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Effective teaching through investigative science

 

Bruno Borsari, Winona State University, MN

John Nosek, Winona State University, MN

Matthew Halverson, Winona State University, MN

 

Bruno Borsari, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Biology, John Nosek, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Biology and Matthew Halverson is a recent graduate from the Biology Department at Winona State University.

 

Abstract

This study evaluated professors’ teaching effectiveness among science faculty at a liberal arts university where a science curriculum was designed for pre-service elementary education majors. Quantitative data from students’ course evaluations in 2008 and 2010 complemented qualitative data from a review of curricula at other institutions in 2009, and interviews conducted with six professors who taught the curriculum during the 2010 spring semester. This study inspires educators to appreciate the idea of curriculum becoming the vehicle for faculty professional development in science education.

 

Introduction

Science professors are very knowledgeable in their content area, yet they come from an academic culture that is often oblivious of pedagogies (Baumgartner, 2007), challenging educators to make their teachings inclusive and engaging for students. Some studies showed the educational gaps between science professors and the future teachers they prepare (Baumgartner, 2007; Umbach & Wawrzysnki, 2005).  Additionally, science courses remain assignments for professors who hold teaching posts in science departments and these instructors are often ill prepared to present science in a manner that is effective to the preparation of future teachers.  McDermott (2006) conceded that due to their substantial influence on a large number of students, K-12 teachers should have a strong command of science, suggesting that needs abound for a special course for education students in college curricula.  The preparation of pre-service elementary teachers remains a focal point for improving science education programs (Baumgartner, 2007) although many challenges still affect the development of excellent science teachers and these are often rooted in the attitudes that pre-service elementary teaching students are not very knowledgeable, nor particularly enthusiastic about science.  Additionally, it may take some time for professors to develop into effective teachers because initially, their focus is on themselves rather than students and their learning (Kugel, 1993). In a course where the goal is to prepare future teachers ‘how to teach’, it is imperative for instructors to have a student-first approach. This objective may remain unattainable however, as science professors are ‘trained’ to convey knowledge in a pragmatic manner, often oblivious of affecting students’ emotions and attitudes towards learning.  Thus, a renovated culture in the science classroom for students majoring in education could inspire professors to seek different ways of imparting knowledge, as people model the best behavior and one that is most effective when learning something new (McDermott, 2006).  Consequently, professors should master effective instruction approaches because these may become the style that their students adopt when embarking in teaching careers.  The purpose of our study consisted in evaluating instructors engaged in teaching a science curriculum for pre-service education students and present implications this experience had to foster their professional growth.

 

Methodology

This study employed a combination of quantitative and qualitative methodologies for acquiring data. Course evaluation surveys served to provide some measure of teaching effectiveness in two investigative science courses (Inv. Sc. 201 and Inv. Sc. 203).  The qualitative component of this investigation was initiated in 2009 with a document analysis review of the foundations of science teaching for education majors who were enrolled in similar programs. Interviews conducted with six professors (n=6) who taught investigative science in the spring semester 2010 allowed us to collect more qualitative data, which insured the trustworthiness of the study.

 

Research Context

The study took place at a comprehensive liberal arts institution in the upper Midwest region of the U.S., which has an enrollment of about 8,500 students. This institution was initially conceived as a teacher’s preparation school and maintains notable emphases to continue preparing high quality educators. 

 

The subjects

Six instructors (n=6) who taught either course in the spring semester of 2010 served as respondents for a phone interview. Three males and three females constituted our sample and they represented various science departments at our study site.  Students were also involved in this study (n= 78). These were mainly women (96%) enrolled in two sections of investigative science 201 taught in the fall semester of 2008, and two sections of investigative science 203 that were taught in the spring semester of 2010.  All participants volunteered for the study.  The protection of human subjects was assured through approval of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) of the institution where the study took place.

 

The Instruments

Nine multiple-choice questions were considered from the 28 question evaluation survey. These questions aimed at assessing instructors’ preparedness and enthusiasm at teaching.  Learners’ satisfaction, preparedness, and enthusiasm as a direct consequence of instruction were also assessed. 

