US experiences with STEM education reform and implications for Asia

Justin Fendos (Tan School, Fudan University, Shanghai, China)

International Journal of Comparative Education and Development

ISSN: 2396-7404

Publication date: 13 March 2018



The first indication that traditional lecture-style teaching is not very effective was provided by Dr Donald Bligh in the 1980s and 1990s. As empirical evidence about this fact has continued to accumulate, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in the USA has undergone a significant change in emphasis away from lecture-based approaches in favor of systems emphasizing more interactive learning. The paper aims to discuss this issue.


A wide range of experimental research has employed the principles of scientific teaching to investigate the efficacy of an ever widening range of pedagogical methods. For STEM education, the most successful of these has been active learning.


At its core, active learning is a redesign of in-class activities to maximize interactivity and feedback through facilitated problem-solving environments. Although the efficacies of both scientific teaching and active learning have been verified in a wide range of empirical works, the dissemination of these platforms, in general, teaching has been slow, even in the USA.

Research limitations/implications

The first significant impediment has been an overall lack of awareness coupled with general skepticism about alternative learning methods.

Practical implications

This paper first reviews the education literature behind scientific teaching and active learning before reviewing some of the challenges to their implementation on an institutional level.

Social implications

These challenges and known solutions are then applied to the European and East Asian contexts to examine why scientific teaching and active learning remain predominantly an American phenomenon.


For East Asian countries, the authors offer a commentary on how certain aspects of Confucian classroom culture may interact negatively with efforts to install scientific teaching and active learning systems.



Fendos, J. (2018), "US experiences with STEM education reform and implications for Asia", International Journal of Comparative Education and Development, Vol. 20 No. 1, pp. 51-66.

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited

1. What is scientific teaching?

The first sign that traditional lecture-style forms of teaching are less effective was provided by Dr Donald Bligh in the 1980s and 1990s. His work provided the first empirical evidence that lectures may not be a very effective mode of learning (Bligh, 1985, 1998). Given the entrenched nature of lecture use in higher education, it was not surprising to see his findings met with some skepticism and backlash (Wilson and Korn, 2007; Matheson, 2008). Nevertheless, subsequent work by a variety of authors has empirically confirmed that lectures are not the best practice for achieving a variety of important educational outcomes (McCarthy and Anderson, 2000; Niemi, 2002; Armbruster et al., 2009). This lack of efficacy was confirmed for knowledge learning (Laws, 1991; Sivan et al., 2000; Powell, 2003) and determined to be an even greater issue for skill learning (Hake, 2002; Handelsman et al., 1997; Pukkila, 2004). This latter result was especially worrisome in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education because the application of science knowledge, along with the development of laboratory and science process skills, is usually the most important goal (Roth and Roychoudhury, 1993; Harlen, 1999; Padilla, 1990).

As empirical data about the lack of lecture efficacy accumulated, science education in the USA began to undergo a noticeable shift in emphasis away from lecture-based approaches toward systems emphasizing more interactive learning methods (Hofstein and Lunetta, 2004; Alfieri et al., 2011). At the same time, these new methods began to motivate a shift in focus of class content away from simple knowledge-based materials toward skill training and cooperative learning (Petress, 2008; Machemer and Crawford, 2007). This was a very fruitful period that witnessed a convergence of findings from education research across disciplines, culminating in the seminal work by Jo Handelsman et al. published in Science. This work identified the importance of investigating educational efficacy by treating it like a scientific subject with carefully designed experiments that used quantifiable outputs to analyze learning outcomes (Handelsman et al., 2004; Miller et al., 2008). This process of treating the educational process as an experimental one was christened in the title of the science paper as scientific teaching.

