Dr. Brian Sato speaks about conducting research on teaching and learning at UCI. He is an Associate Professor of Teaching in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry.
How did you get interested in education research? What is rewarding about this research?
I got interested in education research because that was one of the expected components of the Lecturer SOE position that I was just hired into. While different from what I was used to, I quickly realized that I enjoyed the research, and that my prior training was actually quite applicable.
Thinking about higher education is quite interesting, because it’s something that we’ve all experienced and continue to be involved in, but if you take a step back and think about why we do what we do, there aren’t always obvious answers. What do those exam scores students earn really mean? Why is course X a prerequisite for my course? If you think about it, much of the system is structured as is because “that’s how it’s always been done”. This work allows us to test common assumptions and explore how we can make changes to improve the quality of education our students receive.
Teaching is something we’re all involved in, and by asking questions regarding your classroom and answering them with data, it’s possible to make your teaching a scholarly (and more interesting) endeavor much like your discipline-specific research.
What was your training?
I did my PhD and postdoctoral work studying cell biological processes in yeast and fruit flies. One of the great things about biology is that it overlaps with so many other disciplines (including education if we want to consider the neurobiology behind how we think and behave), so it is easy to find a connection with other people on campus.
My training in education research was mostly informal, although in broad terms, much of what I learned as a biologist was applicable, such as work with experimental design, data analysis, and manuscript preparation. I learned by reading STEM education or education journals (CBE-Life Sciences Education, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, etc), attending STEM education conferences (annual Society for the Advancement of Biology Education Research (SABER) conference, Undergraduate Biology Education Research Gordon Conference, and most STEM disciplines now have education programs in their annual meetings), and reaching out to colleagues in discipline-based education research or education positions with questions. I’ve also taken a few online courses through Coursera on statistics and data analysis using R. The more time I spend conducting education research, the more I’ve been expanding my reading of literature outside of the STEM education field to include more general education or psychology research.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m working on a number of things right now, both in and outside of the classroom. An in class example is an exam feedback process that I implemented in my large molecular biology course, where students have the opportunity to have an email conversation with me regarding one of their exam questions they answered incorrectly. We’re looking to see how participating in that process impacted the student’s understanding of the tested phenomenon. An example outside of the classroom is looking at the discrepancy between student performance on an exam question and their understanding. We assume that course performance is equivalent to understanding, but this is not often confirmed. A larger scale project is an assessment of a cohort program recently implemented for freshmen Biological Sciences majors. Along with Dr. Di Xu from the School of Education, we’re examining the impact of this program on student performance, attitudes, and ultimately retention within the major.
Where do you see your work going in the next five years?
I see my work going both towards the more basic research side, as I collaborate more with people in the education sciences, but also towards classroom-focused work as well, in particular the question of how does one facilitate institutional change in regards to teaching practices. The STEM education field is fairly convinced that in the hands of certain instructors, practices like active learning or implementation of high structure course formats, are beneficial for students, especially at-risk students. The question now is whether this is a phenomenon that can be replicated in the hands of a broader cross section of instructors, and if so, what are the necessary steps to convince these individuals to put in the time and effort to modify their practices. These are questions that I, along with others on campus, are interested in exploring so that UCI can continue to provide a top notch education for our students.