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Research & Teaching

A Process of Pedagogical Change in College Science Education

Instructor Perspectives

Journal of College Science Teaching—November/December 2022 (Volume 52, Issue 2)

By Ozden Sengul

This article aims to explore the experiences of science instructors who are active participants in the design and enactment of an interdisciplinary science course with student-centered pedagogy in a large-enrollment class. The data were collected through interviews with instructors and analyzed using the inductive thematic approach. Results show that the instructors discussed the benefits and challenges of using the previous passive-lecture format of the science course. Instructors believed that even though the previous format is easy to implement, it does not help students understand how scientists approach complex problems. In the new approach, the instructors prepared learning objectives to address expected learning outcomes. They integrated diverse research-based instructional strategies to enhance students’ learning and interest in science but encountered some challenges. The instructors’ experiences illustrate that planning and enacting an interactive science learning with an interdisciplinary approach is possible in undergraduate science education with appropriate support.

 

Discipline-Based Education Research (Singer et al., 2012), Undergraduate Research Experiences for STEM Students (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2017), and evidence from empirical studies on science education (Chasteen et al., 2016) suggests that the failure of teacher-centered instruction has called for a paradigm shift toward student-centered instruction to promote learners’ critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, improve their expertise and attitudes toward science, and empower them to make connections between the science content and issues in society (Singer et al., 2012). Student-centered pedagogy aims to integrate alternative approaches such as inquiry-based instruction (Park Rogers & Abell, 2008), active learning (Brame, 2016), or the flipped-classroom approach (Bergmann & Sams, 2014). These strategies are intended to help students apply their learning to a new authentic situation in a collaborative activity (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018) in which students can reconstruct their ideas through social interaction and reflection. They can build conceptual or representational models of scientific phenomena beyond traditional mathematical approaches.

Some notable instructional approaches—such as Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies (SCALE-UP; Beichner et al., 2007) classes at North Carolina State University (NCSU) or Technology-Enabled Active Learning (TEAL; Breslow, 2010) classes at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—have successfully been applied to large-enrollment classes in undergraduate science education and shown positive impacts on learning outcomes. Some research groups have designed integrated science courses and curricula to develop a strong interdisciplinary foundation addressing the global societal, environmental, technological, and economic problems. University of Arizona designed a research-based curriculum, Chemistry, Life, the Universe, and Everything (CLUE), to address science and engineering disciplines (Cooper & Klymkowsky, 2013). Harvard University (n.d.) designed an integrated science course called What Is Life? From Quarks to Consciousness to examine how physical laws form the basis for life.

College science instructors need to understand how to implement innovative approaches and make sense of what processes would occur during the pedagogical change. This article highlights the challenges and benefits of pedagogical change for large-scale introductory science courses and aims to understand the processes involved in the implementation of the student-centered pedagogy in undergraduate science education through the experiences of instructors at a private Turkish university. The following research question guides the study: What do the college science instructors perceive to be the challenges and benefits of revising the pedagogical approach of first-year science courses?

Research design and participants

The study used a phenomenological approach (Østergaard et al., 2008) with multiple-case study methodology (Yin, 2017). The data were collected through semistructured individual interviews with the change team and analyzed using the inductive thematic analysis approach to identify the codes and develop categories into themes (Braun & Clarke, 2006). The data helped us learn about the change process from the instructors as the active participants of the course transformation. The sample questions from the instructor interviews are provided in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Sample interview questions.

  1. I would like to get a general sense of your teaching experience. How has it been going? What is the nature and level of your teaching assignment?
  2. What does teaching science through student-centered pedagogy mean to you?
  3. What experience in the student-centered instruction has made the biggest positive impact on you and your students?
  4. What limitations have you experienced in the implementation of the new approach?
  5. What do you think students learn about science while involved in active-learning experiences?
  6. What do you feel is the biggest barrier to students’ learning in the active-learning environment?

