Changing Your STEM Teaching Practices

You’d like to change some aspect of your teaching practice. There are seemingly limitless resources on what changes to your practice you might make. How do you get started? We've based the information in this article on two main resources, a 68-page NSF report "Describing and Measuring Undergraduate STEM Teaching Practices" and a blog post by Maryellen Weimer "Six Steps to Making Positive Changes in Your Teaching." While we’ll use Weimer’s six steps to frame this article, we’ve based the content of each step on how you might link this advice to your STEM disciplinary practice. How might you address these instructional problems scientifically?

Think about what needs to change before deciding on a change

Weimer says that change begins with a question “What am I doing that isn’t promoting learning or very much learning?” Or, “What am I doing that I’ve probably done the same way for too long?” In other words, identify your research problem. The NSF report describes this important first step in a slightly different way. The authors argue that the first step in changing your teaching practice should be describing your teaching practice. This need to begin with a description acknowledges research that finds that one’s beliefs about teaching don’t necessarily reflect one’s teaching practice (Henderson & Dancy, 2007).

Lay the groundwork for the change

Do the research. You believe that something in your teaching needs to change. You’ve described your current teaching practice. Now, what should change and why? What are the pedagogic principles behind this change? And then even more important, how should you adapt the evidence-based strategy to your own teaching and to your instructional situation? Weimer encourages careful consideration of how the new strategy will work with your students, with your content, and when in your class it might be useful.

Incorporate change systematically

You’ve identified the change, and you’ve considered how and when it might be effective. Now, figure out the mechanics of implementation. Does this new strategy fit with the content in week 3? Will students have the skills they need for this new instructional strategy by that time? If they don’t, how will you help students develop those skills?

Change a little before changing a lot

Getting excited about a new way of teaching and radically changing your course is hard on you, and it’s hard on students. Think strategically here. How can you isolate the change and analyze whether it is successful? Keep this new instructional change small and manageable.

Determine in advance how you will know whether the change is a success

You need to be able to articulate the effect that you think this new method will have on your students’ learning. You also need to be able to measure the effect. This is where resources like Describing and Measuring Undergraduate STEM Teaching Practice comes in handy. Much of that report describes different measurement methods. Other resources such as Bishop-Clark and Dietz-Uhler’s Engaging in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning or Barkley and Major’s Learning Assessment Techniques, may also prove useful.

Have realistic expectations for success

Weimer’s final recommendation is again based on her many years of experience as an instructor and as a faculty developer. Not everything will work as we hope it will. Sometimes students are not appreciative of efforts to introduce a new strategy. But having put in the analytical work early on to integrate the new strategy into your teaching practice, you can critically examine how the actual results compared to your projections. Look at the data from your assessments. Keep notes as you teach. You’ll need these to make adjustments the next time around.

References and Recommended Resources

Barkley, E. F., & Major, C. H. (2016). Learning Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bishop-Clark, C., Dietz-Uhler, B., & Nelson, C. E. (2012). Engaging in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: A Guide to the Process, and How to Develop a Project from Start to Finish. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing.

Describing & Measuring Undergraduate STEM Teaching Practices. (2012).

Henderson, C., & Dancy, M. H. (2007). Barriers to the use of research-based instructional strategies: The influence of both individual and situational characteristics. Physical Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research, 3(2), 20102.

Weimer, M. (2013, January 23). Six Steps to Making Positive Changes in Your Teaching.