Keynote address: The value of faculty workshops in improving STEM education

Carl Wieman, Former Associate Director for Science, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of British Columbia

Carl Wieman Abstract

I spoke at the afternoon plenary session on the hows and whys of improving science, engineering, and math education. After a brief intro, I discussed the conceptual framework for teaching methods covered in workshops, and the reasons to believe they will have an impact. I then elaborated on why professional societies are vital to improving STEM education through improving teaching methods and closed with some thoughts on models of faculty training workshops.


Improving STEM education is more important now than it has ever been. We need a much more scientifically literate public to make the tough decisions that our society is faced with (e.g., global climate change) and for our modern economy. There is a much broader spectrum of occupations that require serious STEM competency. We need better science, engineering, and math education, for a more scientifically literate public and our modern economy is built on science and technology, a major reason why improving STEM education is a presidential priority.

There is a great opportunity now available for making major improvements in STEM education, because of major advances from three different areas of research: science and engineering classroom studies, brain research, and cognitive psychology. Results from these three areas are giving us a very compelling and consistent picture of what is important in achieving learning, particularly for learning complex expertise like math and science.

We have good data showing the impact of different undergraduate STEM teaching practices compared to the standard lecture; learning is improved and there is a higher retention rate (supported by research from Froyd, Handelsman, Wieman, NRC DBER, and around 1,000 more references). Over the past couple of years, there have been many activities for improving undergraduate STEM education. These include: a recent PCAST study and a soon-to-be-released NRC study that discuss overwhelming evidence showing better teaching practices and calling for implementation; an AAU initiative on improving STEM education, calling for major changes in teaching practices and accountability; various government activities, pushing for transparency in STEM undergraduate teaching practices and NSF programs to improve upon the adoption of effective teaching methods; and several others. None of these can succeed without the support of the professional societies, and vice-versa.

Back to Top

Conceptual framework for teaching methods covered in workshops

Development of expertise requires development of the brain. It requires intense targeted practice in all essential mental skills of the discipline, with guiding feedback. Cognitive psychologists have done a lot of research on what makes up expert competence across many different human activities. They find there are a few core components that are quite generic, and there is also quite a consistent way that expertise is developed. (1) Experts in any given area have a lot of knowledge about that subject; (2) In any particular discipline, experts in that discipline have a particular framework unique to that discipline by which they organize all that knowledge. These organizational frameworks allow them to retrieve and apply that knowledge very effectively. (3) Ability to monitor one's own thinking and learning in the discipline.

Research shows that these aspects of expertise are fundamentally new ways of thinking; nobody is born with these capabilities. Acquiring this expertise requires brain "exercise," with the teacher as the "cognitive coach," and it takes intense practice. Research has shown that particular things are important. First, the learner has to engage in challenging but doable tasks and questions—things that are so hard that they can only make progress if they have their full focused effort and attention on achieving them; simply doing low-level problems over and over again does not achieve expertise. It's not only being hard that matters, however. These problems have to have quite an explicit focus on the expert-like thinking the learner is trying to achieve. Tasks have to involve certain general features of thinking like a scientist, including: concepts and mental models, recognizing relevant and irrelevant information, self-checking, sense making, self-reflection on how they did the problem and what they learned, and feedback from the teacher.

Implementation of this method is discipline-specific. The area being studied will determine the particular concepts, models, patterns, content, language, and sense-making tests, as well as determining what and why particular concepts are hard and what engages students, etc.

Back to Top

Reason to believe they will have an impact: Effect of training on college teachers

A study, "Improved Learning in a Large-Enrollment Physics Class" (Deslauriers, Schelew, & Wieman, 2011), was done in identical sections of first-year physics courses to compare the traditional style of teaching directly with the "scientific teaching" method. The control classroom was a standard lecture class taught by a highly experienced professor with good student ratings. The experiment classroom was taught by a postdoc who was well trained in scientific teaching methods and using the "expert-thinking practice" approach. The classes had an identical set of learning objectives to be covered in the same amount of class time, and each gave the same exam jointly prepared by the two professors.

In the standard lecture class, the average exam score was 41% (+/- 1%). In the experimental class, the average score was 74% (+/- 1 %). The experimental class showed clear improvement for the entire student population, as well as a much higher level of engagement. This is not a more effective way of learning for just the top or the bottom students, but for all students across the board; this is how the human brain works.

A different experiment was done at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where nine instructors changed their teaching approach over eight school-terms (Hoellwarth and Molter, 2011). Instructors came in with an average learning gain of 0.3 using standard instruction methods. They then introduced a new way of teaching involving a set of research-based activities that all the students worked through, and the instructors facilitated the students working through the same set of activities. Learning gains for all sections was within statistical uncertainty of 0.6. This showed not only the effectiveness of the teaching method, but also that it is the mental activities of the students that dominate the learning, not who the instructor is. These same faculty members simply changed their teaching methods and their students learned much more.

Back to Top

Why professional society workshops are vital

Professional societies have a vital role to play in academia. They define professional norms and will be the ones to set the course for universities to continue using traditional, ineffective lectures or move to modern, more effective methods.

"Learning to teach" does not work in the abstract. Effective teaching of physics, microbiology, chemistry, etc. needs to be grounded in the discipline, along with the norms and views of the discipline about teaching. University administrators say they "can't get faculty to do anything their disciplines do not support." To change teaching, professional societies have to lead.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., Lovett, M. C., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass).

Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., & Wieman, C. (2011). "Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class," Science 332, 862-864.

Hoellwarth, C. & Molter, M. J. (2011). "The implications of a robust curriculum in introductory mechanics," American Journal of Physics 79(5), 540-545.

"Resource" section of website, under the instructor guidance tab

  • guide to effective use of clickers
  • clicker videos
  • group work, videos, and two-page summary
  • two-page summaries on: learning goals, course alignment; assessment to support learning, teaching expert thinking

Back to Top