Conceptual change about teaching

by Stephanie Chasteen on December 2, 2012

My main intellectual interest over the past few years is how to encourage instructors to try new teaching techniques, and how to support them in being effective in those attempts.  A recent article by Bailey and Nagamine in the American Journal of Physics addresses just this issue, from an interesting perspective.  As instructors, we often aim to encourage conceptual change in our students — to help them use evidence from data and experiment and observation to change from a more naive view of how the world works, to a more expert-like one that makes use of physical laws.

What about conceptual change in an instructor, however?  An instructor holds certain views about teaching (though I don’t mean to suggest that they are necessarily naive) and in order to successfully adopt a new classroom approach, he or she may need to modify their views about teaching.

I have long thought that this is an interesting line of inquiry — to use what we know about how students learn new things to how instructors adopt new practices.  Another thing that’s interesting about this study is that it is a case study, co-authored by the instructor who changed his views of instruction (Ken), and the education research faculty (Janelle) who facilitated that change by helping him to reform his undergraduate astronomy courses.  They collaborated after Ken participated in the Center for Astronomy Excellence (CAE) workshops for astronomy instructors, run by my esteemed colleague Ed Prather.  I’ve watched these workshops, they’re excellent, and I’ve often wondered what instructors do with their expertise when they get home.  Here, I think, is the ideal answer.   After participating in the workshops, Ken got a university grant to work with Janelle to redesign his astronomy courses using two of the techniques covered in the workshop (Peer Instruction and Lecture Tutorials).

They review the Cognitive Reconstruction of Knowledge Model (CRK Model), which is a “popular conceptual change model.”  It is easy to see how these facets would relate to faculty conceptual change:

Learner characteristics:

  • Existing conceptions.  What are the existing conceptions, and how strongly are they held?
  • Motivation:  Dissatisfaction.  Does the learner perceive a conflict between existing conceptions and new message?
  • Motivation:  Personal relevance.  Does the learner see a relationship between the message and his or her own world?  Are they emotionally involved?
  • Motivation:  Social context.  Does the learner’s peers or other group provide impetus to change?
  • Motivation:  Need for cognition.  Does the learner have a predisposition to process information in such a way that facilitates change?

Message characteristics:

  • Comprehensible.  Is it understood by the learner?
  • Coherent.  Does it hold together?
  • Plausible.  Is it potentially truthful?
  • Rhetorically compelling.  Is the message persuasive?


  • On a continuum from high to low.

In order to look for these aspects in Ken’s experience, Janelle conducted many interviews and coded them according to this list of facets of conceptual change.  They also administered a conceptual survey to Ken’s students to see if their learning was affected by the changes in instruction.  (What a nice study!)

Ken was interested in changing his instruction due to dissatisfaction with how his students were learning under the traditional instructional format (lecture).  So, the personal relevance of his unhappiness was high, but he did not necessarily see a disconnect between his lecture approach and the model of learner-centered instruction, simply because he did not know much about learner-centered instruction, so the Motivation: Dissatisfaction, as defined under the CRK Model, wasn’t really relevant here.  He also did not have a lot of support for change (social context) from the department, was concerned about maintaining the same content in the course, and was concerned about finding the time to make instructional changes without impacting his research.  All these barriers have been cited in other studies, notably by Henderson and Dancy, as posing obstacles to instructional change.

Until Ken attended the CAE workshops, he did not see the strategy of learner-centered teaching as comprehensible, coherent, or rhetorically compelling, simply because his knowledge level was low.  So, the workshops provided a great deal of knowledge that could be seen as furthering Ken’s journey towards conceptual change, but he also gained a community of workshops and participants through the experience, providing additional social context.  Due to his work with Janelle, and the materials from CAE, he also experienced high levels of engagement.  He was very happy with the results of the course reforms, and received positive student evaluations, and he reported feeling that the changes made him a better teacher (personal relevance).

From the article:

The fact that Ken continues to use and advocate learner-centered strategies beyond the period of the research study indicates that he has experienced strong conceptual change. Ken’s learner characteristics as described by the CRKM were well-matched to support conceptual change: he found both a social context and personal relevance in the new message of learner-centered instructional strategies, and his high need for cognition supported his desire to improve his pedagogy. The message characteristics were similarly aligned in this situation, as Ken found it to be comprehensible, coherent, plausible, and rhetorically compelling. Finally, the high engagement with which Ken was able to interact with the message supported strong conceptual change.

Reassuringly, his students’ scores on the conceptual assessment also improved compared to his lecture-based courses, showing that the new instructional methods also improved student learning.

So, while these results aren’t necessarily generalizeable, they show how such a model might be applied to an individual instructor.  As a person who works with faculty on instructional change, I can imagine trying to pay attention to these multiple factors for any individual, to see whether my efforts are successful, and look for areas where I might focus more attention.

Full reference:

Experiencing conceptual change about teaching:  A case study from astronomy, J. Bailey and K. Nagamine, Am. J. Phys., 80(6),542 (2012).


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jerrid Kruse December 2, 2012 at 4:19 am


Conceptual change applies to so many learning situations. Since you liked this research specific to physics, you may like a series of editorials a colleague and I wrote on conceptual change and learning to teach well (our pieces are more conceptual, and may be more palatable to the average classroom teacher – our main audience).

To avoid getting labeled as spam, I’m including only the last editorial in the series. You can use the link in the first sentence to navigate back to the rest of the series:

Hope you find it interesting!

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