How to Use Video Most Effectively in #ASTRO101

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research,

NoProbably notI seriously doubt itIt’s just not a good idea. and I’m dubious.  These are the most common responses all consulted teaching experts give when queried by colleagues about whether or not they should show videos in their introductory astronomy survey class. Sounds pretty negative doesn’t it?  This negative reaction is the direct result of seeing professor after professor misuse and abuse otherwise perfectly good videos during class.

It’s not that there aren’t great video resources out there: there really are amazing video resources available in astronomy, perhaps more than any other field (other than oceanography).  The number of high production astronomy videos made in the last decade is nothing short of astronomical. Satellite television providers such as the Discovery Channel, History Channel, NASA TV and Science TV have joined the longstanding and highly respected video production efforts of IMAX, PBS, and the National Geographic Society NatGEO TV—just to name a few of the many talented production efforts out there—to super high-production quality videos and video series.

For one, the most highly rated of these videos show the best “talking head” profiles of some of the most influential and photogenic astronomers around.  Neil deGrasse Tyson has thousands of social media followers and has even appeared repeatedly on television talk shows like Comedy Channel’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the Steven Cobert’s Cobert Report, as well as popular late night television talk shows. These videos go a long way to helping viewers see that astronomy is a human enterprise.  Moreover, many of these videos do a reasonably good job of showing today’s astronomers as being highly diverse in racial demographic and quite a few women.  The good news here is that television can play a role in helping expand and enhance the stereotypical image of an astronomer from being only a white-haired (or non-haired) white male smoking a pipe in a cold, mountain-top observatory to a more contemporary view of astronomers as being equally likely to being a partying group young males and females from across the racial spectrum.  As evidence, I submit to you that the NASA JPL video clips showing young astronomers dancing, yelling, and celebrating during successful Mars landings are enormously popular on video websites like YouTubeSome of these individuals even acquire a tremendous social media following that greatly extends their previously allotted 15 minutes of fame.  In other words, these videos can serve to enhance the image of astronomers as people, and perhaps even improve the nation’s evaporating science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) career pipeline.

Perhaps more important than showing astronomers as being a diverse group of people, these videos include the latest and greatest graphics-intensive animations and computer simulations.  There are only three words to describe these animations—and all three of them are “WOW.”  Many of these animations have a wow-factor that make even the most curmudgeonly critical astronomers look up from their computers and pause to watch.  Over the last decade, the entire career field of scientific visualization has stood up to take advantage of and match new computer graphics capabilities with the high-computing power that was once restricted to supercomputers and is now found waiting inside desktop machines.  NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Scientific Visualization Studio, as but one example, has hundreds of videos ready for Internet download that can be used equally well in television documentaries as well as in astronomy classrooms.  In other words, the resources are there and ready to go, so why don’t we just turn them on and let them run for the entire class session?  Or even better, if students can watch these amazing videos in the evenings while wearing their bunny slippers, then there doesn’t seem to be any need for students or faculty to go through the hassle of fighting for a parking place and coming to campus at all!

Taken together, the current situation seems to be that we have engaging and good looking speakers describing super high-quality animations just a mouse click away. This entire notion of using videos IN class—or using videos FOR class altogether—sounds like a no brainer, WIN-WIN situation for everyone. This is especially true when you remember that too many astronomy professors are simply terrible lecturers to begin with.  (Personal Note: I have been driven to the edge of complete despair watching professors read a textbook to their students in an endless monotone flux too many times to count.) You might be inclined to say, “hey, what are we waiting for? Bring on the videos?

But, as it seems with every “force” in the universe, there are unfortunate dark sides of using even the highest quality and most scientifically accurate videos in your astronomy class.  One has to do with the innate—and perhaps immutable—nature of students.  Will students pay attention to a video better than a live lecture? Faculty probably wonder, even if only as an mere idle curiosity, how many of their students are really paying attention to their lecture as the hour wears on. The answer is, not many. We often hear colleagues say, “ah, today’s students just can’t seem to pay attention like they used to.”  Of course, those same colleagues are really talking about themselves!  Nearly forty years ago, researchers discovered that the worst fears of college lecturers are in fact true: Verner and Dickinson (1967) observed lectures and found that only 66% of students showed the slightest signs of attention to lectures after 18 minutes, compared to the beginning of the lecture.  And, worse yet, essentially no students they observed showed signs that they were completely attentive after 35 minutes.  That’s not a good omen.

In the end, students are not likely to watch a video with any more interest than they are to watch a lecture.  Research backs too backs up this supposition.  Fascinating research by Alison Gopnik, author of the famed book Scientist in the Crib, and Patricia Kuhl, studying the development of language, reports in recent research that infants do not learn from video of their mother with nearly the same attention that they will when mom is physically present.

The more argumentative reader might pose that students are able to watch Hollywood movies for hours on end with rapt attention, remembering some of the most obscure details.  Again, research helps us understand what is going on.  Daniel Willingham proposes in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School, that video material being presented needs to at least have the potential to make an emotional connection with the listener in order to be deeply remembered.  Hollywood movies and adventure television shows do this in spades: the damsel in distress ready to be rescued, the seemingly impossible to solve mystery, the hero’s journey from adversity to triumph.  One would be greatly surprised if even the most accurate of black hole animations stands well-poised to make an emotional connection for many students—geez, animations generally only seem to barely generate recognizable emotions within professors themselves when videos have glaring mistakes that provoke a professors’ ilk (Do I need to remind you about the Disney movie, “The Black Hole”?).

The other component of a dark side of using videos has to do with the innate nature of professors.  By and large, professors seem to be insanely busy people—if you aren’t sure this is true, all you need to do is ask a few and they will be happy to tell you how busy they are. Many professors travel frequently and need to miss class.  Because professors are people, when a professor has to miss a class or don’t have time to prepare for class, one seemingly easily implementable solution is to show their class a video.  As a substitute for a well-planned lecture, rather than no lecture at all, a video might initially seem like a reasonable option.  As pointed out earlier, modern videos have fantastic animations, good looking and well-spoken experts, and sometimes engaging story lines.  But the reason we have professors who are experts in the field teach classes is not that they are great speakers—if we only needed great speakers we’d hire actors to teach our classes—rather, we hire experts because they should be able to coach students along the pathway of learning astronomy.  When a professor understands the material, they are able to probe students understanding by posing examples and counter examples of different concepts to help students extend their understanding.  Moreover, they are able to provide rapid feedback to students who are struggling to learn astronomy in ways that performing actors just can’t do.  In other words, it’s the two-way human interaction that is needed, not the attractive downloading of information, which constitutes effective astronomy teaching.

Fortunately, there are some effective strategies to take full advantage of high-quality video resources. One is to use only short video clips of about 3 minutes (5 minutes as an absolute maximum).  The key is to have a very specific reason for using the video clip and to fully inform students what they are about to see, why you are showing it to them, and what they are supposed to take away: this is precisely the same tried-and-true presentation skills from physics education research about how to do effective classroom demonstrations.  When Thornton and Sokoloff researched interactive lecture demonstrations (ILDs) in teaching physics, they found that what a professor does BEFORE they do a demonstration was much more influential than anything that a professor did after the demonstration.  So, that is going to be true with videos too.  In fact, one sure-fire strategy is to pause a video (or demonstration) in the middle and ask students to justify predictions about what they think might be going to see next.  It really does work!

If you are committed to having students watch a really great, but hour long video presentation—like COSMOS—then the cardinal rule is that instructors need a scheme to help students intellectually participate in and interact with the ideas in the video.  Motivated because we are trying to improve the different Internet-based, asynchronous distance learning astronomy courses we teach, we have been experimenting with STUDENT VIDEO DISCUSSION GUIDE worksheets.

Student Video Discussion Guide

Student Video Discussion Guide

The general idea underlying the STUDENT VIDEO DISCUSSION GUIDE is to keep the student intellectually engaged with the video while it is playing.  Leveraging Bloom’s Taxonomy, we present the students with three distinct levels of questions.  For an hour-long video, we first ask four to eight factual, knowledge-level questions from the video.  An example is, How far above Earth’s surface is the Hubble Space Telescope?  The point of these first-tier questions are to help students focus on the more relevant facts shared in the video.  The second thing we pose to students are two to four deeper level, synthesis and evaluation questions from the video.   An example is, “Were the Hubble’s observations of Mars or Saturn the most scientifically valuable?”  Finally, we post one or two self-reflection questions.  The point of these questions is to attempt to make the information in the video more emotionally relevant to students so that they have a better chance of internalizing the ideas.  An example of one of these self-reflection questions is, “Of the many Hubble images shown, which 12 HST images would you pick to use in a calendar and why?” To be clear, we give the students the questions on the STUDENT VIDEO DISCUSSION GUIDE before the video starts and encourage them to look over the questions before the video starts so that they know precisely what that are looking for while watching the video. You can find many examples of these STUDENT VIDEO DISCUSSION GUIDES in the Astronomy Faculty Lounge at by searching the resources under VIDEOS.

We began this discussion by saying, NO, you really shouldn’t use videos in your classroom. In the end, I don’t really believe that—I was trying to catch your attention by being a bit contrarian.  The truth is that there are amazing video resources available for teaching astronomy.  However, astronomy education research clearly shows that it is irresponsible just to turn on the video as a classroom babysitter and hope that students will benefit.  Like using textbook reading assignments, LECTURE TUTORIALS FOR INTRODUCTORY ASTRONOMY, or online homework systems, videos too need to have a specific educational purpose for their inclusion and their rationale explained to students to generate their buy in.  In other words, for videos to be effective, you need to successfully convince students that the videos used will specifically help them get a better grade in your course and, most importantly, will help students learn more astronomy.

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To Textbook or Not To Textbook? That is the question.

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research,

Even before I became a textbook author, I was party to more than one water cooler conversation about whether or not faculty should require students to purchase textbooks [viz.,].  Now, that I am an introductory astronomy textbook author, I still feel the same way—there are some benefits to assigning a textbook to students and, more importantly, tremendous risks in not doing so.

Most folks who have moved away from textbooks entirely face a pretty serious problem in that the professor, and the professor’s notes, all too often can become the sole source of knowledge and expertise in the class.  Sure students CAN go look up stuff and get another perspective, but my sense is that they don’t, and perhaps don’t even know how to do so effectively given the variety of presentations professors give.  In the case where there is no clear supporting textbook readings assigned to students, the end result is an implicit and sizeable pressure on students—probably completely unintended by the professor— to memorize nearly everything that their professors say (or type onto a PowerPoint slide).  It is these “memorized transcripts” that end up being what students are able to answer on exams. At the same time, a hidden social contract in the introductory astronomy class causes professors themselves to feel a sizeable pressure to only ask questions about what they specifically talk about in class.  For my money, this is a LOSE-LOSE bet.  When I consider all of this, it seems to me that the astronomy professor’s job should be about linking students’ thinking to the ideas of astronomy and giving students feedback about how well they are learning the concepts, not about being responsible for delivering astronomy ideas in their entirety.

Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris
Some folks have tried using trade books or coffee table books or extensive fact-based web sites.  Although these are attractive, particularly in how they are illustrated, they lack the tried-and-true pedagogical tools that many, many students, publishers, and authors have worked through and tried to perfect over the years – explicitly stated learning goals, headings to structure student thinking, end of chapter summaries with review questions, and, gasp, even bold faced words to help focus student attention.  I’m not saying that these things are perfect and are not often overused, BUT, what I would say is that these pedagogical clues are important enough to student readers that having them in a textbook is more important than the pretty pictures and pedagogy-free writing of coffee table books.  

There is a dark side here, in that some students are preferentially disadvantaged more than other students when astronomy faculty purposefully choose not to assign readings connected to their teaching from a textbook—those are the students who already struggle with learning from your lecture.  CAPER’s Stephanie J. Slater argues in Astrolrner Post #5014:

Stephanie J. Slater, Ph.D. CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research

Stephanie Slater

Teaching using a textbook as a tool is pedagogical skill well worth learning.  There is ample research out there that suggests that texts are important resources for many students, including those students who are most in need of extra help.  Many students cannot take notes and listen to lecture at the same time.  Students with specific learning disabilities, reduced working memories, who are second language learners, or who have poor spatial reasoning skills, struggle to glean concepts and facts from lecture.  Non-text readings that are not structured with the coherence usually found in a textbook, or with the learning cues found in many texts, make life harder for our students who have ADD, reduced working memory, who are visually impaired, have visual-neurological dysfunction, or who have  reduced access to technology.

So, for my money, I think using an astronomy textbook is an important part of the introductory science survey course.  Yes, they can be expensive, but in the grand scheme of things that go into a college education, textbooks really aren’t.  My most convincing evidence is that the $45 that students pay for the LECTURE TUTORIALS FOR INTRODUCTORY ASTRONOMY initially seems outrageous for a “work book” BUT, students rarely complain because they really, really use the book as part of their learning and they find it valuable.  If students felt that the astronomy textbook helped them learn the material and they found it valuable, they wouldn’t care if it cost $235 (of course, if you haven’t looked at the half priced e-books or loose-leaf for students as an significantly lower cost option, you should talk to the next textbook sales representative that comes through the door – these lower-price alternatives are getting really attractive!).

I think the consistent problem that most astronomy faculty face related to textbooks is nothing short of simply OPERATOR ERROR.  If professors never ask students to be responsible for learning from the textbook without the instructor repeating or, even worse, and I’ve seen it, reading from the textbook during lecture, then why would students ever think a textbook is valuable.  This problem is much better documented in physics than astronomy, where too many physics professors don’t’ use the textbook for anything other than problems at the end of the chapter.  Eric Mazur says that, even at Harvard, students won’t read unless you require it of them.  My experience is that this applies no matter what your student demographic is. (I add this additional provocation for those who are about to say, “but my community college students couldn’t possibly read the book.” I don’t see any truly convincing evidence of this–readability on astronomy books show that many are purposefully done at pre-high school reading-level anyway.)

Investigating Astronomy Textbook by Tim Slater and Roger Freedman

Speaking for a moment as a textbook author, one thing that I have definitely learned is that no textbooks end up being perfectly accurate – even after tens of people read and comment and carefully check the drafts.  Errors do somehow frustratingly slip through the textbook creation process—and some faculty out there love to find and point out those errors!  However, I’m absolutely sure that if 25 experts were to look at your PowerPoint slides and listen to your lectures, very few of any of us are error free in our presentations.  Unless you’ve had 25 experts review your lectures, you’re probably guilty of giving out some misinformation.  Textbooks at least have had some (gulp, a lot, usually) expert review.  The other thing I’ve learned that I didn’t fully understand before is that modern textbooks have pedagogical tools, as mentioned above, that really do matter to novice readers.  Websites, nor trade books, often have these things that really do help students learn the material more efficiently, particularly struggling ones.

My thinking is that students should be required to learn from the textbook and that portions of exams should be allocated to material from the textbook that is NOT specifically covered in lecture, but students are specifically made aware of what they are to learn.  I don’t want to spend my valuable class time telling them facts they can read in a much more precise and attractive language than I can “say” during class time.  This doesn’t mean that you should abdicate your responsibility to helping students learn—however, if you are only asking your students to memorize what you say in class, you are missing a grand opportunity to teach students how to find, understand, and internalize material on their own.  And, for many of us, we hope that we are helping our students, at least a little bit, become more talented life-long learners.


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Educational Underpinnings of Backwards Faded Scaffolding and Engaging in Astronomical Inquiry

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research,

Students’ Personal Theories of Learning

It’s all too easy to forget that what students hold as their personal definition of learning. In other words, theories of learning teachers hold isn’t the only thing that matters; what also matters are the theories of learning astronomy students hold themselves. Perhaps surprisingly, theories of learning students hold can be an influential consideration on the part of teachers when making instructional decisions.  If students and teachers have very different views on what it means to learn astronomy, then conflict is certain to exist. If this theoretical conflict isn’t resolved, then the practice of teaching and learning astronomy is likely to fail.  Moreover, because students’ theories of learning are often hard earned through years of taking and being graded on tests, they are likely to be deeply entrenched.  In addition, students’ theories of learning are often culturally-based, and sometimes even gender-based, giving considerable inertia to their definitions of what it means to learn resulting in something arduously difficult, if not impossible, to move.

On one hand, students may have come to believe that learning is synonymous with memorization.  In other words, if students can repeat word-for-word the definitions given to them by their astronomy teacher, then they have learned astronomy.  Award winning secondary level astronomy teacher Keith Goering from the Midwestern US, is famously known for joking, “if you can says it, then you must knows it.”  Students who have adopted this definition of learning are characterized by making flash-cards on small pieces of two-sided paper with bold-faced vocabulary words on one side and text-book definitions on the other side.  If they were to fail a test, the only reasons could be that the instructor asked purposefully tricky or deceptive questions or that the students themselves simply didn’t work hard enough to memorize a sufficient number of details.  Many students have become convinced that memorization is equivalent to learning because such a factual perspective has been represented to them on test after test after test over their broad school experience.

On the other hand, students may believe that learning requires much more than memorization, but requires deep understanding.  For most students, the notion of understanding is probably somewhat ill-defined. For scholars, there are a variety of ways to characterize understanding.  The most common description of understanding used in the US is that of thinking about understanding ranging from having a shallow and superficial knowledge of an idea to that of holding deep understanding.  Widely attributed to University of Chicago Professor Benjamin Bloom and known as Bloom’s Taxonomy, this decades-old hierarchical description of understanding is a six-level description ranging from shallow learning (i) knowledge and (ii) comprehension to a more moderate understanding of (iii) application and (iv) analysis to the deepest levels of understanding  of (v) synthesis and (iv) evaluation.    In contrast, more recently scholars have been describing understanding as being flexible and multi-faceted—a horizontal view rather than a vertical view if you will. Widely popularized in the US by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2005) in their Understanding by Design work, a complete understanding of an idea can be also described as having six different facets: Explanation, Interpretation, Application, Perspective, Empathy, and Self-Knowledge.  In the end, whichever scholarly description of understanding students adopt implicitly or explicitly, the stark distinction between understanding and memorization is pronounced and strongly poised to influence how students approach the learning of astronomy.  Most importantly, students’ views and their teachers’ theories of what it means to learn astronomy—and what their grades mean—benefit greatly from being aligned.

Astronomy by Inquiry: A Highly Student-Centered Instructional Strategy.  For many years, it has been common practice to ask students to complete astronomy assignments and astronomy laboratory exercises in the process of learning astronomy that look absolutely nothing like what astronomers actually do.  For example, countless astronomy students have used pencils to trace out ellipses with loose string on small square-box graph paper and count tiny squares to “prove” Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion.  Perhaps even more students have carefully plotted the precise right ascension and declination positions of hundreds of stars to re-create the constellations and asterism of the night sky on small square-box graph paper to make their own star maps—star maps that are rarely ever used. If a teacher believes, instead, that students learning astronomy should actually be doing astronomy, then the traditional activities need to be discarded.  Undoubtedly, this is not the creative and imaginative work that characterizes astronomy.

moving-from-teacher-centered-to-learner-centered-versionARecently, work by Stephanie Slater and colleagues (2010, 2013) at the CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research in the USA has focused on developing learning experiences purposefully designed to mimic that daily work of a research astronomer. Known awkwardly as BACKWARDS FADED SCAFFOLDING LABS for historical reasons, this approach uses an underlying learning theory that states that novice students need extended and repeated engagements with scientific investigations in order to develop skills at participating in scientific inquiry (These are published by Stephanie Slater and colleagues under the name ENGAGING IN ASTRONOMICAL INQUIRY).  To leverage this idea of the importance of repeated intellectual engagements, the backwards faded scaffolding labs ask students to complete five shorter scientific investigations on a topic, as opposed to the conventional approach pursuing a single, longer scientific investigation.

The reason that these BFS labs are referred to as scaffolded, is that students are led through a specific instructional sequence where students are initially provided substantial amounts of support.  The instructor-supplied student support is slowly removed over the course of the laboratory learning experience—such that the lessons scaffolds are faded.  By the end of each lesson, students are able to devise and complete a scientific investigation in astronomy all on their own.  In this way, students gain confidence in their ability to conduct scientific inquiry in astronomy by gaining more responsibility for the learning from the beginning to the end of instruction.

The BFS labs are also known for being backwards because of how the scaffolds are carefully faded.  In the most common instructional approaches where students are taught how to conduct scientific inquiry, teachers teach scientific inquiry in three phases.  The first phase is to teach students how to ask scientifically fruitful questions. Second, students are taught to design experiments and observations to pursue evidence.  Finally, students are typically taught how to extract evidence from data and create an evidence-based astronomy conclusion.

What is particularly unique about these learning astronomy BFS laboratory learning experiences is the recognition that teaching students to ask scientifically fruitful questions is by far the most difficult aspect.  In response, the BFS astronomy lessons teach students to create and defend evidence-based conclusions first from a given research question and given data.  Then, students are taught to devise strategies to pursue data that can be used in an evidenced-based conclusion for a new research question, which is also provided for them.  Only when students have had considerable experience designing observations and defending conclusions from a number of research questions, are students then taught to create fruitful research questions—now that they have considerable experience doing the processes of scientific inquiry in astronomy.

