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STEM Research on Remote Teaching during the Pandemic

Four NIU STEM education researchers recently submitted an article to a special issue of the Journal of Chemical Education on teaching during the time of COVID-19. The researchers used the Teacher-Centered Systemic Reform (TCSR) Model of Educational Reform to highlight how teaching practices are influenced by personal factors, structural and cultural factors, and the teacher’s thinking. Rachel Rupnow (MATH) led the research study with assistance in analysis and writing from Nicole LaDue (GEOL), Heather Bergan-Roller (BIOS), and Nicole James (CHEM).

The following interview with the researchers has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What was the impetus for this research study, and how did your group come together to conduct and write about it? 

Rachel Rupnow: [Several] STEM education researchers … have been meeting together for the past few years to exchange thoughts on papers we’ve drafted … or to learn about research methodologies that might be usable in future. … When Heather pointed out the call for papers in a discipline-based education journal, we thought this might be a good (specific) project to work on together.

Heather Bergan-Roller: Nicole LaDue and I started talking about how important it was to study the effect of COVID on education, to capture this extreme event and start documenting the short-term and long-term impacts. Nicole reached out to the others. … Rachel then joined, bringing with her experience studying faculty, which helped focus what we wanted to research. Finally, Nicole James did a literature review and brought a [chemistry] disciplinary focus.

Nicole LaDue: I found [the sudden shift to remote teaching] very challenging even though some of my research focuses on pedagogy, so I wondered how faculty without that expertise were making decisions in the moment. A few of us had classroom research studies that were halted because of the rapid shift to remote instruction, so this was one way to continue research productivity while other research was on hiatus.

Nicole James: The decision to try to tackle a real research study on the timeline of this call was really bold! Usually studies like these take months to complete and at least a month to write up. However, the goal was to provide these insights in time … to inform Fall course planning.

What was your individual role in the research study?

Heather: I was involved at the beginning to brainstorm what aspect of COVID and education we wanted to study. Then I was involved in all of the meetings to plan the interviews (data collection). Most significantly, I help[ed] code the interviews and write parts of the results.

Nicole J: Having the group be mostly non-chemists gave us distance to try to be more objective, but having me present also made sure we as a group had some cultural knowledge about the study sample. In addition, I contributed to how we framed the paper in the context of chemistry, initial data coding efforts, developing figures, and editing the manuscript.

Nicole L: My role was to participate in coding the data and working with my colleagues to ensure precision in our interpretations of the faculty interviews. Once we all agreed upon the scheme used to categorize the data, a subset of us worked on writing up aspects of the results, as well.

Rachel:  My role was to guide the analysis. … [We] thought a qualitative project that would fill in more details of how faculty were thinking about instruction would address something that was not being captured in the literature yet. Because the other members of the team have more experience with quantitative methods, I explained/demonstrated how to approach each step of the analysis and shaped how we reported results so we would align with qualitative methodology.

How do you think your study will help your disciplines address equity gaps in achievement? 

Nicole J: [At] its core, we focused on faculty, so the impact on student achievement would be through the mechanism of influencing how faculty are supported. I hope that departments and administrators will use this evidence in making decisions about how to support faculty such that they can support students. I think that really relies actions being made at the institutional level.

Heather: In the paper, we propose [using] the COVID disruption as a way to stimulate institutional change [in order to] help transform [STEM teaching] to be active, student-centered, evidence-based, and [theory-driven]. The research base on transformed teaching practices shows that [these strategies enhance] student outcomes.

Nicole L: One exciting result of this study is how open most of the faculty are to working on their teaching and meeting students’ needs. The participants expressed a desire to learn more and to gain science and chemistry-specific tools and strategies to improve learning in their course. This openness to improvement in their teaching practice presents an opportunity to improve student success.

In your personal view, what is the biggest takeaway from your paper from which you think faculty at NIU will benefit?

Rachel: [Consider] unofficial resources … as well as official resources available through the university. … [It’s] easier to see how you can use a new technique (like clickers/poll questions) in your class if someone else in your discipline has done it first; there’s less translation of the technique to work out and some problems particular to your discipline might have been resolved by a colleague already. Talking with colleagues when you’re not right down the hall from them might be more challenging but is still important during the pandemic.

Nicole J: One of the things that stood out to me was the importance of communication. Some participants openly stated a desire to talk more with their colleagues about teaching. That implies openness to a shift in culture, a desire to collaborate to improve student outcomes. … For example, within the same department, one instructor added a particular pedagogy that they saw as specifically advantageous in the online space, while another instructor … stopped using it because they thought it was impossible to implement online. Imagine if these professors had brainstormed together what they could be doing in their courses! I hope this will show that people want to be talking to each other, and we could do our jobs better if we did. Because this communication hasn’t happened organically, we need structural actions to break the ice and make that happen.

What questions did the research study leave unanswered for you?

Rachel: [H]ow other departments or instructors in other stages of their careers are approaching teaching in this time. This study just focused on tenured professors, and they largely seemed to know what they wanted to do to move their teaching online. However, were less-experienced instructors (whether grad students, instructors, or tenure-track faculty) as confident about how they would change instruction, or did they need to spend more time exploring their options before they decided how to shift instruction?

Heather: I’d like to view this work from additional angles and across time. For example, observing what faculty implemented in their courses before COVID, during Spring 2020, and in future semesters. Additionally, I’d like to know more about students’ perceptions.

Nicole L: The faculty in this study expressed that the in-person contact they have with students is richer than is possible in the online environment. They mention body language, facial expressions, and the ability to ask questions in real time. This raises two questions for me: (1) do students feel the same way, and (2) could this be ameliorated or at least reduced if the faculty learned tools for personalizing their online courses?

Nicole J: We looked at faculty experiences at a moment in time. However, what we don’t know is: What should we do next? … We need to talk more. How do we do that? How do we change a culture if people feel like nobody else seems to need help, so I don’t want to bring it up or ask for help? I would argue that we need a structural change to facilitate those interactions, but what should that change look like? I think we should look to other studies that have already examined that … and then carefully assess whatever changes we decide to make.

Final thoughts?

Rachel: [It] was valuable to have a variety of backgrounds coming into the project. … Having a variety of disciplinary backgrounds meant we were steeped in different literature and had different insights into the data. I think programs/support for cross-disciplinary research teams has great potential to make NIU an attractive place for new faculty.

Nicole L: This study was only possible because the six [chemistry] faculty … were willing to volunteer for the study and my colleagues were open to a cross-department, somewhat risky collaboration. This type of work takes time away from our typical bread and butter research but reduces feelings of academic isolation and produces some exciting opportunities to learn from one another. … I’m grateful that we have researchers interested in interdisciplinary collaboration at NIU.

Heather: I think NIU has a unique opportunity to use this disruption to usher in transformed teaching practices, particularly in STEM. … I can only hope we can take advantage of this opportunity.

Thank you to Rachel Rupnow, Nicole LaDue, Heather Bergan-Roller, and Nicole James for sharing insights into their research process.

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