Rosemary J. Smith, Ph.D., Idaho State University, Pocatello

Sharolyn J. Belzer, Ph.D., Idaho State University, Pocatello



Our study describes the design and effectiveness of a teaching methods course whose goal is to enhance pedagogical content knowledge through the union of content knowledge and inquiry pedagogy.  The syllabus is available on the ASTE "syllabus sharing" website.  The course emphasizes extensive time spent teaching to peers, use of modern laboratory equipment and technology, incorporating relevant examples through the study of the local ecosystem, experimental design, and the process of science.  Teaching topics are selected to cover each content area of NSES and assigned to students based on prior knowledge.  We measure effectiveness using a variety of quantitative and qualitative methods. Students improved significantly in content knowledge, teaching skills (laboratory techniques, models) and professional knowledge (methods, resources, assessments).  Students who successfully complete the methods course are well prepared for implementing inquiry-based science teaching.  However, results from observations of student teaching (using the RTOP), surveys, and interviews suggest that they find it difficult to implement inquiry-based lessons. Not only do pre-service and cooperating teachers often have differing philosophies, these differences often are not resolved during the student teaching experience.  Future work considers bridging this transition and continuing to implement and measure the success of the local ecosystem focus.




Introduction and Methods

We have previously provided a model for a course (Belzer, Smith & Lung 2004) that facilitates the transition of pre-service teachers from "survival teaching" to "reflective teaching" (Gess-Newsome and Lederman 1995).  With the help of an NSF- CCLI grant we have further developed a biology teaching methods course whose goal is to enhance pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) through the union of content knowledge and inquiry pedagogy (Lowery 2002). Our research questions include: 1) Does our Biology Teaching Methods course enhance the PCK of our students?  How?; 2) Does using a focal-ecosystem model allow our students to integrate relevant examples from the local ecosystem into their teaching?; and 3) Are our students able to utilize gains in their PCK to transition effectively into their student teaching experience?

Our study follows seven cohorts of students, from their first day in the Biology Teaching Methods course through their student teaching experience.  The course uses a Learning Cycle approach (Trowbridge, Bybee, & Carlson-Powell 1999; BSCS 1993; NRC 1996); students are assessed for prior knowledge and skills at the start of the course, directed to appropriate teaching assignments to fill in the gaps in their content and/or pedagogical knowledge, and finally assessed to determine their improvement and to provide students with the opportunity to reflect on their own professional growth.

A syllabus is available on the ASTE “syllabus sharing” website.  Our course emphasizes the application of content knowledge, and laboratory and teaching skills, as delineated in the NSES (NRC 1996). Unlike other methods courses, the design focuses on the interaction between content and teaching methodology in the context of practice teaching experience, measuring outcomes in these areas.  One key feature of the course is the scaffolded approach to teaching a full-science lesson. Students begin learning to teach with an exercise that “engages” students, proceed to “explain” through the use of demonstration, and culminate their experience by the preparation and teaching of a full lesson.  The lesson must incorporate all elements of inquiry and include a technology and data analysis component as well as an appropriate assessment.  Students receive feedback on their teaching from both their peers and the instructors.  The total amount of class time scheduled for peer teaching is a strength because teaching experience has been identified as the major source of PCK (van Driel, Verloop, & de Vos, 1998; van Driel, de Jong, & Verloop 2002; Grossman 1990; Lederman, Gess-Newsome, & Latz 1994). 

The lack of an authentic classroom environment containing “real” students might be considered a limitation to our approach.  However, it has the advantage of focusing the attention of our students on the critical issues of what to teach (content knowledge), how to teach (pedagogy), and the interaction between the two (PCK) and allows them to participate in a wide-range of lessons and observe inquiry teaching. Studies on science teachers indicate that a well-integrated and accurate understanding of the subject matter is prerequisite for the development of PCK (Gess-Newsome & Lederman 1993).  In terms of pedagogy, Loucks-Horsely (1997) argues that it would be difficult for teachers to use inquiry-based methods if they have never experienced them.  Simmons et al. (1999) found that while beginning teachers described their practice as very student-centered, they were teacher-centered in their classroom actions, and never reconciled the inconsistency.  These authors conclude that “changing the actions of teachers, especially toward the use of more inquiry-oriented teaching approaches is more complex than originally thought”, suggesting that “these types of changes require teachers to learn, rethink, and adopt different knowledge, thoughts, and practices related to teaching. “ In fact, Lederman, Gess-Newsome and Latz (1994) indicated that the lack of integration results from a lack of teaching experience, which delays the development of PCK.  Numerous scholars (Gess-Newsome & Lederman 1993; van Driel, Verloop, & de Vos 1998) cite the complexity of classroom practice as a reason for a slow and incremental growth in the PCK of teachers (Shulman 1986).  Van Driel and others (1998) also indicate that teacher training programs typically do not exert a major influence on science teachers’ PCK.  We argue that introducing novice teachers to authentic environments gradually can reduce variables influencing classroom complexity.  This development could occur through extensive teaching experience, the construction of a coherent and integrated conceptual framework of knowledge, and opportunities for critical reflection on both content and pedagogy (Barnes & Foley 1999).   

