Date:  May 21, 2012




Findings From Discipline-Based Education Research Could Improve Undergraduate Science and Engineering Teaching But Are Not Yet Widely Used


WASHINGTON — Discipline-based education research (DBER) has generated insights that could help improve undergraduate education in science and engineering, but these findings have not yet prompted widespread changes in teaching practice, says a new report from the National Research Council.  Science and engineering faculty, institutions, disciplinary societies, and professional societies should all support high-quality DBER and the adoption of the evidence-based teaching strategies that have emerged from it, the report says. 


DBER is a collection of related research fields that investigate how students learn in particular scientific disciplines and identify ways to improve instruction.  This research is emerging in many scientific disciplines, including physics, chemistry, biology, the geosciences, and astronomy, as well as in engineering.  A DBER scholar in physics, for example, might investigate how students learn concepts such as force or acceleration and try to identify effective ways for instructors to teach these concepts. 


Scholars in all DBER fields share the goal of improving teaching and learning by using findings from empirical research.  Although they have made inroads in terms of establishing their fields, the report says, these scholars still face challenges in identifying pathways for training and professional recognition.  And findings from DBER have not yet led to widespread change in the teaching of undergraduate science and engineering. 


Notable research findings from DBER on undergraduate teaching and learning include:


§         Student-centered learning strategies can enhance learning more than traditional lectures.  Examples of effective, research-based approaches are making lectures more interactive, having students work in groups, and incorporating authentic problems and activities. 


§         Students have incorrect understandings about fundamental concepts -- particularly phenomena that are not directly observable, such as those that involve very large or very small scales of time and space. For example, students often have difficulty understanding processes that involve deep time, such as Earth’s history or natural selection, and many learning challenges in chemistry result from students’ difficulties in comprehending that matter is made up of discrete particles.  DBER has identified instructional techniques that may help, like using “bridging analogies” that link students’ correct understandings and the situation about which they harbor a misconception. 


§         Students are challenged by important aspects of the domain that can seem easy or obvious to experts. For instance, in problem solving students tend to focus on the superficial aspects of a problem rather than its deep structure.  Students in all disciplines also have trouble understanding representations like graphs, models, and simulations.  These challenges pose serious impediments to learning in science and engineering, especially if instructors are not aware of them.  Several strategies appear to improve problem-solving skills, such as providing support and prompts -- known as “scaffolding” -- as students work their way through problems.


Institutions, disciplinary societies, and professional societies should support faculty efforts to use evidence-based teaching strategies in their classrooms.  In addition, they should work together to prepare future faculty who understand research findings on learning and teaching and who value effective teaching as part of their career aspirations.  And they should support venues for DBER scholars to share their research findings at meetings and in high-quality journals.


Future directions for DBER investigations should include research that explores similarities and differences in learning among various student populations; longitudinal studies that can shed light on how students acquire and retain understanding (or misunderstanding) of concepts; studies that investigate student outcomes other than test scores; and studies of organizational and behavior change that could aid the translation of DBER findings into practice. 


The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.  The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.  For more information, visit  A committee roster follows.



Lauren Rugani, Media Relations Officer

Molly Galvin, Senior Media Relations Officer

Luwam Yeibio, Media Relations Assistant

Office of News and Public Information

202-334-2138; e-mail

Pre-publication copies of Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

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Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education

Center for Education


Committee on Status, Contributions, and Future Directions of Discipline-Based Education Research


Susan R. Singer (chair)
Laurence McKinley Gould Professor of the Natural Sciences
Department of Biology
Carleton College
Northfield, Minn.

Robert Beichner
Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor
North Carolina State University

Stacey Lowery Bretz
Professor of Chemistry
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Miami University
Oxford, Ohio

Melanie Cooper
Alumni Distinguished Professor of Chemistry
Clemson University
Clemson, S.C.

Sean Decatur
School of Arts and Sciences
Oberlin College
Oberlin, Ohio

James Fairweather
Professor of Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education
Educational Administration
Michigan State University
East Lansing

Kenneth Heller
College of Science and Engineering Distinguished Professor of Physics, and
Morse-Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor of Physics
University of Minnesota

Kim A. Kastens
Lamont Research Professor,
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and
Adjunct Full Professor
Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Columbia University
Palisades, N.Y.


Michael E. Martinez**

Associate Professor
Department of Education
University of California

David Mogk
Professor of Geology
Montana State University


Laura R. Novick
Associate Professor
Department of Psychology and Human Development
Vanderbilt University
Nashville, Tenn.

Marcy Osgood
Associate Professor
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
University of New Mexico

Timothy Slater
Professor and Higher Education Endowed Chair of Science Education
University of Wyoming

Karl A. Smith
Cooperative Learning Professor
School of Engineering Education
Purdue University, and
Morse-Alumni Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering Emeritus
University of Minnesota

William B. Wood*
Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology
University of Colorado




Natalie Nielsen

Study Director



*   Member, National Academy of Sciences

**  Deceased