An instructional sequence in scientific inquiry might be to ask students to use an online database of solar system planets showing the planet and moon positions and motions to pursue a series of investigations.  An example series of investigations might be to (i) determine the length of time our Sun spins by monitoring sunspots moving across the surface, (ii) determine how long it takes Jupiter to spin by monitoring the reappearance of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, (iii) determine how long it take Io to spin, (iv) determine how long it takes Io to orbit Jupiter, and (v) create your own research project on motions of the solar system. Two consistently great resources for this can be found by searching the Internet for NASA EYES ON THE SKY and JPL SOLAR SYSTEM SIMULATOR. But what is vitally important here is that in each case, students are deeply engaged in a progressive series of questions, where the teacher gives substantively less support with each following investigation.

Several thousand astronomy students have used these Backwards Faded Scaffolding inquiry materials with varying degrees of success.  By and large, our experience is that most people who have used them, continue to use them course after course.  At the same time, talented teachers are creating their own BFS labs to cover concepts across the domain of astronomy, and even moving into other disciplines.  For one, there is an online discussion group e-community for BFS-Labs that you can join by heading over to  There is even a YouTube video on backwards faded scaffolding Many of these new and community created BFS-Labs are archived and freely available at the Astronomy Faculty Lounge which can be accessed through a portal at the CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research website at (Slater & Slater, 2013).

Concluding Thoughts about Influences of Theory and Practice in Teaching Astronomy

In moving from a teacher-centered classroom to a learner-centered classroom, teachers need to sometimes make dramatic changes in their adopted underlying philosophies of teaching astronomy and guiding theories of learning.  In particular, classrooms that greatly value respect students thinking, start where the students are cognitively, and move all students as individuals are learner-centered.  In contrast, in a teacher-centered classroom, all students learn the same facts and the goal is to get them all to the same ending place.  How one decides to teach relies heavily on what the end goal is.  Teachers have different end goals, and as a result, should have different teaching approaches (see Slater & Zeilik, (2003) for numerous examples of various astronomy teaching approaches).

There are undoubtedly some teachers who loudly state they hold a particular teaching philosophy and use specific theories of learning that are actually in direct conflict with what is observed in their classroom.  In other words, there can be large differences between stated theory and actual classroom teaching practice.  Sometimes this is completely unintentional in that a single teacher cannot themselves know all of the possible teaching strategies and it does happen that a teacher doesn’t know how to teach in a way that is consistent with their stated theory.  More often, though, teachers know what the culturally accepted theory of teaching is, and purposefully use something different in the practice of teaching.  This conflict can lead to tremendous challenges between different teachers of similar topics.

As we look toward the evolving future, it is perhaps the concept of “The Flipped Classroom” that has the greatest potential for making classroom’s more learner-centered.  A far too brief description of flipping the astronomy classroom is a classroom in which the students do homework assignments and activities in the classroom in front of the teacher and students hear lectures and receive new astronomy information outside of class, usually being given information through Internet videos (Slater, 2013).  In other words, the process is flipped about where students do homework and where students listen to lectures.  This approach hold the best promise so far for helping teachers become learning coaches rather than information dispensers and moving toward being more learner-centered.

Mike Bennett, Previous Director of Astronomical Society of the Pacific

A recent beloved Executive Director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Mike Bennett, the well-respected astronomy and planetarium educator was well known for the quip, “You know what the difference between theory and practice is?  In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice.  However, in practice, there is!”  If you understand why you make the teaching decisions you make, then you are much better positioned to make consistent decisions about which of the many teaching innovations available will best fit into your continuous effort at improving your teaching and your students learning in astronomy.


Slater, S.J., Slater, T.F. & Bailey, J.M. (2011). Discipline-Based Science Education Research: A Scientists’ Guide, 2011. W.H. Freeman Publishing and Company, New York. ISBN 1429265868.

Slater, S.J., Slater, T.F. & Lyons, D.J. (2010). Engaging in Astronomical Inquiry. W.H. Freeman Publishing and Company, New York. ISBN 1429258608.

Slater, S.J., Slater, T.F. & Lyons, D.J. (2011) Teaching Scientific Inquiry with GalaxyZoo. The Physics Teacher, 49(2), 94-96.

Slater, S.J., Slater, T.F., and Shaner, A. (2008).  Impact of Backwards Faded Scaffolding in an Astronomy Course for Pre-service Elementary Teachers based on Inquiry.  Journal of Geoscience Education, 56(5), 408-416.

Slater, T.F. (2013). Would a Cognitive Scientist Recommend a Flipped Classroom? – Ramblings about Flipping the Astronomy Classroom, Over Easy.  An online blogged essay at the Astronomy Faculty Lounge Blog at URL:

Slater, T.F. & Slater, S.J. (2013).  Next Generation Astronomy Faculty Lounge.  Online teaching resource library and community forum hosted by CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, URL:

Slater, T.F. & Zeilik, M. (2003). Insights Into the Universe:  Effective Ways to Teach Astronomy, American Association of Physics Teachers Press: College Park, MD (160 pages).  ISBN:  1-931024-04-9

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, Publishers.

Waller, W.H. & Slater, T.F. (2011) Improving Introductory Astronomy Education in American Colleges and Universities: A Review of Recent Progress. Journal of Geoscience Education, 59, 176-183.

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Educational Underpinnings of Lecture-Tutorials for Introductory Astronomy

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research,  

Theories of Learning focused on the Student

It is all too often easy to forget that learning theories obviously or quietly influence what classroom environments look like. On one hand, theories of learning used in classrooms where the teacher is the expert source of all knowledge are known as TEACHER-CENTERED classrooms.  This is where the learning theory guiding the classroom put the teacher in the role to perform and present—perhaps download—information and ideas to the class.  Teacher-centered classrooms are focused on the performance and presentation of the teacher, and improving these classrooms focus on the teacher being the one to be making better presentations and better lectures with better illustrations, examples, and analogies.  On the other hand, classrooms could be focused on what students are doing every day instead of what teachers are doing. This perspective is in stark contrast to that of student-centered classrooms, or LEARNER-CENTERED teaching. Improvements in learner-centered classrooms instead focus on changing the student experience by having students talk about and sort out concepts, rather than being told what they should think and believe about scientific ideas.  Although it isn’t clear than one is always better than the other, what is certain is that learning theories driving the design and operation of learner-centered classrooms look very different.

A contrasting theory of learning that is more learner-centered is that of CONCEPTUAL CHANGE.  Widely advocated by US-based Peter Hewsen and his talented colleagues like Strike and Posner (1982, 1992) in the later Twentieth Century, conceptual change is based on the notion of teaching students who enter learning already holding ideas they have developed with considerable mental effort.  In response, it is the job of the teacher to build an environment that exposes students’ initial ideas, challenges the students’ thinking, and replaces the pre-existing astronomy ideas with new and better ideas.  Long-time physics education researcher Lillian Chris McDermott and her colleagues (2001) at the University of Washington (USA) describe teaching aligned with this theory of learning as elicit, confront and resolve. Clearly, classical conceptual change in astronomy teaching has an underlying commitment to the teaching philosophy of constructivism, as briefly described above.

For a teacher who subscribes to conceptual change as a theory of learning, a teacher’s job is to find and help students replace their astronomy misconceptions with scientifically accurate ideas.  Whereas a positivist instructor would hold the position that simply telling students that they have a misconception and that the correct ideas should over-write the incorrect ideas, a teacher subscribing to conceptual change believes that new ideas will only be considered if there is dissatisfaction with old ideas. Moreover the newly proposed ideas have to be completely understandable and be able to better explain a wider range of ideas than the old ideas for conceptual change to successfully apply.

moving-from-teacher-centered-to-learner-centered-versionAEarly classroom applications of conceptual change were focused on using a three-phase learning cycle, advocated widely by Karplus and Butts (1977).  The first phase of such a learning cycle is exploration were students wrestled with a phenomena or observation that was unexpected, known in education circles as a decrepit event, and presented to astronomy students without an explicit agenda revealed by the teacher.  Some example decrepit events in astronomy teaching might be: (a) if it is hotter in the summertime because we are close to the Sun, why might the northern and southern hemisphere seasons be reversed?; (b) if our Moon has no gravity, how did astronauts successfully walk on our Moon?; (c) if planets spin more slowly the farther they are from the Sun, why might Jupiter spin faster than Saturn?; (d) if main sequence stars move on the HR diagram toward the right when they run out of useable fuel in their core, just where might they move to in outer space?; and (e) if we can determine which direction our galaxy is moving in an evolving Universe by looking for redshifts in one direction and blue shifts in the opposite direction, what might it mean if we observe red shifts in all directions?.

The second of the three phases in the classical learning cycle is that of concept introduction.  In this phase, astronomy teachers are to tie the descript event to the scientifically accurate idea, usually through a didactic, lecture-based strategy.  It is in this phase where students are introduced to the accurate scientific vocabulary that better describes the ideas they wrestled with in initial the exploration phase. This cycle is then closed by a third phase known as concept application, where students are to practice applying their new thinking in novel applications. Taken together, a teaching practice aligned with this theory is to repeatedly have students engage with phenomena and come to a more meaningful understanding.

In the decades following Karplus, this three-phase approach has been expanded to a five-phase approach.  Advocated by US science educator Roger Bybee (2002), who was then working in the domain of Biology Education, the 5E approach has gained favor among teachers and curriculum developers.  The 5E approach phases are Explore, Engage, Explain, Extend, and Evaluate.  Whether a teacher thinks the better teaching practice here is to use a 3-phase or a 5-phase, or even a 10-phase learning cycle, the underlying theory here is that students will better learn an astronomical concept if they have targeted and repeated engagements with the idea, rather than a single, isolated experience.  Where these student-centered learning phases starkly contrast from the teacher-centered information download practice of teaching is that students’ initial ideas are taken to be serious and influential parts of the learning process and purposeful mechanisms exist to include, alter, and extend students’ thinking.

