Closing the Gap: Strategies for Research to Practice in Online Undergraduate STEM General Education

Concurrent Session 3 & 4 (combined)
Streamed Session Research Leadership

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Brief Abstract

Many universities have struggled to close the theory to practice gap in STEM education. This workshop will outline the process of developing, implementing, and assessing a philosophical framework for course development. Participants will practice developing a philosophical framework, creating inventories to assess implementation, and planning for stakeholder response.


Jacquelyn Kelly, Ph.D. is an Associate Dean in the College of General Studies responsible for STEM courses and programs. She holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction – Science Education from Arizona State University, a Masters of Science in Materials Science & Engineering form Arizona State University, and an undergraduate degree in Physics/Chemistry from California State University, San Marcos.

Extended Abstract

For many years, there has been a documented gap between the knowledge shared within the scholarly community and the instructional practices observed in learning environments (Biesta, 2007). This gap has been especially prevalent in STEM fields, which have been the focus of recent education research (Labov, Singer, George, Schweingruber, & Hilton, 2009); yet this research has not led to enough improvement in student outcomes to impact the national need of a skilled and abundant STEM workforce (Borrego, Froyd, & Hall, 2010).  


It is challenging for an institution to select an educational theory and determine how to implement its associated strategies. To start, defining a philosophy for learning, can be helpful (Elrod & Kezar, 2016). This philosophy outlines what an institution, or individual, defines as knowledge, learning, and assessment. It outlines what a learning environment should look, sound, and feel like for students and instructors. Additionally, it discusses the roles of the student and the faculty in the learning process. This philosophy will also support an institution in developing consistent strategies for instruction and assessment.  By defining its philosophy for learning, an institution can focus on seminal works in education theory and support institutional stakeholders, including faculty, to adopt a consistent practice.


Research has advanced pedagogical theory in recent decades, and many of these theories are now well-studied and/or well-accepted. We sought such modern, acknowledged theories in our effort to close the theory to practice gap in undergraduate STEM courses. Below are the 7 theories used to develop our philosophy for learning, along with associated seminal works. They were selected not only because they are seminal but also because they are in alignment with the mission and vision of the University.

  • Metacognition and Affect (Dole & Sinatra, 1998; Mayer, 1998; Moons & Mackie, 2007; Sinatra, 2005) 
  • Conceptual Change (Strike & Posner, 1992; Carey, 2000; Chinn & Brewer, 1993; Chi, 2008) 
  • Social Constructivism (Vygotsky, 1986) 
  • Academic Self-concept (Marsh, & Shavelson, 1985; Bong & Skaalvik, 2003) 
  • Holism (Dewey, 1986; Mahmoudi, Jafari, Nasrabadi, Liaghatdar, 2012) 
  • Systemic Functional Linguistics (Halliday, 1992; Holliday, Yore, & Alvermann, 1994) 
  • 21st Century Knowledge Framework (Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe, & Terry, 2013; Mishra, Anbar, Scragg, & Ragan, 2019) 

Implementation of the philosophical framework, made up of the above theories, improved student outcomes in and changed the way we talk about undergraduate STEM education at our institution.

Our institution serves non-traditional, online adult learners. Sixteen undergraduate STEM education courses were revised using the philosophical framework, either fully or partially implemented. The course content areas included math, nutrition science, oceanography, chemistry, environmental science, and biology. Nine course features including advisory language, remediation strategy, discussion questions, content resources, assignments, assessments, iterative opportunity, feedback speed, and perception of academic learning were considered during each course revision. In each course feature, best practices from the philosophical framework were implemented. To confirm alignment of course features to the philosophical framework, an inventory was created to assess how fully the philosophical framework was applied to each of the nine course features.


Following course revision, student outcomes were measured. When data from all sixteen revised courses was examined together, student attrition was reduced from 12.5% (N=14,366) to 6.7% (N=14,998). Courses were then separated into two categories: full philosophical implementation and partial philosophical implementation. Full implementation courses were those where best practice from all seven theories in the philosophical framework were present in all nine course features. Partial implementation courses were those in which a subset of the theories was applied to course features or not all course features were able to be revised to be consistent with the framework.  Student attrition in full implementation courses was reduced from 11.5% (N=12,435) to 6.0% (N=13,352). Student attrition in partial implementation courses was reduced from 18.1% (N=1,931) to 12.4% (N=1,646). Additional course level data will be shared in the workshop as well as rationale for determining whether courses received full or partial implementation.


The purpose of this workshop is to support participants with developing scalable and sustainable strategies for closing the theory to practice gap in STEM education for undergraduate courses. The participant learning outcomes are:

  • Define and describe a philosophical framework of learning theories
  • Develop an inventory to describe how a philosophical framework translates to specific course features
  • Practice assessing alignment of course features with a philosophical framework
  • Articulate an action plan for using philosophical frameworks to close the theory to practice gap in course design

This workshop will feature different scenarios for discussion within small groups. Participants will be able to practice identifying course features to be targeted during course revision, building components of a philosophical framework, applying those components to identified course features, and evaluating the effectiveness and impact of the implementation. Following this practice, participants will prepare communication strategies that will support shifting the paradigm for STEM education in their institutions. Small groups will have opportunities to discuss their thinking, problem-solve potential challenges, and share their findings. Facilitators of this session will support attendees with developing action items to implement at their institutions. Approximately 20 minutes will be spent presenting, 45 minutes in interactive/facilitated/structured groupwork, 15 minutes in sharing and coming to consensus, and 10 minutes for Q&A and reflection.

The primary audience types for this workshop are administrative leaders, course designers, and faculty. Leaders will learn how to have discussions about brining theory-based strategies into the classroom environment. They will learn to use tools to assess the consistency of these practices and how to communicate to multiple stakeholders. Faculty and course designers will be provided with tools to help implement theory-based practice as well as improve efficacy of those interventions. Required materials are the ability to conduct breakout rooms, virtually. This is aligned to Teaching and Learning Practice as it will show participants how to implement scalable and sustainable research based decisions in their courses and within their institutions.


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