Evaluating New Approaches to Teaching and Learning in Undergraduate STEM Education

Kadian M. Callahan, Kennesaw State University, ASCN Working Group 6 Co-Leader

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published Mar 30, 2021 10:07am

Over the last several years, there has been a push to rethink teaching and learning in undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education. Two meta-analyses of studies on undergraduate STEM education revealed that traditional, teacher-centered approaches are not as effective as active learning approaches for fostering success in STEM for students broadly, and especially for traditionally underserved groups of students (Freeman et al., 2014; Theobald et al., 2020).  Thus, there are ongoing efforts to shift toward using active learning and inclusive practices to ensure that all students are welcome and supported in STEM courses and programs.  

As we continue to work to enhance our instructional practices to meet the changing dynamics of STEM teaching and learning, we must also reconsider how we evaluate teaching excellence.  Specifically, how do we ensure that the work that faculty do to actively engage students in learning and to create inclusive learning environments is captured in evaluations of teaching? 

Consider instruction that that adheres to the following principles (Smith, Callahan, Mingus, & Hodge, 2020): 

  1. students learn meaningful content by engaging in challenging, cognitively demanding problems; 
  2. students deepen and clarify their thinking through routinely discussing their own reasoning and considering the reasoning of others (peer-to-peer interactions); 
  3. instructors deepen their own understanding of content and pedagogical content knowledge when they elicit and make use of student thinking to advance the learning goals; and 
  4. instructors foster a sense of belonging when they explicitly attend to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Some examples of what this may look like in practice follow:

  1. Students comparing and contrasting different strategies, techniques, or solution options and responding in writing
  2. Students explaining their thinking about a problem with each other
  3. Instructors integrating inclusive techniques into their instructional practices (e.g., checking in with each student, sharing success strategies, using formative assessments to foster a growth mindset)
  4. Instructors carefully constructing groups to ensure diversity by race, ethnicity, gender, and learning strengths (e.g., forming a group that includes a student who is good at considering different approaches, a student who is meticulous in making calculations, and a student who is good at understanding real-life applications)
  5. Instructors eliciting students' ideas and integrating those ideas into the learning experience

What are some ways to capture evidence of these types of practices and their impact on student learning?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Share course artifacts that illustrate a) the types of questions that you pose to students to help them make connections and reflect on their learning (e.g., tasks/activities, assignments, assessments) or b) the ways that you promote success for all students (e.g., note-taking guides, examples of quality work, record of checking in with students across the semester)
  • Have a colleague conduct a focused observation of you teaching in action. This might involve meeting ahead of time to discuss what the observation should focus on (e.g., group dynamics, eliciting and using student thinking); the observation itself; and a debriefing meeting afterward to discuss strengths, opportunities for improvement, and insights
  • Provide evidence of students meeting course learning outcomes (e.g., based on written reflections or assessments of students' developing understanding of a concept studied over time)
  • Provide evidence of community among students based on their anonymous feedback about what features of the course supported their learning and recommendations for future courses.  Beware that you may get a comment like, "I learned more from my classmates than I did from my instructor" – perhaps not a bad thing.

These are just a few ideas to get the conversation started.  I invite you to share your perspective on how to ensure that new approaches to teaching and learning in undergraduate STEM education are honored in the evaluation process. 


Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences111(23), 8410-8415.

Smith, W. M., Callahan, K. M., Mingus, T., & Hodge, A. (2020). Improving Freshman-Level Mathematics Courses via Active Learning Mathematics Strategies. In W. G. Martin, B. R. Lawler, A. E. Lischka, and W. M. Smith (Eds.) The Mathematics Teacher Education Partnership: The Power of a Networked Improvement Community to Transform Secondary Mathematics Teacher Preparation. (pp. 143-175).

Theobald, E. J., Hill, M. J., Tran, E., Agrawal, S., Arroyo, E. N., Behling, S., ... & Grummer, J. A. (2020). Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences117(12), 6476-6483.