National Academies Press: OpenBook

Science Teachers' Learning: Enhancing Opportunities, Creating Supportive Contexts (2015)

Chapter: 9 conclusions, recommendations, and directions for research.

Conclusions, Recommendations, and Directions for Research

In many ways, the message of this report is a simple one: all students deserve to understand and enjoy science, and helping teachers offer rich instruction will require building similarly rich learning environments for all science teachers. Creating such environments entails creating meaningful formal professional development programs and other opportunities for teachers to learn, as well as implementing policies and practices in schools that nurture cultures of learning for teachers and students alike.

As simple as this message may seem, the proverbial devil is in the details. As the new vision for the science education of K-12 students set forth in the Next Generation Science Standards (hereafter referred to as NGSS) and A Framework for K-12 Science Education (hereafter referred to as the Framework) has evolved, it is one that engages students in learning scientific and engineering practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts. To achieve this new vision, teaching and learning in science classrooms will need to change, and so, too, will professional learning opportunities for teachers. This chapter summarizes the committee’s major conclusions and recommendations for effecting the needed changes, which are based on the evidence reviewed in this report and on the committee members’ collective expertise. We begin with the conclusions that flow directly from the analyses of existing literature in each chapter. We then lay out a set of conclusions the committee drew after looking across these analyses.


In reviewing the available research related to issues of contemporary science teacher learning, the committee drew a series of interrelated conclusions:

Conclusion 1: An evolving understanding of how best to teach science, including the NGSS, represents a significant transition in the way science is currently taught in most classrooms and will require most science teachers to alter the way they teach.

This vision of science learning and teaching draws on a long tradition of reform in science education that has emphasized the need for all students to learn significant disciplinary core ideas, coupled with scientific and engineering practices that are part of inquiry. In addition, the vision emphasizes the need to integrate knowledge through crosscutting concepts. To teach science in these ways, teachers will need to move away from traditional models of instruction that emphasize memorizing facts and covering a large number of discrete topics, focusing instead on core ideas, studied in depth, through active student engagement in investigations and opportunities to reflect on and build scientific explanations for phenomena.

Conclusion 2: The available evidence suggests that many science teachers have not had sufficiently rich experiences with the content relevant to the science courses they currently teach, let alone a substantially redesigned science curriculum. Very few teachers have experience with the science and engineering practices described in the NGSS. These trends are especially pronounced both for elementary school teachers and in schools that serve high percentages of low-income students, where teachers are often newer and less qualified.

Although professional development is available to all teachers, the committee found no evidence that elementary, middle, and high school science teachers have adequately rigorous opportunities to learn content related to the courses they teach, the new vision of science education, or how to teach to that new vision in challenging and effective ways. Instead, professional development appears to be more piecemeal, with few—if any—opportunities for the majority of teachers to engage in sustained study of science, scientific practices, and effective science instruction. High school teachers have some of these opportunities, while middle and elementary school teachers, who themselves may not have had much preparation in science and science teaching in their initial teacher prepa-

ration experiences, have fewer. Again, this situation is most pronounced in schools that serve high percentages of low-income students, and in which teacher turnover is especially high, leading to a less experienced and qualified workforce.

Conclusion 3: Typically, the selection of and participation in professional learning opportunities is up to individual teachers. There is often little attention to developing collective capacity for science teaching at the building and district levels or to offering teachers learning opportunities tailored to their specific needs and offered in ways that support cumulative learning over time.

While teachers in U.S. schools are required to participate regularly in professional development, mandated professional development tends to be generic, with little attention to systematically meeting the needs of science teachers. Many teachers pursue their own learning, taking summer professional development courses, volunteering to participate in curriculum development and/or review, working with preservice teachers, or taking on the role of professional developer or instructional coach. However, these individual pursuits are seldom linked to a well-articulated theory of teacher learning over time or a systemic vision of how to develop individual and collective teacher capacity.

Conclusion 4: Science teachers’ learning needs are shaped by their preparation, the grades and content areas they teach, and the contexts in which they work. Three important areas in which science teachers need to develop expertise are

  • the knowledge, capacity, and skill required to support a diverse range of students;
  • content knowledge, including understanding of disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts, and scientific and engineering practices; and
  • pedagogical content knowledge for teaching science, including a repertoire of teaching practices that support students in rigorous and consequential science learning.

The set of professional knowledge and skills that informs good teaching is vast. Central to this knowledge base are the knowledge and skill needed to teach all students, mastery of science and science practices, and understanding and skill in teaching science. The committee acknowledges that there are other domains of knowledge equally essential to effective science teaching, and chose to focus on these three as there is considerable science-specific research on how these domains enable high-quality

teaching. The capacity to teach all students science depends on teachers’ respect for and understanding of the range of experiences and knowledge that students from diverse backgrounds bring to school, and how to capitalize on those experiences in crafting rigorous instruction. Knowledge of the sciences one is assigned to teach, of how those sciences are related to one another and to other fields like engineering, and knowledge and skill in how best to teach students science also are essential to high-quality instruction as envisioned in the NGSS and Framework.

