Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Learning Experiences of University Biology Faculty: A Qualitative Pilot Study

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Learning Experiences of University Biology Faculty: A Qualitative Pilot Study

Article excerpt

Significant effort has been put into the design and implementation of training programs to support faculty in delivering effective instruction (Sundberg, Kormondy, Carter, Postlethwait, & Thornton, 1992). Following the launch of the first space probe by the Soviet Union in 1957, the United States became aware of its need to improve undergraduate education to become more globally competitive (Gardner, 1998; Sundberg, 1991). With science and technology now vital to growing economies, successful undergraduate science education becomes increasingly essential (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2011; Brainard, 2007; Harvey, 2000; President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012; Sundberg, 1991). The United States continues to lag behind the rest of the world in instructor preparation programs (Wheeler, 2007), due in large part to the heavy undergraduate biology education focus on lecture despite its notable weaknesses (Barkham & Elender, 1995; Brainard, 2007; Gardner, 1998; Lang, 2006; O'Connel, 2007). Wide use of lecture-based instruction is perpetuated by institutional administrative bodies that control tenure by prioritizing research effort and publications. These bodies fear that placing additional emphasis on instruction might result in their falling behind their counterparts in these metrics, to result in a loss of prestige (Anderson et al., 2011; Brainard, 2007, p. 10).

Initiatives aimed at improving higher education science learning have concentrated on core course requirements, course content, effective instruction, advising, and ways to promote more learner-centered instruction (Nelson, Wallner, Powers, & Hartley, 2000). However, personal experience and thoughtful reflection about how those experiences shape subsequent behavior directly influence the means by which adults learn and develop professionally as instructors (Brookfield, 1995). Because perspective guides successful teaching strategies, instructor perspective is fundamental to this process (Pratt et al., 1998). Unfortunately, this essential component is lacking, as the existing body of knowledge on learning to teach fails to adequately incorporate faculty preparation and experience. This study addresses this gap in knowledge by asking how undergraduate biology instructors at higher education institutions perceive the ways they have learned to teach.

Methods

This pilot project was performed at two Midwestern universities with biology programs--a large public university with approximately 700 biology students and a medium-sized private university with approximately 250 biology students. The faculty-to-student ratio was 21:1 at the larger institution and 12:1 at the medium-sized institution. The approximate teaching-to-research load for faculty at both institutions is 50% teaching and 50% research. This study uses interpretive qualitative research methodology that focuses on understanding how people interpret and make sense of their experiences. Data were gathered through individual, in-person, structured interviews (subject selection is described below). Interviews lasting approximately one hour took place in the offices of individual faculty members. After each participant signed a consent form, individual interviews were audio-recorded and later transcribed for analysis. Each participant was asked the same set of questions (Table 1).

Initially, six biology faculty members were selected (three from each institution), chosen to represent the greatest diversity with respect to gender, age, area of expertise, and years of teaching experience--information obtained through online faculty web pages and available curriculum vitae. All six, who were invited to participate via e-mail, accepted the invitation. At the end of each interview, participants were asked to recommend one biology faculty colleague for inclusion in the study. Although most recommended faculty from their own institution, two faculty members from the larger institution recommended colleagues from the smaller private institution. …

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