In recent years, conceptual change theory has been more serious modified to include students’ attitudes and motivation for learning.  The changes in conceptual change theory are due in large part, to a broad failure for conceptual change learning cycles to work with emotionally-laden topics.  Astronomy teachers using conceptual change have often noticed that providing students with discrepant events and data intended to cause internal cognitive conflict driving conceptual change in particular domains had little to no impact.  Most notably, the astronomy topics seemingly largely immune to conceptual change were: astrology as influencing human events, Big Bang Theory of the creation of universe (Prather, Slater, Offerdahl, 2002), the Expanding Universe, evolution of planetary atmospheres as a result of biological evolution, and anthropogenic (human-caused) planetary climate change, among others.  In other words, in the practice of teaching through conceptual change, no amount of data or logical argumentation seemed to alter some students thinking about such issues.  In response, parts of conceptual change theory have been altered to account for emotionally-laden issues where students’ self-identity is threatened by a particular scientific idea.  Known widely as “hot” conceptual change theory, the teaching practice that shows some promise for enhancing student’s thinking in these domains is one of having students evaluate the thinking of other people from afar, perhaps as case studies or consideration of mini-debates among other people, rather than engaging the students’ own thinking.  The underlying idea is that students will more readily evaluate the thinking of others than themselves.  Such practices are seen as less risky to students’ self-identity and allow for a considerate teacher to more respectfully present and challenge opposing points of view.  (For more on this hot conceptual change, see work by US science educator Doug Lombardi and his colleagues (2010) in this domain.)

Lecture-Tutorials for Introductory Astronomy: An Instructional Strategy In-between a Teacher-Centered and a Student-Centered Approach.  To take advantage of students’ needs to have guided and extended experiences in understanding a new idea, Jeff Adams and Tim Slater, then at Montana State University in the US, led a team developing a series of instructional materials called LECTURE TUTORIALS FOR INTRODUCTORY ASTRONOMY (Prather, Slater, Adams & Brissenden, 2004 & 2012).  Lecture Tutorials were designed to combine the advantages of SOCRATIC DIALOGUE teaching approaches with the collaborative activity benefits from THINK-PAIR-SHARE.

Lecture-Tutorials are carefully designed worksheets that students collaboratively complete in pairs.  Each worksheet takes 10-15 minutes to complete and is used during class time after a short lecture to help students extend their understanding and demonstrate the power of astronomy models.  Upon inspection, the questions posed on the worksheets are similar to the series of questions a considerate teacher might ask a struggling student if they were tutoring the student in a one-on-one face-to-face setting after class.  In this way, Lecture-Tutorials are designed to move students from a novice understanding of an idea to a more comprehensive understanding (Brogt, 2007).

A strategy highly characteristic of these worksheets is to ask students to evaluate a conversation between two students.  Often described as a MINI-DEBATE (see Slater, 2010), the worksheets provide a short quoted dialogue between two students.  For example, one student might be portrayed as saying to another student, “the Moon has not water because it has no gravity” who then responds by saying, “The Moon does have gravity, like any other planet, and the Moon’s water is frozen as un-melted ice in deep craters that never are exposed to sunlight.”   The learners using the Lecture-Tutorials for Introductory Astronomy are then asked to craft a response to the question of which student, if either, do you agree with.  In this way, students are given the opportunity to safely judge the accuracy of distant hypothetical students’ thinking rather than directly confront their own personal thinking.  In this sense, the task is less risky than revealing their own personal views and are apt to take more risks at exposing their own potentially incorrect thinking, thus positioning themselves to learn complex astronomy ideas themselves.

More than 100,000 astronomy students have used Lecture-Tutorials with varying degrees of success.  By and large, our experience is that most people who have used them, continue to use them course after course.  At the same time, talented teachers are creating Lecture-Tutorials to cover concepts across the domain of astronomy, and even moving into other disciplines.  There is even a 15-min. YouTube video on how to make your own available at

Many of these new and community created Lecture-Tutorials are archived and freely available at the Astronomy Faculty Lounge which can be accessed through the FACULTY LOUNGE portal at the CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research website at (Slater & Slater, 2013).


Brogt, E. (2007). A theoretical background on a successful implementation of lecture-tutorials. Astronomy Education Review, 6, 50.

Bybee, R. W. (Ed.). (2002). Learning science and the science of learning: Science educators’ essay collection. National Science Teachers Association, Publisher.

Karplus, R., & Butts, D. P. (1977). Science teaching and the development of reasoning. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 14(2), 169-175.

Lombardi, D., & Sinatra, G. M. (2010). College students’ perceptions about the plausibility of human-induced climate change. Research in Science Education, 1-17.

McDermott, L. C. (2001). Oersted Medal Lecture 2001:“Physics education research—the key to student learning”. American Journal of Physics, 69, 1127.

Prather, E.E., Slater, T.F., Adams, J.P. Bailey, J.M., Jones, L.V., & Dostal, J.A. (2004). Research on a Lecture-Tutorial Approach to Teaching Introductory Astronomy for Nonscience Majors.  Astronomy Education Review, 3(2), 122-136.

Prather, E.E., Slater, T.F., Adams, J.P. & Brissenden, G. (2012). Lecture-Tutorials for Introductory Astronomy – 3rd Edition , Addison Wesley, ISBN:  0132392267

Prather, E. E., Slater, T. F., & Offerdahl, E. G. (2002). Hints of a fundamental misconception in cosmology. Astronomy Education Review, 1, 28.

Posner, G. J., Strike, K. A., Hewson, P. W., & Gertzog, W. A. (1982). Accommodation of a scientific conception: Toward a theory of conceptual change. Science education, 66(2), 211-227.

Slater, T.F. (2010). Enhancing Learning Through Scientific Mini-Debates. The Physics Teacher, 48(6), 425-426.

Slater, T.F. & Slater, S.J. (2013).  Next Generation Astronomy Faculty Lounge.  Online teaching resource library and community forum hosted by CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, URL:

Slater, T.F. & Zeilik, M. (2003). Insights Into the Universe:  Effective Ways to Teach Astronomy, American Association of Physics Teachers Press: College Park, MD (160 pages).  ISBN:  1-931024-04-9

Strike, K. A., & Posner, G. J. (1992). A revisionist theory of conceptual change. Philosophy of science, cognitive psychology, and educational theory and practice, 147-176.



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Educational Theory Underlying Astronomy Clicker Questions & Peer Instruction

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research,

As teachers, we make countless decisions about our classrooms every day. Some of them are obvious: “Am I going to talk about planets before stars today, or the other way around?” Others decisions are so subtle, they might go unnoticed: “Am I going to carefully grade every aspect of this assignment, like spelling and grammar, or am I just going to skim to see if this student has acquired the general idea?” With so many decisions to be made every day, you might think we’d be exhausted before we ever talked to a single student. And, we would, if it were not for the underlying philosophies about teaching and theories about learning that we carry with us to help us make these decisions. All too often, these philosophies and theories are completely unexamined, tacit if you will. Most importantly, if you want to improve your teaching effectiveness, understanding which philosophies and theories of learning you have adopted will allow you to make improvements in your students’ learning. Let’s consider some of the more prevalent theories and practices in teaching astronomy and see if you can gain some insight into how you are making decisions about your classroom.

Two Contrasting Philosophies about Teaching Astronomy

POSITIVISM. Undoubtedly, the dominant philosophy driving most of teaching is one based in positivism. In brief, and with sincere apologies to philosophers who have spent lifetimes eloquently describing the aspects of this philosophical position, positivism is based on a notion that we only learn what we have been told or directly experienced. An astronomy teacher who devises instruction based on a positivist philosophy of teaching expends considerable effort on delivering precisely articulated lectures with cleverly illustrated graphics and illustrations. They believe that students do not know anything about the Universe before entering their classroom and it is their task to clearly describe the nature and mechanics of the world to self-motivated students who should be intrinsically eager to experience their lecture. They disappointingly view disinterested students as unfortunately individuals who are choosing to miss a rare opportunity to learn. Most importantly, most positivist teachers believe that a lecturers’ enthusiasm is probably the most important aspect to gaining and keeping student attention so they can learn. Among college and university professors, this is clearly the most widely adopted philosophy of teaching. At secondary levels, this is somewhat less prevalent, but still dominant. In this instance, the theoretical position, which is really a philosophical one, is that students learn astronomy by attentively listening to precisely delivered astronomy lectures and the practice consistent with this view is to provide accurate, professor-centered instruction where the teacher, or by proxy the teacher’s assigned readings, is the sole source of information and learning in the course. Students’ are assigned homework or in class activities designed to practice reciting or applying the teacher-delivered procedures—tests are more of the same.

CONSTRUCTIVISM. Perhaps the most influential teaching philosophy driving innovation and reformation in astronomy teaching is that of constructivism. Constructivism is grounded in the notion that students enter your classroom already holding pre-existing ideas about the way the world works. In this context, students enter your classroom already knowing why it is hotter in the summer than in the winter, why the leaves change color in autumn, and why rain falls from clouds. Many of the ideas and explanations students hold were constructed with considerable mental effort and students deeply own and are committed to holding on to their ideas. The problem for the astronomy teacher is that some of the student-created explanations about how the Universe works are scientifically accurate, whereas many others are completely wrong.

In the late 1960’s, noted educator David Ausubel (1968) was well known for saying that “the task of the teacher is to determine what the student already knows and teach them accordingly.” In response, much of the astronomy education research since that time has focused on devising strategies to measure the range and domain of students’ misconceptions in astronomy. The number of tests for measuring the knowledge and conceptual knowledge in astronomy is a lot and these surveys and tests have evolved considerably over the years. Currently, the best landscape survey we know of is probably the TOAST Test Of Astronomy STandards (see Slater, Slater & Bailey, 2011). The driving force behind the effortful construction of such surveys is to carefully determine what students initially think they know about astronomy as they come into the classroom so that the constructivist teacher can teach the students accordingly. Constructivist astronomy teachers pay careful attention to the results of these surveys and tests.

A constructivist teacher recognizes that their students already hold ideas about astronomy, some correct, some incorrect, and many partially correct. As a result they spend considerable energy questioning students to find out what they think. In real-time response to their questions, constructivist teachers continuously query their students about examples and counter examples and provide students with metacognitive feedback about their own evolving ideas. Most constructivist teachers realize that students don’t simply move from the wrong idea to the correct idea, but that there is long, convoluted journey with multiple pathways in leading students to more complete and scientifically accurate ideas. Teachers who hold a constructivist teaching philosophy tend to be more open to trying different teaching innovations as compared to their positivist philosophy holding colleagues. In this context, the theory is that the teacher’s job is to move students from naïve understanding and misconceptions to scientifically accurate understanding of astronomy. The practice aligned with this philosophical position is that teachers are not only dispensers of knowledge, but rather serve as coaches and guides for students who are responsible for the learning. Homework or in-class activities then take the form of aligning student thinking with scientific thinking, often making use of collaborative groups (Adams & Slater, 2002).

moving-from-teacher-centered-to-learner-centered-versionAThese are not the only two teaching philosophies, but rather represent two opposite ends of a philosophical continuum. Perhaps, when thinking about how these perspectives are manifested in the classroom, this continuum is better described as a teacher-centered to learner-centered classroom continuum. In the teacher-centered classroom, the teacher is the primary source of information and ideas, and is characterized by the teacher doing most of the talking. In contrast, in the learner-centered classroom, the students are doing most of the talking, debating, and articulating of ideas—often talking to each other rather than to the teacher.