This new vision of science teaching and learning will require new learning on the part of all teachers in all of these domains. The knowledge that students bring with them from their families and communities that is relevant to disciplinary core ideas, scientific and engineering practices, and crosscutting concepts is an area yet to be fully explored. In general, many teachers have had limited opportunities to engage in scientific and engineering practices themselves, much less to explore them in connection with the disciplinary core ideas and crosscutting concepts that animate the new vision. New curricula and instructional experiences will need to be crafted—with input from and the active engagement of teachers themselves—to bring that vision to life in U.S. classrooms. The knowledge demands of this new vision will require that the entire community—science teachers, teacher educators, professional developers, and science education researchers, as well as institutions of higher education, cultural institutions, and industry all of which invest in professional development—to create new, ongoing opportunities for teachers to rise to these new standards and to document what they learn from their efforts along the way.

Conclusion 5: The best available evidence based on science professional development programs suggests that the following features of such programs are most effective:

  • active participation of teachers who engage in the analysis of examples of effective instruction and the analysis of student work,
  • a content focus,
  • alignment with district policies and practices, and
  • sufficient duration to allow repeated practice and/or reflection on classroom experiences.

The national interest in the power of professional development to enhance teacher quality has led to considerable investments in such programs and in research on what makes them effective. While the goal of linking professional development to student learning outcomes through

research remains somewhat elusive, a great deal has been learned from the careful work of researchers and professional development leaders who have iteratively built professional learning programs for teachers. More research remains to be conducted in this area, but the research in science education, as well as mathematics, suggests that professional development of sufficient duration to allow teachers to deepen their pedagogical content knowledge and practice new instructional methods in their classrooms can lead to improved instruction and student achievement. Hallmarks of high-quality professional learning opportunities include focus on specific content that is aligned with district or school curriculum and assessment policies, as well as the proactive and professional engagement of teachers are hallmarks of high-quality professional learning opportunities.

Conclusion 6: Professional learning in online environments and through social networking holds promise, although evidence on these modes from both research and practice is limited.

The potential to use new media to enhance teacher learning is undeniable. Social networking and online environments hold promise for meeting the “just-in-time” learning needs of teachers, and for providing access to science expertise and science education expertise for teachers in schools and communities that lack rich resources in these domains. While these areas have yet to be fully explored by teacher developers and science education researchers, the committee sees considerable potential for these resources as research accumulates concerning their effective use.

Conclusion 7: Science teachers’ professional learning occurs in a range of settings both within and outside of schools through a variety of structures (professional development programs, professional learning communities, coaching, and the like). There is limited evidence about the relative effectiveness of this broad array of learning opportunities and how they are best designed to support teacher learning.

Recently, there has been increasing commitment to creating schools where both students and teachers can learn. This heightened interest in “embedded professional learning” can take many forms, including professional learning communities; professional networks that reach across districts, the state, or the country; induction programs for early-career teachers; and coaching and mentoring for teachers wishing to improve their practice. Since teachers spend the majority of their professional time in classrooms and schools, it seems wise to capitalize on efforts to design

settings that support their professional learning, both individually and collectively and to expand research in those settings.

Conclusion 8: Schools need to be structured to encourage and support ongoing learning for science teachers especially given the number of new teachers entering the profession.

A growing body of research documents the generative conditions established for teacher learning when schools foster collective responsibility for student learning and well-being. However, the evidence base related to learning opportunities for teachers in schools and classrooms is weak, especially with regard to science. This, too, appears to be an area with too much potential to ignore. In particular, building school infrastructure that systematically develops the science and science teaching expertise necessary to engage all students meaningfully in the new vision embodied the Framework and NGSS can work proactively to ameliorate differences between schools that have ready access to such expertise and those that struggle to connect with it.

Conclusion 9: Science teachers’ development is best understood as long term and contextualized. The schools and classrooms in which teachers work shape what and how they learn. These contexts include, but are not limited to school, district, and state policies and practices concerning professional capacity (e.g., professional networks, coaching, partnerships), coherent instructional guidance (e.g., state and district curriculum and assessment/accountability policies), and leadership (e.g., principals and teacher leaders).

Teachers’ capacity to teach science well over time is intimately related to the environments in which they teach. The policies and practices that shape instruction vary from teacher evaluation to curriculum and accountability to teacher assignment. For example, teachers cannot teach science courses that do not align with their preparation. Nor is it productive for the feedback teachers receive concerning their annual evaluations to run counter to messages about effective science instruction embodied in curriculum policies.

Conclusion 10 : School and district administrators are central to building the capacity of the science teacher workforce.

Conditions in schools and districts can create contexts that allow teachers to take better advantage of professional learning opportunities both within the workday and outside of school. These conditions might

include, for example, required professional development time and other learning opportunities designed to foster better understanding of how to teach the redesigned science curriculum. Administrators can direct resources (e.g., location of teachers, scheduling of classes, materials budget) toward science and teachers’ learning in science. They also can send messages about the importance of science in schools. As instructional leaders, they need to understand the vision for science education in the Framework and NGSS and align policies and practices in the school to support this vision.

