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For students to be able to transfer what they have learned, they need to understand the core concepts related to that topic that can serve as a structure for organizing their knowledge. In biology, for example, students would be expected to know the facts that arteries are thicker and more elastic than veins and carry blood away from the heart, while veins carry blood back to the heart. But to be able to apply their knowledge of the circulatory system to a new problem, students must also understand why arteries and veins have these different properties and how these properties are integral to their distinct functions National Research Council, , p.

Spending a lot of time studying material and practicing its application is not sufficient to promote transfer of knowledge; what matters is how this time is spent. The goal is to spend time on activities that promote deeper learning. Students are more likely to develop the kind of flexible understanding that supports transfer if they learn how to extract themes and principles from their learning activities. Some instructors address this by calling attention to underlying principles and designing activities in which students explicitly practice transfer.

This can be addressed by using different kinds of problems and examples that encourage students to extract the relevant features of a concept—to think in terms of problems of gravitational force and energy rather than problems involving balls. Giving students complex, realistic problems can also provide them with practice in transferring their knowledge to a new situation. Much in the way that children learn to talk by hearing the people around them converse or that adults acquire new skills by working alongside colleagues, students construct understanding through social interactions, such as talking about and collaborating on meaningful learning activities Vygotsky, The evidence is very strong that collaborative activities enhance the effectiveness of student-centered learning over traditional instruction and improve retention of content knowledge see, for example, the meta-analyses by Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, , , and numerous other studies cited in Chapter 6 of the NRC report on DBER.

When students work together on well-designed learning activities, they establish a community of learners that provides cognitive and social support for the efforts of its individual members. In such a community, students share the responsibility for thinking and doing. Social interactions also have a positive effect on motivation by making individuals feel they are contributing something to others Schwartz et al.


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Much in the way that children learn to talk by hearing the people around them converse or that adults acquire new skills by working alongside colleagues, students construct understanding through social interactions, such as … collaborating on meaningful learning activities. Instructors can help create this sense of community by designing learning activities that encourage this type of intellectual camaraderie and by creating classroom environments in which all students, including those from groups underrepresented in science, feel safe about sharing their ideas. To be effective, these approaches must be carefully selected and implemented and well aligned with student learning outcomes and assessment procedures.

Chapter 4 gives some examples of effective collaborative approaches. Many DBER studies are grounded in general findings about learning from cognitive science and related fields. But DBER goes deeper by looking at how students learn the knowledge, practices, and ways of thinking in a science or engineering discipline. Much of this body of work focuses on three aspects of learning that are central to developing competency in these disciplines at the undergraduate level:. While other aspects of learning science and engineering have also received scholarly attention, these three have been studied the most extensively.

The core findings in these three areas, which are discussed in the sections that follow, are a good entry point for science and engineering instructors who want to use research to improve their teaching. Understanding and Applying the Fundamental Concepts of a Discipline.

Each of the disciplines discussed in this book is built on a set of fundamental concepts—ideas that can be applied in multiple contexts to explain and predict scientific phenomena. To become competent in biology, for example, students. Students of chemistry must comprehend that the atoms of a compound are held together by chemical bonds formed by the interaction of electrons from each atom.

Students often have difficulty mastering the fundamental concepts of a discipline. These concepts tend to be abstract, and students may fail to recognize their value as keys to thinking about the discipline. DBER has helped to elucidate how students develop an understanding of central science and engineering concepts and where they run into difficulty. An extensive body of DBER scholarship has identified and analyzed common student misconceptions in specific disciplines. DBER studies have also examined the effectiveness of strategies for promoting conceptual change. In every science and engineering discipline, undergraduates harbor misconceptions.


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These misconceptions are often derived from what students have observed in their own experience or what seems to be common sense. In physics, for example, students may think that denser objects fall more quickly than lighter objects in a vacuum because they have seen a rock plummet to the ground while a leaf wafts slowly downward. Incorrect ideas may also arise from inaccurate instruction in the K—12 grades or be influenced by cultural or religious beliefs.

Across disciplines, some of the most difficult concepts for students to grasp are those for which they have no frame of reference, especially those that involve very large or very small scales of space or time.

In chemistry, for example, the idea that all matter is composed of particles too small to be seen with a microscope—molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles—is one of three main domains of knowledge students are expected to master. While students struggle to comprehend all three domains, understanding the particulate nature of matter is one of their greatest barriers to learning chemistry Gabel, Samuel, and Hunn, ; Yezierski and Birk, Deep time refers to the age of Earth or the universe and involves time scales spanning billions of years see Box 3.

