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What happens in STEM school classrooms?

In 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, members of the S3 team visited 134 classrooms at 12 different S3 schools. Demographic information about these classrooms can be found here. After learning about the variety of instructional practices that STEM schools use, we wanted to see how they look in action. We examined the following strategies, which were identified by STEM school leaders as essential to their school models.

Classroom Behaviors Findings – Overview & Demographics

Data was collected at 12 inclusive STEM high schools across the country: one school each in Ohio, California, and North Carolina; two schools each in Tennessee, Washington, and Ohio; and three schools in Texas. Half of the observations were of classrooms comprised of a relatively equal number of males and females, and mostly white students. We observed all grade (9-12th grade) and achievement (i.e., regular-level versus advanced placement classrooms) levels. Lessons that were observed were on average 75 minutes long and had 21 students present. We primarily observed teachers and students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subject lessons; of these, 36 (42%) were math classes, 35 (41%) were science, 8 (9%) were engineering, and 6 (7%) were technology.

Types of courses chart Gender composition chart
Course levels chart Race composition chart
Grade levels chart
Cognitive demand icon

Cognitive Demand: Teachers facilitating and students engaging in thinking and processing skills, including considering alternative arguments or explanations, making predictions, interpreting their experiences, analyzing data, explaining their reasoning, and supporting their conclusions with evidence.

Autonomy and Risk Taking icon

Autonomy and Risk Taking: Teachers facilitating and students demonstrating independence in and ownership of their learning, as well as skills such as organization and self-regulation, and stepping outside of their comfort zones (intellectually and emotionally).

Connections Between Students and the World Outside School icon

Connections Between Students and the World Outside School: Teachers and students making connections between the lesson and real-world experiences, current events, and/or students’ lives.

Integration of disciplines icon

Integration of Disciplines: Teachers and students making connections between and across disciplines.

Student Cooperation and Teamwork icon

Student Cooperation and Teamwork: Teachers facilitating and students working with one another in meaningful ways.

Customization of Learning icon

Customization of Learning: Teachers tailoring instruction for their students, based on their interests and abilities.

When observing classrooms, we rated the presence of these instructional practices (whether they occurred or not), as well as our impressions of their quality as good, fair, or poor. Poor ratings were given when the implementation of the given instructional practice did not meet our definitions or where there was an opportunity to incorporate an instructional practice that was not capitalized on. Here, we compare only classrooms that received poor versus good impression scores in order to highlight differences across the widest range in our sample. For more detail on our observation process, click here.

All lessons were observed by S3 team members (six team members served as observers) using a structured observation form that asked them to rate and describe various aspects of classroom instruction and student behavior. Teachers being observed were asked to conduct their class as they typically would. To ensure that the observation form was being used consistently across each observed lesson, eight classrooms (6% of the overall sample) were observed by two members of the research team. Results of the inter-rater reliability analysis comparing the accuracy of the ratings across observers rating the same classroom indicate that the form was being implemented effectively. Cognitive demand, student cooperation and teamwork, and customization of learning behaviors had the highest reliabilities across observers; autonomy and risk taking, and connections between students and the world outside school behaviors had moderately high reliabilities across observers.

The pie charts below show the percentage of lessons in our sample that received poor and good impression ratings on each classroom instructional practice. Click on a pie chart to see how often the behaviors in that instructional practice took place in each of these types of lessons. Some key takeaways and a note on technology use in classrooms are shown to the right; a graph showing the presence of these instructional practices in lessons rated overall as good or poor appears below the pie charts.

Impression of instructional practices across all observed classrooms

Impression of cognitive demand pie chart Impression of autonomy and risk taking pie chart
Impression of integration and disciplines pie chart Impression of real-world connections pie chart
Impression of cooporation and teamwork pie chart Impression of customizationa and learning pie chart
Cognitive demand icon

Cognitive Demand

In classrooms receiving a good impression of cognitive demand rating, students appeared challenged, engaged in discussions with other students and teachers, and were asked and able to support their conclusions with evidence. Classrooms where teachers and students participated in these behaviors, as well as behaviors characteristic of the scientific method (such as making hypotheses or predictions and analyzing data), were rated more favorably than classrooms where these behaviors were not present.

Teacher asks students to analyze data chart Teacher asks students to reason and support their conclusion with evidence chart
Teacher asks students to make hypotheses or predictions chart Teacher actively challenges individual students chart
Students analyze data chart Students explain their reasoning and support conclusions with evidence chart
Students make hypotheses or predictions chart Students appear challenged chart
Students are actively engaged in the classs chart Students engage in discussion with the teacher chart
Students engage in discussion with other students chart
Autonomy and Risk Taking icon

Autonomy and Risk Taking

Many inclusive STEM high schools focus on student-directed learning, which can include independent learning, students making meaningful decisions in their learning, and students pushing themselves outside their comfort zones. When observers rated autonomy and risk taking received, they most frequently reported 1) teachers encouraging students to take risks when they do not understand a topic and 2) students working without teacher input.