Theories of Learning Focusing on the Teacher

If you understand that there is a continuum of different teaching philosophies, you probably wouldn’t be surprised that there are a number of theories of learning as well. There are far too many theories of learning to describe in this short space, but a few are worth describing because an awareness of learning theories help us to better describe why we do what we do in our astronomy teaching.

For teachers who are inclined toward a positivist philosophy of teaching, briefly described above, their most likely corresponding theory of learning is that of TABULA RASA. As eloquently described by Vosniadou (1998), Tabula Rasa can be literally translated as “blank slate.” Teachers who subscribe to a Tabula Rasa theory of learning view their students as essentially having a blank slate in their heads about astronomy. They view their job as an astronomy teacher is to write precise information in students’ empty minds. In general, they do not believe that students hold a pre-existing understanding about the size and shape of the Universe, the physical processes that cause stars to shine, or about how planetary surfaces change. More important to our discussion, when these instructors do agree that their students have misconceptions about astronomy, they strongly believe that students need to be told more clearly, if not more loudly, the correct ideas and that these correct ideas will simply erase and over-write any old or incorrect ideas. This is highly characteristic of a teacher-centered approach to teaching, particularly those who teachers who spend most of their time at the front of the room lecturing to students who are taking notes to memorize later.

At the same time, teachers who hold a Tabula Rasa theory of learning implicitly believe that students will most value and record the information told to them by the instructor with the highest credentials. When students fail to learn from an instructor who holds a Tabula Rasa view of learning, either it is the students fault for not fully being attentive during class. If the teacher receives blame for insufficient learning, the most common intervention is to ensure that the failing teacher fully understands the science underlying what they are trying to teach, often by requiring them to sit in on some graduate-level astronomy course to refresh and improve their understanding of astronomy at the most complex levels.

Astronomy Clicker Questions: Teacher-Centered Instructional Strategy. Learning theories adopted driving teacher-centered classrooms do not always look like a lecture-based classroom. A classroom setting that looks very different, but still driven by a theory of learning focused on the teacher being the expert who moves information from themselves to the student, is a classroom based on notions of SOCRATIC DIALOGUE. Socratic dialogue is a learning theory based on the idea that if students are simply asked the correct questions in the correct sequence that the student themselves will come to know an idea. Although lecture is a teaching strategy on could adopt and use no others, a more common strategy for intellectually engaging students with questions to think about and debate is Think-Pair-Share, also known as Clicker Questions and described in detail elsewhere (see, for example, Slater, 2008).

THINK-PAIR-SHARE is an approach where the teacher presents an idea in a traditional lecture format and then asks students to stop taking notes and answer a question about the ideas they were just presented. Questions posed by the teacher to the students can either be simple recall (e.g., which planet has the highest surface temperature?) or can be questions of application (e.g., at which phase of the moon will a solar eclipse occur?). Less often, but still quite effective at improving students’ achievement, teachers can pose questions encouraging students to encounter a widely known misconception (e.g., how often does the Moon’s appearance change?).

What makes this approach different than simply interjecting questions to the entire group of students in a lecture is that the teacher directs this process in three distinct steps: (i) As an opening step, the teacher poses the question to students who must personally and privately commit to an answer without speaking to anyone. Traditionally, this is done after some lecturing has occurred. (ii) Next, the teacher asks students to vote on the question’s answer. There are two important reasons for this second step. The first reason is that students need to be held accountable for devising an answer to the question; if the students do not give a meaningful attempt to answer the question to the teacher, then the students haven’t actually engaged intellectually with the idea being taught. The second reason is that the teacher too needs to understand the extent to which students understand the topic so that they can decide if more lecture needs to occur. If most of the students have the correct answer, then the teacher can move on with the lecture. On the other hand, if most of the students have an incorrect answer, then the teacher needs to re-teach the idea, perhaps in a different way with different illustrations, examples or analogies.

As a brief aside, this think-pair-share approach of asking students to answer and then provide their answer to the teacher requires the teacher to have an infrastructure or system by which to get students’ answers. Experienced teachers know that if they ask students to share their answers in front of the rest of the class, rarely will more than one or two students volunteer an answer freely. It is possible to randomly call out student names and ask them to provide an answer—one such strategy is to write student names on pieces of paper or popsicle craft sticks and then randomly draw a students’ name—but this astronomy teaching practice can be risky because some students are simply unable to speak confidently in front of the rest of their classmates. Instead, a common practice is to give students a sheet of paper or a small chalk or re-useable white board on which they can write their answers in big letters and then simultaneously all hold up their answers for the teacher to see and evaluate. This approach to having students hold up their solutions on a piece of paper or erasable board is generally known as WHITE BOARDING. More recently, teachers have started using cell phone voting systems where students can text-message their answers to the teacher or a computer system where the frequency of various answers can be rapidly tabulated for the teacher. Instead of clicking their cell phone key pads, some teachers ask students to purchase electronic personal response systems that allow them to send their answers as “votes” to the teacher’s computer. These often look like handheld television remote controls, and are called “clickers.” Because of the rapidly growing abundance of these clickers, sometimes this think-pair-share teaching strategy is more widely known specifically as using ASTRONOMY CLICKER QUESTIONS (Waller & Slater, 2011).

Going back to the steps in this think-pair-share approach, there is a third step that can often be used in this teaching strategy. It is this third step that is often the most valuable part of this teaching strategy. In the event that 40-70% of the students have the correct answer, then the teacher asks students to collaborate with another student, in a pair of two students, to discuss their answers and their rationale for why they answered the way they did. After students have had a few moments to share their answers and rationale and contemplate their partner’s answers, students are asked to vote again.  What generally occurs is that a much larger number of students, if not all, have come to the correct answer without further teacher intervention.

One might be concerned that students will “teach one another” incorrect ideas without the teacher present to monitor and correct scientific inaccuracies. Perhaps surprisingly, this intervention on the part of the teacher is rarely needed. Students generally teach each other correctly because the scientifically accurate ideas are generally easier to explain and defend than the inaccurate ideas. More importantly, students who have just recently come to understand the new ideas are better able to know which aspects of a concept are most confusing and are much better positioned to help other new learners come to know an idea than a teacher who struggled with learning the idea for the first time themselves years or even decades before. Students who are talking to other students of similar age and similar cultural backgrounds are able to use a more natural student language with analogies and metaphors that the teacher might be unable to devise to help students learn. In other words, students are well positioned to explain ideas to other students in ways that are most rapidly comprehensible.  Ongoing discussion among faculty talking about how to best use this strategy can be found over at the Turn to Your Neighbor Blog.

This CLICKER QUESTION strategy exploits and leverages this situation and has been shown to dramatically improve student learning. The reason this three-step approach is known as THINK-PAIR-SHARE is because students THINK first by themselves about a question, the PAIR collaboratively with another student to share their thinking, and finally they SHARE their answers and rationale with each other and the teacher.

Countless astronomy students are using astronomy clicker questions with varying degrees of success.  By and large, our experience is that most people who have used them, continue to use them course after course.  At the same time, talented teachers are creating their own astronomy clicker questions based on Peer Instruction.  A great 60-min YouTube video on this is available by Derek Bruff. Many astronomy clicker questions are archived and freely available at the Astronomy Faculty Lounge which can be accessed through the FACULTY LOUNGE portal at the CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research website at (Slater & Slater, 2013).


Adams, J., & Slater, T. (2002). Learning through Sharing: Supplementing the Astronomy Lecture with Collaborative-Learning Group Activities. Journal of College Science Teaching, 31(6), 384-87.

Ausubel, D. P., Novak, J. D., & Hanesian, H. (1968). Educational psychology: A cognitive view.

Crouch, C. H., & Mazur, E. (2001). Peer instruction: Ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics, 69, 970.

Mazur, E., & Hilborn, R. C. (1997). Peer instruction: A user’s manual. Physics Today, 50, 68.

Mintzes, J. J. (2006). Handbook of college science teaching. National Science Teachers Assn. – featuring articles by Eric Mazur and Tim Slater

Slater, S.J., Slater, T.F. & Bailey, J.M. (2011). Discipline-Based Science Education Research: A Scientists’ Guide, 2011. W.H. Freeman Publishing and Company, New York. ISBN 1429265868.

Slater, T.F. (2008). First Steps Toward Increasing Student Engagement During Lecture. The Physics Teacher, 46(8), 554-555.

Slater, T.F. & Zeilik, M. (2003). Insights Into the Universe: Effective Ways to Teach Astronomy, American Association of Physics Teachers Press: College Park, MD (160 pages). ISBN: 1-931024-04-9

Vosniadou, S., & Ioannides, C. (1998). From conceptual development to science education: A psychological point of view. International Journal of Science Education, 20(10), 1213-1230.

Waller, W.H. & Slater, T.F. (2011) Improving Introductory Astronomy Education in American Colleges and Universities: A Review of Recent Progress. Journal of Geoscience Education, 59, 176-183.

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Would a Cognitive Scientist Recommend a Flipped Classroom? – Ramblings about Flipping the Astronomy Classroom, Over Easy

Over the years, many professors have conceded that a teacher-centered, information-download, sage-on-the-stage, lecture is probably not the best way to get introductory astronomy students excited about science.  Even when precisely illustrated, articulately delivered, and cleverly constructed, most professors realize that most students aren’t able to absorb everything that a professor could say during an hour long information-download lecture simply by listening and taking notes.

There are, of course, some brilliant and notable exceptions.  Sometimes, these folks are so good that their lectures have been video recorded and sold on DVD—I even purchased a few.  These professors are highly talented story tellers who can capture students’ attention and hold it for almost hour at a time.  Unfortunately, I’m not one of them; although I sure wish I was. And, I suspect most folks reading this aren’t either one of those either.  (Of course, far too many of us believe we’re good drivers, fantastic chefs, and great lecturers mostly because we haven’t received a statistically significant number of authoritative complaints.)

Not too many years ago, it used to be the case that when a professor earned lousy teaching evaluations from students, their Department Chair would assign that professor to go sit in on some graduate courses—not courses on how to teach, but graduate-level science courses.  The misconception was that the only way to get low teaching evaluations would be if one didn’t know the material deeply enough, to which the solution was to re-experience Jackson-level E&M lectures.

