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LAST WORD - Opinion by John Robertson

Follow the Evidence

Discipline-based education research dispels myths about learning and yields results – if only educators would use it.

Opinion by SUSAN Singer & karl smith

Last year, the National Research Council released the report Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering. That consensus study, on which we served as committee members, brought together experts in physics, chemistry, biology, the geosciences, astronomy, and engineering, as well as higher education researchers, learning scientists, and cognitive scientists to focus on how students learn in particular scientific and engineering disciplines. Our key conclusion: Findings from the growing field of discipline-based education research (DBER) have yet to spur widespread changes in the teaching of science and engineering. 

For example, research-based instructional approaches to teaching that actively engage students in their own learning, such as group projects, have been shown to be more effective than traditional lectures. Yet science and engineering faculty still cling to familiar practice. While there’s no magic solution for adopting evidence-based teaching practices, finding out what is known about undergraduate learning in engineering and science—and identifying impediments to implementation in the classroom—can point the way.  

First, many students have incorrect understanding about fundamental concepts—particularly phenomena that are not directly observable, such as those involving very large or small scales of time and space. Understanding how educators can help students change these misconceptions is in the early stages, but DBER has uncovered some effective instructional techniques. One promising approach is to use “bridging analogies” that link students’ correct knowledge with the situation about which they harbor false beliefs. For instance, a student may not believe that a table can exert a force on a book resting on its surface but accepts the notion if a spring is placed under the same book. Linking these two ideas, with perhaps an intermediate of a book resting on a foam block, can move the student toward a correct understanding of forces.

Many students leave engineering after stumbling in their first college math course.

Students also are challenged by important aspects of engineering and science that can seem easy or obvious to experts. When tackling a problem, for instance, students tend to focus on the superficial rather than on its deep structure. Instructors may have an “expert blind spot” and not recognize how different the student’s approach is from their own, which can impede effective instruction. Several strategies appear to improve problem-solving skills, such as providing support and prompts—known as “scaffolding”—as students work their way through problems. Another common issue for students in all disciplines is difficulty in extracting information from graphs, models, and simulations. Using multiple representations in instruction is one way to move students toward expertise.

The report recommends future DBER research that explores similarities and differences in learning among various student populations, and longitudinal studies that shed additional light on how students acquire and retain an understanding (or misunderstanding) of concepts. However, we also need strategies that translate the findings of DBER and related research into practice. That includes finding ways around barriers, such as the faculty reward system, the relative value placed on teaching versus research, lack of support for faculty learning to use research-based practices, problems with student evaluations, and workload concerns.

The report urges universities, disciplinary organizations, and professional societies to support faculty efforts to use evidence-based teaching strategies in their classrooms. It also recommends collaboration to prepare future faculty members who understand research findings on learning and teaching and who value effective teaching as part of their career aspirations. By implementing these recommendations, engineering and science educators will make a major first step toward using DBER to improve their practice—and learning outcomes.

Susan Singer, the Laurence McKinley Gould Professor of the Natural Sciences at Carleton College, chaired the National Research Council committee that prepared the consensus study. Karl Smith, the Cooperative Learning Professor of Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education and emeritus professor of civil engineering at the University of Minnesota, represented engineering on the committee. To view the report, visit

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