Teacher gives students opportunities to make choices that significantly shape their learning experiences chart Teacher encourages students to figure out answers on their own chart
Teacher allows students to work without teacher input chart Teacher encourages students to answer questions when they are unsure chart
Teacher encourages students to ask questions if they don't understand something chart Students make choices during the course of the lesson chart
Students take initiative to use resources available to them to complete their work chart Students ask questions when they are unsure chart
Students answer questions even when they are unsure chart
Integration of disciplines icon

Integration of disciplines

Integration of disciplines was present at very low levels across all lessons (rated both good and poor for integration), but was essentially non-existent in classrooms receiving a poor impression score for the practice. This suggests that interdisciplinary learning may be challenging for teachers to implement for a variety of reasons. Teachers integrating material from multiple subjects and asking students to think about the connections between courses, when observed, were linked to good impressions. Lessons in which students made these connections themselves also received higher ratings of discipline integration.

Teacher points out connections between the content of the lesson and other disciplines chart Teacher asks students to think about how the content of the lesson relates to other disciplines chart
Teacher asks students to apply what they've learned in another discipline to the lesson chart Students point out/relate connections between the content of the lesson and other disciplines chart
Connections Between Students and the World Outside School icon

Connections between students and the world outside of school

Connections During Classroom Lessons Was Low Across All Classrooms, but was especially absent from classrooms receiving a poor impression of real world connections. This again suggests that while this practice is valued by many STEM schools, it may be among the more difficult for teachers to implement in practice. We also observed a fair amount of overlap between teachers encouraging or making connections to the real world and/or students’ lives and students pointing out these connections themselves. This suggests that students’ making these connections is often actively facilitated by teachers.

Teacher connects the lesson or activities to students' lives chart Teacher encourages students to think about the relationships between the lesson content and the real world chart
Students point out connections between the lesson and their personal lives chart Students point out connections between the lesson content and the real world/current events chart
Student Cooperation and Teamwork icon

Student cooperation and teamwork

Students having the skills to work collaboratively and communicate with each other was cited by many of the S3 schools as an important piece of their models. In our observations, active collaboration, such as students helping one another, listening to other students, voicing one’s opinions appropriately, and working on a task collaboratively, separated classrooms receiving poor and good impressions.

Teacher encourages students to collaborate chart Lesson is organized so that students must work together chart
Teacher encourages students to communicate with each other chart Students assist other students with their work chart
Students listen to one another when working in groups chart Students work together collaboratively chart
Customization of Learning icon

Customization of learning

Customization of learning allows students’ interests to be met, but also structures the way the classroom lessons are delivered so that all students can learn at the appropriate pace needed to maximize their abilities. Interestingly, there was less of a clear relationship between the presence of the specific strategy of teachers providing one-to-one or small group assistance and observers’ ratings of customization. One reason for this may be that although this practice was very commonly observed, it was not viewed by observers as sufficient to truly address students’ unique needs.

Teacher structures lesson/activities to incorporate different students' interests chart Teacher structures lesson/activities to accommodate different students' needs chart
Teacher adjusts instruction based on student understanding/student responses chart Teacher gives one-to-one or small group assistance when students need it chart

Overall lesson ratings and presence of instructional practices in lessons

Each lesson was also given an overall rating of good, fair, or poor. Of the lessons observed, 41 (67%) were rated as “good” and 20 (33%) received a “poor” rating.

The bar chart below shows the presence of the seven instructional practices we focused on in lessons rated good vs. poor.

Classroom behaviors bar chart

Key takeaways

Most observed lessons received good impression scores for cognitive demand, autonomy and risk taking, and cooperation and teamwork.

Raters’ impressions of integration of disciplines and connections to students’ lives and the real world were mostly poor across classrooms.

This means that we did not see many examples of integrating disciplines or real-world connections, and/or that when we did, they were perfunctory. This was particularly noted for integration of subjects. These strategies may be more difficult for teachers to implement in classrooms, compared with commonly used strategies such as student cooperation and teamwork, student autonomy and risk-taking, and facilitation of cognitively demanding work.

In approximately half of the observed classes, customization of learning was rated as “good.”


Technology use in classrooms

Technology was commonly cited by school leaders as a critical component of STEM schools. We looked at technology use in our classroom observations—both basic (such as iPads, laptops, smartboards, etc.) and skill-based (such as robotics, engineering or design software, advanced lab equipment, etc.) technology. Across classrooms, we saw basic technology used very frequently, primarily in the forms of students using technology to conduct research, take and organize notes, and sometimes collaborate (e.g. via Google docs), and teachers using technology in presenting information to students. While we frequently saw technology being used at “substitution level” (i.e., technology is used to perform tasks that could be done without technology, like reading or note-taking), we saw much less rich technology use (technology used in novel, innovative ways, bringing new experiences to the classroom). A good resource for considering technology integration is the SAMR framework.

In addition, we rarely saw skill-based technology use—this was rated as present in only 21 of the 134 observed lessons. Given the emphasis we hear on technology use in STEM schools, we expected to see high levels of both basic and skill-based technology in classrooms, and to see that technology used in meaningful ways; from our observations, this is an area of potential continued growth for STEM schools.

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