We know today that the solution to improving teaching rarely is about the teacher achieving a better understanding the concepts.  In fact, it could be far worse than this.  For instance, in K-12 mathematics, mathematics education research has clearly illustrated that the more advanced mathematics classes one takes, the lower their students’ test scores. Imagine a graph of student’s math scores plotted against the number of mathematics courses their instructor has taken.  Common sense might suggest that the result would be a monotonically increasing line with positive slope; however, perhaps surprisingly, there is a maximum inflection point given by the first derivative test and student test scores start to decline pretty rapidly the more mathematics their instructor has taken.  We’re not sure the degree to which this is true across the sciences and in astronomy in particular—anyone looking for a great research project, here you go!—but we assume it does and we have strong suspicions about why this might occur.

Allow me to digress for a moment and present some evidence from the famous Feynman Lectures on Physics at Cal Tech in the 1970s.    Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman is famous for a number of things ranging from quantum mechanics to philosophy to his work on the Manhattan Project to his gregarious personality.  If you haven’t had a chance to read Feynman’s trade books, I’d start with Surely You’re Joking; if you haven’t had a chance to listen to Feynman’s interviews, I’d start with YouTube.  There was even a movie made about his life staring Mathew Broderick, but I digress too far.  The point I’m trying to get around to make is that professors who deeply understand physics enthusiastically believe his lectures are brilliant, insightful, creative, deeply engaging and, most importantly, make physics concepts very easy to understand.  But, at the same time, undergraduates who were in that class decades about only really remember that they could barely understand what in the world Feynman might have been talking about.  It seems reasonable to assume that undergraduate physics majors at Cal Tech were mostly talented and high aptitude students—many of which went on to become professors.  Yet, they struggled to understand what the expert of experts was trying to simplify for them.  Feynman was definitely brilliant and is fun to listen to; but was he a great teacher of undergraduates?

The principle reason that deeply knowledgeable professors are in perilous danger of being lousy teachers seems to be because of fundamental differences between how novices and experts cognitively structure their understanding.  And, it isn’t just that experts know more than novices, experts really do have physically different brains!  Consider for one that novices trying to learn new concepts are not able to readily distinguish what is relevant from what is irrelevant.  For example, the common situation where an undergraduate physics student tries to memorize every single equation listed in a textbook chapter.  As experts we know this is silly because most of the textbook’s equations are simply derivations steps explaining how to get from one really important formula to another really important formula.  In the case of astronomy students, we are flustered because astronomy students don’t readily distinguish between comets and meteors or sometimes even between stars and galaxies.  This is because to novices just starting to learn astronomy, it’s all just a bunch of indistinguishable stuff that’s beyond, we'll do homework in class and you'll watch lectures at home

Another difference between novices and experts has to do with how go about approaching end-of-chapter problems. As an example from physics, consider when a professor asks a student about why they used a particular formula to answer a particular end-of-chapter homework question, students are apt to state that they used the previously listed formula for the previous homework question, so they assume that the next homework problem must use the equation following the previous one in the book. This is illustrative of novice students grabbing at every formula rather than following principles.  This happens in astronomy when students don’t seem to read the book; rather, they just flip through the pages trying to figure out where the answer is to their assigned end-of-chapter questions which, of course, are sequenced in the same sequence as the chapter!  One might wonder if it wouldn’t just be easier for students to learn the material rather than try to game the end-of-chapter questions; but one giant difference between experts and novices is that novices don’t yet have a structure to organize their thinking other than the sequence from the textbook or lecture.  Of course, the sequence presented in the textbook makes sense to use experts because it was also created by an expert.

Expert problem solvers are distinguished from novice problem solvers in that experts know how to get un-stuck.  Getting unstuck is a learned skill that comes from lots of practice working lots of problems.  Novice problem solvers will try one equation from their book to solve a problem, and if that doesn’t work, they don’t know what to do next.  It is a hard earned skill that undergraduate physics and astronomy majors learn to try to work a problem from multiple angles until they can get traction and move forward.  One reason that it is a hard earned skill is that few professors make mistakes when working problems at the front of the lecture hall, and students incorrectly assume that the best problem solves drive a straight path from question to solution with no hiccups, U-turns, or backward steps.  Few astronomy professors realize the tremendous benefits of showing their students what getting stuck and unstuck looks like.  Instead, we too often give flawless performances of problem solving or practice quiz question solving or even giving faulty essay answers on classroom activities like Lecture-Tutorials for Introductory Astronomy and, in doing so, give students the impression that successful science is a mistake-free endeavor.  All of this makes me think, oh, if my students could just appreciate the grant proposal reviews and publication referee reports I get; then they’d know science isn’t mistake-free.

As it turns out, astronomy experts aren’t automatically experts in everything—in contrast with what we often seem to believe.  Just like we can observe that novice astronomy students initially only see undifferentiated, superficial aspects to a phenomena compared to astronomy experts, we also readily see this occur with professors trying to learn how to teach astronomy better.  In recent years, our teaching excellence workshops have started to use more and more ASTRO 101 classroom videos showing students and their professors.  The challenge to using these videos in workshops is that novice professors aren’t readily able to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant aspects even when they have had decades of teaching experience—years of teaching experience doesn’t automatically correlated to levels of teaching expertise.  For example, a novice professor watching another classroom usually focuses on the preciseness of the professor’s facts being presented or the professor’s mannerisms and, occasionally the seeming chaos of the classroom during a student-activity.  Only after explicitly being highlighted repeatedly by the workshop leader, will novice professors start to move their attention from readily observable professor’s specific lecture delivery to more salient characteristics about how deeply students’ are intellectually engaged in wrestling with an new idea, the extent to which an artful professor uses complex questioning and rapid feedback to help students understand ideas more flexibly, and how the professor helps students connect complex astronomical ideas to individual experiences without asking students to memorize the professor’s personal analogies.  In other words, becoming a master teacher involves some hard work moving from being a novice to an expert too.

The bottom line here is that experts, compared to novices, know what is relevant and irrelevant about a situation.  This knowledge about relative relevance in irrelevance allows experts to chunk knowledge more efficiently than novices.  Most of us have heard that humans usually have a limit of about seven things they can mentally juggle at the same time.  Sometimes we describe that as having about seven available slots of working memory to work on solving a problem.  Compared to novices, experts don’t waste valuable and highly limited working memory slots to irrelevant aspects.  Moreover, experts are able to efficiently chunk seemingly disparate ideas together into the same working memory slot.  As a result, experts seem to be able to manage more complex thinking than novices.

Putting all of this together, experts can struggle mightily with teaching novices.  For one, professors sometimes don’t recall why they know what they know—far too many of our workshop attendees think they learned astronomy by listening to lectures and somehow seem to have forgotten all the late night group study sessions where they wrestled with complex ideas and the long problem sets they worked in undergraduate and graduate schools.   I can’t understate the surprising number of professors who believe that they learned stellar evolution only by listening to some professor in grad school lecture to them for an entire semester for two to three hours each week.  It’s a fragile perspective that can easily be undone when examined more closely; but, it’s a tacit assumption that we professors ourselves don’t often challenge without some nudging.

More than not correctly recalling why they know what they know, it has often been a while since professors themselves have struggled with the concepts they are often charged with teaching their students.  Stephen Brookfield is often quoted as saying, “The best learners … often make the worst teachers.  They are, in a very real sense, perceptually challenged.  They cannot imagine what it must be like to struggle to learn something that comes so naturally to them.”  In other words, professors don’t often recall which parts of a new concept were challenging.  This manifests itself in some subtle, but self-evident ways.  For one, we often hear from professors teaching a new course for the first time that they didn’t really understand a particular, newly encountered idea until they had to teach it; in ASTRO 101, this most often comes up when discussing how to teach seasons—a topic rarely covered in graduate school.  Getting up to speed to teach a new class for the first time reminds one of which aspects are complex and potentially troubling to students.  For another, when it has been a while since you first learned a new idea, it is likely that you have forgotten which aspects are troubling because now you have an expertly organized cognitive view of the entire landscape of the targeted concept and how it fits into the larger sequence of ideas that students are encountering.  This means, as an expert, you’re not always in the best position to help students learn a complex idea.

Wait a minute—you say—if the expert isn’t best positioned to teach students, who is?  Let me back pedal for just a moment and say, “no, my good professor, experts are indeed in a great position to teach students, as long as they are aware that they know more ideas and think about these ideas differently than novices do.”  But, there are people who are often in  a great position to help a struggling student.  These are the people that most recently learned it.  As a surprising example, consider the student in your class right now who sitting right next to a struggling student.  Because they just recently wrestled with an idea, they might be in the best position to best explain a new idea to a struggling student.

We used to think that think-pair-share, Peer Instruction, clicker-questioning techniques worked so well because students could solidify their understanding by explaining ides in the students’ own natural language instead of the scientific jargon professor’s used; instead, we now think that the reason this works is more based in cognition than language in that students can help struggling students focus on the most relevant aspects of an idea and help discard the irrelevant, so it can all be done in available working memory.

Another person who is well suited to help struggling students consider the most relevant aspects to a complex idea in the service of learning are students who learned it last term.  The use of peer-aged tutors and mentors, both outside of class time and inside of class time are demonstrating some great success in improving student learning across a wide variety of contexts.  Even graduate students are often able to help undergraduates in highly effective ways because the distance in time from when they learned ideas to now is much shorter for them than for most professors.

To take advantage of these ideas for improving student learning of complex ideas—including bridging the novice-expert barrier and providing ample opportunities to practice through conversation, problem solving, and repeated engagement with challenging ideas—a considerate professor has to think about how to set up scenarios where students are intellectually wrestling with ideas rather than just listening to someone talk about ideas from the front of the room.   This means that the role of the professor changes from being one who dispenses knowledge to one who focuses on listen to student thinking, providing rapid feedback, using individual questioning to extend student thinking into novel situations, and providing a classroom environment that is about what the students are doing, rather than about how clearly the lecturer can be seen and heard by all students simultaneously.  Working in these environments requires not a great performance lecturer; rather, these teaching environments require a professor who is an expert in the field who has rapidly accessible knowledge and can help students deepen their understanding by posing examples and counter examples of ideas to give students needed rapid feedback when they are ready for it, sometimes without warning!  Only experts in the field can do this; which is why you are the expert and tasked with teaching a particular class.

