Setting a New Standard in STEM Education | MSUToday

Michigan State University is One out of five institutions selected by the Association of American Universities, or AAU, to pioneer new and better approaches to assessing teaching and learning in undergraduate STEM departments.

MSU chemistry faculty are leading efforts to embrace a new vision of educational engagement assessment centered on student learning from concept to practice in undergraduate STEM departments. The project leaders are, from left to right: Lynmarie Posey, Timothy Warren and Melanie Cooper. Credit: Harley J. Seeley

Experts agree that the current methods used to evaluate teachers in science, technology, engineering and math courses are fundamentally flawed, despite being used at universities across the United States. Now, with the support of Sarah Gilbert and Carl Wieman Benevolent Fundthe AAU is working to remedy these shortcomings.

To do this, the AAU appealed to the MSUs Department of Chemistry to be one of the leaders in creating more meaningful and productive methods that can be implemented in any university.

“These are meant to be demonstration projects,” said Timothy Warren, Professor Rosenberg and Chairman of the Department of Chemistry. “We have plans for an experiment, and we look forward to running it to find more effective ways to use instructional assessment to improve student performance.”

“That’s what we really want, we want to support student learning,” said Melanie Cooper, Professor of Chemistry and Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education. “And typical teaching evaluation methods haven’t really helped that.”

Warren and Cooper lead the new AAU-supported project, with Lynmarie PoseyAssociate Professor of Chemistry and Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies at College of Natural Sciences. The team’s proposal grew out of work the college was already doing to overhaul its existing assessment process, which relied heavily on student assessments, as is the norm.

An organic chemistry instructor chats with three students working on their laptops during a lab lesson.

One of the first experiments of its kind in higher education, the MSU Demonstration Project is part of an effort to create more meaningful and productive methods for evaluating teaching and learning in STEM departments across undergraduate – not only in the state of Michigan, but in any university. Credit: Harley J. Seeley

“We are excited to lead the effort to embrace this new vision of instructional engagement assessment centered on student learning from concept to practice,” Posey said. “This project in the Department of Chemistry will serve as a pilot for the approach that we hope to see implemented across the college.

Research shows that student ratings do not correlate with student learning or pedagogical effectiveness, the AAU pointed out. MSU is not getting rid of student assessments, but adding new components designed to support faculty as they become more involved in the process and give them more agency in their development.

“The traditional approach to faculty teaching evaluations doesn’t really improve. When you get an assessment, you’re either happy, frustrated or confused,” Warren said. “Ratings and reviews don’t necessarily put you on the path to progress.”

What the department is doing is incorporating a reflective component. Teachers will set a learning goal and assess how well students are achieving that goal, which is typical. The new component asks teachers to reflect, in writing, on what changes they can make to improve student achievement.

“This thinking gives direction,” Warren said. “It charts a course forward on the teaching side and on the student performance side.”

By implementing these changes, then evaluating and reflecting again, faculty engage in a continuous cycle of promoting growth. They can also start asking better, more focused questions about their students’ assessments, Cooper said. This, in turn, makes these assessments more useful moving forward.

“I’m thrilled that MSU’s own chemistry department is at the forefront of assessment reform. Faculty at the College of Natural Sciences have consistently demonstrated their commitment to innovation in the educational landscape,” said MSU Provost Teresa K. Woodruff, Ph.D. “Now they are taking a critical look at how student assessments fit into this landscape. I have no doubt that the AAU, and MSU educators in particular, will benefit new components of student performance that our Chemistry Department educators incorporate into the teacher evaluation process.These faculties are a case study in why MSU is known as a premier educational institution.

And while it may seem like a simple blueprint, it is an original thought for STEM in higher education.

“If you engage in the process, there’s no way your students won’t see improvement,” Cooper said. “But it’s hard. It’s something people aren’t used to doing.”

As Warren said, it’s an experience. But scientists are good at experiments, and MSU chemists can’t wait to do this one. Department faculty voted unanimously in favor of the new approach. The project also has seven chemistry professors who play an advisory role: assistant professor Selvan Demir; Professor Jetze Tepe; Professor Thomas Haman; Director of Undergraduate Programs Chrysoula Vasileiou; Director of General Chemistry Amy Pollock; Professor David Weliky; and teacher Gary Blanchardwho is also the Associate Chair for Education.

The AAU also signed on to the experiment by investing one of its five $100,000 grants in the department. This grant, however, is not limited to funding. The AAU says this is an issue that needs to be addressed and should be addressed by AAU members, Cooper said.

“They even make the AAU say AAU institutions need to do something about this issue, which is getting attention far beyond the money,” she said.

“AAU believes in us and they see us as leaders in education,” Warren said. “We are truly fortunate to be at the forefront of MSU with Melanie’s leadership and the work already done at NatSci. This will be one of the first experiments of this type in higher education.

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