Faculty Teams Reflect on Teaching and Learning at Inaugural Science Pedagogy Seminar

CIC’s first Seminar on Science Pedagogy took place July 15–19, 2019, on the campus of Holy Names University in Oakland, California. Generously supported by the W. M. Keck Foundation and the National Science Foundation, the seminar was designed to improve teaching effectiveness and student learning in introductory biology, chemistry, and physics courses on CIC member campuses. Ten institutional teams, selected last summer from a total of 34 applications, participated in the program. Each team consisted of three or four faculty members from one or two departments. The teams spent the last academic year collecting baseline data on student learning in existing classes, reflecting on current teaching and learning practices, and beginning to examine and discuss resources on active learning and student cognition.

The seminar drew on an active learning model championed by Nobel laureate Carl Wieman, professor of physics and education at Stanford University and founder of Science Education Initiatives at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of British Columbia. This active learning model has been implemented, with proven success, at large research universities, and science departments at CIC member institutions also are well situated to take quick advantage of these new methods. As a 2014 CIC report demonstrated, smaller colleges and universities already produce disproportionately large numbers of graduates in the STEM disciplines who continue to graduate work and careers in those fields. Students who major in the STEM disciplines persist to graduation at a higher rate at private than at public colleges and universities and they complete their degrees in a much shorter time. (View the related 2019 report, Strengthening the STEM Pipeline Part II.)

Carl Wieman stands with participants for group photo on stairwell
Participants in CIC’s 2019 Seminar on Science Pedagogy, held on the campus of Holy Names University (CA), gathered for discussions with Nobel laureate Carl Wieman (front, center).

The five-day seminar was facilitated by Warren Code, associate director, Science Centre for Learning and Teaching, and Georg Rieger, physics instructor, both of the University of British Columbia, and Michelle Smith, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University. All three have worked extensively with Wieman and were trained by him in ways to help faculty construct courses that align learning goals and assessment, challenge students to think deeply about increasingly complex problems, and provide the prompt and extensive feedback that is most effective in student learning.

Modeling the engaging teacher behaviors they were describing, the facilitators led active sessions on topics such as cognitive load and memory, knowledge organization, inclusive teaching, feedback for learning, learning goals, backward design of courses and activities, self-directed learning, building expertise in students, and using quick-response techniques for student learning. All three facilitators emphasized that helping students organize their knowledge in easily retrievable ways helps learning. They also said that the cognitive load produced from learning new material can be reduced by removing details that require extraneous processing, managing essential processing, and fostering deep thinking about questions and problems involving key concepts.

The facilitators provided practical suggestions to put these suggestions into practice. For instance, Warren Code advised having students first think on their own to solve problems, even if they do not have all of the knowledge needed for a solution. As students work on complex problems, he said, “They are assessing their prior knowledge, activating it, and making their own connections with new knowledge, as well as identifying areas of concern.”

Wieman met with the group to give an overview of his and his colleagues’ work on improving science education and to lead a discussion on the value of building expertise in students through deliberative, guided practice. He pointed out that instructors and students underestimate the need for practice, that there are levels of practice, and that students need to reflect on the practice as well as to do it. “Extended low-level practice is not helpful. Practice must be focused on areas of difficulty and be intense and deliberate in order to make a difference,” said Wieman. “We now know that the brain is transformed by intense thinking, which actually changes neurons and chemicals in the brain and improves connections. Deliberate, intense practice enhances neuron connections.”

Throughout the seminar, participants used background readings as the starting point for group discussions. Texts participants read included Improving How Universities Teach Science: Lessons from the Science Education Initiative, by Carl Wieman; How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, by Susan A. Ambrose, et al.; research articles on evidence-based techniques for improving student learning and effective assessment of student learning; and a handbook on building courses that actively engage students in learning to think like a scientist.

The program evaluator, Sandra Webster, professor of psychology at Westminster College (PA), briefed the participants on assessment procedures at the start of the seminar. She later held meetings with each team and separate focus groups with biology, chemistry, and physics faculty members as well as with administrators. Team members will introduce the new teaching and learning methods they learned into one or two introductory science courses over the next academic year, measure the impact of the new methods, and revise additional courses during the following year.

CIC will offer a second Seminar on Science Pedagogy, funded by the W. M. Keck Foundation, next year. Teams have been selected for the July 20–24, 2020, seminar at Holy Names University.


​Augsburg University (MN)
Berea College (KY)
Biola University (CA)
Concordia University Texas
Holy Names University (CA)
​Linfield College (OR)
Marymount California University
Rollins College (FL)
William Jessup University (CA)
York College of Pennsylvania