FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

National Academies Releases Report on Discipline-Based Education Research

Aline D. McNaull
Number 128 - October 10, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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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.

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics