Time for Second Order Change

I have had the privilege of serving as Editor-in-Chief of CBE—Life Sciences Education (LSE) for almost a decade now. During this time, I have seen exponential growth in education research, especially research beyond K–12 schools and outside of colleges of education. Much of this work is being done by scholars who identify as “discipline-based education researchers” or “science faculty with education specialties,” who have been trained in a scientific discipline. I am one such scholar. I trained as a neuroscientist and applied this training to the study of undergraduate research experiences and research mentoring at the undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral level.

This surge in education research has provided evidence indicating that what and how we teach is not meeting the needs of 21st-century learners. Consequently, there have now been strong calls for real changes in higher education from influential organizations and agencies, from industry, and even from the general public.

These changes include:


We Know How to Teach
What has become increasingly clear to me over the past decade is that we know a lot about how we should be teaching in the classroom and mentoring in the lab to support the education and development of all learners (see pieces from Owens and Pfund on pages 11 and 41, respectively). For instance, we know that learning experiences, whether in the classroom or the lab, should be designed with goals and objectives in mind and should include multiple opportunities over time to practice what is being learned. We know that learning experiences should be structured to meet learners where they are. Learning experiences should be sufficiently challenging and relevant to motivate learners, becoming more complex as learners develop expertise without becoming so complex that learners give up. We also know that learners benefit from receiving feedback from peers and experts, from being prompted to reflect on what they know and can do (or not), and from having opportunities to act on that feedback and reflection. We even have insights into how to help faculty prepare to teach and mentor and become better at it over time (see pieces from Spiro on p. 17 and Finkelstein and Keating on p. 14). Some of this knowledge is making a difference—resulting in some shifts in how we teach,1 in student learning and success,2,3 and in support for faculty to teach effectively.4

[T]here have now been strong calls for real changes in higher education from influential organizations and agencies, from industry, and even from the general public.

Now We Need to Use That Knowledge (Everywhere)
While all of this knowledge is necessary to respond to calls for change in higher education, it is not sufficient to actually achieve widespread change. Rather, we need “second order change.” Second order change is the point at which effective teaching and mentoring moves from being practiced by single individuals in isolation into wholesale use across institutions. Achieving this kind of change is much more difficult because it requires concerted effort at all levels: individuals, programs and departments, institutions, and disciplinary communities.

As you will see in this themed issue on Education, ASCB is well equipped to support its members in achieving second order change. ASCB publishes the leading biology education journal—LSE—a treasure trove of peer-reviewed research in biology education and tried-and-tested strategies for teaching and mentoring in the life sciences. ASCB’s Annual Meeting offers a robust suite of education and career development sessions, and plans are underway to offer regional meetings and webinars to ensure that all members have access to these resources. The Society is also collaborating with other disciplinary societies to make national-level recommendations for instruction in the life sciences, such as the ASCB-endorsed framework for undergraduate cell biology instruction (www.coursesource.org/courses/cell-biology) and ASCB’s partnership in the Promoting Active Learning and Mentoring Network,

Here are four things you can do to capitalize on these resources and promote second-order change:

First, gather evidence. Perhaps your response to hearing about these calls for change is to harken your own success as a scientist and question whether there is indeed need for change. If so, do what you do best. Don’t rely on N=1. Gather some data! What data would convince you that change is needed (or not)?

Start with something you care about—such as whether students understand a fundamental principle from a course you teach or whether the factors used to make graduate admissions decisions relate to your graduate students’ success. For example, ask your students to draw three water molecules interacting with as much detail as possible. Do their drawings indicate a sophisticated understanding of hydrogen bonding? Ask your students to diagram protein synthesis in the context of a cell and to include key structures in their diagrams (DNA, gene, chromosome, mRNA, tRNA, ribosomes, etc.). What do their drawings indicate about their understanding of how these structures relate to one another and how each structure is involved in protein synthesis?