For some professors, this perspective represents a giant change in thinking amounting to nothing less than a paradigm shift of epic proportions. This dramatic shift in teaching philosophy is currently referred to as a change from a professor-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom.  And, if it really is a big, hairy deal; but it works.  The baby-steps version of this are to break lectures up with 3-minute rest breaks using Peer Instruction, think-pair-share, clicker questions where students defend their answers to one another.  Or, a bigger step is to use 10-15 minute activities to break up lecture where students wrestle with Socratic-style tutorial activities or context-rich, open-ended case study type prompts.

But, the biggest step is to flip the traditional classroom teaching model completely on its head.  In the traditional model, a professor dispenses information from the front of the room and students quietly listen and take notes before going home to do actual learning through homework assignments and study groups.  An alternative approach that goes all the way flips this to where professors task students with listening to video-lectures and reading the textbook outside of class and then reallocate valuable class time, nearly in its entirety, to students working in groups, solving problems, and doing learning tasks that in the old model would have been relegated to outside of class.  In this way, the professor can engage student thinking while they are in the active learning process, not while they are simply listening.  Such an approach puts the professor in a position to use their expertise when it is most needed; when students are struggling and actually trying to learn something.  This flipped classroom approach to course design has a solid foundation in cognitive science learning principles; but, more than that, can be a highly fulfilling endeavor for the professor who is really interested in watching and supporting student learning.

For first steps toward “flipping your classroom in astronomy,” check out the TURN TO YOUR NEIGHBOR BLOG post on how to engage in the astronomy flipped classroom.

Tim Slater, Senior Fellow at the CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research,

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Should Your Astronomy Students Do Telescope Observing Online?

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research,

Is telescope observing important for the non-science majoring undergraduate student in the introductory astronomy ASTRO 101 course?  My experience is that most ASTRO 101 professors quickly answer, “YES, of course!”  But, after further discussion, it turns out that different people imagine a pretty wide assortment of things when they promote that their students should do some observing.

For many ASTRO 101 professors, “observing” really means one thing and one thing only—putting one’s eye up to an eyepiece and letting light from craters on the Moon, rings around Saturn, and a smudge of a distant galaxy enter a student’s eye.  For these instructors, they desire their students to experience the wonder and beauty of astronomy. A much smaller subset of these instructors think their students will benefit greatly if their students to learn how to set up a backyard telescope, select and focus eyepieces, and find objects in the sky.  An even smaller subset might adopt a service learning approach and ask their students to put on a star party for the community at the county fair or even set up in the parking lot of the local supermarket.

Certainly, not every ASTRO 101 class has telescopes. Some instructors think of observing in terms of students becoming more engaged in becoming aware of their environment. Generations of teachers have long asked their students to chart the shape and position of the Moon each night for a month, or to measure the changing length of noontime shadows or to carefully monitor the direction of the setting Sun across the western horizon.  All of these approaches to observing are long standing practices across the community of ASTRO 101 instructors.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are ASTRO 101 instructors who do not believe strongly that their students need to have observing experiences using telescopes.  For these instructors, my sense is that they don’t find value in providing students with observing experiences. For some, this rejection of observing is because they teach in learning environments that are difficult to manage.  Perhaps they teach at on an inner city campus, where security and lighting are issues that are impossible to solve.  Or, perhaps they teach at a commuter campus for which students returning to class after hours just isn’t an option.  And, some ASTRO 101 courses enroll hundreds of students to be managed by a single instructor, making individualized learning events seemingly impossible. These are real barriers to observing that can’t be waived off as being superficial.

For other professors who do not go to the lengths necessary to provide students with observing experiences, I believe that their rejection of student observing is sometimes more aligned with the notion that professional astronomers and astrophysicists allocate precious little time looking through an eyepiece to do their research, and they believe that ASTRO 101 courses should also reflect this scenario.

I suspect that a question of should my students observe or not is actually a sub-question to a much larger, ongoing debate among the broader ASTRO 101 teaching community.  Specifically, should ASTRO 101 be more of an astrophysics course focusing on recent professional astronomy research results OR should ASTRO 101 be more focused on an amateur astronomy and night sky naturalist-style course?  I would argue that which side an instructor comes down on regarding student astronomical observing has more to do with what they themselves actually know about observing than one of a philosophical or pedagogical argument.

It is certainly true that not all astronomers, regardless of their degree, know how to run a telescope.  I’ve heard more than one of my colleagues humorously tell me about an astronomy colleague couldn’t find the Big Dipper if their life depended on it!  I wager that the degree to which someone supports using telescopes with real eyepieces is highly dependent on their own comfort and skillset regarding what might be called amateur astronomy.

One potential solution we have been pursuing is the degree to which we might be able to effectively use remote observing experiences successfully with ASTRO 101 students.  In this sense, remote observing is slang for students obtaining astronomical data from a telescope far from where they are located. To be more precise, professional astronomers typically distinguish between (i) “robotic observing,” where an observation plan is submitted to a telescope that then robotically and autonomously carries out the observing, and (ii) “remote observing,” where a telescope user is actually moving and controlling a telescope in a far-away place using an Internet-connection in real-time.  For my purposes, the distinction isn’t critically important to the debate.

Slooh remote telescopeThere are numerous opportunities for non-professional astronomers to access remotely controlled telescopes.  For $49, Slooh ( provides nearly unlimited access to telescopes taking pictures of any object you can point at from the Canary Islands or in South America.  Micro-Observatory’s Observing With NASA’s OWN project ( allows anyone to request images online which are effortlessly delivered to one’s email box the next day, using a variety of filters and exposure times along with user-friendly software.  Perhaps most promising, Los Cumbres Global Telescope Network ( is promising the community with relatively easy access to 1-m and 2-m class telescopes around the globe.  This is a purposefully, non-exhaustive list for sure, but gives you a range of ideas for what might be available.

Unquestionably, the broadly defined remote observing has great potential to dissolve many of the barriers related to those who work in learning environments where there are telescopes do not or cannot exist as well as working with students who cannot easily meet with their ASTRO 101 instructor in the evening.  If carefully structured, this might also be able to solve the rapidly growing large-enrollment class problem.  And most promisingly, looking toward the future where many more institutions will be moving their astronomy classes to online learning environments rather than face-to-face, remote observing in one form or another will be a necessary approach.  None of this solves a desire to have students “get outside and let a million or billion year old photon impact your eye,” but it is a step toward increasing the number of students who might have a chance to DO astronomy rather than just listen to someone lecture about it.Remote Control Telescope in Wyoming SkyTitan

More than this, the number of potential astronomy education research questions surrounding remote control telescopes are boundless. As examples, consider that we just don’t yet know: what students actually learn by looking through telescopes, let alone by looking at pictures in their textbooks; are eyepiece observing experiences a necessary step in the professional astronomy career pipeline; does looking through telescopes create misconceptions in students about how professional astronomers contribute to scholarly knowledge; and precisely which skills and attitudes do students gain by using telescopes?  And, is any of this age, gender, or culturally dependent? The list goes on and on, but I’ll pose my personal favorite research question flavor of the month, “What is the difference between a student looking at a beautiful picture of Saturn taken by the Cassini mission and their very own fuzzy image they took themselves by clicking a mouse at precisely the right time?”

We have had some good luck using online Internet databases to access the vast amount of astronomical data available, including the simulators that are getting better and better every year.  We have designed a series of labs for ASTRO 101 students using these databases in the form of backwards faded scaffolding labs used in “Engaging in Astronomical Inquiry” (Slater, Slater & Lyons, 2010)).  But, to be honest, the ASTRO 101 teaching and learning community hasn’t yet successfully figured out how to utilize remote observing in this pedagogical format.  My opinion is that this is a teaching and learning problem worth working on together.  It’s a big problem, so I suspect we’ll have to get their iteratively in small steps of progress.  How can you imagine using remote observing with your students, if you would at all?

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How to Find a College Astronomy Teaching Job

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research,

It’s no secret.  Teaching introductory astronomy at the college and university level is just plain fun!  I’ve been teaching ASTRO 101 for more than two decades and I love it more and more every year.  After spending six years as the Education Officer for the American Astronomical Society, I have probably been asked more than a hundred times, “how can I find a job teaching ASTRO 101?”  Allow me to tell you some of what I’ve learned.

Before I give you my step-by-step prescription for finding an astronomy teaching job, let me tell you about some of the rules of the game.  First of all, colleges and universities aren’t anything like K-12 schools in terms of the rules about who can and can’t teach courses.  For example, at a K-12 school, you might be a fluent and native French speaker, but if you don’t have the right undergraduate course credits on your transcript, you can’t even begin to teach French in most K-12 schools.  Colleges and universities-and many private K-12 schools-are totally different.  There are rules, but the rules are very different varying state to state; they are more like guidelines that flex, bend, break, and all too often dramatically change at a moment’s notice and are highly dependent on who is doing the interpreting and in which state you are applying for a job.  These changing guidelines sometimes work in your favor and sometimes do not, which can be very, very frustrating for the nascent ASTRO 101 job hunter.

If you want to get a job doing research in astronomy at a large university, you’re probably going to have to hold a Ph.D.  It doesn’t usually matter precisely in what field, but you do have to have the highest degree available, called the terminal degree.  At such an institution, you’re primary job is to conduct research and publish papers, but you can teach some ASTRO 101 along the way.  If you’re interested in that sort of job, there are other resources better than this one to help you find that sort of job (viz.  If, on the other hand, you don’t really want to do research as your primary activity, I do have some advice that might help you.

A Ph.D. in astronomy can help you get a job teaching ATRO 101, but you certainly don’t need a Ph.D. in astronomy to get a job teaching ASTRO 101.  In fact, according to a survey of college and university astronomy instructors by Andy Fraknoi (viz., only about 25% of ASTRO 101 teachers have degrees in astronomy at all.  Most people teaching ASTRO 101 have degrees in physics, rather than astronomy.  A non-zero number have degrees in geology, mathematics, and education.

There are two important truths to remember as you embark on an ASTRO 101 teaching job search.  The first is that most people who earn Ph.D.’s never go on to publish a single research paper in a refereed journal; rather, most become college faculty.  So, you can dramatically improve your chances at getting hired as an ASTRO 101 teacher if your vita looks like a someone who takes their teaching seriously by attending and presenting astronomy teaching ideas at conferences like the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s COSMOS in the Classroom, the American Association of Physics Teachers, the Society of College Science Teachers, and even the American Astronomical Society (this list is intentionally non-exhaustive and US-centric).  There are also conferences and workshops you can attend, and list of your vita that are evidence of a teaching focus, including those like CAPER CON (, CAE (, and even Chautauqua (

The second truth is that most ASTRO 101 courses in the US are taught by part-time, adjunct faculty.  In fact, most community college courses altogether are not taught by full time faculty at all.  With rare exceptions, part-time pay is terrible, but if you’ve got another source of income, part-time work is one way to get you an ASTRO 101 teaching fix. (viz.