Conclusion 11: Teacher leaders may be an important resource for building a system that can support ambitious science instruction. There is increasing attention to creating opportunities for teachers to take on leadership roles to both improve science instruction and strengthen the science teacher workforce. These include roles as instructional coaches, mentors, and teacher leaders.

Expertise in both science and pedagogy in science is an important component of building capacity in schools and districts. The development of science teacher leaders can be an important mechanism for supporting science learning for all teachers. The range of new roles for teacher leaders—lead teacher, curriculum specialist, mentor, collaborating teacher, instructional coach, professional development leader—holds considerable potential for enhancing the science teacher workforce. Not only do these teacher leaders engage in advanced study of science and science teaching themselves, but they also take on roles that involve helping fellow teachers learn. Such leaders can guide school- or district-based professional learning communities, identify useful resources, and provide feedback to teachers as they modify their instructional practices. While little research exists on the effects of these leaders on teacher learning more generally, the committee sees these new roles as a potentially powerful mechanism for improving science teacher quality collectively.

In addition to the above conclusions, all of which are drawn from chapter-specific analyses, the committee drew two additional conclusions based on the big picture emerging from these related, but separate analyses.

Conclusion 12: Closing the gap between the new way of teaching science and current instruction in many schools will require attending to individual teachers’ learning needs, as well as to the larger system of practices and policies (such as allocation of resources, use of time, and provision of opportunities for collaboration) that shape how science is taught.

The committee’s view of science teacher learning is both individual and collective. That is, we see science teacher learning as an issue of building the capacity not only of individual teachers, but also of the science educator workforce more generally, particularly the capacity of science teachers in a school or district. The demands of schooling are such that distributed expertise is essential and building capacity across a group of teachers needs to be the goal. In addition, enhancing the collective teacher workforce is not simply a matter of ensuring that teachers, individually and collectively, have the necessary knowledge and skill. It is also necessary for schools, districts, school networks, and states to develop practices and policies including teacher hiring and retention, teacher evaluation, curriculum and accountability guidance, and school staffing and school/district leadership that enable good science teaching. Contexts shape the work of teaching, and enhancing science instruction in the United States will require new policies as well as well-prepared teachers.

Conclusion 13: The U.S. educational system lacks a coherent and well-articulated system of learning opportunities for teachers to continue developing expertise while in the classroom. Opportunities are unevenly distributed across schools, districts, and regions, with little attention to sequencing or how to support science teachers’ learning systematically. Moreover, schools and districts often lack systems that can provide a comprehensive view of teacher learning; identify specific teacher needs; or track investments—in time, money and resources—in science teachers’ professional learning

This is not a new observation, but it is a continuing problem. Despite a wealth of opportunities for science teacher learning offered in schools and districts and through cultural institutions and industry—ranging from summer institutes to research apprenticeships to curriculum development to Lesson Study—the majority of the nation’s science are impoverished in terms of targeted, coherent, aligned, and cumulative opportunities to enrich their understanding and practices in teaching all students challenging science. Piecemeal approaches have not redressed this well-established problem.

New incentives and investments to redesign/restructure science teachers’ learning opportunities in schools, districts, school networks, and partnerships are needed. In particular, leadership by administrators at the school and district levels is critical to promoting and supporting the enabling conditions for science teachers to learn. Teacher leaders also play a critical role in these efforts. Approaches for elementary, middle, and high schools may need to vary, but in every case, school systems need ways to identify the myriad opportunities that exist for teacher learning, when and under what conditions these opportunities are aligned with one

another, and how scarce resources can best be used to maximize opportunities for teacher learning and growth.


Teachers matter, but they do not work in a vacuum. Their ability to elevate students’ scientific understanding depends on the schools, districts, and communities in which they work and the professional communities to which they belong. The recommendations below are intended to address the issues identified in the conclusions with particular attention to the ways that the current education system needs to be changed in order to support teachers’ ongoing learning as they respond to the demands placed by current reforms in science education.

Here, we focus on how schools and school systems (such as districts or charter networks) can improve the learning opportunities for science teachers. Focusing on this level of the system is essential, given the important roles played by principals and teacher leaders in connecting the rhetoric of visions such as that embodied in the Framework and NGSS to the realities of how teachers and students spend their time. Below we offer some specific recommendations for practices and policies we view as necessary to enhance ongoing teacher learning. Because the research base in this area is so uneven, often lacking science-specific studies related to the issues raised in this report, we think that these recommendations go hand-in-hand with research needs, and we offer recommendations for meeting these needs later in this chapter.

The following recommendations are not intended to be in chronological order—Recommendation 1, for example, does not have to be carried out first. Indeed, a plan for acting on recommendations toward the goal of enhancing science teacher learning to meet student learning goals is needed, and that plan might entail acting on a small number of recommendations, ordered in a way that capitalizes on current practice and policy and accelerates change.

In an ideal world, all these recommendations would be implemented. But in the real and complex world of schooling, it is important to start with one recommendation, building momentum, and with a long term goal of acting on the full set. Equally important is that acting on these recommendations will require additional resources (money, material, time, and personnel) or significant shifts in priorities. Such tradeoffs are inevitable, but investing in the individual and collective capacity of the workforce is essential to the improvement of science teaching in the United States. Finally, the committee presumes that acting on these recommendations

will require the engagement of teachers, teacher leaders, and administrators as partners in creating strong systems of science teacher learning.