The sample for this study was the change team, which included the following six science and engineering faculty members (areas of expertise in parentheses; all names are pseudonyms): Christina (chemical engineering), Yasmin (physics), Sofia (biology), Grace (chemical engineering and materials science), Brian (physics), and Elizabeth (biophysics). None of the instructors had any pedagogical training. They participated in two full-day workshops at the university in July 2013 about learning objective–centered course design and innovative pedagogical techniques, and they got recommendations on the new curriculum development.

Research context

Sabanci University (SU) is a liberal arts–based institution that aims to bring students coming from different high school backgrounds to comparable academic levels by the end of their first year so they can make informed choices about their field of study. All incoming first-year science and nonscience students (approximately 1,000 students per year) have to take the same set of five 2-semester courses regardless of their majors. The 2-semester introductory science courses cover basic science concepts and engage students in science and engineering practices. In 2013, a group of instructors initiated a change in the pedagogical approach and the curricula of introductory science courses and used backward course design to plan all learning activities and assessments aligned with learning objectives (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). The instructors adopted a modular structure around four complex issues (universe, antibiotic resistance, climate change, and neuroscience) addressing the basic concepts and interconnections of physics, chemistry, and biology. Each module was 7 weeks long (two modules per semester).

Findings

Instructors’ perception of the course transformation

Strengths

The instructors talked about the challenges of teaching with the previous format. They reported that the previous format was easy for instructors to make preparations because they were experts on advanced physics, chemistry, and biology topics, and the format was simple for students with strong science backgrounds and positive attitudes toward science. However, the instructors had no pedagogical training, and they had difficulty integrating alternative strategies and asking challenging questions to facilitate student thinking. They stated that they learned teaching through “apprenticeship of observation” (Borg, 2004): They used to explain the concepts while students were passive listeners in large auditorium classrooms. They believed the majority of students had weak academic backgrounds in science and a lack of motivation to learn science.

The change team aimed to engage both science and nonscience students in a discovery process while they learned about science concepts. For the goal of modifying the course, Elizabeth stated,

I hope that students learn how to ask questions, how to be critical about things … global questions, like climate change, who we are in the universe, or antibiotic resistance. These are very complex problems. You cannot just solve them from biology, just from physics, or just from [a] chemistry point of view. You need an approach which integrates really different fields in order to understand and come up with some answers to the questions. If somebody says to you, “Nuclear power is bad,” you should be able to ask, “Why do you think nuclear power is bad?” So, you can decide for yourself if it is good or bad; then you can become a more responsible citizen of the world.

Elizabeth thought instructors needed training to enact a student-centered, assessment-oriented, and interdisciplinary course to maximize student participation. The change team developed new course content and activities aligning with the learning objectives parallel to the expected learning outcomes. Asking about the learning objectives in particular, Yasmin said,

Each week had specific topics. … We started with the learning objectives, but that was really hard to come up with good learning objectives. We did a lot of revisions. We started from what we want from our students to do based on our experiences and our expectations, they should be able to solve questions … or just describe the concept.

The course had different components, including prelecture video assignments, active lectures, recitations, and midterms, and students had to complete weekly quizzes and homework. The prelecture video content addressed students’ prior knowledge and weekly course content in an organized and individualized pace of learning and aimed to give enough time for students to study repeatedly. For each video, students’ learning was evaluated through online quizzes. However, the instructors noted that human interaction was the difference between the virtual lecture and a lecture in active classrooms because students were not able to ask their questions immediately in the virtual format.

Moreover, the instructors emphasized the significance of teacher preparation for the active lectures. Elizabeth suggested that the course should address a small number of concepts to enhance students’ involvement in scientific practices. Yasmin talked about the strategies that she could use to increase student talk and said,

Guiding skills … you should give a hint … I may ask open and conceptual questions and also listen to students. … I give enough time for each individual to think. … Having them explain and talk with each other, listening to how they explain to another student.

Additionally, Sofia suggested the use of concept mapping to help students see the link between the concepts and the guiding question and make students aware of their learning: what they know, what they do not know, and how and why they know. Brian stated that students were willing to learn more about the real-life issues, so in his lectures, he talked about examples or anecdotes from movies or cartoons to motivate students to learn and study science.

