Daniel Bernstein, PhD, is no stranger to experimental research. During a 20-year career at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the social psychologist ran studies on motivation and learning so rigorously controlled that he had participants live around-the-clock in an apartment for a month to study how restricting access to daily activities affected their behavior.
But an increased passion for improving student learning led him to shift his focus to improving, writing about and reflecting on his own teaching, as part of the Carnegie Foundation-supported movement known as the scholarship of teaching and learning or SoTL ( See Higher-ed movement aims to elevate teaching).
A Carnegie scholar for the past five years, Bernstein has been conducting research on learning progress among students in his psychology classes that departs from conventional research and exemplifies SoTL. He uses existing classroom conditions and applies trial and error, learning theory and other methods to meet particular educational goals, such as improving student performance and getting more students to participate in class.
"My presumption is that if the kids haven't learned my material, it's not because the registrar gave me a bad lot of kids," says Bernstein, who directs the Center for Learning at the University of Kansas. "It's that I haven't found the right way to teach it yet."
In the first semester of his project, Bernstein rewrote his traditional essay exam, changing it from a format that asked students to describe the principles of learning to one that tested whether they could apply those principles in real contexts. Under the new format, student performance plunged 15 percent to 20 percent below the previous semester's scores, flying in the face of the notion that if you understand the abstract version of an idea, you can apply it, he says.
The next semester, Bernstein tried bringing those numbers back up while maintaining the more difficult testing format. He added some out-of-class computer-based reading exercises where students answered alternate versions of questions on a topic until they got a certain number right.
Test scores continued to be low, yet something positive occurred, with students participating more: "Instead of people being in fear when I'd call on them in class, everybody kind of looked forward to it," says Bernstein.
The following semester, using the idea that people are guided by good examples, he posted several former students' answers to an essay question online and asked students to judge them--without telling them which ones he'd marked highly.
At exam time, Bernstein gave them completely different versions of the question, producing a major improvement in performance. He then had students discuss their answers in class, which yielded even better results. The eventual success of the intervention--repeated several times, with the same results--demonstrates the value of the SoTL approach, Bernstein believes.
"There's much more shortage of effective teaching than there is of theory waiting to be used," he notes. "As long as people are using, evaluating and sharing with others the quality of their student work and using that as a metric, it seems to me it's a big winner."