Recommendation 1:

Take stock of the current status of learning opportunities for science teachers: School and district administrators should identify current offerings and opportunities for teacher learning in science—using a broad conceptualization of teacher learning opportunities, and including how much money and time are spent (as well as other associated costs). Throughout this process, attention should be paid to the opportunities available for teachers to learn about

  • approaches for teaching all students,
  • science content and scientific practices, and
  • science pedagogical knowledge and science teaching practices.

When identifying costs, administrators should consider both traditional professional development time and other supports for learning, such as curriculum, teacher evaluation, and student assessment/accountability. Given differences in the learning needs of elementary, middle, and high school teachers, expenditures and time allocations should be broken down by grade level and by school and district level. Plans to address any inequities across classrooms or schools should be developed with an eye toward policies and practices that will equitably distribute teacher expertise and teacher learning opportunities across the system.

Recommendation 2:

Design a portfolio of coherent learning experiences for science teachers that attend to teachers’ individual and context-specific needs in partnership with professional networks, institutions of higher education, cultural institutions, and the broader scientific community as appropriate: Teachers and school and district administrators should articulate, implement, and support teacher learning opportunities in science as coherent, graduated sequences of experiences toward larger goals for improving science teaching and learning. Here, too, attention should be paid to building teachers’ knowledge and skill in the sciences and scientific practices, in science pedagogical content knowledge, and in science teaching practices. It is critical to support teachers’ opportunities to learn how to connect with students of diverse backgrounds and experiences and how to tap into relevant funds of knowledge of students and communities.

District personnel and school principals, in collaboration with teachers and parents, should identify the specific learning needs of science teachers in their schools and develop a multiyear growth plan for their

science teachers’ learning that is linked to their growth plan for students’ science learning. Central to this work are four questions:

  • In light of our school’s/district’s science goals for our students, what learning opportunities will teachers need?
  • What kinds of expertise are needed to support these learning opportunities?
  • Where is that expertise located (inside and outside of schools)?
  • What social arrangements and resources will enable this work?

Using a variety of assessments/measures designed to provide the kind of concrete feedback necessary to support (teacher and program) improvement, school principals, in collaboration with teachers and school partners, should regularly consult data form such sources as (teacher observations, student work, and student surveys or interviews) to assess progress on the growth plan. It will also be important to consider the larger contexts in which the plan will unfold and how existing policies and practices regarding personnel (hiring, retention, placement) and instructional guidance (curriculum and assessment) can enable or limit the plan.

Recommendation 3:

Consider both specialized professional learning programs outside of school and opportunities for science teachers’ learning embedded in the workday: A coherent, standards and evidence-based portfolio of professional learning opportunities for science teachers should include both specialized programs that occur outside of the school day and ongoing learning opportunities that are built into the workday and enhance capacity in schools and districts. Development of this portfolio will require some restructuring of teachers’ work in schools to support new learning opportunities. School and district leaders will need to develop policies and practices that provide the necessary resources (fiscal, time, facilities, tools, incentives).

As school and district leaders identify professional learning opportunities for science teachers, they should work to develop a portfolio of opportunities that address teachers’ varied needs, in ways that are sensitive to the school or district context. School and district leaders should not only make this portfolio of opportunities available to teachers; but also actively encourage, through their leadership and provision of resources, teachers’ engagement in these opportunities, and provide time during the school day for teachers to engage meaningfully in them. Furthermore, school and district leaders should work with teams of teachers to build coherent programs of science teaching learning opportunities, tailored to individual teachers and the school as a whole. The portfolio of teacher

learning opportunities should include structured, traditional professional development; cross-school teacher professional communities, and collaborations with local partners.

Recommendation 4:

Design and select learning opportunities for science teachers that are informed by the best available research: Teachers’ learning opportunities should be aligned with a system’s science standards, and should be grounded in an underlying theory of teacher learning and in research on the improvement of professional practice, and on how to meet the needs of the range of adult and student learners in a school or district. Learning opportunities for science teachers should have the following characteristics:

  • Designed to achieve specific learning goals for teachers.
  • Be content specific, that is, focused on particular scientific concepts and practices.
  • Be student specific, that is, focused on the specific students served by the school district.
  • Linked to teachers’ classroom instruction and include analysis of instruction.
  • Include opportunities for teachers to practice teaching science in new ways and to interact with peers in improving the implementation of new teaching strategies.
  • Include opportunities for teachers to collect and analyze data on their students’ learning.
  • Offer opportunities for collaboration.

Designers of learning opportunities for teachers including commercial providers, community organizations, institutions of higher education and districts and states, should develop learning opportunities for teachers that reflect the above criteria.

When selecting learning opportunities for teachers, district and school leaders and teachers themselves should use the above criteria as a guide for identifying the most promising programs and learning experiences. District and state administrators should use these criteria to provide guidance for teachers on how to identify high-quality learning experiences.

