Lessons from My First Teaching-as-Research project.

As a scientist, I am trained to uses my observations of the world to form and ruthlessly test hypotheses with the scientific method. Scientists, like myself, quickly grow comfortable with cycling through the scientific method in their research, but are rarely challenged to apply the scientific method to their teaching. While searching for a thoughtful method for gaining feedback from my students to improve my teaching abilities, I was introduced to teaching as research.

Teaching as research (TAR) uses the scientific method to test instructional methods. As the name implies, TAR calls on educators to make informed guesses on which teaching method is most effective–and then test their guess through a controlled experiment. In TAR projects, educators analyze the results of their experiments to draw conclusions about the teaching method being tested.

This past year, I conducted my first TAR project through the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL). Throughout the entire process–learning about TAR, reading the educational literature, designing my project, conducting my TAR experiment, and (finally) reporting my evidence-based conclusions–I learned five key points.

1. The education literature has a wealth of knowledge to gain from psychology. My project focused on how the temporal framing of a discussion question (whether the problem was asking the students to think about the past or the future) affected my students’ motivation to learn science. Psychology has been investigating the role of past tense versus future tense in an individual’s motivation to achieve a goal, but this framework has never been applied to a classroom setting. While conducting literature searches, I discovered that, overall, education research trails behind psychological research, and there is a variety of fresh insights from psychology that are waiting to inform our teaching.

2. Our students are not blank slates. Students enter our classrooms with their personalities, experiences, and previously acquired knowledge (or misconceptions). When teaching, we should try to activate this prior knowledge whenever possible to encourage students to draw upon what they already know to answer the problem at hand (or to highlight their misconceptions to correct them). We also need to be mindful that what we are saying is not necessarily what our students are hearing. We must consider the lens through which our students are interpreting our teaching methods.

3. The affective domain matters. The affective domain is the (often neglected) sphere of teaching comprised of the attitudes, values, beliefs, opinions, and motivations within our classrooms. This may include, for instance, a student’s religious beliefs, which may conflict with knowledge presented in a science class. It is important to remember that the affective domain also includes the instructor. The attitudes, values, beliefs, opinions, and motivations that we have as educators–and that we project onto our students–can enhance or cripple student success.

4. The scientific method is powerful, even when applied in an as uncontrolled space the classroom. When I first started designing my teaching as research project, I was unsure how I could conduct a controlled experiment in the classroom. In many ways, it easier to predict the result of a reaction in my lab than predict how my students will respond to a planned activity. This idea, that we cannot carry our successful experiments while teaching, prevents us from conducting worthwhile tests of our teaching methods. We don’t test our own teaching practices enough.

5. Qualitative data is informative and worthwhile, especially in conjunction with quantitative data. While I was worried about keeping my experiments as controlled as possible, I was also worried about collecting data. As a chemist, I seem to be biased towards quantitative data, or data that is reported numerically. I was encouraged, however, to think about how qualitative data, or information that cannot be measured directly, might enhance my understanding of my results. I decided to ask students open-ended questions. Their responses were the key to understanding the numbers I measured.

We can approach teaching like an experiment to make informed decisions about how we teach–and we owe it to our students to do so. You don’t need to start with a controlled experiment. Simply offering students a forum for providing feedback, with a few helpful prompts, will give you a great place to start improving your teaching effectiveness.