Q. 1.  Hands-on activities helped me understand the course materials.

Q. 2.  Instructors are enthusiastic about this course.

Q. 3.  Instructors are prepared for class.

Q. 4.  I am satisfied with the instructors’ dynamics during class.

Q. 5.  Instructors are modeling activities that will be useful in my future elementary          

         classroom.

Q. 6.  More direct lecturing would be helpful to my learning.

Q. 7. As a result of this class, I feel more prepared to do science activities with my students.

Q. 8. As a result of this class, I am more likely to do science activities with my students.

Q. 9. I am excited about teaching science to elementary students.

 

Additionally, an interview protocol was designed with a list of five questions that were meant to collect qualitative data. The interview method can become an appropriate research tool when investigators work with human subjects (Glesne, 1999). Twelve faculty members involved in investigative science were invited via e-mail in January 2010 to participate in this study.  This approach provided an opportunity to discuss with each interviewee the needs and purposes of the research, while verifying the respondent’s willingness to participate.  The investigators identified five areas of interest for the interview portion of the study.

 

a.      How has your approach to teaching other classes and labs changed since your involvement in the investigative science?

b.     How has your approach to measuring students’ knowledge changed since your involvement in investigative science?

c.      What effects has this experience exerted upon your research agenda?

d.     How has this program assisted you to become more sensitive and knowledgeable to the needs of preparing future teachers?

e.      What professional and attitudinal attributes would you seek in an instructor teaching this curriculum?

 

Interviews Results

The interviews were conducted by telephone in the second half of February, 2010.  The investigators remained attentive to maintain a neutral stance in asking the questions and responding to any interviewee concerns or questions.  The interviews were recorded on audiotape with the interviewees’ permission and were then reviewed by the investigators in conjunction with notes taken during the interview to guide the interview process.

 

The most common response (83.3%) from the professors to the first question suggested that they were better able to work with other instructors. This course is primarily team -taught, professors are committed to collaborate with colleagues. Most interviewees (83.3%) were also satisfied with the professional relationships they established when co-teaching investigative science. They praised the benefits of a weekly meeting, which involved professors and one student assistant per class.  These meetings aimed at sharing the teaching experience and challenges, while attempting to maintain consistency with instruction within the two sections of each course.  Some respondents (35%) had minimal exposure to this type of pedagogy when they taught the course.  However, they understood its legitimacy when teaching science to elementary education majors. Half of the respondents (50%) admitted that since teaching either course they employed similar science inquiry-based teachings in their specialty courses.  One professor pointed out that ‘this course [science 201], made me think more critically on how I teach all my other classes’, while a second pointed out the benefits of co-teaching with a more experienced instructor.

 

The second question asked how professors’ approach to measuring students’ knowledge had changed since their involvement in this curriculum.  Although half of the respondents (50%) stated they did not change how they evaluate students’ understanding, other professors indicated they made adjustments to include formative assessment. Many realized the importance of the inquiry approach to learning and taught the future teachers not only science content, but also the way scientists think. Two of six (33.3%) assessed students not only on curriculum content but about the way they solved problems, and the process by which these were resolved.

 

When answering the third question over half of the respondents (66.6%) indicated that their involvement in investigative science did not affect their research, however, they read and looked further into science teaching methods and became more interested in sharpening their teaching skills.  Those professors whose research agenda was affected (33.4%) conceded that they looked at more studies on the effectiveness of inquiry-approach instruction.  Two professors were also involved in grant writing collaborations which were awarded as a result of participation in this program.

 

To the fourth question all six interviewees (100%) declared that they were accustomed to teaching only classes for science majors. However, after getting involved with investigative science professors realized how students across curricula have different learning styles and needs. Nearly all of the interviewees (66.6%) declared that their style needed to be modified to accommodate the educational needs of future elementary teachers, As a result of this experience, most respondents (83.3%) indicated they changed their approach to instruction.

