For a three day span in February and another in April, 2015 I have been part of the fifth year of the University Classroom Observation Program (UCOP) at UMaine. The program is an incredible way to bring middle/high school teachers together with STEM faculty on campus to promote change in individual educators and work towards overall institutional change.
Our group of teachers was trained to use the Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduates in STEM (COPUS) to objectively document the nature of STEM instruction at UMaine. The data obtained from this instrument since its development has significantly impacted student retention in STEM related majors on campus as a result of targeted professional development created to meet areas of faculty need. The nature of the protocol we use to document the classes is inherently non-threatening to the instructors that we 'evaluate' as we simply code their behavior and their students' behavior at 2 minute intervals. Were the students listening? Were they answering questions? Did the instructors write on the board or do a demonstration? Did they answer questions or circulate through the room and help students? This kind of coding gives a reasonably detailed roadmap of what occurs in each class on a given day and can help instructors understand their current teaching style and allow them to evaluate whether there is anything they want to change.
What has been really interesting about the entire process is seeing the wide variety of teaching styles across STEM classes on campus and walking away with an inherent sense of what we as K-12 teachers would like to change about our own teaching practices. We also get the benefit of being thrust into the role of 'student' again and recognizing the gaps that often exist between what students are being asked to do in college and what we are preparing them for in high school. Going into the program I expected to find a content gap between the two realms but I was surprised to find a far more substantial psychological gap that makes it hard for students to navigate the logistics of being a college level freshman. Adolescents are gradually maturing throughout their tenure in our school systems but instead of gradually shifting responsibilities on the same scale, we largely maintain a safety net for students during their high school years and then college expects an incredible jump in their responsibility and accountability, effectively ripping the net out from under them.
This gap is in danger of widening in coming years because of the K-12 shift towards standards based education, particularly the practice of giving students multiple opportunities to meet a standard using different methods (a.k.a., "multiple pathways"). This is largely in contrast to the college environment where students have one shot to demonstrate they are meeting the requirements of the course and must retake the class if they do not deliver the first time around. This is not a judgement call saying one method is better than another, just an acknowledgement that there will likely be a harsher transition for students as they move into a post-secondary environment. This was one of the major topics discussed by a panel of four UCOP teachers at a professional development opportunity for University faculty to hear about our experiences in their classrooms. This culminating event was a great discussion which sparked valuable conversations and illustrated the need and desire for more of these opportunities in the near future. Plans are being made for more such targeted discussions with faculty as well as opportunities for UCOP teachers to work with Maine Learning Assistants (MLA's) and students in the Masters of Science in Teaching (MST) program and I can't wait to see what comes from this program in years to come!
****UPDATE***** (March 7, 2016)
Click here to read the publication that came from this study! Congrats to Justin Lewin, Erin Vinson, MacKenzie Stetzer and Michelle Smith for publishing in CBE - Life Science Education.