Spring 2015

Improving the Quality of STEM Education

Helping All Students Succeed: A Plan to Narrow the Achievement Gap in STEM Education

Helping All Students Succeed: A Plan to Narrow the Achievement Gap in STEM Education

If we are purposeful and intentional in our actions, we can begin to narrow the achievement gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classrooms. The study, “Effective, Sustained Inquiry-Based Instruction Promotes Higher Science Proficiency Among All Groups” published in the Journal of Science Teacher Education, showed that proficiency rates of all groups of students (regardless of race, gender, school socioeconomic status levels or current performance) can be greatly improved and that the gap between high and low performing students can be significantly narrowed. 

If we are purposeful and intentional in our actions, we can begin to narrow the achievement gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classrooms. The study, “Effective, Sustained Inquiry-Based Instruction Promotes Higher Science Proficiency Among All Groups” published in the Journal of Science Teacher Education, showed that proficiency rates of all groups of students (regardless of race, gender, school socioeconomic status levels or current performance) can be greatly improved and that the gap between high and low performing students can be significantly narrowed. Specifically, in this large-scale, five-year study with more than 100 science teachers and more than 10,000 students, researchers found that when proficient inquiry-based instruction is facilitated, students outperform the comparison group of similarly matched students from more typical classrooms by about 10 percent.

To be clear, transformation of instructional practice is not an overnight fix. It requires long-term commitment from the teacher, support from professionals with expertise in the content and pedagogy, and a commitment from administrators. Unfortunately, we live in an instant gratification society where we think that dramatic changes can be achieved simply by willing them into being or by providing a quick workshop on the topic. Yet we know, per the report, “Reviewing the Evidence on how Teacher Professional Development Affects Student Achievement,” that brief involvement at professional conferences or short-term workshops will not bring about increased student achievement or teacher transformation by themselves.

Inquiry-based instruction, a more student-centered instructional approach than traditional strategies, provides opportunities for students to deeply engage in the learning of content and processes in STEM classrooms.

Inquiry-based instruction is predicated on students being provided opportunities to explore concepts and ideas before formal explanations are provided. This differs from more traditional classrooms where teachers explain and model first and then have students memorize, confirm or practice what was modeled. Proficient inquiry instruction also should be separated from the more commonplace activity mania or confirmatory investigations where students respectively just participant in activities related to the concept or complete a lab that confirms the law or concept that previously was explained to them.

The benefits of transitioning to greater quantity and quality of inquiry are several-fold. First, as one might expect, proficient inquiry-based instruction yields growth in the practices or processes (e.g., analyzing data, interpreting graphs, modeling complex concepts) that are called for with today’s more demanding standards and performance expectations. However, students involved in proficient inquiry learning environments also grow more than students in traditional classrooms in terms of content knowledge (the more factual portion of learning). Further, these benefits can be achieved in a way that is more inclusive to all students since growth is seen for all groups of students regardless of starting performance, gender, race or socio-economic status.

The Electronic Quality of Inquiry Protocol (EQUIP) provides a means to measure teacher growth and guide teacher development relative to inquiry-based instruction. EQUIP, which Dr. Jeff C. Marshall from Clemson University et al. developed, is freely available and provides 19 measurable performance indicators of teacher instructional practice. EQUIP’s indicators fit within four different constructs (instruction, discourse, assessment and curriculum)—all of which are essential elements involved in developing highly effective instructional practice and meaningful learning environments. The protocol provides a descriptive rubric for teachers, researchers and leaders to guide the conversations and support the reflections that are part of transforming instructional practice. The following examples illustrate the benchmark for proficiency for three different EQUIP indicators:

  • Complexity of Questions: questions challenged students to explain, reason and/or justify;
  • Prior Knowledge: teacher assessed student prior knowledge and then partially modified instruction based on this knowledge; and
  • Content Depth: lesson provided depth of content with some significant connection to the big picture.

All indictors involve things that teachers have control over and the indicators have been linked to student achievement and growth.

Many teachers quickly abandon inquiry-based instruction because ideal results were not achieved the first time using the strategy. When you think about it, how often do things go extraordinarily well on the first attempt or even the second or third? Therefore, the steps to transformation begin by first understanding that inquiry-based instruction can actually be better for your students. While inquiry-based instruction may be one of the most effective methods to promote student growth for all, it is not the easiest method to employ, so clear evidence such as the above cited study are critical to justify the extra effort given by the teacher.

Second, teachers and instructional leaders need to find resources and support to assist teachers during the transformation process. Organizations such as the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), two of the largest STEM teacher organizations in the world, provide a multitude of resources to guide this transformation. Further, having a support structure from an instructional coach, a respected peer or a group of like-minded teachers help keep teachers accountable, provide encouragement and provide insights that would potentially be overlooked if solely attempting to transform instruction through a self-study.

The next step necessitates that teachers practice and reflect on their instruction if they seek to improve student growth. This iterative loop of reflecting on instructional practice after each lesson provides great opportunities to refine instruction and the subsequent learning.

The final step includes realizing that even though the growth process for the teacher occurs over time that students also need time to adjust to new ways of learning. Failing to realize this will result in constant frustration and unnecessary failure. Discussing and justifying your changes with the students will help during this transitioning process.

Excellence in the classroom demands that students from all backgrounds are able to thrive and grow. Inquiry-based instruction, while not curing all that ails the American educational system, does provide a viable beginning solution in dramatically improving learning for all students.

Dr. Jeff C. Marshall is an Associate Professor in Science Education at Clemson University and serves as the Director of the Inquiry in Motion Institute with the mission of facilitating teacher transformation in K-12 mathematics and science classrooms through rigorous and authentic inquiry-based learning experiences. He received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, has published four books and more than 40 articles and has given more than 100 national and international presentations in the last 10 years alone. Further, he serves as a consultant for numerous school districts, universities and grant projects. Specifically, he has served as consultant/evaluator for more than 40 projects across the nation. In Dr. Marshall’s 2013 book, Succeeding with Inquiry in Science and Math Classrooms, he details how teachers and groups of teachers can work to transform instructional practice so that all students thrive.