Education ForumScience Education

Challenge faculty to transform STEM learning

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Science  16 Oct 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6258, pp. 281-282
DOI: 10.1126/science.aab0933

Models for higher education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are under pressure around the world. Although most STEM faculty and practicing scientists have learned successfully in a traditional format, they are the exception, not the norm, in their success. Education should support a diverse population of students in a world where using knowledge, not merely memorizing it, is becoming ever more important. In the United States, which by many measures is a world leader in higher education, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) recommended sweeping changes to the first 2 years of college, which are critical for recruitment and retention of STEM students (1). Although reform efforts call for evidence-based pedagogical approaches, supportive learning environments, and changes to faculty teaching culture and reward systems, one important aspect needs more attention: changing expectations about what students should learn, particularly in college-level introductory STEM courses. This demands that faculty seriously discuss, within and across disciplines, how they approach their curricula.

Compared with lecture-only courses, active-learning pedagogies (e.g., the use of personal response “clicker” systems or peer instruction) can improve retention and course grades, particularly for underprepared and underrepresented students (2). But conversation must extend beyond interactive classrooms to how to support students to develop and use deep, transferrable knowledge. Even after successful completion of several college-level science courses, there are huge challenges to understanding and using scientific knowledge (3). A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (4) provides the most up-to-date, research-based strategies for promoting deep learning and is well aligned with other international initiatives. These strategies were developed for K-12 (primary and secondary education), but we believe the approach is valid for the first 2 years of college.

CORE IDEAS, CROSSCUTTING CONCEPTS. Disciplinary experts have a great deal of knowledge—organized and contextualized around important concepts (5). Students should develop knowledge around these “disciplinary core ideas” rather than try to assemble understanding from many disparate ideas and activities. Core ideas should be advanced over time through carefully developed progressions of learning activities and assessments that provide students and instructors with feedback about student understanding (6). This is at odds with most introductory science courses that attempt to provide an overview of the discipline. Ideas and concepts are often compartmentalized by chapter, which obscures connections within and across courses and makes it difficult for students to correlate facts, ideas, and exercises (1).


Several initiatives have developed around a model for organizing ideas in a discipline. Vision and Change… (7) identified core ideas in biological sciences. Reforms of Advanced Placement courses in the United States and Canada, which offer college-level courses to secondary students, were built around “big ideas” in biology, chemistry, and physics (8). Although efforts must be informed by national-level initiatives and the research literature, we believe that core ideas must be negotiated locally by faculty in each discipline in order to build ownership and buy-in.

For example, core ideas that emerged from cross-disciplinary discussions at our institution, Michigan State University (MSU), include “evolution” for biology, “structure and properties” for chemistry, and “interactions cause changes in motion” for physics. Focusing on core ideas within each discipline allows reduction of the amount of material that many agree has become overwhelming (the “mile-wide, inch-deep” problem). Faculty agreement on what is centrally important moves the conversation from what to eliminate to what supports core ideas.

There are also ideas that span disciplines—“crosscutting concepts,” such as cause and effect, conservation of energy and matter, and systems thinking. Energy itself is a core idea in each discipline, yet we rarely note the different ways disciplines treat energy, leaving students often unable to apply what they have learned in one discipline to another. If each discipline were to agree on a coherent approach, it would allow students to construct understanding and to apply that knowledge across disciplines.

PRACTICES AND LEARNING. Although many reform efforts have focused on “inquiry”—an idea with different connotations depending on context and audience (9)—the Framework describes eight “scientific and engineering practices” that can be thought of as disaggregated components of inquiry, e.g., developing and using models and engaging in arguments from evidence. Descriptions of these practices make it more likely that they will be incorporated into teaching and learning. Such descriptions will aid design of assessments that require students to use content knowledge (core ideas) in the same ways scientists do (by engaging in scientific practices). These practices can actively engage students in using their knowledge to predict, model, and explain phenomena—which one might argue is the primary goal of science.

Instead of developing or assessing core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and scientific practices separately, they should be integrated into “three-dimensional learning” (10). Emphasizing and integrating the three dimensions will necessarily change our approach to instruction. Providing students with opportunities to develop models, construct explanations, and engage in arguments using evidence requires that courses become more student-centered. Assessments must measure not only what students know but also how they use their knowledge. Although some transformation efforts have measured reforms' success by using multiple choice assessments [e.g. concept inventories (11)], these do not address how students use knowledge in the ways we have discussed here.

At MSU we are developing evidence--based approaches to assessment and instruction that incorporate the three dimensions (10, 12). Although constructing and scoring these items is more difficult and time-consuming than traditional questions, assessments must change, or students will not learn to use scientific practices and core ideas to make sense of phenomena.

The pace of change in higher education can be glacially slow. Increasing numbers of students will enter college whose learning has been informed by the Framework. Higher education should capitalize on their carefully scaffolded knowledge. It would be a disservice to throw these students back into typical introductory courses that focus on memorizing facts and algorithmic calculations.

References and Notes

  1. Acknowledgments: This project was supported by the Association of American Universities' Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative, funded by the Helmsley Charitable Trust, and by the Office of the Provost of Michigan State University.
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