Since this groundbreaking work, a wide range of experimental research has employed the principles of scientific teaching to investigate the efficacy of an even wider range of learning systems and pedagogical techniques (Ebert-May and Hodder, 2008; Pfund et al., 2009). For STEM education, two of the more important discoveries were the usefulness of employing discovery-based inquiry (Quitadamo et al., 2008; Reynolds and Caperton, 2011) and the effectiveness of learning through group discussion (Osborne, 2010; Millis, 2010; Ferreri and O’Connor, 2013). Both of these methods were found to significantly enhance student engagement as well as improve learning gains. The use of group discussion was found to be particularly powerful in promoting cooperative learning through enhanced feedback (Petress, 2008; Machemer and Crawford, 2007). The use of technology was another topic studied closely, resulting in discoveries that showed the usefulness of personal response systems (Hoffman and Goodwin, 2006; Gauci et al., 2009; Pierce and Fox, 2012). The development of techniques to help students better approach the primary literature has been another significant improvement (Hoskins et al., 2011; Kozeracki et al., 2006). In recent years, these discoveries have been used in different combinations to demonstrate widespread improvements in student outcome and learning goals in STEM education, both in the classroom (Labov et al., 2010; Udovic et al., 2002) and on the institutional level (Freeman et al., 2014).

2. What is active learning?

As mentioned above, many of the pedagogical techniques empirically derived through scientific teaching have been combined in various ways. For STEM education, the most successful of these combinations has been active learning (Petress, 2008; Machemer and Crawford, 2007). At its core, active learning is essentially a redesign of in-class activities to maximize interactivity and feedback through facilitated problem-solving environments (Ebert-May et al., 1997; Taraban et al., 2007). By combining group discussion with discovery-based inquiry, active learning concentrates in-class time on the application of knowledge while simultaneously maximizing the effectiveness of cooperative learning between students (Bot et al., 2005). This cooperative effort is frequently enhanced by controlling the physical considerations of the learning space as well as providing technological implements such as personal response devices (Hoffman and Goodwin, 2006; Gauci et al., 2009; Pierce and Fox, 2012). These implements have the collective effect of making the learning space student-centered instead of instructor-centered.

A critical aspect of active learning is found in the concept of “reverse design” or a “flipped classroom” (Jensen et al., 2015; Stone, 2012; Bishop and Verleger, 2013). In a traditional lecture-based learning environment, in-class activities consist of lectures in which the instructor is introducing or explaining new knowledge to students. In this environment, out-of-class activities usually consist of problem sets or activities that require the student to apply the knowledge they have learned in lecture. In STEM fields, the importance of these problems sets is usually paramount since problem-solving skills are usually what the students are tested on in exams. The problem with this format is that students tend not to receive feedback or assistance from instructors when learning how to perform the task that is arguably more important: problem solving. This creates the unfortunate situation in which students must learn problem-solving strategies by themselves. This is compounded by the fact that students tend to only remember about 5-10 percent of what they are told in a lecture (McCarthy and Anderson, 2000; Niemi, 2002; Armbruster et al., 2009), forcing many to have to learn large portions of the lecture content by themselves in addition to the problem-solving strategies.

In active learning, the shortcomings of traditional lecture format are remedied by flipping or reversing the activities that take place in-class as opposed to out-of-class. In this system, the delivery of knowledge content occurs outside of class, through assigned readings or lecture videos (Abeysekera and Dawson, 2015; Tune et al., 2013). Problem-solving activities then become the predominant in-class element. Not only does this inverted format bring the more difficult and more important of the two tasks under the direct supervision of instructors, it also allows for the learning and practice of skills in an environment constructed using inquiry-based and group discussion principles, enhancing the amount of direct feedback between students and other students as well as the amount of feedback between students and instructors (Auster and Wylie, 2006; Armbruster et al., 2009). This reorganized environment significantly improves learning outcomes and student engagement (Jensen et al., 2015; Stone, 2012; Bishop and Verleger, 2013), again putting the needs of the student at the center of pedagogical design.

Many strengths and advantages to active learning have been empirically determined through scientific teaching. Significant improvements in learning gains are, of course, the most basic and most important. Whereas students in a lecture will typically only remember about 5-10 percent of what is taught, a properly implemented active learning environment can improve this retention of knowledge to 70-80 percent (Haak et al., 2011; Freeman et al., 2011). This substantial improvement in learning gains can be observed directly in higher student grades when compared to lectures (Yoder and Hochevar, 2005; Armbruster et al., 2009) as well as statistically significant improvements in the level of interest and engagement (Smith et al., 2009; Martyn, 2007). These improvements in interest and engagement have been shown to have direct consequences on the retention of students in STEM majors (Braxton et al., 2008; Crosling et al., 2008), which tend to have much higher dropout rates than other fields of study. In short, the implementation of active learning systems not only can directly impact what occurs in classrooms but also result in improvements on an institutional level (Freeman et al., 2014).