District and state administrators should use (and make public) quality indicators to identify, endorse, and fund a portfolio of teacher learning opportunities, and should provide guidance for school leaders and teachers on how to select high-quality learning experiences in science appropriate to specific contexts.

Recommendation 5:

Develop internal capacity in science while seeking external partners with science expertise: School and district leaders should work to build school- and district-level capacity around science teaching. These efforts should include creating learning opportunities for teachers but might also include exploring different models for incorporating science expertise, such as employing science specialists at the elementary level or providing high school science department heads with time to observe and collaborate with their colleagues. When developing a strategy for building capacity, school and district leaders should consider the tradeoffs inherent in such choices.

School and district leaders should also explore developing partnerships with individuals and organizations—such as local businesses, institutions of higher education or science rich institutions—that can bring science expertise.

Crucial to developing relevant expertise is developing the capacity of professional development leaders. Investing in the development of professional developers who are knowledgeable about teaching all students the vision of science education represented in the NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards Lead States, 2013) and the Framework (National Research Council, 2012) is critical. It is not sufficient for these leaders to be good teachers themselves; they must also be prepared and supported to work with adult learners and to coordinate professional development with other policies and programs (including staffing, teacher evaluation, curriculum development, and student assessment).

Recommendation 6:

Create, evaluate, and revise policies and practices that encourage teachers to engage in professional learning related to science: District and school administrators and relevant leaders should work to establish dedicated professional development time during the salaried work week and work year for science teachers. They should encourage teachers to participate in science learning opportunities and structure time to allow for collaboration around science. Resources for professional learning should include time to meet with other teachers, to observe other classrooms, and to attend discrete events; space to meet with other teachers; requested materials; and incentives to participate. These policies and practices should take advantage of linkages with other policies For example, natural connections can be made between policies concerning professional development and teacher evaluation. Similarly, administrators could develop policies that more equitably distribute qualified and experienced science teachers across all students in school, districts, and school networks.

At the elementary level, district and school leaders should work to

establish parity for science professional development in relationship to other subjects, especially mathematics and English language arts.

Recommendation 7:

The potential of new formats and media should be explored to support science teachers’ learning when appropriate: Districts should consider the use of technology and online spaces/resources to support teacher learning in science. These tools may be particularly useful for supporting cross-school collaboration, providing teachers with flexible schedules for accessing resources, or enabling access to professional learning opportunities in rural areas where teachers may be isolated and it is difficult to convene in a central location.

As noted, the above recommendations focus on schools and districts/school networks, as the committee sees work at that level as a necessary condition for realizing the vision of the Framework and NGSS. Without the work of teachers, professional development leaders, and school leaders at the local level, the promise of these visionary documents cannot be realized.

Of course, working at that local level—while necessary—is not sufficient to change how science is taught across the United States and determining whether all children have access to high-quality science learning experiences. Within and across states, as well as nationally, science education needs to be elevated through policies, practices, and funding mechanisms. Without that kind of support, the local and essential work described in these recommendations will fall short. Other reports of the National Research Council (2014, 2015) include recommendations targeted to the state level that identify policies such as those related to assessment (National Research Council, 2014), high school graduation requirements (National Research Council, 2015), and teacher certification (National Research Council, 2015) that can help create supportive contexts for improving science education. The National Research Council (2013) also has issued recommendations for a national indicator system that would make it possible to track improvement in STEM education reforms, covering domains of state policy, curriculum, accountability, and teacher quality, and the National Science Teachers Association has issued a number of relevant position statements on accountability, teacher preparation and induction, leadership, and professional development. 1

As states, districts, and schools move forward with initiatives aimed at improving supports for science teachers’ learning, they should leverage these and other relevant resources that have been developed by such national organizations as the National Science Teachers Association, the


1 See [November 2015].

Council of State Science Supervisors, and Achieve, Inc. and are available online. These organizations also are creating networks of science educators who are exploring the Framework and NGSS and sharing ideas about implementation of the vision set forth in those documents. It is a massive undertaking to support all students, teachers, and schools in rising to the challenges of the new vision of science teaching and learning. And while the committee’s recommendations focus on a set of strategic activities that schools and districts might undertake to make progress, the science teachers, scientists, science teacher educators, and professional development leaders who constitute the membership of these organizations can contribute much to an enriched understanding of how to support ongoing teacher learning.


Considerable research exists, both in science education and in education more generally on which to draw, for insights into the wise development of policies, programs, and practices that will enhance teacher learning. At the same time, much remains to be learned. The committee identified several areas of research that would inform the work of school leaders interested in supporting ongoing teacher learning. Before offering our recommendations for future research, we reiterate the major gaps in the research literature.

  • No system is in place to collect data on the science teacher workforce, their qualifications, experience, and preparation. This is due in part to differences across states in both teacher certification and data collection; the problem is exacerbated by a lack of measures that could be used to do comparative work. The authors of the National Research Council (2010) study of teacher preparation make a similar observation.
  • No system is in place to collect data on general trends in science teaching and learning. This gap will challenge the collective capacity to assess any progress that may be made on meeting the challenges of the vision in the Framework and the NGSS. The observations in the National Research Council report Monitoring Progress Toward Successful K-21 STEM Education (2013) are similar. Studies vary in both their conceptions of good science teaching and how teaching is measured, compromising the capacity to ascertain general trends.
  • No system in place to collect data about the myriad professional learning opportunities that teachers encounter in and out of

school. The committee found enormous variation in teacher learning opportunities, with no centralized way to determine general trends or the effectiveness of various programs or combinations of experiences. This observation is similar to a conclusion drawn by the authors of the National Research Council (2010) report on teacher preparation.

