The gap between knowledge and practice (#AAPTsm14)

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 28, 2014

I’m at the American Association of Physics Teachers conference this week, and will be liveblogging from a few sessions.

One my main interests is in how to support successful uptake of innovative educational techniques.  My talk on Wednesday will focus on some of the outcomes from the Science Education Initiative at Colorado, and lessons learned in how to create a successful program of educational innovation across an entire campus.   You can see that poster here.

This afternoon I attended a really interesting talk by Charles Henderson who, along with Melissa Dancy, has done really excellent work to help us understand faculty decisions to use (or not use) research based instructional techniques.  He discussed the “knowledge-practice gap”, which is the gap between the instructional techniques that instructors know about, and those they actually use.  For example, for Peer Instruction, about 2.2x as many instructors know about PI as use it.  On average, the ratio of the number of techniques that an instructor knows about, compared to what they use, is 7.7.  Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since any instructor likely knows about more techniques than they use, but it does underscore a point — research based instructional techniques aren’t used as widely as we would like — and many instructors (1/3) stop using a method after they begin. These studies are on Henderson’s website.

He argued that we might consider a framework of change called the push-pull-infrastructure framework.  This framework has been used to understand the success of smoking-cessation programs in a 2011 report from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “More than a decade of helping smokers quit.”  They had a similar problem to us — there were good, evidence-based programs for helping smokers quit, there were many smokers than wanted to quit, but the cessation programs weren’t reaching the people who needed them, and smokers weren’t successful in quitting on their own.  Similarly, we have teachers interested in using active strategies, we have well-researched strategies, but teachers aren’t getting the support that they need to successfully implement those strategies.

Here is the push/pull framework:

  1. Science Push:  disseminating evidence-based treatments and programs for stopping smoking.
  2. Infrastructure:  Build capacity among health care providers to deliver those programs.
  3. Market Pull:  Increase demand from policy makers and smokers for the treatment.

This was highly successful in smoking cessation, with an investment of $86M over 15 years.  While that’s a sizable investment, it is in the realm of what we already spent on PER.

In PER, a push/pull framework could be interpreted as:

  1. Science Push:  Our interactive strategies, and dissemination of the research results, including talks by people like Mazur.  Henderson argues we do quite well at this “development and disseminations” of PER products.
  2. Infrastructure:  Connect teachers to our educational products.  We are starting to do well in terms of providing information to users through programs such as the PER User’s Guide.  However, we still have a lot of work to do in terms of supporting new users, and creating classroom and institutional structures (such as incentives for educational excellence) for change.
  3. Market Pull:   Interactively develop instructional practices in collaboration with the user, to use the needs of the user.   Henderson argues we are not doing very well at this; we do not understand the needs of the average faculty very well.  We often answer their concerns about time, or how to engage students, with more research.  We need to work with faculty from the beginning to create innovations that will be usable by them.  We also need to address the broader culture, so that it is seen as inappropriate if you don’t use evidence-based practices — though we are making some headway here.

So, we need to focus more on the connection between the user (faculty) are our product (PER methods).

I was particularly interested in this analogy because it’s one I’ve made before, in a somewhat similar context.  I argued that we can learn a lot about effective communication of PER strategies by considering the strategies used by the (very successful) anti-smoking campaigns.   You can see my slides, and a video, of that talk.

I feel like we could learn a lot from considering such marketing strategies, or the psychology of decision-making.  I would love to work on this with a marketing or cognitive psychologist some day.




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