Moreover, the instructors thought they might lose students’ attention when they talked and wrote on the board simultaneously. For active lectures, they preferred preparing PowerPoint slides. The change team prepared templates for the slides of each module, and the instructors could modify the slides as they needed. Elizabeth indicated that the use of slides gave the instructors an opportunity to go around the classroom, see what students were doing during the group activity, and increase the interaction between students and the instructor, even though sometimes it might take at least an hour to prepare one slide. Additionally, the instructors indicated that time management was important during the active lectures so as not to lose control of the class as a whole. They suggested that the instructors should go to class earlier, start with questions related to the pre-lecture video, integrate group activities, and make a closing statement at the end of the lecture. The instructors also utilized a Classroom Response System (CRS) during lecture hours. They indicated that the CRS was used to get real-time feedback on student learning, encourage students to come to the lecture session, and increase the attendance rate. However, Brian stated that the CRS was not always able to enhance students’ engagement because the instructors could not prepare structured questions to promote student discussions in the group work or for the whole classroom.

Student learning

Referring to the students’ experiences, Brian thought the new pedagogy was beneficial for changing students’ attitudes toward science classes. He indicated that the midterm exam results became satisfactory after the revision because the exam average increased and showed a Gaussian distribution rather than two humps. The instructors thought that students having positive impressions about the course was the biggest reward. They stated that students started to talk about the connection of the content to everyday life and decreased their resistance to joining group discussions. With these new learning environments, the instructors felt closer to the students and developed the confidence to promote active student participation.

The instructors believed that the active-learning portion was a social challenge for students to interact with a group of people. Sofia stated that teaching in an active-learning classroom could be chaotic, and an instructor might not be able to control all the groups and might need more help from teaching assistants (TAs). Christina referred to students’ tendency to copy during the lectures: 

The biggest challenge is to make the students understand that copying is not learning, and it is basically cheating and stealing, it is not doing themselves any good. … I do not know how to get around that except for by raising their morality. 

Referring to the interdisciplinary approach of the university, the instructors stated that students did not like attending the science courses with peers from different majors. Grace added,

Why don’t we have two separate contents, one of them for social science students and one of them for science and engineering students. … They all want to do the simplest thing. Even though they can do the difficult thing, if they see their friends work on a simpler problem, they also want to work on the simpler problem. They do not want to force themselves. On the other hand, I do not know whether it is fair to those students [who] are working on simpler problems, it is like telling them you cannot do more difficult problems. … I think that makes the student feel inferior, and maybe they will lose confidence. They will say, “I cannot do it anyway. Even the teacher thinks that I cannot do it.” If they are in the same class, they need to work on the same question.

The instructors thought all majors should take the same introductory science classes, and they opposed the idea of having separate courses for science, engineering, and social science majors during students’ first years. They also pointed out that many students had no enthusiasm to learn science, they did out-of-task activities (e.g., playing with phones or watching videos), and they provided random answers for the multiple-choice questions of the CRS. The instructors suggested that students needed to have responsibility and self-motivation in the learning process.

Instructor challenges

During the design of the new science courses, the instructors had challenges in preparing and recording the video content for the prelecture videos. Christina said,

We flipped the course, the lectures into the current style. … The whole summer, I recorded. A 10-minute video takes 4 hours to record. … I learned how to do it, it took a lot of time, so I did 7 weeks of material, like six videos every week, so 40 videos times 4 hours. That’s a huge amount of investment of instructor time.

Different members of the change team worked on the preparation of different modules. The instructors needed to know the technical details of recording the videos, but it was hard to have a consistent format for the videos across the modules.

The instructors were not trained well on pedagogy. They were not aware of innovative instructional strategies and different assessment methods to convey the interdisciplinary course content in an interesting way to address diverse students’ needs. The instructors stated that they had a tendency to teach by lecturing in the active-learning classroom. Grace stated,

We know the material, we teach, but this is a very challenging class, where you have all different backgrounds and different motivations, [and] you are trying to teach them the same thing. So, I think it requires a little bit more professional education. We are not trained on teaching; we are not even teachers at all.

Yasmin added that some instructors might not have enough content knowledge about the modules to pose good questions and challenge student thinking during the group and whole-class discussions. She stated that even though she was asking questions, her questions were closed-ended and not promoting a lot of student talk during the active lecture.

The instructors were aware that the change process required patience, time, and effort, and they needed to know whether it was really worth it to try innovative strategies. When they were asked whether they had seen the positive impacts of active learning, Grace stated,

The problem is … we do not have any statistical results, we did not do any kind of surveys, maybe it is difficult to do this assessment. … [The] students were good students, they are good anyway, whether it is traditional or active-learning teaching, the way we assess. The exams are the same as before. There is no way to tell if it worked or not. I do not know if it worked.

They needed to collect and analyze statistical data to know whether the changes in the design and implementation of science courses were effective or required further modification because they needed to explore the impact of revision on students’ learning outcomes and attitudes toward science.

The instructors also talked about the evolution of the recitations. Christina indicated that recitations were the most problematic part before the revision process; students preferred to attend the recitations rather than lectures because TAs provided the solutions to the assigned problems. Therefore, they moved the recitations to the active-learning environments to encourage students for collaboration. Sofia commented on this process:

First, we were printing recitation worksheet questions with some spaces, so students wrote their answers, so then, next week, we gave feedback and gave those recitation worksheets back to them. … That was the ideal one. Then, what happened? It did not work in terms of the workload. Then, we said, “Okay, we are not gonna print it, it will be online, but we will give you white papers, so you are gonna write the answers, [and] we are gonna collect those answers.” Then, again, giving feedback to each was too much workload. Then, we said okay. … It was not mandatory, we randomly collected papers from one table. … Eventually none of them worked because keeping track of these things was very difficult. Now, they come to the recitation, online questions, they do it sometimes, they take the picture of the board [and] keep [it] as a record. Sometimes, they write on a white paper, but we don’t push them to write it somewhere.

The instructors complained about the workload of giving feedback for students’ recitation papers and pushing them to work by themselves. Moreover, the instructors needed well-prepared TAs to guide students’ thinking during recitations and lectures, so they created opportunities for TA development through prelecture meetings to provide guidelines about solving the problems through student-based inquiry. However, they indicated that some TAs were not attending the meetings regularly or were passive during the lectures. Christina said, “If there is only one lazy TA, that is enough to destroy the whole harmony of the course.” She thought that TAs should be familiar with the content and interdisciplinary approach of the course; rather than providing solutions to the questions, they should ask challenging questions to serve as a guide for student thinking to find the answers by themselves.

Support from others

The instructors were happy with the support from the administration during the change process. According to Christina, there was no barrier from the administration:

The institutional survival came from a course. … The shift came from that to taking the first-year courses that is really building the foundations for the later years. … The university upper management became aware of that, and their support increased. They started to give more resources … allocate more people. The graduate students were reluctant to be a TA, [management] provided lunch tickets. … They build those classrooms, they were willing to invest, it is a big support.

Christina thought that the administration invested in designing the active-learning classrooms by providing the necessary equipment and licenses for the technological programs and assigning more people for teaching with the new methodology. However, Grace stated that the administration was not fully supportive because they did not consider the needs of the instructors in the long run:

Changing the rooms, I do not think that is very difficult. Convincingly coming up with these modules, different problems, preparing the slides, and teaching all these different materials was really time consuming. So … they were fine, if you want to do it, you can do it. … They would give us one semester off. … For example, I did not teach for one semester because the design of the course was actually more work than regular teaching. They were okay with that. In the long run, I could not go to sabbatical because I had one semester less teaching. Those were the kind of long-term things that they did not care about.

Additionally, the change team had to convince the other faculty members about the value of modifying the science courses. Brian talked about the peer pressure he felt during the change process. He indicated that some faculty members were opposed to teaching science through an interdisciplinary approach because they thought that a university graduate should know about certain concepts of physics, chemistry, or biology.

