Initial Publication Date: July 13, 2016

Research into Practice: Always Something You Can Do

Steven Semken, Arizona State University

Geoscience-education researchers should always actively challenge all philosophical barriers to implementing tested, peer-reviewed, published work on GER, learning research in general, and best practices in teaching—whether by us or by our disciplinary colleagues. It is incumbent upon us as scholars who keep current in GER to do this, no less than it is for our disciplinary colleagues to integrate new results from geoscience research into their curricula and instruction! (Do remind your disciplinary colleagues of this whenever it is necessary.) The barriers that are harder to surmount are, of course, those of time, expense, and institutional inertia. I have had to contend with all of these, and still do. No matter how busy you are, there is always something you can do! My career in geoscience teaching and geoscience-education research is now well into its third decade, and my teaching has been recognized with the highest awards at all three academic institutions where I've taught—so hopefully, I have something useful to suggest. Below I've shared (in brief) a list of things I've done that have mostly worked for me over the years. Your mileage may vary.

Incremental change: Incremental improvements, no matter how small, are far better than no improvements at all. Make at least some thoughtful changes every time you re-teach a course. Look for ways to integrate a few active-learning and peer-teaching activities into your courses. Review your course content as thoroughly as you do your instructional methods: how wide, how deep? Is it relevant and engaging to your students? Be aware of potential personal, linguistic, or cultural conflicts in the classroom or field (e.g., novelty-space issues). Treat student course evaluations as you would any other data: be wary of low response rates and self-selection, but pay attention to what students thought worked and didn't work: especially their qualitative written responses.

New or redesigned courses: The easiest way to integrate sound research and best practices into teaching is to build them in from the ground up. Or, if there are courses in your catalog that have languished for lack of faculty or student interest, adopt one and revivify it with effective research-based methods and current content. While doing that, look into the possibility of having your course count for general-education credit. There is nothing like a bump in enrollment to get your peers (and administrators!) aware of the value of sound teaching.

Teach teaching: Probably every one of your colleagues teaches at least one course or seminar in his or her research specialty—why not you? Offer a course in GER and research-based teaching and open it to all students (including grad students if you have a grad program). If your institution has a pre-service teacher program (education majors), see if you can add your course to their program as a methods course for their majors.

Participatory action research: Work with your local Institutional Review Board (IRB) to authorize research use of student course work and class observations, and to enable students to participate as co-researchers (e.g., peer evaluators). I make sure to have IRB approval and student consent letters on file at the start of every course I teach.

Grant funding: External funding can buy release time as well as human and material resources for innovative course and curriculum design and evaluation—and it's good for the CV too. Write a proposal to do geoscience-education research that includes a strong component on applying the results to teaching. Apply for funding for a sabbatical devoted to research-based course and curriculum design. Partner with research colleagues on proposals to NSF, NASA, DOE, NIH, etc.; offer to help with or take charge of the Broader Impacts requirements; and write a work plan that integrates learning research into teaching along with the disciplinary research outcomes.

Institutional climate: Do what you can to inculcate your colleagues with a basic understanding of—and respect for—research-based teaching. Freely share your course and curriculum materials. Mentor junior faculty in teaching and encourage them to sign up for early-career workshops such as those by On the Cutting Edge. Offer to review your colleagues' grant proposals for broader impacts if they plan to do something related to teaching (especially NSF CAREER proposals, which put emphasis on teaching). Get involved in your unit's peer teaching-evaluation or program-evaluation efforts and write research-based criteria into the specs. Give seminars and workshops on best teaching practices at faculty retreats or between semesters or quarters. If your unit has a colloquium series with visiting speakers, lobby to invite at least one GER speaker every academic year, and ask her or him to give a hands-on workshop for faculty and students as well as a presentation. Encourage your colleagues to attend Earth Educators' Rendezvouses or short courses and workshops at GSA and AGU, and to participate in Cutting Edge/InTeGrate webinars.