Using Chemistry Education Research in a Teaching-Centered Position

by Seth Anthony

I'm going to start out with an odd statement for a blog aimed towards a community of chemistry education researchers: I've never loved research. Liked it, sure. But it’s never gotten me up in the morning excited to go to work.

Teaching is what gets me up in the morning, and even before I started graduate school in CER, I wanted to pursue a position centered around teaching, not research. But during my first year-and-a-half as a faculty member at a teaching-oriented, primarily undergraduate institution, I’ve found that my training in CER impacts much more of my job than I expected.

There’s the obvious, of course. A CER background helps us understand the process of learning – for instance, how constructivism underlies inquiry-based instruction and therefore how to implement research-based practices most effectively.

Perhaps the most substantial impact of my CER background is that it’s led me to try to promote a culture of reflective practice. At a teaching-centered institution, I found myself surrounded by other faculty who all share the professional goal of teaching well, but most of whom never received training in pedagogy or educational theories. Oddly, despite the fact that we’re in the classroom or teaching laboratory for a large fraction of our days, I noticed early on that disappointingly few conversations actually centered on what happens in the classroom.

Some of that’s because we’re all so busy, and some of it’s because we’re all sensitive about admitting that our teaching might not be quite what we want it to be. As CER researchers, though, we come from a culture in our community and research groups where we may be a little more comfortable (and even eager) to share both our successes and failures in the classroom. I think we can bring some of that to our campuses at large. This happens in casual conversations in the hallway, of course, but I’ve organized like-minded groups of junior faculty to go out for drinks with the explicit purpose of talking about teaching. It’s also shown up in one facet of my job that I didn’t even know existed before I began interviewing for faculty jobs: institutional assessment.

As part of institutional assessment, a university or a degree program formally defines learning objectives for students and evaluates students’ performance against those objectives – and this is an increasingly important part of the accreditation process. Many faculty view this as an obnoxious paper-pushing hoop to jump through, but it can serve a useful purpose – it’s a formal structure that provides us an opportunity for us to model being data-driven about our classroom practices. With backgrounds in education research – designing interview protocols, coding student responses, running statistical analyses – we know how to capture meaningful information about student performance, we know that performance algorithmic problems doesn’t always reflect conceptual understanding, and we can infuse that sort of knowledge into the process of assessment, modeling a little bit of what we do in CER for our colleagues.

Of course, we’re all also eager to have an impact inside the classroom – and I found that the best strategies here were simultaneously to start big and to start small.

Especially in my first year, I tried to be ambitious in what I did in my classroom, even if it was “outside the box.” During your first year in a faculty position, your teaching load is often lighter – and you’re usually not overloaded with committee assignments and other projects. Rather than being hesitant to “rock the boat” as junior faculty, I think that one’s first year is the time to plan and do the grand and glorious things you always dreamed of doing – to rearrange the classroom for group activities, to give different kinds of assessments and assignments. In your second time around, you’ll have even less time to make revisions than you expect.  You even have a little bit of leeway early on in your job, as it’s somewhat expected that you’re still finding your footing as an instructor – and it’s OK if you have some stumbles, especially if you handle them with humility.

But sometimes I had to start small. As a junior faculty member, you don't always have the control you’d like over your teaching environment. During my first year teaching laboratories at my new job, I had to use previously-developed course materials, which weren't always my favorites. But rather than be frustrated at that, I looked for opportunities to infuse research-based teaching strategies into those labs – turning around individual exercises into opportunities for group discussion, or having students make predictions about the outcomes of lab experiments rather than simply verifying the stated concepts.

The key advice I would give to someone with a CER background who starts a teaching position is this: In CER, we believe we can apply the data-driven model of science to improve the quality of instruction and enhance student learning. We’re trained to be data-driven in how we approach student learning. So model that (with humility) for your colleagues. Create opportunities to talk about teaching, because we do that too infrequently. And don’t be afraid to bring as much as you can into the classroom right from the start, in both big and small ways.

Maybe it looks a little different from faculty with research-centered positions. Maybe a smaller fraction of what I do during the day ends up in peer-reviewed journals or presented at conferences. But I’m still applying my CER background, and, by taking it directly to the classroom every day, I’m doing in it a way I love.

S AnthonySeth Anthony
Assistant Professor of Chemistry
Oregon Institute of Technology
(Graduate work in CER at Colorado State University with Dawn Rickey)