3. The importance of assessments

One of the critical ingredients that have allowed such significant improvements in student performance through active learning is the development of a wide range of assessment tools for quantifying different educational outcomes (Stiggins and Chappuis, 2005; Stiggins et al., 2004; Bennett, 2011). Some of these tools have been very basic and straightforward, such as those used to quantify knowledge retention (Heritage et al., 2009; Shepard, 2005; Cox et al., 2014) or skill competence (Griffin and Care, 2014; Gormally et al., 2012; Dasgupta et al., 2014) in specific subjects. Not only have these tools been essential for establishing the need to empirically investigate pedagogy, they have also served as the basis for quantifying learning efficiency (Ebert-May and Hodder, 2008; Pfund et al., 2009).

A large number of other assessments types have also been critical in establishing a broader understanding of how students respond to different teaching techniques. The most influential of these have been the tools used to gauge student attitudes about classes, instructors, teaching techniques, or curricula (Semsar et al., 2011; Preszler et al., 2007). Although these attitude assessments can be considered less empirical because they are self-assessments, the data accrued have nonetheless been invaluable in establishing what students prefer, allowing for a direct window into student psychology. This work has been very important in giving rise to customizable learning systems in which different learning methods are employed to teach different types of students, even when the subject remains the same (Valenta et al., 2001; Suanpang et al., 2004). The optimal application of preferred group work dynamics has been shown to be different when students are working on different types of academic tasks (Hassanien, 2006; Orr, 2010; Zhang et al., 2008). One of the surprising results from this collective body of work has been the realization that the same teaching technique may not necessarily work the same for every student group, necessitating a certain degree of discretion and experimental determination to decide which methods might be the best to employ, yielding obvious implications for promoting inclusive learning (Lage et al., 2000; César and Santos, 2006; Scott et al., 2007).

In some ways, the incredible explosion of development of new assessment tools, especially those capable of making statistically significant determinations, has been one of the most impressive achievements of scientific teaching (Yarime and Tanaka, 2012; Shriberg, 2002). The continued development of new assessments, especially those designed to measure skill competence or process skill ability, remain at the forefront of educational research, particularly in the STEM fields (Kogan et al., 2009; Scalese et al., 2008). In recent years, the importance of distinctions in skill competence has been a common theme to emerge. For example, the fact that a student can properly define a given scientific principle or property does not necessarily guarantee that the same student will be able to apply the knowledge in solving a problem. This distinction has spawned an important divergence of assessment tools, each specifically designed to measure different levels of understanding and competence along delineations that closely follow the modes of thinking outlined in Bloom’s pyramid (Wood, 2004).

Perhaps the most important overall conclusion resulting from the wealth of scientific teaching literature resides in the fact that a mere explanation is not enough to convey knowledge from instructor to student. A variety of instructors, across disciplines, often cling to the misconception that explaining something once or twice is enough for students to remember that information accurately over time (Tiwari et al., 2006; Sinclair and Ferguson, 2009). The many results from scientific teaching research definitively show that the process resulting in long-term retention of information usually involves students applying the new information in some way, often more than once, a goal that active learning specifically tries to achieve (Ebert-May et al., 1997; Taraban et al., 2007). This requirement for application in obtaining true mastery can be observed in almost self-evident form in Bloom’s pyramid, which depicts a clear hierarchy of thinking in which recognition and definition precede the abilities to apply and analyze (Klymkowsky et al., 2003; Jeffries and Huggett, 2014). From the perspective of developing laboratory or science process skills in STEM fields, it can be no surprise that these higher order functions require more time and more exposure to obtain (Wood, 2004).