  • While there is a body of research on formal science professional development, that research tends to focus on individual programs and to rely heavily on teacher self report. Few studies used research designs involving control or comparison groups and incorporating pre/post measures of teachers’ knowledge and beliefs, instruction, and students’ outcomes. Without such studies, it is difficult to draw strong conclusions about effectiveness. The field lacks consistently used, technically powerful measures of science teachers’ knowledge and practice, as well as measures that capture the full range of student outcomes. There are a handful of noteworthy exceptions to this pattern (e.g., Heller et al., 2012; Roth et al., 2011).
  • Substantially less research exists on other, potentially equally important opportunities for science teacher learning, including professional learning communities, mentoring and coaching, online learning, teacher networks, and teacher evaluation. In general, the evidence base related to learning opportunities for teachers that are embedded in schools and classrooms is weak, especially with regard to science.
  • Almost no studies address school organization and context and how they might affect the impact of professional development programs. Little to no published research exists on the effects of recruitment, retention, and staffing policies on the quality of the science teaching workforce and of science instruction in schools and districts.
  • Research on how and under what conditions principals and leaders affect the quality of science learning in their schools has yet to be conducted. Also lacking in the research literature are studies of how teachers learn to become leaders, as well as research that examines the role, expertise, or preparation of science professional development providers and facilitators.

Research Recommendation 1: Focus Research on Linking Professional Learning to Changes in Instructional Practice and Student Learning

In general, more research is needed to understand the path from professional learning opportunities to changes in teacher knowledge and

practice to student learning and engagement in terms of both individual teachers and the teacher workforce more generally. To be maximally helpful, that research should attend to the contexts in which teachers learn and teach (see Figure 8-2). The contextual factors that shape and are shaped by teachers’ learning opportunities, include teacher hiring, staffing, and assignment policies and practices; student and school demographics; resource distribution and use; instructional guidance; teacher evaluation; and school organization.

Research Recommendation 2: Invest in Improving Measures of Science Instruction and Science Learning

Fundamental to most research aimed at linking science teacher learning to student science learning and engagement is the development of publicly credible, technically sound, and professionally responsible measures of relevant teacher and student outcomes. Because teaching and learning also have subject-specific aspects, these outcome measures need to sample broadly from the practices, disciplinary core ideas, and crosscutting concepts outlined in the new vision of science teaching and learning. The committee cannot emphasize enough the centrality of good measures of teacher and student learning, particularly for addressing gaps in all of the domains cited above. This issue is noted in the National Research Council report Monitoring Progress Toward Successful K-12 STEM Education (National Research Council, 2013) as well. Lacking good outcome measures, considerable resources will continue to be devoted to professional learning opportunities with a limited ability to gauge their effects. Such measures would enable a great deal of needed research.

Research Recommendation 3: Design and Implement Research That Examines a Variety of Approaches to Supporting Science Teachers’ Learning

The committee urges a broad conceptualization of professional learning and thus research that examines how teachers learn from portfolios of learning opportunities, including both off-site and embedded professional development (e.g., study groups, professional learning communities, lesson study). Of particular benefit would be research assessing the effects of the interactions among various learning opportunities, as well as the particular contributions of different kinds of learning experiences to teacher knowledge and practice. The conduct of such research would require having much better documentation of the range of learning opportunities in which teachers participate and that were designed intentionally to build upon, extend, and enhance one another. Moreover, any investment in

teacher learning ought to be designed to document its effects; this would mean designing strong research in tandem with professional learning experiences, whether those experiences are based in cultural institutions, industry, universities, or schools. As is the case with all of the research recommended here, attention should be paid to contextual variation and how aspects of state, district, and school context mediate and/or moderate the effects of professional learning opportunities on teacher practice and student learning.

Typical research on professional learning is small scale, conducted by the program designers or providers, and uses locally developed measures. Although a growing number of studies entail carrying out large-scale, rigorous examinations of professional development interventions that link teachers’ learning to student outcomes, the results of those studies are mixed. The collective body of small-scale research has produced some insights, but understanding of the nature and effects of the range of professional learning opportunities will remain limited without large-scale studies that include multiple programs and are not as dependent on teacher self-report. A wide range of research methodologies have important roles in shedding light on science teacher learning, as does the use of multiple measures of teacher knowledge and practice and student engagement and learning.