Misconceptions about scientific and engineering concepts do not always surface during traditional instruction. Moreover, deeply rooted misconceptions can be hard to change. For example, even some students who have completed undergraduate chemistry. BOX 3. Most of us have seen a chart in the form of a metaphorical calendar that compresses the entire history of Earth into the scale of one single year and places the first appearance of humans in the final minutes of the last day of that year.

In astronomy, deep time extends back even further, across several billion years to the Big Bang and the origin of the universe. In all three disciplines, the very large scales make deep time a difficult concept for students to grasp. Research has found that although most undergraduate students place significant events in geologic history—such as the formation of Earth, the first appearance of life, and the arrival of dinosaurs—in the right order, they misunderstand the scale of time between events Libarkin, Kurdziel, and Anderson, Very few students produce estimates that are close to the scientifically accepted timeline.

Students also sometimes conflate events that are far apart, such as the age of the dinosaurs and the age of humans. In some of these studies, participants seemed to pick the largest number they could think of but showed no real sense of how much time it represented.

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Concepts such as plate tectonics, rock layering, and sedimentation, among others, all depend to some extent on an understanding of geologic time. Libarkin, Kurdziel, and Anderson suggest that instructors incorporate a thorough discussion of the basic concept of deep time early in their introductory courses and reiterate its effects on other aspects of geology throughout the course.

If instruction does not address misconceptions like these, students may fail to grasp new concepts and information. Or, they may learn them well enough to pass a test but go back their old, inaccurate ways of thinking outside the classroom. To improve conceptual understanding, instructors first need to determine what students know, what they understand incompletely, and where they have misconceptions. With this information in hand, instructors can then help students replace or refine misconceptions and use what they already know as a framework for building a more complete and accurate understanding.

These range from formal instruments like concept inventories to everyday classroom methods like ConcepTests in the form of clicker questions. It is often necessary to use more than one type of assessment. Pelaez and colleagues found that their essay exams were insufficient to expose the extent of common student misconceptions about the circulatory system and that other assessment methods, including drawings and individual interviews, were required to discover how and what students thought.

Stephen Krause, an engineering professor at Arizona State University, has adapted this approach in his courses. Clarifying the Muddiest Points in an Engineering Class. How do instructors know which ideas in their course are misunderstood by or confusing to students? And once they know, how do they address that? Stephen Krause a uses this approach in his introductory engineering courses at Arizona State and is part of a group of engineering faculty members who have studied the impact.

Their responses are catalogued in a spreadsheet that the instructor and assistants review.

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This direct feedback enables Krause to readily gauge how well. In addition, students can anonymously access a running catalogue of their own responses to see how their thinking has progressed during the semester.


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For example, after a lesson on crystallographic planes—geometric planes linking the nodes atoms, ions, molecules of a crystal—one student raised this question: Why are the crystallographic planes important? Following a lesson on phase diagrams, which represent the various phases of a substance under different pressure and temperature conditions, a student was confused about this point: How do I find chemical composition and phase fractions from a phase diagram?

Krause uses the first 5 or 10 minutes of class to address the most common muddiest points. Smith says this type of review discussion helped her to better understand phase diagrams. After clarifying the muddiest points, Krause moves on to a mini-lecture to prepare students for the activities they will do that day. Students view the videos to clarify difficult concepts and help them with homework. Preliminary results have found significant gains in achievement on the content included in the YouTube tutorials, compared with test results for previous classes Krause et al.

This approach is described in Chapter 4. DBER has identified various instructional strategies that can help students develop a deeper and more accurate understanding of important concepts and, where necessary, promote conceptual change. This type of change depends on students recognizing that their preconceptions are not facts but hypotheses or models that must be evaluated in light of empirical evidence National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, Many of these strategies seek to create situations in which students realize that their preconceptions conflict with new evidence and that they must change their thinking to fit with new knowledge.

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To adapt their thinking to new evidence, students may need to add, remove, or revise elements of an existing mental model; create a new model where there was none before; or replace a preconception with a different and better one—or make each of these changes at different times Clement, And students will need multiple exposures to the same concept in different contexts before they begin to really understand it.

To foster conceptual change and increase student participation in a lecture course, Sokoloff and Ron Thornton, a physics professor at Tufts University, developed a curriculum built around Interactive Lecture Demonstrations ILDs —physical demonstrations of scientific phenomena that the instructor conducts in class. In the approach used by Sokoloff and Thornton, students first predict what will happen before the instructor does the demonstration. Students next discuss their predictions in small peer groups and explain their predictions to the whole class.