University of Michigan faculty, staff and administrators gathered to discuss educational research that seeks to improve student learning within specific disciplines at the Provost’s Seminar on Teaching.

The seminar Wednesday focused on the scholarship developed through Discipline-Based Educational Research — which combines knowledge of an academic discipline with research questions that seek to understand and enhance student learning within that discipline.

Email for more about the Michigan Discipline-Based Educational Research Community.

“Faculty are looking at the direct impact of their teaching on student learning, or they are undertaking theoretically grounded examinations of the nature of disciplinary learning more broadly,” said Matthew Kaplan, executive director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, which organized the seminar with the Office of the Provost.

Seminar guests learned about the Michigan Discipline-Based Educational Research Community, known as MDBER and founded by Ginger Shultz, assistant professor of chemistry, and Tracy de Peralta, clinical associate professor of dentistry.

Shultz and de Peralta each have developed programs of educational research, and thought there should be a network within U-M to better connect those involved in this scholarship. The MDBER community now has 67 members and includes faculty and staff of all ranks from units across the university.

Photo Tracy de Peralta and Ginger Schultz
Tracy de Peralta (left), clinical associate professor of dentistry, and Ginger Shultz, assistant professor of chemistry, discuss the Michigan Discipline-Based Educational Research Community they founded. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)

In her keynote address, Cornell University associate professor Michelle K. Smith said she conducts research investigating teaching and learning within biology.

She discussed several projects she conducted at the University of Maine, as well as research conducted at six universities across the country. One research project helped faculty institute short-answer questions in large introductory courses to evaluate student understanding of material.

“(Discipline-Based Educational Research) is important because we want students to have a wonderful experience of college and grow,” Smith said in an interview. “But in the past, we didn’t always know how that growth was happening.”

“So just like in your lab, you would make decisions based on data, how can we collect accurate data that represents the class, and then allows you to make decisions for your teaching? The goal is that we have science classes and other classes that are more interesting to students. They feel more of a sense of belonging because we’ve thought about equity and inclusion issues.”

Participants attended three break-out sessions on topics that included stages of educational research projects, different research methods to examine learning that is difficult to measure, and making space for this form of scholarship within one’s professional portfolio.

Photo of a breakout session
Seminar participants meet in one of the three break-out sessions. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)

In one session, faculty, staff and administrators discussed some of the barriers to conducting this research, such as a lack of clarity about how this work fits into traditional promotion and tenure guidelines, determining if teaching innovations work when students change every semester, and finding capacity to execute experiments.

For faculty interested in conducting educational research, LSA Associate Dean for the Humanities Anne Curzan said faculty need to understand their departments and the role this type of research plays in their units.

“For those of us who are senior, we need to think about how we change culture,” said Curzan, Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English Language and Literature, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, professor of English language and literature, and linguistics; and professor of education.

“If you’re in a department that is struggling to value this kind of work … and we want our department to value it, then we have to own the capital that we have and be looking at the criteria for reviews so that we’re part of change.”

Amy Homkes-Hayes, assistant director of academic program development in the School of Information, noted the integral role staff could play in efforts to understand, study and enhance student learning.

“Of course we want to center faculty in that because they’re the folks doing the teaching and ensuring the learning, but I also think there’s a great opportunity to have staff at that table informing, or at least supporting, the faculty and playing a role in not only how we do the teaching and learning, but also how we study it,” she said.

At the end of the seminar, guests were advised to apply for funding for research on teaching and learning, offered through the Vice Provost for Global Engagement and Interdisciplinary Academic Affairs.

Awards range from $500 to $1,500 and applications are due June 15. For more information, email