Research Recommendation 4: Commit to Focusing on Meeting the Needs of Diverse Science Learners Across All Research on Professional Development

The committee urges that research on science teacher learning focus on opportunities that help teachers meet the needs of diverse students while teaching to the standards. Accomplishing this goal will require developing and studying professional learning programs—in and outside of schools—that interweave attention to science content with attention to the needs and experiences of all students, including English language learners, special education students, gifted and talented students, and diverse learners. Compelling research exists in many of these areas. But teachers do not teach diverse learners on Tuesdays and science on Wednesdays; they teach the two together, and supportive professional learning experiences for teachers will integrate knowledge across a range of domains. For example, teachers would be aided in achieving the new vision by research documenting how they can tap into students’ funds of knowledge when teaching a specific scientific practice or disciplinary idea. In other words, research that attends to the development of all three dimensions of teacher knowledge and skill discussed in this report—the

capacity to respond to all learners, disciplinary scientific knowledge, and pedagogical content knowledge—is essential.

Research Recommendation 5: Focus Research on Exploring the Potential Role of Technology

When relevant, attending to the potential role of technology in enabling teacher learning would help schools and school districts take advantage of the capabilities of new technologies in enabling teacher learning. Such research could focus on online or hybrid professional development programs, face-to-face learning opportunities that take advantage of the use of technology in pursuit of ambitious instruction, the use of technology to teach to the new vision of science learning, or the support of online professional networks of teachers.

Research Recommendation 6: Design and Implement Research Focused on the Learning Needs of Teacher Leaders and Professional Development Providers

The field also needs research on the development of teacher educators, professional development leaders, and teacher leaders more generally. Learning to teach teachers is related to but distinct from learning to teach. Research documenting and explaining how skilled teacher developers acquire relevant knowledge and practice would help improve the quality of professional learning across the myriad settings in which it takes place.


First, given current efforts toward developing new curriculum and assessment materials aligned with the Framework and NGSS, it would be strategic to design research that documents what teachers learn in developing and implementing those materials, especially in their classrooms and with the range of supports provided to help them. As teachers and schools embrace the new vision for science teaching and learning, teachers, teacher leaders, principals, and professional development staff will be learning a great deal. Research should document that learning so that efforts to reform science instruction can learn productively from that experimentation.

Second, many fields of research relevant to science teaching and learning currently do not address what science teachers and their students learn. Science education would benefit greatly from being integrated into programs of research concerning instructional reform, English language

learners, how to reach and teach diverse student populations, teacher preparation, and teacher evaluation.

Finally, given that many schools and school networks are currently engaged in efforts to improve teacher learning opportunities, some of the research envisioned here might draw on design-based implementation research, networked improvement communities, strategic education partnerships, or other research designs. These research traditions—which are designed as collaborations among various stakeholders (schools, teachers, policy makers, and researchers) and committed to responding quickly to data and shifting course when necessary—holds great promise for helping teachers and schools respond in a timely fashion to the mandate to raise standards and teach all children scientifically rich curricula.

Heller, J.I., Daehler, K.R., Wong, N., Shinohara, M., and Miratrix, L.W. (2012). Differential effects of three professional development models on teacher knowledge and student achievement in elementary science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching , 49 (3), 333-362.

National Research Council. (2010). Preparing Teachers: Building Evidence for Sound Policy. Committee on the Study of Teacher Preparation Programs in the United States, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2012). A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core ideas. Committee on a Conceptual Framework for New K-12 Science Education Standards, Board on Science Education. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2013). Monitoring Progress Toward Successful K-12 STEM Education: A Nation Advancing? Committee on the Evaluation Framework for Successful K-12 STEM Education. Board on Science Education and Board on Testing and Assessment, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2014). Developing Assessments for the Next Generation Science Standards. Committee on Developing Assessments of Science Proficiency in K-12. Board on Testing and Assessment, Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2015). Guide to Implementing the Next Generation Science Standards . Committee on Guidance on Implementing the Next Generation Science Standards. Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Next Generation Science Standards Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States . Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Roth, K., Garnier, H., Chen, C., Lemmens, M., Schwille, K., and Wickler, N.I.Z. (2011). Videobased lesson analysis: Effective science PD for teacher and student learning. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48 (2), 117-148.

Currently, many states are adopting the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) or are revising their own state standards in ways that reflect the NGSS. For students and schools, the implementation of any science standards rests with teachers. For those teachers, an evolving understanding about how best to teach science represents a significant transition in the way science is currently taught in most classrooms and it will require most science teachers to change how they teach.

That change will require learning opportunities for teachers that reinforce and expand their knowledge of the major ideas and concepts in science, their familiarity with a range of instructional strategies, and the skills to implement those strategies in the classroom. Providing these kinds of learning opportunities in turn will require profound changes to current approaches to supporting teachers' learning across their careers, from their initial training to continuing professional development.

A teacher's capability to improve students' scientific understanding is heavily influenced by the school and district in which they work, the community in which the school is located, and the larger professional communities to which they belong. Science Teachers' Learning provides guidance for schools and districts on how best to support teachers' learning and how to implement successful programs for professional development. This report makes actionable recommendations for science teachers' learning that take a broad view of what is known about science education, how and when teachers learn, and education policies that directly and indirectly shape what teachers are able to learn and teach.

The challenge of developing the expertise teachers need to implement the NGSS presents an opportunity to rethink professional learning for science teachers. Science Teachers' Learning will be a valuable resource for classrooms, departments, schools, districts, and professional organizations as they move to new ways to teach science.