4. Authentic research experiences (ARE) vs cookbook lab courses

In STEM education, classes are generally separated into two types: lecture classes, where knowledge content is delivered, and lab classes, where skill practice is supposed to take place. Along similar lines with traditional lecture-style teaching, most traditional lab courses are designed in ways that make them less efficient and less useful for long-term retention of information and skill competence. One of the reasons why is because traditional lab courses are designed like cookbooks with everything explained beforehand and nothing new left for students to discover (Brownell et al., 2012; Longo, 2011). This creates two basic problems. The first is found in the simple fact that a cookbook-style lab course is a poor representation of a real research environment. In a real research environment, many things are not known and success is often dependent on how the researcher responds to these unknown elements. If a lab course does not contain such unknown elements, it becomes a poor practice ground for developing a wide range of research skills such as troubleshooting or experimental design.

Another issue has to do with the lack of inquiry-based learning in a traditional cookbook lab. As mentioned in previous sections, inquiry-based approaches can be very successful in improving student learning gains and enhancing student engagement (Quitadamo et al., 2008; Reynolds and Caperton, 2011). In STEM fields, one of the aspects driving this engagement is found in the desire to discover new things. Students who choose STEM majors are often motivated by the intellectual stimulation obtained by solving problems and making discoveries. The place where students usually anticipate they will get to experience more of this stimulation and discovery is lab classes. However, a traditional cookbook method tends to leave students disappointed with their expectations since everything is already explained in advance, with even the results of the experiments fully described before ever stepping foot in the lab (Gooding and Metz, 2012; Volkmann and Abell, 2003). This disconnect between student expectation and actual experience threatens engagement and interest in the topics at hand.

To remedy this issue, a number of universities including Yale and Stanford have developed redesigned lab courses that give students greater ownership over the process of lab skill learning, affording them the chance to make decisions about their experiments, which give rise to real discoveries they can learn from (Tomasik et al., 2013; Spell et al., 2014). The most successful of these lab designs has been the ARE. An ARE is a lab course designed around real research questions that give students the opportunity to make decisions about their experiments within the context of a real scientific question. For example, students may be asked to predict how different concentrations of a given reagent may affect the output of their experiment. With this prediction in hand, students are then allowed to design a series of conditions to test in effort to prove or disprove their hypothesis.

The first advantage of an ARE is found in the fact that it allows students to practice skills that are needed in real research, skills that would otherwise be absent in a cookbook format (Cuthbert et al., 2012; Edwards et al., 2012; Makarevitch et al., 2015). As mentioned above, designing hypotheses, making experimental decisions, and troubleshooting are some of the common tasks that students are allowed to practice. This practice not only provides students the chance to think about experiments in a real simulation of scientific discovery, but it also gives students greater ownership over the lab activities, stimulating their desire to discover and satisfying their expectations about the enjoyable aspects of intellectual pursuit.

If designed correctly, AREs can also be employed as real platforms for generating scientifically meaningful experimental results. This is accomplished by allowing students to perform real experiments that an actual research lab might want to know the results of. At Fudan University in Shanghai, a large-scale ARE called BIOS[1] has recently been implemented in just this fashion. The BIOS program is a summer ARE consisting of six tracks: biochemistry, cell biology, fly genetics, fish genetics, mouse genetics, and plant biology. Students participating in the program receive training in two subject areas over the course of eight weeks. The experiments performed by students not only train them in a variety of laboratory methods but some of the results are also authentic, of use to real research labs. Since the experimental methods employed in each track are directly related to research conducted in these real labs, the BIOS program doubles as an organized apparatus to train undergraduate students who can obtain the necessary competences to join these labs.

5. Challenges to implementing scientific teaching

Although scientific teaching and active learning have been studied and confirmed in a wide range of empirical works, the dissemination of these two platforms in general teaching has been slow, even in the USA (Anderson et al., 2011). The first significant impediment has been a general lack of awareness of the two systems and their virtues (Niemi, 2002). In the USA, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the National Academy of Sciences have taken the lead in advocating for the expanded use of scientific teaching and active learning in STEM education, especially at the post-secondary level. HHMI has been especially active in supporting training programs and scientific teaching education development through various investments worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The most significant and well received of these training programs has been the “Summer Institutes on Scientific Teaching,” an annual circuit of regional training conferences designed specifically to spread awareness of scientific teaching and active learning by training faculty in the implementation of each (Pfund et al., 2009).

