On May 21, the National Research Council released Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering, a report that provides a synthesis of current education research in physics, chemistry, engineering, biology, the geosciences, and astronomy and examines its influence on teaching and learning in those fields. Building on the premise that U.S. universities play an essential role in developing an advanced science and engineering workforce, the report provides research-based recommendations on how to prepare universities for this responsibility.
Relying on education research that is discipline based—that provides an understanding of learning in specific science and engineering fields, while facilitating comparative analyses—the report recommends best practices for improving scientific teaching. It concludes that grounding classroom practices and teaching techniques in student-centered, research-based approaches is more effective than the heavily relied-upon lecture format. These approaches vary in implementation, but all focus on engaging students more productively, for example, by means of interactive lectures, group projects, or case studies.
The report also addresses the nuances of student learning. The authors point out that science and engineering, like all disciplines, build on prior knowledge, and that undergraduate students are often unprepared in ways that professors and experts in their fields struggle to anticipate. The authors argue that although conceptual understanding is key in scientific fields, the research shows that students often misunderstand fundamental concepts, such as small spatial or temporal scales. Moreover, instructors do not always know which areas students find difficult. The report recommends the use of scaffolding—providing frameworks, example solutions, and/or prompts—an approach that has been shown to facilitate learning and complex problem solving.
Overall, the NRC report makes the case for translating discipline-based research findings into classroom practices. It provides recommendations for how institutions, university departments, and faculty members can benefit from the use of such research. The report also explores the need for future research to address differences among groups of students, the preparatory role of K–12 schooling, and ways of better assessing student outcomes in science and engineering.
Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering is based on a 30-month study, including two workshops, funded by the National Science Foundation and published by the National Academies.
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