Implementation of Research Based Teaching Strategies

The traditional, almost-folkloric, based approach to teaching science is a stark contrast to the evidence-based research approach scientists consider in their everyday research. The quote by Joel Michael* highlights the contrast:

As scientists, we would never think of writing a grant proposal without a thorough knowledge of the relevant literature, nor would we go into the laboratory to actually do an experiment without knowing about the most current methodologies being employed in the field. Yet, all too often, when we go into the classroom to teach, we assume that nothing more than our expert knowledge of the discipline and our accumulated experiences as students and teachers are required to be a competent teacher. But this makes no more sense in the classroom than it would in the laboratory!

In discussing the implementation of innovative teaching techniques, this post is drawing on the work of Charles Henderson who spoke at a conference earlier this year on his analysis of the impact of physics education research on the physics community in US. I think there are lessons for chemists from this work. (The underlying assumption here is that moving from traditional methods of teaching based on information transmission to student-centred or active teaching improves student learning. This position is I think consolidated by a significant body of research.)

Change Mechanisms

The decision to use what Anderson called Research Based Instructional Strategies (RBIS) by a lecturer follows five stages, described by Rogers: (1) knowledge or awareness about the innovation; (2) persuasion about its effectiveness;  (3) deciding to use the innovation; (4) implementing the innovation; and (5) confirmation to continue its use.

Awareness of RBIS obviously underlies this process. A 2008 survey by Henderson and Dancy of 722 physics faculty showed that 87% were familiar with at least 1 of 24 identified RBIS applicable to introductory physics, and 48% reporting that they use at least one in their teaching. Time was reported as the most common reason why faculty did not implement more RBIS in their teaching.

A subsequent study by Henderson examined the individual stages of the implementation process in more detail and found that:

  • 12% of faculty had no awareness
  • 16% had knowledge but did not implement (Stage 1-2, above)
  • 23% discontinued after trying (Stage 3-4)
  • 26% continued use at a low level (Stage, 5, 1 – 2 RBIS)
  • 23% continued a a high level (Stage, 5, >3 RBIS)

Innovation Bottleneck

Henderson uses his data to demonstrate that on the whole, the physics education community does a good job of dissemination of RBIS to the community of educators. Just 12% of faculty had no awareness, and 1/6 of those who did, made no attempt to implement any. Therefore it can be argued that the fall-off in innovation is at a later stage in the change process. Hence efforts to encourage innovation should aim to address the one third of those with awareness who discontinue after a trial and those with a low level of continuance to build on their success. These groups may be a more suitable focus for consideration, in terms of percentage, as well as the fact that they were willing to give an innovation a go, when compared to those who had knowledge but did not try any innovation.

Teasing this out appears to be difficult. The decision to continue seems to come down to personal characteristics, such as desire to find out more, and gender (female twice as likely to continue than male, but the paper does dispel some traditional conceptions about who is innovative and who isn’t!).

However, in terms of practical measures that can be made the following are listed:

  • Practice literature can present an overly rosy picture of implementation. Therefore, when someone trys it and hits an unexpected hurdle (student resistance and complaints, concerns over breadth of content, outcomes not as expected), there is a sense that it isn’t working, and the innovation is discontinued. Therefore it is important that practice literature gives a full and honest account of implementation.
  • Implementation can be modified to the person’s own circumstances, and in modification, the effectiveness of the innovation is lost. Therefore, pitfalls and important issues in the dissemination stage (workshops, talks, etc) should be highlighted.
  • There is evidence that if an innovation is supported by the designer during the implementation phase, the innovation is more successfully implemented.

Now, who wants to do this analysis for UK/Ireland chemistry?!


Charles Henderson, Melissa H. Dancy, Magdalena Niewiadomska-Bugaj (2010) Variables that Correlate with Faculty Use of Research-Based Instructional Strategies, 169-172. In Proceedings of the 2010 Physics Education Research Conference.

Charles Henderson & Dancy, M. (2009) The Impact of Physics Education Research on the Teaching of Introductory Quantitative Physics in the United States, Physical Review Special Topics: Physics Education Research, 5 (2), 020107.

*Thanks to my colleague Claire Mc Donnell for giving me this quote: Joel Michael, Advances in Physiology Education, (2006) 30, 159-167.

Rogers, E. M. (1995). Diffusion of innovations (4th ed.). New York: Free Press.