Initial Publication Date: December 2, 2012

Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER) Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering

Contributions and Opportunities for the Geosciences

David Mogk, Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University
A two-year study by the NRC (2012) of Discipline-Based Education Research in the STEM disciplines explored 1) the current status of DBER, 2) evidence-based contributions of DBER to STEM education and 3) future directions for collaborative discipline-based education research. Although there are commonalities in DBER among the STEM disciplines, there are unique contributions and opportunities for the Geosciences to engage DBER to support excellence in geoscience education.


The National Research Council (Board on Science Education) recently completed a two year study, commissioned by the NSF Division of Undergraduate Education, of an emerging, interdisciplinary field of scholarship: Discipline-Based Education Research. DBER integrates the deep disciplinary priorities, worldview, knowledge, and practices employed by scientists and engineers with complementary to research on human learning and cognition. The results of DBER will support excellence in STEM education, by providing the evidence that demonstrates effectiveness of instructional strategies, methods, pedagogies and assessments to:

  • Provide all students with foundational knowledge and skill towards developing a scientific literate citizenry;
  • Motivate some students to complete degrees in science or engineering
  • Support students who wish to pursue careers in science or engineering to create a diverse technical workforce.
Challenges and opportunities that can be further addressed by DBER include:
  • Retaining students in STEM courses and majors
  • Increasing diversity in the STEM disciplines, and
  • Improving the quality of STEM instruction

Future funding opportunities in science education are requiring "....projects (to) carry the development to a state in which the evaluations of the projects have evidence to support the claim that the projects' efforts are effective" and "...should discuss evidence that supports the validity of the approach, and must reflect current understanding of how students learn" (NSF 10-544, Program Solicitation for Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (TUES). DBER provides a foundation for future course and curriculum development, and also provides the methods and tools to engage research on how humans learn in the STEM disciplines. This module is a synthesis of the NRC (2012) report, Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER): Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering.

What is Discipline-Based Education Research?

There are three principle components of DBER:

  • The contours of DBER are emergent from the parent disciplines, reflecting deep disciplinary knowledge, skills, and ways of knowing that inform disciplinary research in a given field;
  • DBER investigates teaching and learning in a given discipline, which reflects the questions asked, approaches to problem solving, and representations to explain phenomena that are intrinsic to a given discipline; and
  • DBER is informed by complementary research on human learning and cognition.

Although there are commonalities in DBER approaches and outcomes among the STEM disciplines, it is also the case that the STEM disciplines have followed different pathways, focused on different questions, and have developed capacities on topics related to each discipline.

Part I: The Current Status of DBER

The primary goals of DBER have been to:

  • Understand how people learn the concepts, practices, and ways of thinking of science and engineering.
  • Understand the nature and development of expertise in a discipline.
  • Help to identify and measure appropriate learning objectives and instructional approaches that advance students toward those objectives.
  • Contribute to the knowledge base in a way that can guide the translation of DBER findings to classroom practice.
  • Identify approaches to make science and engineering education broad and inclusive.

The types of knowledge required to conduct DBER include:

  • Deep disciplinary knowledge;
  • The nature of human thinking and learning as they relate to a discipline;
  • Students' motivation to understand and apply findings of a discipline;
  • Research methods for investigating human thinking, motivation, and learning.

There is an emerging group of scholars who are developing the expertise to address these numerous knowledge bases. However, DBER is also being done by "border crossers"—researchers who were originally trained in their disciplinary science but who have developed an interest in engaging research on human learning in their domains. Consequently, much of DBER has been done as multidisciplinary collaborative projects engaging content and learning specialists.

Major conclusions of the review of the current status of DBER include:

  • DBER is a collection of related research fields rather than a single, unified field. (Conclusion 1)
  • High-quality DBER combines expert knowledge of:
    • a science or engineering discipline,
    • learning and teaching in that discipline, and
    • the science of learning and teaching more generally. (Conclusion 4)
  • Most efforts to develop and advance DBER are taking place at the level of individual fields of DBER.
  • Strength of Evidence: DBER is an emerging field, and the strength of evidence that support findings have been variable ranging from anecdotal to robust.

Part II: Contributions of Discipline-Based Education Research

DBER has made significant advances in the following areas:

Conceptual Understanding and Conceptual Change

  • In all disciplines, undergraduate students have incorrect ideas and beliefs about fundamental concepts. (Conclusion 6)
  • Students have particular difficulties with concepts that involve very large or very small temporal or spatial scales. (Conclusion 6)
  • Several types of instructional strategies have been shown to promote conceptual change.

Problem Solving and the Use of Representations

  • As novices in a domain, students are challenged by important aspects of the domain that can seem easy or obvious to experts, such as complex problem solving and domain-specific representations like graphs, models, and simulations. These challenges pose serious impediments to learning in science and engineering, especially if instructors are not aware of them. (Conclusion 7)
  • Students can be taught more expert-like problem-solving skills and strategies to improve their understanding of representations; instructional practices may include scaffolding (steps and prompts to guide students) or use of multiple representations.