Discussion and implications

This study addressed instructors’ experiences with the implementation of a student-centered pedagogy for an undergraduate science course. The instructors participated in a 2-day workshop on how to design a course with learning goals and aimed to provide a context for science teaching by addressing scientific practices and global issues such as climate change and neuroscience (Armbruster et al., 2009). The instructors prepared the learning objectives and integrated appropriate instructional strategies and activities according to the performance expectations through the process of student-centered backward design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). The change team believed that placing students at the center of the learning process with an interdisciplinary approach enhanced learners’ attitudes toward science, academic performance, and understanding of the scientific method and science-related issues in society.

According to Brownell and Tanner (2012), trying to change the pedagogical approach through short-term training sessions (a few hours) was not effective. The instructors needed more pedagogical and technical support for preparing and implementing the new course. They had challenges in recording the prelecture videos, and they needed to invest a significant amount of time in preparing the activities that could enhance student engagement. The instructors had difficulty with ensuring the fidelity of implementing student-centered pedagogy and preparing the assessment tools to sufficiently align with the learning objectives (Talanquer & Pollard, 2017).

Situational barriers such as resources, incentives, training, and time may serve as constraints on the instructors’ teaching using alternative strategies (Brownell & Tanner, 2012). In this study, instructors thought the administration was supportive in providing the resources and active-learning classrooms. However, the administration needed to compensate the instructors’ effort for being active in the change process. According to Brownell and Tanner, the instructors could be given “lower teaching loads, financial benefits, recognition for tenure, teaching awards, or even, at the most basic level, verbal acknowledgement from colleagues and supervisors” (p. 340). The results also showed that disagreement among faculty members could create an emotional barrier for pedagogical change because some instructors are opposed to teaching science with an interdisciplinary approach (Southerland et al., 2003). This finding indicated that initiating a change in pedagogical practices should be explained to the other colleagues to ensure an organized and high-quality change process and the sustainability of the reformed course.

The implementation of recitations was also challenging. Before the change process, students preferred to go to the recitations for 2 hours to passively copy the TA’s problem solutions. During the change process, recitations were held in active-learning environments where students had opportunities to collaborate with their peers while solving weekly assigned problems aligned with the learning objectives. Moreover, graduate TAs were responsible for managing the recitations and guiding student thinking during the active lectures. The instructors’ observations indicated that TAs were not familiar with the interdisciplinary approach of the course, and many of them were not sufficiently good at challenging students’ thinking during the recitations. The training sessions for TAs were needed to help them develop competencies on teaching while they are in graduate school (Brownell & Tanner, 2012).

The instructors also addressed students’ learning difficulties. They stated that students resisted joining the group discussions and had a tendency to copy the quiz and homework responses from their peers. The instructors thought students should be accountable for their own learning, make preparations before the class, and engage with the course content effectively (Talanquer & Pollard, 2017). However, the instructors faced some problems with enacting the student-based instruction; they were not able to increase student voices via group presentations and understand how much a student learned. The instructors should integrate more group work through virtual or in-class activities to discuss what students have learned and encourage students to evaluate the strengths of different ideas.

Further studies should focus on how learning through student-centered pedagogy can enhance college students’ learning gains and their attitudes toward and motivation for learning science (Armbruster et al., 2009; Docktor & Mestre, 2014). More research-based evidence may help the field understand how science instructors interpret and enact new teaching approaches in undergraduate science classrooms (Borrego et al., 2013). Students’ enhanced engagement in scientific processes may also increase the science instructors’ confidence in and enthusiasm for teaching with innovative strategies. The instructors involved in this study designed an interdisciplinary science course around issues related to science and society, and this approach to science teaching can be a model for other instructors and institutions to use research-based pedagogies in college science education. Because the change process is ongoing, the change team should focus on preparing new module contents on complex scientific issues. The change team can enhance collaboration activities inside and outside academic departments and institutions to share their experiences with the course transformation.


Ozden Sengul (ozden.sengul@boun.edu.tr) is an assistant professor in the Mathematics and Science Education Department at Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey.

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