Another significant barrier has been skepticism. Most instructors and faculty, regardless of field of study, have learned from and used lectures almost exclusively for their entire academic careers, seldom exposed to even the possibility of there being alternative pedagogical techniques. These experiences have resulted in an entrenched reluctance on the part of many to adjust their teaching and accommodate for newer methods. Across disciplines, younger instructors, post-doctoral associates, and graduate students have generally been observed as being more receptive to the possibility of trying new things, but even these receptions have often required the implementation of systematic support such as organized training programs, mentorship, and peer feedback to result in properly implemented scientific teaching and active learning systems (Wieman, 2007). Even when this systematic support is provided, it remains a simple truth that the vast majority of instructors in the USA, both post-secondary and otherwise, are generally unaware of scientific teaching, active learning, and their associated advantages.

For research-oriented academic institutions such as research universities, this issue of awareness is magnified by the way in which new faculty are recruited. In the vast majority of cases, supreme emphasis is placed on the research accomplishments of each candidate. This emphasis generally leaves teaching experience and philosophy as secondary considerations in the overall hiring process (Bush et al., 2006). This is despite the fact that most faculty salaries are still paid through income derived from student tuition, tuition that is paid with the expectation of receiving teaching services. Faculty promotions and compensation are similarly dependent primarily on research achievement, something even more pronounced in the STEM fields. Aware of these difficulties, HHMI has invested a lot of resources and time to incentivize the adoption of scientific teaching and active learning (Prince et al., 2007) but these efforts have remained insufficient to bring about wider change outside of a few, specifically targeted academic settings.

6. A “roots up” approach

Another important space that HHMI has actively targeted with some success is the graduate student and post-doctoral training process itself (Boyle and Boice, 1998; Nerad, 2004). Traditionally, this training process has been focused almost exclusively on research production, benchmarked by the publication of high-impact journals: for STEM, in SCI journals. The typical science PhD program does, of course, usually contain teaching requirements of two or more semesters. The problem is that this requirement is rarely accompanied by an organized effort or curriculum that provides specific training in pedagogical techniques. It is this empty space that HHMI and others have begun to target by instituting training infrastructure for scientific teaching and active learning. Not only does this infrastructure allow for an earlier exposure to the possibility of alternative teaching methods, it also provides an important vantage point for bringing about education reform in a “roots up” approach by targeting the instructors and faculty of tomorrow while avoiding direct confrontation with the entrenched skepticism of those more established (Austin and McDaniels, 2006).

In tandem with the targeting of future instructors, another important effort for bringing more scientific teaching and active learning to classrooms has involved the construction of teaching faculty rosters staffed with instructors recruited specifically for their teaching abilities. The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, has been one of the more significant institutions involved in this effort, employing “teaching professors” specifically dedicated to teaching classes using scientific teaching and active learning methods[2]. Much like the “roots up” approach of influencing new faculty, the teaching professors at the University of Minnesota generally oversee classes at the introductory level. This has the effect of exposing students earlier to the benefits of classes designed using scientific teaching and active learning, creating expectations for similar implementations in upper-level courses.

Through HHMI funding, the University of Minnesota has also installed training programs for post-doctoral fellows to apprentice in the introductory courses led by teaching faculty. This allows the introductory courses to double as a training ground for future instructors. In a direct reflection of the hands-on approach of active learning and AREs, these introductory courses allow the post-doctoral fellows to get first-hand practice in implementing and executing scientific teaching and active learning designs while receiving guidance and feedback from the teaching professors (Labov, 2004). At Fudan University, the BIOS program is implemented in a very similar way. Instead of post-doctoral fellows, it is graduate students who work alongside trained peers and faculty to learn and practice the use of scientific teaching and active learning designs.

7. Scientific teaching outside the USA

The issues of awareness and skepticism observed in the USA are, unfortunately, even more pronounced in other countries. In Europe, for example, a centralized institution like HHMI has yet to take up the mantle of scientific teaching, supporting its dissemination through educational reform. Although general knowledge about flipped classrooms and reverse design has appeared in some European countries along with the sporadic implementations of group work activities and technology use in countries such as Germany (Tolks et al., 2016) and the Netherlands (van Vliet et al., 2015), the vast majority of education research published using scientific teaching and active learning principles remains of US origin, leaving much room for improvement.

