Tag Archives: ASTRO 101

Capturing ASTRO 101 Students Attention with Naked-PPT

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, tslater@caperteam.com

Notwithstanding unexpected technical difficulties, I can remember the only time I’ve seen an astronomer intentionally teach for an hour without support from a writing board or a projector, computer, overhead transparency, or slide carousel; if you haven’t guessed it already, it was Harvard’s astronomy historian, the legendary Professor Owen Gingrich. So, we are taking it as an initial boundary condition that compassionate ASTRO 101 professors are going to use some visual support as a consistent strategy to get students information about your class.  I’m not advocating any particular commercial tool; however, so that I have a shorthand notation for the general concept of some projected visual, I’ll hereafter use the commonly recognized abbreviation for MS PowerPoint, PPT.

We already know that you definitely don’t want use PPTs that have too many words, too small of figures, distracting transitions and animations, or insufficiently contrasting colors.  You’ve endured too many of those yourself at professional science conferences.  But, the question at hand really is what about your PPT will help improve your course evaluations?  In other words, what will enhance students’ perception that you want to help students learn and that you follow an organized pathway?  Fortunately, purposefully designed PPTs can dramatically help here.

As a first step, let’s review the basic rules of what does and does not help on a PPT.  You might be thinking to yourself that you already know all of these things, but a quick tour through your building peaking in on other professors’ classes or wandering through scientific conference presentations should remind you that we can all forget the basics too often.

When faculty conduct surveys of what students do and don’t like about their professor’s PPT slides, they universally plea for professors to stop reading their PPTs to students.  Really.  Beyond that, consider the following:

Students DON’T like Students DO like
Too many words Short phrases to copy
Animated images Easy to read graphs
Unnecessary animations Slowly increasing  complexity of graphs
Inconsistent format Short video clips
Too many colors Consistent use of colored font for emphasis

Here is a place where a review of your materials from a confidential, critical friend can help.  A critical friend is the one-person you can depend on who will take time to quietly let you know when you have spinach stuck in your teeth or that you embarrassingly mistyped something in that ranting Department-wide email-memo you are about to send.  This person does not necessarily need to be at your institution, and perhaps it is better that they are not. But it needs to be someone you respect as an equal as well as a confidant. If you don’t have a critical friend, you need to start nurturing such a relationship so you have someone with which you can exchange your PPTs with to check for problems one of you might have missed.

The basic time-tested guidelines for PPT your critical-friend should check are:

  • No hard to see colors
  • No more than six lines of text
  • No more than six words per line
  • No complete sentences
  • No adjectives
  • No punctuation

The problem with projecting complete sentences is that students have been long conditioned to write down everything on the PPT, no matter how much you beg them to do otherwise.  This includes the capital letters starting the sentence, illustrative adjectives & adverbs, and punctuation at the end. We promise you that you do have the unexpectedly large amount of your limited each week available to allocate toward teaching your students how to effectively and efficiently take notes in addition to teaching astronomy.  You could staunchly maintain that college students should already know how to take notes and it isn’t your responsibility to teach them how, but then you’ll likely demonstrate to your students that you aren’t actually interested in helping them learn.  In other words, a wise professor wouldn’t unnecessarily provoke sleeping bear on this one, especially if the bear also completes end of course evaluations.

The notion of avoiding complete sentences on your PPT is part of the broader teaching strategy not overwhelming students.  You probably wouldn’t be surprised if we reminded you that learners cannot learn from a spouting fire hose of information drenching them with as many facts as possible.

Although the PPT-experts say you should avoid unnecessary pictures, we would argue otherwise. PPTs that only contain bullet points are as monotonous as some of those memorable professors you had in graduate school.  Pictures, even if gratuitous, serve to break up the boredom potential.  Regardless, you should always talk about the images you project.  Unlike you, novice astronomy students do not readily know what an image is or what is important about it.  Students also won’t have any sense of scale, even if a tiny legend is embossed across the bottom.   We’ll talk about where to find pictures for your PPT and how best to use them later in this chapter.  However, we need to talk about organized systems to get information to your students using PPT a bit more.

A perennial question among professors is whether or not to provide students with photocopies of your PPT, or if they should be provided online.  The first order argument for distributing them early is that students can allocate their scarce class time attention to annotating the PPTs rather than furiously taking complete notes of their own.  There are obvious advantages to this, not the least of which is ensuring you actually have your notes done more than 60-seconds before class starts. This also means that students who miss class or didn’t successfully copy down all of the PPT’s information have a back-up information system.

A contrasting perspective is that students won’t be motivated to come to class if the PPTs are available elsewhere.  We have to agree with the students on this one; if the only reason students have to come to class is to get information to memorize from the PPT, why go to class at all?  The numerous bloggings on this website are specifically designed to counteract this notion:  Your class time should be so well organized and carefully designed to be so incredibly valuable that your students wouldn’t imagine missing it in their wildest dreams.  If that’s not motivation enough to keep reading this book, we don’t know what would be!

If you do decide to distribute the PPT to students, we recommend that you strategically remove key information that students need to fill in.  Many professors find providing what we affectionately call Naked-PPT to be highly effective.  More formally known in the formal science teaching literature as “guided notes”, these are PPT with key information removed and replaced with a blank line for students to complete themselves.



