepts in the discipline and that are widely held.
  • In general, students have difficulty  understanding phenomena and interactions that are not directly observable,  including those that involve very large or very small spatial and temporal  scales.
  • A variety of tools and approaches have been  used to measure students’ conceptual understanding, ranging from highly focused  interviews to broader measures such as concept inventories. Although each tool  has its own strengths and limitations, it is vital for them to address the key  concepts and practices of a discipline.
  • A variety of teaching strategies is needed to  help students refine or replace incorrect ideas and beliefs, possibly even in a  single unit of instruction. Physics education research has identified several  strategies for successfully promoting conceptual change, including interactive  lecture demonstrations, interventions that target specific misconceptions, and ‘bridging  analogies’ that link students’ correct understandings and the situation about  which they harbor a misconception.”

Based  on the findings described in this report, the NRC is developing a  practitioners’ guide for higher education faculty and administrators which will  describe specific effective teaching strategies for undergraduate science and  engineering courses.  This will expand on  the instructional strategies, science and engineering practices, and practical  representations discussed in this report.