The state of affairs in East Asia is very similar. Despite enjoying a very positive reputation for competence in science, countries such as China, Japan, and South Korea have yet to make progress on an institutional level by promoting widespread adoption of scientific teaching and active learning systems. In East Asia, the concepts of a flipped classroom and reverse design are still relatively new (Jinlei et al., 2012), with the highest frequency of use observed in Hong Kong (Lo and Hew, 2017; Kong, 2014; Wong and Chu, 2014) and, to a lesser degree, mainland China (Hwang et al., 2015; Lai and Hwang, 2016). Although a number of empirical studies have been conducted to confirm the overall efficacy of flipped classrooms in these settings, this application has generally been limited to the level of individual classes. Hong Kong, in many respects, has been the exception, with several academic institutions now pursuing institution-level reforms (Cheng et al., 2017; Lo and Hew, 2017), sometimes through the foundation of teaching and learning centers, a trend modeled off of identical developments in the USA (Lieberman and Miller, 2008).

One of the major issues with the proper implementation of flipped classrooms on a wider scale in East Asia has been a general lack of understanding of why flipped classrooms work and how they are a complementary element of other components in the active learning system (Lo and Hew, 2017; Joanne and Lateef, 2014). This misunderstanding has given rise to various education reform efforts in which instructors unfamiliar with scientific teaching and active learning principles have attempted to implement flipped classrooms in isolation, only to suffer disappointments and poor learning outcomes because they do not adequately understand the larger context governing their use (Han, 2013). Coupled with the lack of an institutional support entity like HHMI, East Asia remains a prime region of opportunity for implementing additional scientific teaching reform.

8. Confucian classroom culture influences

In East Asian countries such as China, Japan, and South Korea, an important consideration is the presence of a strong classroom culture rooted in Confucian beliefs. Taking South Korea as the example, the basic structure of the modern South Korean education is very western in design (Sung and Lee, 2017). However, actual interactions within the classroom are very Confucian (Shin, 2012). In simple terms, these classroom interactions are defined by two key characteristics: high levels of instructor authority and high levels of student obedience. Nonverbal immediacy is used as a common measure to quantify these types of interactions. When compared with US peers, Korean instructors have been shown to exhibit much lower levels of nonverbal immediacy (Park et al., 2009) despite the fact that high levels of nonverbal immediacy have consistently been correlated with higher levels of student satisfaction in many different academic contexts (Pogue and AhYun, 2006; Zhang, 2006; Jaasma and Koper, 1999). Since this Confucian classroom culture persists today, one must ask how it may interact with efforts to implement education reform through scientific teaching.

Despite the strong prevalence of Confucian classroom culture, foreign faculty residing in South Korea appear not to adopt aspects of the local classroom culture even when teaching in Korea for long periods of time (Ghazarian and Youhne, 2015). Significant differences between Confucian and western classroom culture have been described in some detail in a recent work studying the mannerisms of Korean and Dutch instructors in class (van de Grift et al., 2017). Several interesting conclusions were derived from this work, including the idea that Dutch instructors were more adept at “creating safe and stimulating” learning environments while Korean peers were better at “teaching learning strategies.” This latter detail is consistent with the observation that Korean instructors not only teach class content but also tend to dictate the ways in which students should learn (Shin, 2012), reinforcing instructor authority in the class.

One of the interesting things about Korean classroom culture is that Korean instructors appear to suffer from “protective vulnerability” (Song, 2016) despite their higher levels of authority. This vulnerability is characterized by the cultural expectation that any instructor should be a complete master of their subject. This expectation generates a strong cultural pressure for instructors to know everything within their area of expertise, resulting in shame when this expectation fails to be realized. Recent work (Song, 2016) has demonstrated how this pressure is capable of promoting classroom environments in which student questions and creativity are discouraged because they have the potential to challenge the limitations of instructor knowledge. According to this work, this discouraging effect can take place through both active and passive routes. In the active route, instructors directly and openly admonish students for challenging assertions made by the instructor in class, reinforcing the established social hierarchy in favor of instructor authority. In the passive route, instructors are less involved in directly rebuffing students. Instead, a general, unspoken cultural understanding prevails in which students accept the idea that instructors should not be questioned. This cultural understanding indirectly protects instructor vulnerability while discouraging student interactions with them.