Research on Effective Instruction

  • Effective instruction includes a range of well-implemented, research-based approaches. Examples include "process oriented guided inquiry learning (POGIL), and peer led team learning (PLTL) (Conclusion 8)
  • Involving students actively in the learning process can enhance learning more effectively than lecturing. (See examples of Interactive Lectures, solving authentic problems, use of formative assessments, and metacognition).

Part III: Future Directions of DBER

Translating DBER into Practice

Available evidence suggests that DBER and related research have not yet prompted widespread changes in teaching practice among science and engineering faculty. Strategies are needed to more effectively promote the translation of findings from DBER into practice.

  • Efforts to translate DBER and related research into practice are more likely to succeed if they:
    • are consistent with research on motivating adult learners,
    • include a deliberate focus on changing faculty conceptions about teaching and learning,
    • recognize the cultural and organizational norms of the department and institution, and
    • work to address those norms that pose barriers to change in teaching practice. (Conclusion 13)

A number of studies in Physics and Biology have concluded that faculty professional development programs have not been effective in promoting curricular change based on DBER results. However, in the geosciences programs such as the On the Cutting Edge program for geoscience faculty professional development have effected significant changes to faculty attitudes about teaching and shifts towards more active teaching strategies (Macdonald et al., 2005).

Recommendations for Translating DBER into Practice

  • With support from institutions, disciplinary departments, and professional societies, faculty should adopt evidence-based teaching practices.
  • Institutions, disciplinary departments, and professional societies should work together to prepare current and future faculty to apply the findings of DBER and related research, and then include teaching effectiveness in evaluation processes and reward systems throughout faculty members' careers.

Advancing DBER Through Collaborations

  • Collaborations among the fields of DBER, and among DBER scholars and scholars from related disciplines have enhanced the quality of DBER.

DBER Research Infrastructure

DBER requires a robust infrastructure for research, supported by departments, institutions, and professional societies.

  • Science and engineering departments, professional societies, journal editors, funding agencies, and institutional leaders should:
    • Clarify expectations for DBER faculty positions
    • Emphasize high quality DBER work
    • Provide mentoring for new DBER scholars, and
    • Support venues for DBER scholars to share their research findings.

Key elements of a DBER Research Agenda

  • Studies of similarities and differences among different groups of students; this is important as the demographics of the US shifts and very little DBER exists on them. Learning influences based on race, ethnicity, gender, and age should also be considered.
  • Longitudinal studies; conceptual change takes a long time and there is a need to see if learning has a lasting effect.
  • Additional basic research in DBER; we have only begun to investigate the complex components of learning across the STEM disciplines;
  • Interdisciplinary studies of cross-cutting concepts and cognitive processes; e.g. understanding universal concepts such as energy from multiple disciplinary points of view; and
  • Additional research on the translational role of DBER to determine the extent to which DBER findings have been translated into instructional practice. This will require multi-faceted investigations with research and development on change initiatives that:
    • Include systematic national surveys or studies of science and engineering teaching practice in each of the disciplines.
    • Build on DBER and also on the related fields of faculty development (including the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning), higher education studies, and organizational change.
    • Develop and test a range of initiatives aligned with different theories of change.
    • Provide empirical data to support claims of success.
    • Address a strategic gap in the research by studying new recognition and reward systems designed to encourage research-based improvements in teaching.

Part IV: Contributions and Opportunities for the Geosciences

A Brief History of DBER in the Geosciences (aka GER)

Bringing Research on Learning to the Geosciences Book Cover Earth Science education was formalized in the late 19th Century by the "Committee of Ten (1893)" who emphasized in their report the importance of physical geography in the secondary school curriculum They recommended a 4th year secondary school course of study that included a half year of physiography and a half year of meteorology (geology was significantly excluded here). Earth science education languished in the first half of the 20th Century with the emergence of physics, chemistry and biology. The Earth sciences were viewed (perhaps inappropriately) as being descriptive, qualitative, and taxonomic. In the post-Sputnik era, but pre-plate tectonics, there was a renewed interest and sense of urgency about science education in America. In the Earth Sciences there was a call for "an integrated and up-to-date story of planet earth and its environment in space (Irwin, 1970).

Since this renaissance of Earth science education, significant contributions to DBER made by the geosciences include:

