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Oct. 7, 2020

For the long haul

New study reveals persistence in learner-centered teaching approach

Teaching professional development programs have proliferated during the past few decades, with the goal of facilitating measurable change in STEM higher education. As national reports continue to advocate the need for transforming teaching and learning in the sciences — from instructor to learner-centered — the need to train instructors is essential.

However, it is currently not known if such outcomes are achieved and ultimately persist. Given the substantial investment in time and resources that these PD programs represent, it is critical that their longitudinal impact on instructional practices and additional program outcomes is assessed.

To address this knowledge gap, MSU plant biology research associate Nate Emery and colleagues recently published a study in the journal "Science Advances" to determine how successful these learner-centered practices were. This new study builds on previous research on effective professional development design.

Faculty Institutes for Reforming Science Teaching, or FIRST IV, was an NSF-funded program developed by MSU University Distinguished Professor of plant biology, Diane Ebert-May, who used the initiative to train 201 biology postdoctoral scholars in learner-centered teaching approaches and practices.

“From 2009-2013, FIRST IV postdoc participants selected from institutions nationwide engaged in a two-year teaching professional development program based on learning theory and scientific teaching — that is, teaching science as it is practiced using tested pedagogies, and learning science concepts by using science practices,” explained Ebert-May, a professor in the Department of Plant Biology in MSU’s College of Natural Science, and principal investigator on the project. “As teams, the postdocs developed learner-centered teaching practices, designed an entire course using those principles, and taught the courses during the academic year following the first and second summer workshops at their respective institutions.” 

“While FIRST IV demonstrated evidence of developing learner-centered instructors at the conclusion of the program, we knew little of how these teaching practices were maintained when alumni became faculty and were exposed to new policies, responsibilities, and departmental climates in their home departments,” Emery said. “In this study, the participants had moved on to a variety of institution type — from top research universities with R1 status to community colleges — and we sought evidence of long-lasting change in how these faculty teach, and how they compare to their peers.”

The study used a longitudinal, paired design in which data on teaching approaches, observed teaching practice, and student perceptions were collected from 40 pairs of FIRST IV alumni, along with a matched comparison colleague in their department for three years from 2016-2019.

“We found that self-reported teaching approaches and observed practices six to nine years later were consistent with those developed during FIRST IV,” Emery said. “Data from student perceptions of the learning environment and student assessments further supported this finding. Simultaneously, we evaluated paired faculty in the same departments and found that professional development outcomes persisted over time and across a career transition. FIRST IV faculty maintained their learner-centered practices and were more learner-centered than their peers. Last, we found that teaching approaches were correlated with teaching practices in all faculty participants.”

These results suggest that FIRST IV succeeded in training postdocs who became faculty members to effectively teach learner-centered courses, and the outcomes persisted long after the program finished. In addition, learner-centered teaching was positively correlated with students’ use of scientific practices to do something with knowledge and concepts.

“Persistent, long-term impacts are critical to the success of STEM teaching PD programs,” Ebert-May said. “These findings support the claim that there are inherent benefits to training graduate students and postdocs before they enter academic careers.”

“Further,” Emery added, “learner-centered teaching was positively correlated with students’ use of scientific practices to do something with knowledge and concepts in assessments. In addition, student perceptions of scientific teaching in courses also aligned with the degree of learner-centered practices used by the instructor. These emergent relationships among instructors and students are invaluable for future research that examines change in instructor attitudes, approaches and practices in STEM higher education.”

This story was originally featured on the College of Natural Sciences website.

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