From the perspective of implementing active learning and scientific teaching designs, high levels of instructor authority are likely to make entrenched skepticism about alternative learning methods even more powerful. In addition, student feedback, which is often used as a key driver of reform in many of the US efforts described above, is likely to experience diminished effectiveness, making it even harder to convince established instructors to consider alternative pedagogical techniques. In light of these considerations, the importance of a “roots up” approach will likely become even more important when attempting to implement large-scale education reform in countries with strong classroom culture characterized by high levels of instructor authority. Since many of these countries also tend to exhibit strict hierarchies based on seniority with senior instructors endowed with more authority than junior instructors, reform efforts targeted toward junior faculty are likely to experience additional difficulties, pointing to the need for a strong institutional authority to overcome these additional challenges.

9. Concluding remarks

A few items in the literature have suggested that flipped classrooms may be less practical or useful for East Asian students compared to their western peers (Lin and Chen, 2016; Han, 2013; Zhong et al., 2013). Given the many unique aspects of Confucian classroom culture, this possibility remains a complex and important issue to work out. The few head-to-head comparisons between traditional learning and flipped classrooms conducted in East Asia have generally favored flipped classrooms (Lo and Hew, 2017; Lin and Chen, 2016), although there are also assertions that a combination of lecture and flipped might be better (Westermann, 2014; Berrett, 2012).

Regardless of the staying power of traditional lectures, one must expect the implementation of scientific teaching and active learning to continue to increase globally. This is especially true, given the empirically verifiable nature of scientific teaching and the potential advantages of active learning. Put differently, these two systems likely embody some important components of next generation pedagogy: characterized by being empirically derived, adaptable, engaging, and student-centered.

If the challenges and accomplishments experienced in the USA are meant as any guide, one of the critical elements required for wider implementation resides in the presence of an official institution that offers support for dissemination, both intellectually and monetarily. A complementary “roots up” approach to instructor training also appears to be the most successful for maximizing the effectiveness of this support, both in terms of affecting the most people and being the best investment long-term. In addition to institutional support, additional challenges may arise through the unique cultural circumstances of each country, requiring additional considerations to be employed.

Although implied repeatedly but never stated explicitly, a central advantage of scientific teaching and active learning is their applicability to nonSTEM classes and curricula. The basic concepts of using empirical methods to derive the efficacy of a specific teaching technique and the employment of group work and problem-solving environments are concepts easily transferable to classes in virtually any academic setting. In fact, this cross-disciplinary application has already begun to take place across grade levels with active learning systems being used to teach science to students of all ages (Pierret et al., 2012). Simply put, the opportunities presented by scientific teaching and active learning remain very tangible, especially in Europe and East Asia, where education is often held in high societal regard. Whether these concepts are applied to STEM or other academic subjects, at the end of the day, whenever such reforms arrive, the greatest beneficiaries will be the students.



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Further reading

Freeman, S., O’Connor, E., Parks, J.W., Cunningham, M., Hurley, D., Haak, D. and Wenderoth, M.P. (2007), “Prescribed active learning increases performance in introductory biology”, CBE-Life Sciences Education, Vol. 6 No. 2, pp. 132-139.

Milman, N.B. (2012), “The flipped classroom strategy: what is it and how can it best be used?”, Distance Learning, Vol. 9 No. 3, p. 85.

Roehl, A., Reddy, S.L. and Shannon, G.J. (2013), “The flipped classroom: an opportunity to engage millennial students through active learning”, Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, Vol. 105 No. 2, p. 44.

Corresponding author

Justin Fendos can be contacted at:

About the author

Justin Fendos is the Associate Director of the Tan School of Genetics at Fudan University in Shanghai, China as well as a Professor and the Director of Undergraduate Studies at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea. He earned his PhD Degree at Yale and is a Teaching Fellow in the US National Academy of Sciences. His main areas of research are science education, language learning, education policy, education psychology, and education software development. Justin is most interested in understanding how learning can be altered by experiential differences and employs data-driven approaches such as scientific teaching and active learning in his work.