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Improvement Science Applied to Improving College Courses: Learning From 17 Years of Work

Sun, April 7, 8:00 to 9:30am, Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Floor: 800 Level, Room 801A


We will describe what we have learned about continuously improving the quality of mathematics courses for elementary pre-service teachers. Looking back over our work with colleagues begun in 2001, we identify five major decisions that determined the nature and success of this work and that we believe are relevant to other settings engaged in improving classroom teaching. Our goal is to elaborate these decisions and present results on course improvement.

Theoretical Framework:
Although we were not fully aware of Improvement Science when we began this work, the process that was defined by our decisions is fully consistent with this framework. Indeed, the decisions we made helped us operationalize the principles of Improvement Science as a theory of action: select shared, stable, realistic learning goals; design shared, detailed lesson plans from which all instructors teach; use lesson plans as repositories of knowledge (as well as prescriptions for teaching); test changes to lessons using multiple data sources on pre-service teachers’ achievement of shared learning goals; and focus on teaching, not teachers, to remove the egos of individual instructors and shift everyone’s attention to hypothesizing improvements to lesson plans.

We conduct cycles of Planning lessons for each course session, Doing or implementing the lessons, Studying their effectiveness for pre-service teachers, and Acting to revise the lessons and insert what we learned about effective implementation. PDSA cycles have been conducted on different targeted lessons in each of two mathematics courses every semester for the past 17 years. Faculty and doctoral students in mathematics education are instructors for all sections of each course and instructors of the same course meet weekly to pre- and re-view lessons as well as plan data collection and analyses.

Data Sources:
Specially designed lesson-specific clicker items, common course assessments, and class observations, often by multiple instructors, constitute primary data sources. Analyses are conducted to test hypotheses generated by the previous semester instructors regarding lesson improvements and to generate additional hypotheses for future instructors.

The quality of the courses has been improving incrementally but steadily over time based on pre-service teachers’ achievement of the course learning goals. Longitudinal data show that pre-service teachers who learn the mathematics deeply in these courses, as freshmen, retain and use this knowledge up to four years post-graduation.

“Practice-focused research” following principles of Improvement Science can improve classroom teaching in gradual and lasting ways. We conjecture that the five decisions we made while conducting this work reveal critical aspects of applying Improvement Science to classroom teaching. We will elaborate these decisions and present results of this work in our poster presentation.


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