It looks like this if teachers put research to practice

A new Portland State University study found that graduate students are on board with wanting to adopt interactive teaching methods but often don’t get the training or support they need from their institutions to do so.

Research has shown that students may benefit more from the use of student-centered teaching strategies such as small-group discussions, in-class “clicker” questions, demonstrations, and question-answer sessions than they would from a professor giving a traditional lecture. But despite national calls to adopt what’s known as evidence-based teaching practices, many science faculty have been slow to do so.

The study led by PSU biology PhD student Emma Goodwin focused on graduate students, whom she says play a critical role in responding to the push for increased adoption of evidence-based teaching practices—not only because they serve as teaching assistants in undergraduate classrooms, but they will also be future faculty members if they choose to pursue academia as a career.

The authors—Goodwin, her advisor, assistant biology professor Erin Shortlidge, PSU post-baccalaureate researcher Miles Fletcher and undergraduate researchers Jane Cao and Justin Flaiban—conducted an in-depth interview study with 32 biology graduate students from 25 institutions nationwide. They believe it’s the first qualitative study on biology graduate students’ perceptions and experiences with evidence-based teaching.

Their work, published online in August in the journal CBE—Life Sciences Education, supports a recent study by Shortlidge published in PLOS One, which found that PhD students who spend time developing their teaching skills can be just as successful in their research, if not more so, than those who do not.

Editor’s Note: The Aurora Beacon-News reports that teachers in West Aurora, Illinois, are hoping to apply some research-based practices to the teaching of elementary math. The trick will be getting teachers to put the research into practice. “Mathematicians ask questions, make mistakes, and focus on reasoning,” the paper quoted West Aurora District 129’s director of elementary education, Sarah Waddell, as saying about the evidence behind the change. “They are looking to connect ideas. They often work together to understand the beauty of mathematics. … Just like we want our students to be real writers, readers, and scientists, we want them to be real mathematicians. We believe the questions are more important than the answers, and being able to talk about those questions and explain answers are more important.”

Goodwin’s study found that most graduate students in the sample were aware of and valued evidence-based teaching, but only 37.5 percent had implemented the methods in classes or labs. Barriers included a lack of instructional training opportunities, little control over the curriculum and a perception that their time should prioritize research over teaching.

“It’s great to know about something, but actually practicing a behavior is crucial to using it in the future,” Goodwin said. “If they don’t have the experiences where they’re actually practicing these teaching methods as graduate students, then do we know for sure that they’ll use them as faculty, even if they want to?”

Those who found some success in implementing evidence-based teaching practices often had to seek out training opportunities on their own. The authors say the study illustrates that graduate students do not necessarily lack interest in using evidence-based teaching, but rather lack the support to learn about and practice effective teaching methods for the sciences.

Shortlidge said that a good first step would be to give graduate students techniques they can use within the confines of the kinds of courses they teach.

“I can’t overemphasize enough how important it is to consider this alongside building up research skills,” Shortlidge said. “A graduate student who wants to stay in academia may end up working in a teaching-intensive position where research is not a significant percentage of their expectations. Giving them the opportunities to build up that skill set is important so they can walk into their positions fully equipped to do a good job.”

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