Many have pointed to the fact that research often fails to impact practice; this is true in education more so than in almost any field. To counter this challenge, a 2012 report on Discipline-Based Education Research (DBER) from the National Research Council has provided a robust summary of research findings from across education in the sciences. DBER researchers are at the cutting edge of developing novel and valid assessment tools, integrating cognitive theories within the context of science learning in new ways that advance student learning, and creating paradigm-shifting instructional methodologies. All of these research results have the potential to reshape how we think about educational experiences. So, just as teaching can be informed by the specific contributions in this ABT theme issue on Biology Teaching and Learning, a review of more general findings from DBER studies could prove useful too. In reviewing these studies, readers should consider how to translate the findings into their own teaching practice to increase the impact on student learning and success.
We have long talked about the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) as a way for faculty members to engage in reflective teaching practice that is focused on classroom investigations and improvements based on what they find. SOTL is one of the four types of scholarship promoted by Ernest Boyer in his classic book, Scholarship Reconsidered (1990). He describes the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, which might in the sciences be labeled “scientific teaching” (Handelseman, et al., 2004, Science, 304:521), that involves approaching teaching and learning with an inquiry mindset designed specifically to improve student learning. The other Boyer “scholoarships” include the Scholarship of Discovery that involves original research that advances the field at the cutting edge; the Scholarship of Integration that involves synthesis of information across disciplines, across topics within a discipline, or across time; and, the Scholarship of Application (or Engagement, as he referred to it later) that involves putting research into a larger context of societal challenges, problems and issues.
Following Boyer's taxonomy, another scholarly avenue that might help us increase the impact of Discipline-Based Education Research studies on student learning and success would be the Scholarship of Translation. Consider the example of Translational Medicine, a field whose goals are to improve human health by “translating” research findings into the practice, procedures, policies and education of the medical profession. DBER is a relatively new field, but it has yielded important results that are relevant to all of us. For example, an important summary of the work of hundreds of biology DBER researchers has confidently concluded that teaching using active learning methods significantly improves student learning and persistence (Freeman, et al., 2014, PNAS, 111:8410). This is a significant finding and there is more work to do to better understand how we can improve teaching and learning; however, a relatively small number of us are engaged in this type of research. If we borrow from our colleagues in medicine and more clearly establish Translational DBER as a recognized and necessary branch of scholarly inquiry, we might be able to encourage more participation in action research and also better validate that practice-based research is a worthy endeavor.
The DBER report asserts that while some translational research has been occurring, it may have served mostly to raise awareness of the field and may not have gone far enough to promote changes in practice. However, change in practice is exactly what we need to improve student learning and success, particularly for underrepresented minority students. We need more classrooms that engage diverse learners in active, inquiry-based environments in ways that help them apply their knowledge in real world contexts that matter to them, their families and society. And, we need more instructors that can create these learning environments effectively.
How can we move from raising awareness to changing practice in more classrooms? Once way may be to encourage more translational research activity. This activity may be particularly interesting to high school teachers, faculty at primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs), and graduate students and post-docs who are aiming for a career at a PUI. Why? Because it relates directly to where they spend most of their time. Their classrooms could become Translational DBER laboratories. Undergraduate and graduate students can also get involved in supervised independent research projects. Reflective trials with appropriate data collection and analysis will yield validated results that are worthy of sharing with others in papers or at conferences that focus on translational research. One such conference is the new Gordon Research Conference on Undergraduate Biology Education Research first held in July 2015 and scheduled again in 2017 (https://www.grc.org/programs.aspx?id=16909). The NRC DBER report suggests that Translational DBER studies could also include organizational and behavioral change or analyses of national data, trends, surveys or studies of science and engineering teaching practice across schools or in interdisciplinary programs with other disciplines, such as the arts and humanities.
Ultimately, if we treat education like we treat the sciences and consider Translational DBER, more instructors will be able to help more students become excited about the wonders of biology and how studying it might lead to a satisfying educational experience and a productive life and career.