The second key feature of the course is the use of the focal-ecosystem model pioneered by the Great Salt Lake project at Westminster College, Utah (Baxter 1999).  In their course students study the geological, physical, and biological properties and processes of the Great Salt Lake and integrate these into their science lessons.  We are adapting this approach, studying biological processes in the local sage-steppe ecosystem.  There is abundant evidence that students learn more when they study locally-relevant problems, so we develop lessons that include local organisms (sage steppe plants, animals and microbes) and processes such as fire, wetlands, and stream quality.  Lessons have been developed on such diverse topics as fire ecology, plant seedling competition, root enzyme activity, aquatic insect diversity, population genetics, ectotherm physiology, and others.  Lesson plans and labs are available to student teachers and others at the website

A third key feature of the course and this study is the use of assessments and evaluation tools.  We present student cohort data from the pre- and post- Biology Content Knowledge tests, surveys of student pedagogical skills and knowledge of teaching methods. We also collected classroom observation, survey and interview data on students as they transition into their student teaching and beyond (also with cooperating teachers).  Student teachers were observed to determine how they spent classroom time (as sage on the stage or in more interactive ways, for example).  We utilized the Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol or RTOP, a reliable and well validated instrument for assessing the extent of inquiry occurring in the classrooms of our student teachers.

Results and Discussion

In all cohorts, participation in the Biology Teaching Methods course had a significant positive effect on content knowledge, practical teaching skills, and knowledge of teaching methods/professional development opportunities. On average, students improved to 85% correct in content knowledge (repeated measures ANOVA, d.f. = 1, 84, F = 56.25, p < 0.001), and to the "very competent" level in teaching skills (repeated measures ANOVA, d.f. = 1,82, F = 232.97, p < 0.001) and methods/professional development (repeated measures ANOVA, d.f. = 1,83, F = 268.29, p < 0.001).  Concurrent validity of the biology content exam was determined by comparison to an outside measure (Biology Praxis II Scores), with which they are significantly positively correlated (ANOVA, d..f. = 1, 31, F = 23.469, p < 0.001).  This improvement is relevant, as it moves students from a barely passing score (140) on the Praxis Biology exam (139 required in Idaho) to a score well above passing (155). Concurrent validity for self-reported measures was determined by comparison with a teaching laboratory practical exam. 

Results from exit interviews and paired (pre-post) reflections on teaching showed substantive growth. Based upon qualitative data, the course enhanced our students’ PCK in a number of areas, including: planning and teaching lessons, teaching methods, teaching confidence, knowledge of resources available to science teachers, biology content, how to set-up and work in labs, the use of technology in labs, how to assess other than using multiple choice tests, education standards, and the ability to critically reflect on their own teaching and the teaching of others.  In addition, students were more likely to use a local organism or ecosystem function in their examples of good lessons, indicating the increased use of relevant examples.

Results from student teaching observations, surveys, and interviews suggest that it is difficult to implement inquiry-based lessons without substantial support from numerous sources.  Not only do student and cooperating teachers often have differing philosophies that lead to divergent pedagogical practices, these differences often do not seem to be resolved or addressed during the student teaching experience.  Follow-up with students as they student teach in high schools has identified numerous problems in the implementation of what they have learned in the Biology Teaching Methods course.  These problems require further investigation.

The relevance of this course and its positive effects on the preparation of future high school biology teachers is three-fold. One aspect that we have noted is a decline in methods courses being taught in subject-area departments, by practicing scientists. Here we demonstrate that faculty within a department of biological sciences are fully capable of teaching a methods course (CSMEE 1997; Anderson & Mitchener 1994), and describe several of the advantages of doing so. A second aspect is that our course is independent of the field experience.  This allows our students to truly “practice” on a willing audience and immediately receive critical feedback and advice that can be used to improve teaching.  We have also adapted the ecosystem-approach, which allows our future teachers to integrate relevant examples from the local ecosystem into their teaching.  Finally, we have followed our methods students into their first classroom teaching experiences to measure their pedagogical content knowledge and ability to implement inquiry-based teaching.




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