In the end, there are a few large research-centric institutions who hire astronomy teaching experts as full-time, permanent faculty.  But those jobs don’t show up very often.  Much more prevalent are jobs at small liberal arts colleges, called SLACs, or community colleges, abbreviated here as CCs.  Community colleges often have much stricter rules about who can teach their courses than SLACS, because CCs are highly concerned about being sure that the larger neighboring universities will take their students’ transfer credits.  In general, the minimum requirement for a CC ASTRO101 instructor is to have 18 graduate credits in astronomy.  To complicate matters, “sometimes” 18 graduate credits in physics counts, and sometimes it doesn’t.  I’m not judging that this is a good policy or a lousy policy, just stating what I am told over and over by CC administrators.

If you really want to teach ASTRO 101, you need to look for institutions that enroll primarily undergraduates where you could mostly teach astronomy.  The bigger of the SLACs might want you to have a research program involving undergraduates if you can, and scholarship of teaching does sometimes count.  You’ll need a CV and a cover letter, and probably a one page description of your teaching interests and philosophy.  Don’t worry about this last one so much, as everyone’s reads the same and you can find lots of examples using Google.  Finally remember, although most jobs get posted in October, but it really is a year round search.

Now, where do you find these ASTRO 101 teaching job opportunities?  Fortunately, it is all done online these days. You’ll want to check them all weekly at a minimum.  Many of these job web sites even have a daily digest email service, which I’d highly recommend you signing up for.  I suggest searching these in the following order.

1.  PER Jobs:

2. Chronicle of Higher Education Jobs, and search keyword ASTRONOMY

3.  Higher Ed Jobs and search keyword ASTRONOMY

4. Physics Today (I’d probably browse them all rather than search astronomy)

5. AAS Job Site  .

I’m sure that there are other sites available, but these seem to be the ones where our graduate students have had the most luck.  As always, I’m interested in hearing about other places where ASTR101 people have had good fortune.

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Quick Start Guide to Creating Your First Distance Learning Course

In a concerted effort to make college courses more accessible to a larger number of students, many colleges and universities are urging, if not requiring, their faculty to teach online, Internet-based, distance learning courses.  Unquestionably, there is considerable and often heated discussion about the potential strengths and weaknesses of teaching over the Internet.  At the same time, I am certain that distance learning courses in one form or another are here to stay and a reality for most ASTRO 101 professors.  In that spirit, and with more than a decade of online teaching experience, I offer some brief suggestions for how to create and deliver your first winning distance learning ASTRO 101 course.

                As a departure point, the first thing you need to realize is how NOT to create a successful distance learning course.  The guaranteed, time-tested, reproducible formula for failure is to select a textbook, require students to individually email you answers to all the end-of-chapter questions, and give them a couple multiple-choice exams.  This approach is best known as the traditional correspondence course and has been used for decades by colleges and universities honestly trying to help bring higher education to students living in locations far from towns with campuses.  The recurring problem with this approach is that students work as isolated individuals, with few social connections with the instructor or with other students.  Perhaps surprisingly, if you have videos of you lecturing in front of a class, this doesn’t really help improve the situation at all.  Feeling all alone and disconnected, even the most motivated students struggle mightily.  As a result, such courses have only about a 10% completion rate.  Obviously, this is not the approach you want to replicate in your distance learning course. 

But, what else can one do?  It turns out you have plenty of options, perhaps too many.  One of the best strategies is to go talk to someone called an INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGNER in your institutions’ teaching and learning center.  These people often have extensive backgrounds in which options and approaches will best intellectually engage your students and, simultaneously, create a program that you can effectively manage without staying up all night working on it.  However, if you don’t have access to such a person, please allow me to provide you with a tactical approach that isn’t ideal, but will work.

First, you need to decide which topics you will cover.  It is perfectly reasonable to take the learning targets and syllabus of topics from a successful face-to-face course you’ve taught, and use them as your goals.  What won’t work, however, is simply to shovel your face-to-face course to the Internet and call it good.  And, you might someday need to argue to an administrator or skeptical colleague that your distance learning course covers the same concepts that your on-campus course does (research summarized elsewhere has shown that distance learning courses can be much better than on-campus courses, but rarely much worse when created using contemporary instructional design principles).

The next step is to find reliable and stable sources of information for your students.  This is critically important because you’re not going to be lecturing to them and, as a result, you’re not going to be the central and most important fountain of knowledge for your students.  For me, I use two books, supplemented by the occasional web site.  Primarily, I use a widely used textbook (which again helps me if I need to justify my course to an administrator or a skeptical colleague).  The best college textbooks are well written, reasonably accurate, have end-of-chapter questions, and utilize teaching and reading queues like bold-faced words, margin-notes, and highlighted things to notice which off-the-shelf trade books and most websites do not have.  Today’s students really do need these support systems to help them better comprehend textbooks; ignore these benefits at your own peril.  You’ll need to set up a precise reading and question answering schedule of work for the students – the more frequent and detailed the due dates, the better.  I’ve had great luck with two to three times per week as required milestones (Sunday night being the worst choice of seven days you could use).

The other book I use is a popular trade book of one kind or another that highlights the human side of the scientific enterprise.  I believe this is important because I don’t have the opportunity to tell humorous anecdotes or the extended dramatic stories of science that emphasize that science is done by humans, who have egos, frailties, friends, enemies, set-backs, cloudy-skies, exploded rockets on the Launchpad, and the like.  I believe these are important attributes to science that if our students appreciate, they could be more compassionate and supportive of science as tax payers.  Some of my favorite options for ASTRO 101 are: Brown’s “How I Killed Pluto,” Roach’s “Packing for Mars,” Thimmesh’s “Team Moon,” and Ferris’ “Coming of Age in the Milky Way.”  I intentionally provide a non-exhaustive list here.  Some folks have had great luck with science fiction stories and books, which I myself am just beginning to experiment with.  As a brief aside, I wouldn’t spend much time focusing on which science fiction movies have gotten the science dreadfully wrong; it offhandedly seems to me that novice students are still struggling with which science is accurate and that lousy science movies can be a distraction.  During the second third of the term, I create a highly structured reading schedule, with semi-weekly, required milestones and host an online, blog-style, asynchronous group with discussion questions I create where students are required to participate.

As a side note, I should point out that I haven’t found web sites to be particularly useful for reading assignments.  In a textbook, there are contemporary pedagogical tools that students need and can use.  In a trade book, although they rarely have pedagogical tools for students, the reader does get to know the author and the way the author tells a story.  In contrast, a series of websites can have a tremendous number of author voices, which novices find distracting, even if the websites are accurate and well done.  I’m not saying to exclude websites, but a web journey of 1,000 clicks over the semester doesn’t make a cohesive learning experience for most ASTRO 101 students.  I should point out, however, that, I do rely heavily on websites for current events information, such as a Mars landing or for space weather updates.

After selecting your information sources, probably a textbook with a highly structured reading and end-of-chapter assignment schedule and a popular astronomy trade book which highlights the human side of the scientific enterprise, along with a heavily structured “book club” style of online discussion occurring somewhere in the first two-thirds of the course, you’re ready to convert your course from acceptable to great.

The distance learning courses that students consistently rate highest are those in which the students feel like they are part of a non-competitive community of people trying to learn the material together.  This is one where the instructor intentionally and explicitly plays the role of a guide and a coach instead of a professor who is a superior know-it-all and who is out to trick them.  The other important attribute is that students rank courses highest in which they feel like they are different as a result of their work and didn’t waste their time doing busy work.  The mistaken idea that the easiest courses that give everyone an A also get the highest student evaluation ratings is a misleading urban myth.

In this class, you’re role is going to be one of making students believe you are deeply engaged, heavily invested, and passionately interested in their success.  To do this, you need to “be present” so that students do not feel isolated.  That doesn’t mean that you need to post a blog note everyday or send daily emails; on the contrary you need to give them space and time to grow and react to what they are learning without interference.  They key idea here is that you need to “appear” present.  Which means that when students fall behind, they get a personal email saying, “hey, what’s up? What can I do to help?”

Being present means that you respond to email.  You don’t need to check your email constantly, or even once a day.  But, it does mean that you tell students when to expect responses from you and you be sure that you respond.  One university I worked at had a policy that all student email is responded to within 24 hours; personally, I think this is silly.  The best teachers manage student expectations.  I tell my students that if they email me, they should expect a reply by Monday at midnight or Thursday at midnight.  That way, if they get a response from me earlier, it is a bonus.  And, if they don’t hear from me for several days, they aren’t worried.  I also give my students my personal cell phone number and tell them that if what they need is so urgent, it can’t wait until Monday or Thursday, to please call me, just not in the middle of the night.  Over thousands of students, I have never had a student abuse this privilege and, when students do call, I’ve found that it really is an emergency that I need to respond to and I would have needed to talk with them over the phone instead of by email anyway.  In the end, students just need to know that they will hear back from you and when and that seems to work perfectly.  At the same time, all time management strategists will tell you that if you constantly have your email on, you rarely get any meaningful work done.

To be successful teaching online, one of your primary goals must be to make sure that students do not feel isolated.  To help combat this, I purposefully try to build an online e-community.  I choose one juicy question each week that I know students in my face-to-face class have historically loved to debate and I require students to contribute meaningfully to the discussion.  I devise questions like, “Should your tax dollars go to fund a mission to Mars?,” If we were contacted by an advanced alien civilization, who should be appointed to speak on Earth’s behalf?,” What evidence do you have that the astrology column in the newspaper is accurate,?” and “If our class could devise a space mission to visit any one planet, which planet will we pick and why?”.  Many textbooks have discussion ideas included in their instructor’s manual or in the end-of-chapter material that can be really great starters.  Or, you can use short online video or news story prompts, if they are short and socially relevant to your students. But, be warned, the less the instructor appears in the discussion the better, because as the authority figure, you can unintentionally stop the conversation, so if you must interject, do so with open-ended, leading questions.

My last piece of advice won’t surprise those of you who I talk with frequently because it applies to all teaching environments.  Unquestionably, the way to guarantee a focused class where students really learn what it is that you want them to learn is to write your final exam before you design your class.  Write a challenging final exam that goes far beyond memorizing bold faced words but asks students to synthesize ideas – an exam you’d be really proud of the students if they got it right.  THEN, create a structured learning experience with frequent feedback that fully prepares students to do a great job on the final exam.  This not only results in a great course and experience for your students, but is a course you can be very proud of.

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research,

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