The responses to the fifth question revealed a common attribute that professors think necessary (83.3%) for teaching investigative science and this was flexibility. One said ‘First of all there are times when using the inquiry method where great questions are asked and it is good to keep the conversation going [despite the risk of jeopardizing the amount of content being taught]’. Interviewees (50%) also mentioned that flexibility was needed as far as selecting course topics as the investigative science curriculum is broad.  For this reason, flexibility, as far as what is taught, is always a priority.  Another common trait that was stated by a majority of interviewees (66.6%) was that a professor must be knowledgeable about science and willing to prepare unfamiliar topics and being open to embarking into new learning venues was echoed many times by most respondents (83.3%).

 

Document Analysis Review 

Preparing professors for teaching science courses to students of education is not an easy task and some institutions have tackled this issue with a focus on graduate students, who are enrolled in science programs (Baumgartner, 2007; Sales et al., 2007).  Other universities instead have been investing energies to design the most effective curriculum for preparing future science teachers and this has been emerging into a course, or simply a revision of existing science courses and laboratories to better connect general education with the preparation of science teachers.  More possibilities have included an integration of service-learning into a model of instruction for pre-service science teachers as a compelling need to build connections with the community (Handa et al., 2008).  Therefore, it appears that the efficacy of preparing science teachers can be truly maximized when students’ needs are prioritized.

 

Students’ Evaluations

Students’ survey responses at the end of their courses served to assess instructors’ abilities and enthusiasm to teach.  Students were pleased with opportunities to do hands-on activities in investigative science, although (6.5%) in investigative science 201 took a neutral stance when asked this question. Also, students were satisfied with instructors’ enthusiasm for both courses and a majority of all responses to this question were in the ‘Agree’ (44%) or ‘Strongly Agree’ (47%) categories. Some students (3%) in the first science course (201) selected the ‘Disagree’ category while a few (6%) remained neutral when they answered this question. 

 

When students were asked to evaluate instructors’ preparedness for class most responses were in the ‘Agree’ (37%) and ‘Strongly Agree’ (50%) categories.  Some students (2%) disagreed and 12% remained neutral when they were asked this question. Students’ satisfaction with instructors’ teaching showed a positive outcome, with a majority of responses in the ‘Agree’ (44.5%) and ‘Strongly Agree’ (42%) categories.  About 2% of students selected ‘Strongly Disagree’ and another 2% disagreed when they were asked this question, whereas 11.5% remained neutral.  The ability of instructors to model activities that are useful to teach science in elementary schools was evaluated but 80% of students disagreed, and 9% remained neutral in science 201, whereas a majority of students agreed (42.3%) and 37% strongly agreed in investigative science 203.

 

When students were asked whether more lecture-based classes would have been more helpful for their learning 6% marked ‘Strongly Agree’ on the course evaluation survey and 22% selected ‘Agree’.  Thirty percent remained neutral, 33.3% disagreed, and 8.7% strongly disagreed.  Most preferences for a lecture-based instruction were in investigative science 201 (28%) and about 25% in investigative science 203.  Students were asked also to evaluate their own preparedness to do science activities and although 15.2% in investigative science 201 did not feel prepared to teach science at the end of their course and some remained neutral (8.7%), a majority of students appeared to feel comfortable teaching science to students in elementary schools, as indicated by 60% of responses in the ‘Agree’ category and 22% in the ‘Strongly Agree’ category, in science 203.

 

When students were asked whether they would be more inclined to do science activities with their students, as a result of the investigative science courses, most agreed (25% selected ‘Strongly Agree’ and 59% chose ‘Agree’).  A small number of students (11.5%) remained neutral and only a minute number of responses (2.5%) included ‘Disagree’ and ‘Strongly Disagree’.  Indecisiveness (39%) characterized the attitude of students in investigative science 201 when they answered the ninth question. One student of forty six (2.1%) disagreed with the statement, whereas most students (47% ‘Agree’ and 18% in the ‘Strongly Agree’) were enthusiastic about teaching science in elementary schools, in both courses. 

