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Institute of Education

Teaching Science at University – Design and Evaluation of a Professional Development Course Focused on Pedagogical Content Knowledge

Dissertion Project by Sara Petchey


Science teaching at the university level is often carried out by professional scientists with little pedagogical training.

The training and professional development of university-level science teachers is neither ubiquitous nor mandatory. Science researchers are often recruited first for their excellence in scientific research, and other aspects of the job such as teaching skills and service experience are considered as distant second criteria. Graduate students are often asked to teach with little to no training or pedagogical support. This research considers the use of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) as the vehicle to help university science teaching personnel develop an awareness of and ability to apply educational best practices in their own teaching.

MOOC Course Design

Passive consumption of professional development training is not effective.

Studies have shown that participants must connect training content to their own work to affect lasting benefit (Garet et al., 2001). The MOOC at the center of this research has been designed to maximize participant activity and interactivity as well as the utility of the content. The interventions (weekly tasks) ask participants to develop or modify their own teaching materials for use in their own classrooms. The MOOC is also connectivist in nature and focuses upon the feedback participants give and receive from their peers in the peer review process.

More specifically, Teaching Science at University, is designed around central key elements of effective science teaching. It has been running continuously since February of 2017 and offers five modules over five weeks. Each module has a workload of 2-3 hours and contains 4-7 lessons. Each module has concise lecture videos and a task to implement the weeks’ content into one’s own teaching practices. The modules teach science education knowledge about

(1) research-based principles of teaching science

(2) everyday conceptions and conceptual change

(3) teaching with analogies and models

(4) reframing teaching with socioscientific issues

(5) teaching inquiry in a lab or in the field.

For more information visit our free course Teaching Science at University

Our Research

The efficacy of MOOCs as vehicles of high quality education is a subject of debate and is largely untested (Bayne & Ross, 2014).

Growing in parallel to the number of MOOCs available worldwide is a new field of educational research studying the effectiveness of MOOCs as educational vehicles. As Bayne and Ross showed in their meta-analysis of over 100 recently published, scholarly papers on MOOCs, the once-hyped promise of MOOCs as the future of university-level education is not so certain. In our research, we pull ideas from MOOC research and also the broader fields of general online education, blended and flipped learning to help determine the ideal format and role of such a MOOC as ours.

We designed the MOOC and its tasks, as well as the centrality of the peer review process to optimize the retention rate and effectiveness of our MOOC. And through our research, we evaluate the effectiveness of the MOOC by answering the questions:

  1. How does the task-centered design of our massive open online course influence student perception of its effectiveness?
  2. How do peer review and discussion forums influence the implementation of principles and guidelines learned in video teaching segments?
  3. How does participant experience vary in pure online versus blended versions of the MOOC?

In this study, we evaluate how the first cohort of participants (approx. n=1000, as of December 2017) adapts central concepts of the MOOC into their teaching. Through surveys, participant interviews, and qualitative content analysis of participants’ completed tasks and peer review commentary, we analyze the effectiveness of the MOOC as an intervention to support science teaching staff at universities in their understanding and implementation of educational best practices.

Bayne, S. & Ross, J. (2014). The pedagogy of the Massive Open Online Course: the UK

view. York: Higher Education Academy. Retrieved from:

Garet, M.S., et al. (2001). What Makes Professional Development Effective? Results from a National Sample of Teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 915-945.