  • The Earth Science Curriculum Project (1963), which was strongly influenced by Piaget and developmental psychology. The emphasis was on hands-on experiential learning. Guiding principles of the ESCP included
    • " is what scientists do led quite naturally to the use of behavioral terms to describe the expected outcomes. The writers included behavioral objectives as well as content objectives in the teacher's guide..."
    • "...the materials produced by ESCP must be written with full understanding of the intellectual capacities and subject-matter background of the secondary school students for whom they are intended", and
    • "Materials developed by ESCP should place srong emphases on laboratory and field study in which the student actively participates in the genuine process of scientific inquiry, rather than mechanically repreating 'cookbook exercises'" (Irwin, 1970).Earth and Mind I Book Cover
  • The National Association of Geoscience Teachers was chartered in 1939 (originally as the Association of College Geology Teachers) and the Journal of Geoscience Education has been published since 1951. This journal has been the primary vehicle for faculty to communicate results of their course and curriculum development work.
  • The NSF report, Geoscience Education: A Recommended Strategy 1997 (NSF 97-171) recommended "...that GEO and EHR both support research in geoscience education, helping geoscientists to work with colleagues in fields such as educational and cognitive psychology, in order to facilitate development of a new generation of geoscience educators."
  • A NSF/Johnson Foundation workshop, Bringing Research on Learning to the Geosciences (Manduca, Mogk, and Stillings, 2004) brought together geoscience educators and cognitive/learning science researchers to develop an understanding of the current state of research on learning in the geosciences, identify research questions of high interest to geoscience and learning scientists, and develop a plan to apply research on learning to geoscience instruction. Ref: Manduca, C.A., Mogk, D.W., and Stillings, N. (2004). Bringing research on learning to the geosciences. Northfield, MN: Carleton College, Science Education Resource Center. Available: Cover of Synthesis volume
  • The Geological Society of America has published two volumes in their Special Publication Series: Earth and Mind: How Geologists Think and Learn About the Earth (Manduca and Mogk, eds), and Earth and Mind II: A Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences (Kastens and Manduca, eds). Refs: Manduca, C.A, and Mogk, D. (2006). Earth and mind: How geologists think and learn abouthe earth. Boulder, CO: Geological Society of America, Special Paper 413.
  • NSF sponsored another research initiative Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences which identified topics for research of high interest to the geosciences: temporal thinking, spatial thinking, understanding complex systems, and learning in the field.
  • A changing culture among the geoscience professoriate has increasingly emphasized the need for better learning outcome metrics and instruments. The importance of improved assessments is in response to NSF requirements for CCLI/TUES grants that have required stronger project assessments and increasingly, evidence of improved student learning outocomes; new editorial policies of the Journal of Geoscience Education (e.g. Perkins, D., 2004, Scholarship of teaching and learning, assessment and the Journal of Geoscience Education, Jour. Geoscience Eduation, v. 52 (2) 113-115), and requirements of the On the Cutting Edge program that requires all submitted teaching activities to define learning goals ( content, skills, affective, metacognitive) and recommended assessment strategies.
  • There are a growing number of geoscience education research programs. See the list of Graduate Geoscience Education Research Programs compiled by Julie Libarkin, Michigan State University.

Contributions of Geoscience Education Research

Geoscience education research has historically been conducted in the same manner that research projects are conducted in the field: basic observations are made (in individual learning environments, for a given student audience...), an interesting problem is identified, interventions are tested, and outcomes reported. (See a compilation of articles reported in the Bringing Research on Education On-Line List of References). We have referred to this body of work as "practitioner's wisdom" based on the collective observations and experiences of geoscience faculty in assessing student learning in the geosciences. This has proved to be important foundational work (akin to doing reconnaissance field studies), that have identified the need, and informed future work, in discipline-based education research. Robust, controlled experiments focused on student learning in the geosciences that meet the high standards of DBER have been undertaken by a growing cohort of geoscience education researchers in the past decade.

  • Perhaps the most important contribution the geosciences has made to DBER is in the dissemination and implementation of DBER findings. The On the Cutting Edge program for geoscience faculty professional development has convened workshops and developed websites in collaboration with cognitive and learning scientists. All of these resources provide the scholarly foundations of the topic based on peer-reviewed research, teaching activities and examples, topical collections of web-based resources, and opportunities to join communities of networked colleagues.
  • Professional societies have also played a role in disseminating DBER through their sponsorship of thematic sessions at annual meetings such as:
  • Important foundational work is being done on characterizing the nature of geoscience expertise, and how master-novice relations can inform geoscience education.

  • New research collaborations are emerging to address geoscience DBER.

  • The results of geoscience DBER are working their way into the geoscience curriculum. Notable examples of introductory geoscience textbooks that have been developed based on learning theory include:

  • Temporal Reasoning

  • Spatial Reasoning

  • Systems Thinking and Complexity

  • Geoscience Education Research on Learning in the Field Setting
  • Cognition and the Affective Domain
  • Geoscience Education Research on Teaching and Learning About Topical Issues
  • Research that Demonstrates the Effectiveness of Teaching Methods and Strategies
  • Problem-Solving
  • Teaching with Models and Visualizations
  • Effectiveness of Research and Research-Like Experiences

  • Misconceptions and Preconceptions About the Earth System
  • Geoscience Education Research focused on target audiences
  • International Contributions

Opportunities for Future Geoscience Education Research

The following is a list of topics of high interest and need to conduct GER:

  • Upper Division GEO courses: Almost all of the published GER has been done on introductory classes. There is a need to expand GER to cover the entire geoscience curriculum, particularly upper division courses that are required of majors to prepare for graduate school or enter the workforce.
  • Learning environments: most of the GER published to date has focused on the lecture part of the (large section) introductory course; research is needed on how students learn in laboratory, computer-based, and field learning environments.
  • Demographic studies: There has been very little disaggregation of studies of geoscience students to determine "what works" for students with very different backgrounds and abilities (e.g. gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, students over traditional age, students with disabilities, etc.).