When Erica Marti was a student, learning math amounted to reading the textbook, hearing lectures, and then “just figuring it out” on her own.
Now an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering and construction, Marti is convinced more students would succeed in math, sciences, and engineering classes if instructors adopted best teaching practices.
“There is a huge body of national research demonstrating that poor teaching is the cause of many students leaving math, science, and engineering programs,” Marti said. “As much as we need to build good engineers, we need to build good engineering instructors.”
Last year, Marti and colleagues Ryan Sherman and Haroon Stephen changed their approach after attending a teaching workshop by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Then they spent a semester evaluating whether their newfound teaching techniques made a difference for UNLV students.
Their research and findings were showcased Tuesday during UNLV’s third Best Teaching Practices Expo, where faculty share their research-based ideas for improving teaching across campus. The expo drew about 250 participants for the 34 poster presentations.
Topics ranged from reducing anxiety while boosting creativity to using pre-tests to help students improve critical thinking. Poster submissions were reviewed by a committee to ensure that the teaching practice described is:
- Important in addressing a particular need to improve teaching
- Demonstrably beneficial for UNLV students in particular
- Applicable in a variety of teaching contexts
Marti’s group presented research focused on four basic instructional strategies that would be applicable to all fields:
- Questioning techniques
- Use of physical models
- Instructor movement (walking and standing in different areas of the classroom)
- Group work
Their survey of students showed that 83 percent felt they could pay more attention and learn better if they knew the instructor would ask questions during class. They also found all student respondents understood concepts better when instructors used physical models, and 90 percent reported their learning improved when instructors allowed them to work in small groups.
On the other hand, instructor movement did not seem to be a factor in their learning, according to survey responses.
Grading the Pre-Test
Alison Sloat, an assistant professor-in-residence in the College of Sciences, said the expo and events like it are important for teachers, who can benefit from the exchange of ideas.
“There’s a lot we can learn from each other,” said Sloat, who was recognized at the expo as a Distinguished Contributor for her poster, “Pre-tests Improve Students’ Critical Thinking.”
Sloat changed her approach to pre-tests in her first-year seminar science classes. She initially used pre-tests simply to help students gauge for themselves how prepared they were to learn the material. But after she started grading the pre-tests, students showed a marked improvement, she said.
Her research showed that with the new approach:
- Student attendance improved by 3.5 percent
- Scores on semester-long research posters improved 8 percent
- Overall course grades improved 3.6 percent
- 55 percent of students by the semester’s end demonstrated they could create new research questions and experiments rather than simply analyzing problems, compared with just 9 percent who could the year before
“The expo is our largest faculty development event of the year,” Winkelmes said, adding that the showcase is “a testament to the importance of effective and evidence-based teaching practices at UNLV, where our teaching community is innovative and creative and insightful.”
“All the posters offer teaching strategies that are grounded in research and evidence and practice,” said Mary-Ann Winkelmes, director of faculty development and expo organizer. “Their ideas are useful not only for UNLV educators but also for teachers at institutions across the U.S.”
University Libraries each year publishes expo posters electronically. Over the past two years, the expo has added 57 publications by UNLV faculty to the institutional repository, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), which also serves as an incubator for peer-reviewed publications by faculty, staff, and students.
Melissa Bowles-Terry, head of educational initiatives for University Libraries, said that publishing the posters in this way makes them searchable for anyone anywhere.
“Having this information publicly available benefits everyone,” she said. “It’s a best practice to support teaching and learning in this way, and to incentivize this type of research by recognizing faculty for their work.”