By Victoria Bonebrake 

Feb. 23, 2015

Oregon State University, like many others, stands on the brink of a cultural transformation: one where scholarship is being applied inward to comprehensively examine and evolve the institutions own practices. This shift has many implications; one of the most exciting is an improvement in student learning outcomes and competencies. The ESTEME@OSU  (Enhancing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education at Oregon State University) project is providing a surge of energy and research to support such transformation of student learning. The goals of a STEM education are to foster in students a deep understanding of content, adaptable problem solving and critical thinking skills, and the broad set of professional competencies needed in practice and in life. It is often taken for granted that dedicated educators will achieve these goals.  However, teaching and learning are not so simple – there are entanglements such as the diversity of students’ academic backgrounds and complex institutional pressures. Moreover, instructional practices with the best of intentions do not always guide students to mastery.

Realigning Evidence and Practice

Removing roadblocks to reform instructional practice is a complex process that touches upon university culture, teaching, course design, student engagement, and institutional support for educators. ESTEME@OSU aims to understand how change occurs within and across each of these aspects and to catalyze greater support for instructors and greater academic success for students. Although some students succeed with traditional lecture and application exercises, such as confirmation laboratories, research shows that many students who learn this way struggle to apply course content to everyday and professional problem solving. The unfortunate reality is that students in introductory STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) courses often rely on rote memory— they are neither expected to, nor do they expect themselves, to recall information beyond the final exam. Yet so often in the reaches of life beyond transcripts and diplomas, professionals in the STEM disciplines need to do more than recall information— they need the ability to apply such information to solve complex problems.

Aiming to encourage and support the use of evidence-based instructional practices or EBIPS in the classroom, ESTEME@OSU emphasizes faculty engagement by forming mutually supporting communities of practice. Project researchers suspect that one of the main barriers to instructors utilizing EBIPS is the concern among faculty that deviation from universities’ normalized practices will place them at a disadvantage for tenure and promotion. Recognizing this concern, ESTEME@OSU hopes to facilitate a social infrastructure conducive to positive peer learning and active change. What is unique about ESTEME@OSU is that the research program doesn’t focus as much on the effectiveness of these EBIPs in individual classes. After all, they are selected by instructors based on each practice’s demonstrated effectiveness in peer-reviewed studies. Instead, the researchers at OSU seek to understanding changes in student learning through an increased exposure to multiple EBIPS classes, changes in instructional practice, and ways in which organizational support occurs and can be sustained. The project aims to shift instructor’s conceptions of what student success looks like, as well as to shift the institutional culture surrounding effective teaching. These project outcomes have the potential to impact the nearly 10,000 OSU students who enroll in the STEM courses that are part of the project.

EBIPS at Work

“In classroom practices, an example of what we want is to shake up the usual three-hour- a-week-lecture, one-to-two-hour-lab model, and move toward what we call interactive engagement and formal cooperative learning,” says Christina Smith, a Ph.D. student on the project. From a student’s point of view, this could mean more interactive lectures, carefully designed “clicker” questions, partner-answered questions, group-lead recitations, or hands-on studio workshops. The goal of these techniques is to engage the students in the concepts and ideas that are being discussed in class, which helps students, gain a deeper understanding of the material.

“One of the main challenges of introductory STEM education, is just how large the classes are,” says Julie Risien, project partner from the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning. Of the instructors participating in the project, some, like Dave Bannon in the Department of Physics, join with a history of addressing this challenge and successfully implementing EBIPs. Each of his class meetings offers students a different degree of “frequent formative feedback”— the ongoing guidance that a instructor provides to students on their work to guide their knowledge development, and an EBIP highlighted by ESTEME@OSU. What makes his course able to provide this EBIP regularly is his inclusion of studio workshops in addition to lectures and labs. To accommodate large class sizes, where students typically have less one-on-one time with instructors, Bannon purposely decreases the student-to-teacher ratio in each kind of classroom throughout the week: lectures are largest and serve primarily to deliver content from a single instructor; labs are smaller and allow for physical application of concepts with the help of a teacher’s aid; and studios feature the most student-driven activities with a instructor, TA, and a learning assistant. With three kinds of classroom environments, students experience a range of well thought-out learning activities. As the student-teacher ratio decreases, the amount of frequent formative feedback increases; students interact more with each other and their instructors.