 

Finally, a test for goodness of fit was employed and from this analysis, data indicated that there was a significant difference in students’ responses as proposed by the survey, among learners in the two different investigative science courses (201 and 203).  Chi-squared equaled 42.35 therefore the p value was .01.  These data suggest that most education majors are unable to fully understanding learning with an inquiry-based approach when enrolled in investigative science 201.  When students completed their second science course their level of comfort and enthusiasm for science teaching increased.

 

Discussion

The data analysis of this study revealed students’ appreciation about professors’ efforts to prepare them to teach science in elementary schools.  Quantitative data illustrated the strengths and weaknesses of professors who teach science courses for pre-service elementary education students.  The document analysis review demonstrated efforts and concerns by universities to enhance the quality of their science teachers’ education programs.  Interview data verified professors’ commitment and dedication to enhance critical thinking and inquiry-based approach to learning. Initiatives to enhance the quality of teachers’ education programs have been given different levels of emphasis, with various reasons given to explain this trend.  According to Borsari (1998), curricular changes are inevitable because educators will remain engaged as life-long learners.  These data provided only an assessment of the institution under study, however.

 

Conclusion

Our assessment study focused on evaluating instructors engaged in teaching a science curriculum for pre-service education students.  Quantitative data from students’ course evaluations provided information about professors’ preparedness and capabilities of engaging students in inquiry based learning.  Document analysis review data presented strategies and approaches by similar institutions to better prepare their elementary education graduates. Interview responses highlighted implications this experience had to foster professors’ professional growth.  Despite its limitations, some implications for further research have emerged from this initial investigation.  From this consideration the following recommendations are proposed in order to stimulate more research efforts in support of science education: 

·                 The incorporation of more institutions in future evaluation studies will contribute to the expansion of the knowledge base in the foundations of science education and philosophies.

·                 The study of the career path of new science teachers will demonstrate the interest and commitment of these professionals to pursue careers in science education.

Ultimately, an enhancement of inquiry-based learning and critical thinking in science education will have to rely more on the quality of the faculty and on opportunities that universities will be capable of providing to foster the professional growth of science teachers.  

 

References

Baumgartner, Erin.  “A Professional Development Teaching Course for Science Graduate Students” Journal of College Science Teaching. Vol. 36, No.6 (May/June 2007).

 

Borsari, Bruno. “Teaching Introductory Agriculture Courses through Distance Education Technology at Louisiana State University” Journal of College Science Teaching, Vol. 23, No. 1(September/October, 1998).

 

Deming, John and Cracolice, Michael. “ Learning How to Think” The Science Teacher.,Vol. 71 No. 3, 2004.

 

Glesne, Carol.  Becoming Qualitative Researchers: An Introduction.  2nd Ed.  White Plains, NY: Longman., 1999.

 

Handa, Vicente, Tippings, Deborah, Thomson, Norman., Bilbao, Purita, Morano, Lourdes, Hallar, Brittan, and Miller, Kristen.  “A Dialogue of Life.  Integrating Service learning in a Community-Immersion Model of Preservice Science-Teacher Preparation”  Journal of College ScienceTeaching, Vol. 37 No.6, 2008.

 

Kugel, Peter.  “How Professors Develop as Teachers” Studies in Higher Education, Vol. 18, No. 3 (1993).

 

Lawson, Alfred and Musheno, Benjamin. “Effect of Learning Cycle and Traditional Text on Comprehension of Science Concepts by Students at Different Reasoning Abilities” Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Vol. 36 No.1 (1999).

 

McDermott, Lillian.  “ Preparing K-12 teachers in physics: Insights from history, experience, and research” American Journal of Physics,  Vol.74, No.9 (2006).

 

Sales, Jessica, Comeau, Dawn, Liddle, Kathleen, Perrone, Lisa, Palmer, Katrina, and Lynn, David.  “Preparing Future Faculty: An Interdisciplinary, undergraduate science course taught by graduate and postdoctoral teacher-scholars” Journal of College Science Teaching, Vol.36, No.4 (January/February 2007).

 

Umbach, Paul and Wawrzysnki, M. Ronald.  “ Faculty Do Matter: The Role of College Faculty in Student Learning and Engagement” Research in Higher Education, Vol. 46, No. 2, (2005).