If GRE scores are a factor in your graduate admissions decisions, is there any relationship between students’ scores and their number of publications, number of first author publications, time to degree completion, or other indicators of success? If not, what factors might be better predictors of success? And should GRE scores even be considered in graduate admissions decisions? These kinds of data can be useful not only to you in making decisions about your educational activities, but also to your program or department in decision making and accreditation.

ASCB is well equipped to support its members in achieving second order change.

Second, use an education resource. As an ASCB member you have automatically been signed up to receive the LSE table of contents by email. You have the journal right at your fingertips! The next time you receive the electronic table of contents alert, take two minutes to read it and pick one paper to read. I am confident you will find something in the journal that is relevant to you. In the June 2018 issue alone, there are papers on undergraduates’ research abilities and science process skills, recruiting and retaining graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds, professional identities of postdoctoral scholars, and effective models for faculty professional development.

If you have never participated in an Education or Career Development session at the Annual Meeting, pick just one to attend. There are many choices—from the education and mentoring award talks to the Education Minisymposium short talks to the career development table talks to the education section of the poster sessions. If you come with an open mind and a learning stance, I am confident you will find one strategy or idea you can apply in your classroom or your lab.

Third, involve a colleague. As much as we like to think that we as scientists are convinced by data and data alone, all people have limited time in the day and limited capacity to spend time and mental energy critically evaluating data. We often spend our time and brain space focused on thinking deeply and critically about data that are most near and dear to our hearts (i.e., our research). In areas that are equally important but may feel less central, such as our teaching and mentoring, we are more likely to make decisions not based on data, but on the credibility of the source and the attractiveness of the message (or the messenger)—a phenomenon known as the elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. If you collect some educational data, read a thought-provoking education paper, or attend an interesting education session at the Annual Meeting, you can be that credible and attractive messenger by sharing what you have learned or found with a colleague! (You can encourage your colleagues to sign up for LSE table of contents alerts by sending an email with the subject line “alerts” to lse@ascb.org from the email account where they would like to receive the alerts.)

What data would convince you that change is needed (or not)?

Finally, consider the next generation. Even if teaching and mentoring comprise a small component of your professional responsibilities, you may have trainees in your research group who are interested in education careers or who want to be more prepared for these responsibilities than we were a generation ago. You can help them by steering them to the education and career development resources available through ASCB, including those listed above and those available through ASCB’s Committee for Postdocs and Students. By tapping these resources and others likely to be available at your own institution, you will be helping your trainees not only build their awareness of the variety of career options available to them, but also build their abilities to be effective teachers and mentors from day one on the job.

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world.

Today I am wise, so I am changing myself. ― Rumi

We can achieve second order change if we follow Rumi’s example. If every ASCB member dedicated just four hours—one hour for each item listed above—this would be a game changer. We would be well on our way to second order change.

1Stains M, Harshman J, Barker MK, Chasteen SV, Cole R, DeChenne-Peters SE, …Young AM (2018). Anatomy of STEM teaching in North American universities. Science 359, 1468–1470. https://doi.org/10.1126/science aap8892.

2Freeman S, Eddy SL, McDonough M, Smith MK, Okoroafor N, Jordt H, Wenderoth MP (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science engineering and mathematics. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 111, 8410–8415. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas 1319030111.

3Hanauer DI, Graham MJ, SEA-Phages, Betancur L, Bobrownicki A, Cresawn SG, … Zimmerman A (2017). An inclusive Research Education Community (iREC): Impact of the SEA-PHAGES program on research outcomes and student learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, 13531–13536. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas 1718188115.

4Manduca CA, Iverson ER, Luxenberg M, Macdonald RH, McConnell DA, Mogk DW, Tewksbury BJ (2017). Improving undergraduate STEM education: The efficacy of discipline-based professional development. Science Advances 3, e1600193. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1600193.

About the Author:

Erin Dolan is the Georgia Athletic Association Professor of Innovative Science Education in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Georgia.