DBER Journal Club

Up until a few months ago, I didn’t even know that DBER stood for Discipline-Based Education Research. Now I’m its biggest fan, in large part due to a journal club I joined here at Cornell.

DBER is research on teaching and learning done in a particular discipline, often conducted by scholars trained in that discipline. For example, DBER includes work on peer instruction in physics, team-based-learning in biology, and classroom flipping in economics. In the middle of Episode 62 of the podcast, Edward and I talked to Natasha Holmes about how having discplinary experts involved in educational research brings some pretty big benefits. First, deep knowledge of the substance helps ensure the details of the teaching intervention make sense. This could mean writing good questions for an assessment, designing effective classroom activities, or just making a pure lecture clearer without losing important details. Second, disciplines bring a wide range of methodological expertise. Many economists have experience evaluating policy that translates well to evaluation of teaching interventions. Psychologists have insight into how student brains work. Sociologists and anthropologists understand better than anyone the importance of classroom culture. Third, scholars trained in a discipline are uniquely positioned to communicate research findings to their peers. And we all know how important it is to get information on quality teaching to those faculty who don’t seek it out for themselves.

Natasha is a physics education researcher, and one of the first things she did when she arrived at Cornell was to start a DBER Journal Club inviting interested faculty and students from across the university. Each week we meet to discuss a different article. We take turns choosing articles, and in the last few months we’ve read studies in a range of disciplines including physics, chemistry, biology, and economics. I’m hoping we can expand participation soon to include scholars outside STEM and the social sciences.

The discussions have been terrific. We talk about what we learned and what we didn’t learn from the articles. Did we trust the study design? Can we reasonably attribute differences between the treatment group and control group to differences in the treatment? What was the treatment? Is it interesting? How do these results compare to similar studies in other fields?

Having people trained in the methods of a wide range of disciplines in the same room talking about the same questions is illuminating. Psychologists worry that the treatment is not precisely defined. Economists worry that the control group and treatment were different before the experiment started. Physicists seem to want to see change across the semester in the same learning outcome for both the control and treatment groups. I think we are all curious about the mechanisms behind whatever changes we observe in outcomes.

We also try to connect what we learn to our personal experience. Is this work consistent with what we’ve seen in our own classes? Does it give us insight into things we’ve observed? How will we change our teaching based one what we’ve learned? Does this inspire us to design and implement a new study that might answer some of the questions unanswered by the article?

The club currently has a nice mix of DBER practitioners and consumers. We have a hard-core group regular attendees, but other folks drop in (or are invited in) for particular topics or when we discuss articles in particular disciplines. We’ve also been using the time slot to schedule visitors to give talks about DBER when they might be on campus for some other reason.

My friend Bill Goffe is always trying to move conversations about teaching away from anecdotes about our classes to serious discussions of research. He’s not the only one that gets frustrated when we are simply sharing our personal experiences in the classroom, even though that must be better than not talking about teaching at all! We are all scholars, and most of us could benefit from treating our teaching more like our research. Joining (or starting) a DBER journal club is a fantastic way to do this.