As an EBIP, frequent formative feedback works in favor of both students and instructors. In Bannon’s lectures, frequent formative feedback is incorporated through multiple choice clicker questions or peer initiated problem solving. In Bannon’s multiple-choice questions even the wrong answers are carefully made to indicate common mistakes among students. When students select a wrong answer, they unconsciously flag concepts that Bannon may need to review. For Bannon, who realizes how foundational his courses are for students in STEM fields, the feedback is enormously helpful when designing review sessions and lesson planning for each week. Students benefit from the feedback by gaining a recitation experience that is tailored specifically to their class’s needs.

Still, with full course loads of detail-heavy, math-intensive curriculum on top of regular jobs and field-related experiences, sometimes it can seem easier to students to play the previously mentioned rote memory game. “That,” says Milo Koretsky, the principal investigator on the project, “is the catch: with EBIP-oriented classes, students will have the opportunity to be engaged and drive their own learning, but if it means what they perceive to be more work on their part, some may resist.” Some critics are unsure if students will take the challenge. “But the thing is,” says Smith, “that students need to be trained to become professionals, and maybe ESTEME’s work is the answer to that. With the hands-on learning and more frequent interactions, I feel like we can instill the skills they need for problem solving, critical thinking, and team building.” Perhaps the key to attracting students is in allowing them to see the new effort as an investment— one where deeper engagement, evidence based practices, and more hands-on activities are the vectors for deeper conceptual understanding.

Organizational Change

In order to implement new practices in their classrooms, instructors (a term which in this case encompasses all teaching faculty, staff, and assistants) need the support of administrators and peers in their exploration of student-centered instruction. Postdoctoral Scholar Ann Sitomer describes the current environment this way: “Engaging in EBIPs – straying away from traditional teaching methods— can be risky for faculty. These tools can be unexpected for students, and for staff, at least at first, it can mean a good deal of trial and error.” The risks associated with trying new practices include push back from students in the form of poor student evaluations. Without understanding from departmental and institutional leadership, poor evaluations can negatively influence promotion and tenure decisions, while inciting disapproval from instructor’s peers. Koretsky also notes that faculty members are under immense pressure to conduct and publish original research, gather positive teaching evaluations, and conduct service to the university and professional organizations; making it difficult to find the time to remodel curriculum and classroom practices. Part of the ESTEME@OSU project focuses specifically on building up supportive communities of practice for instructors who chose to engage EBIPs in their classrooms. For example, instructors are able to observe each other teaching and provide positive and critical feedback through programs in partnership with the OSU Center for Teaching and Learning. “When teachers engage in peer observations and reflective coaching, that’s a formal community of practice,” says Koretsky, “But communities of practice can take shape by simply passing a colleague in the hall and chatting with them about a technique that did or didn’t work.” Communities of practice, he says, can be formal or informal, organic or inorganic—but what matters are that instructors feel comfortable enough with their peers and supervisors to openly discuss and consider what is or isn’t working within their classrooms. Institutions have the ability to construct environments that are not only supportive of, but also reward faculty members’ efforts toward innovation in teaching.

Implementers of Change

ESTEME@OSU is collaboration between the colleges of Science, Education, and Engineering at OSU and conducted in partnership with the Division of Student Affairs, the Center for Teaching and Learning, and the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning. Dr. Milo Koretsky in Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering is the Principal Investigator; Dr. Thomas Dick in Mathematics, Dr. Shane Brown in Civil and Construction Engineering, Dr. Jana Bouwma-Gearhart in STEM Education, and Dr. Susie Brubaker-Cole who is vice-provost for Student Affairs are the Co-Principal Investigators. The undertaking, which kicked off in winter 2014, touches many branches of the STEM disciplines, but will not result in a full conversion of all courses to EBIPs— students will continue to have the option to enroll in traditional lab/lecture classes.

ESTEME@OSU is a step in transformation. Koretsky sums it up, “It’s not about what we’re doing with this grant, but it’s about the footprint we leave behind.” Oregon State is first and foremost an institution of higher education, whose investments are in the students, as well as its surrounding communities. In its success, ESTEME@OSU has the ability to promote an environment where students are better prepared for local and global service, where faculty bonds and camaraderie are reinforced, and the OSU community can continue on the forefront of educational innovation within transformed student success.