PPT Displayed for Class PPT Given to Students
Definition of a Planet Definition of a Planet
1. orbits a star 1. orbits a _____
2. enough mass to become spherical 2. enough _____ to become spherical
3. dominant object in its orbit 3. dominant object in its _____


The underlying thinking here, confirmed by systematic education research, is that the process of students’ actively dressing the Naked-PPT during class will keep students more attentive.  Moreover, changing your PPT into Naked-PPT is takes just a few seconds.  First, complete and save your PPT presentation that you’ll be presenting in class.  Second, save your final presentation a second time with a new name, adding –Naked.ppt to the end of the name. In this Naked-PPT version remove one or two vital pieces of information from some of the slides. As a word of _______ here, don’t go overboard and remove too much information. You only need to add a few blank lines here and there to make strategy this work like a charm.  Removing too much information will make students perceive you are trying to trick them into coming to _______ by withholding information they need to succeed, which they will resent and report when they fill out your end-of-class _______ forms. Finally, distribute this Naked-PPT version to your students instead of the version you present during class.  It works with images too!

  Naked-PPT Slide

The process of creating fill-in-the-box images is surprisingly easy.  All we have done to create the example shown is insert rectangle shapes over some of the targeted words and filled them with white.

Another strategy engaging teachers use is to slowly increase the amount of information on their PPT.  Like the potentially provocative label Naked-PPT, in the old days professors would call this strategy by an equally lewd name, the ‘stripping transparency.’  The strategy then was to cover most of your projected information with an opaque piece of paper, and slowly reveal information as it was needed by the students.

Stripping Transparency - Naked PPT

The thinking in those days past, which is still applicable today, was that students would hurriedly write down everything on the screen before listening to anything the professor had to say and, in the process, miss the first half of the professor’s lecture.  This is because most students  can not listen and write at the same time, so the tactic was to limit what students had available to copy at any one time.  Today, the strategy is to use the Animate function in most PPT computer programs to slowly dispense information.  Adopting some version of this yourself is probably a wise choice for your presentations.


Definition of a Planet Definition of a Planet Definition of a Planet
1. orbits a star 1. orbits a star 1. orbits a star
2. enough mass to become spherical 2. enough mass to become spherical
3. dominant object in its orbit


Not only does this work well for bullet lists, but it also works well when teaching with images.

No matter how you use PPT, most professors find creating PPT to be an enormously time consuming task that effectively crowds out the more important aspects of teaching students to love astronomy.  This is especially true if you are a perfectionist.  The truth is that students don’t notice or appreciate whether or not your slides are perfect.  We recommend that you adopt the perspective that 80% good is good enough.  This isn’t so you have extra time to get to the golf course; instead, we want you to use all your available teaching-innovation energy to implement the interactive teaching strategies in the other pages on this blog.

You might be surprised to learn that nearly complete PPT sets already exist for your class.  Most book publishers have already paid someone to work really hard creating PPT sets for each chapter (they’ve also created test-item libraries, among other valuable resources).  Typically, these PPTs already use images from your selected book and have the most important vocabulary included.  If this isn’t enough, there are also PPT repositories online for all topics that are uncovered by Internet searches.  Moreover, you can even use PPT sets designed from other books. If you don’t know where to find these, call your book’s publisher and marketing representative who will enthusiastically share the many resources they’ve created.  By all measures, none of these PPTs you’ll find are close to perfect, nor are these tightly aligned to the specific teaching you want to do. These are, however, sufficiently good starting places to adapt to your own teaching, especially if you adopt“80% good is good enough so there is ample time to improve other parts of class” thinking.


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How to Use Video Most Effectively in #ASTRO101

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, tslater@caperteam.com

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 http://astronomy.facultylounge.whfreeman.com/ 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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Educational Underpinnings of Backwards Faded Scaffolding and Engaging in Astronomical Inquiry

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, tslater@caperteam.com

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 http://groups.yahoo.com/group/bfs-labs.  There is even a YouTube video on backwards faded scaffolding http://www.youtube.com/user/CAPERTeamTube. 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 www.caperteam.com (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: https://astronomyfacultylounge.wordpress.com/

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: http://www.caperteam.com

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, tslater@caperteam.com  

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 http://www.youtube.com/user/CAPERTeamTube.

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 www.caperteam.com (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: http://www.caperteam.com

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, tslater@caperteam.com

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 www.caperteam.com (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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How to Find a College Astronomy Teaching Job

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, tslater@caperteam.com

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. http://theprofessorisin.com/).  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. http://dx.doi.org/10.3847/AER2004002), 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 (http://www.caperteam.com), CAE (http://astronomy101.jpl.nasa.gov), and even Chautauqua (http://calchautauqua.net/).

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. http://www.nfmfoundation.org/).

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:  http://perjobs.blogspot.com

2. Chronicle of Higher Education Jobs, http://chronicle.com/Jobs and search keyword ASTRONOMY

3.  Higher Ed Jobs   http://higheredjobs.com and search keyword ASTRONOMY

4. Physics Today   http://careers.physicstoday.org/jobs (I’d probably browse them all rather than search astronomy)

5. AAS Job Site  http://jobregister.aas.org/  .

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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