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7 Research-Based Recommendations for What Schools Should Do Next


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Normally, at this point in the summer, educators would be starting to think about the coming year, updating curricula, and purchasing supplies. But the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted these usual routines. Many educators don’t even know whether they will have jobs, whether they will be teaching in person, or how they will juggle their own educational and parenting roles. Policymakers face piles of bills and requests. It’s difficult to decide what to do because the educational enterprise is so dependent on a public-health crisis that is changing every day.

In situations like this, it helps to have a road map and a compass to figure out where to go next. Research can help play that role. And, unlike in many instances, there is a consensus among education researchers. From economists to sociologists, from qualitive to quantitative researchers, from liberal to conservative, we all agree—based on research—about what schools and policymakers should do to educate our nation’s students in the coming school year.

We invited a group of researchers with diverse perspectives and expertise to come together to discuss what the evidence tells us we should do to educate our students next year. While we write this as co-leaders of the project, the entire lead group was fundamental to this process: Matthew Chingos (Urban Institute), Linda Darling-Hammond (Stanford University and the Learning Policy Institute), Patricia Gándara (University of California Los Angeles), Dan Goldhaber (University of Washington and CALDER at AIR), Christine Greenhow (Michigan State University), Betheny Gross (Center for Reinventing Public Education), Elizabeth Kozleski (Stanford University), Wayne Lewis (Belmont University), Julie Marsh (University of Southern California), Pedro Noguera (University of Southern California), Anthony Rolle (University of Rhode Island), Mary Walsh (Boston College), Kevin Welner (University of Colorado Boulder), and Martin West (Harvard University). In the end, we produced an open letter with eight pages of suggestions, each linked to research evidence. In the five days since we invited others to sign on , nearly 450 researchers have added their names.

We have seven overarching recommendations for educators and policymakers:

1. Provide substantial additional resources to prevent looming school budget cuts. Since states cannot borrow funds for operating purposes, this must be a role for the federal government. Congress is debating this now, and there is no time to lose. Money matters , and while some states have found ways to plug holes in the short term, this will be insufficient as the fiscal crisis drags on. Getting money to schools now will be a good investment in schools’ short- and long-term capacity to educate our nation’s students. This recommendation comes first because all the others depend on it.

In situations like this, it helps to have a road map and a compass to figure out where to go next."

2. Implement universal internet and computer access. A lack of internet access affected how schools responded and how students experienced remote learning this past spring and is no doubt why many students had no interaction at all with their schools once the crisis started. The need for universal high-speed internet access is not, however, just an issue for this coming year. Schools and students will be making greater use of online resources for years to come . All students must be able to access these resources.

3. Target resources to those most in need. There is clear evidence that the pandemic-related school building closures are widening opportunity gaps by race, income, and class. To address this problem, educators must first understand the specific needs of their students and then use flexibility in funding where it is available to meet students’ individual needs. In addition, some groups of students will need more than others; we must target resources to low-income students , students of color , English-language learners, homeless students, and those with disabilities. If choices must be made about which students to bring back in person, we recommend those who are most vulnerable to academic, social, and psychological problems (including younger children who seem less likely to spread the virus) be brought back first.

4. Provide the most personalized and engaging instruction possible under the circumstances, even when it is necessary to be online. We make no recommendation about whether schools should open to in-person instruction—that is a matter for public-health experts. But it is clear already that remote learning will occur for many students throughout the country. The best evidence suggests that virtual schools generate much less learning than in-person schools . However, when online learning is well-designed , it can be a very helpful resource, at least for students who have other instructional supports . We therefore recommend frequent, direct, and meaningful interaction that combines synchronous and asynchronous instruction.

5. Address the learning losses created by the crisis by expanding instructional time in ways that challenge, support, and engage students. The amount of time students spend learning affects how much they learn—and that time decreased dramatically once school buildings closed. We can make up some of this lost learning time, and the associated learning loss, by lengthening the school year , offering summer school , and providing tutoring.

6. Offer tailored, integrated support to each child to address social-emotional needs, physical health, and family well-being. Schools—especially in a crisis—do more than provide academic instruction. Student-support staff such as school counselors, social workers, nurses, and family-outreach workers will be critical to schools’ efforts to care for children, especially for those students who have been most impacted by the pandemic.

7. Make decisions about teachers that support pedagogical quality and equity. Teachers are the most important school resources . While Congress should provide funding to ensure that teachers can remain employed, we have to be ready if those funds fall short. Districts should make every effort to retain certified teachers in special education and English-language learning. Bilingual teachers are especially important with at-home learning because many parents don’t speak English, and yet those parents are responsible for their children’s education.

None of these ideas is new. These are best practices, even under normal conditions, and they take on increasing urgency today. The pandemic has drastically altered the modes through which we must educate our children and deepened the inequities that have long plagued K-12 education in the United States. These recommendations are intended to help educators and policymakers focus their energies on the steps we can take to make sure we provide our students with the best education—for all that education means—in the midst of the chaos swirling around them.

Of course, education research can never be the only guide to educational practice. But it can provide a useful map and a valuable compass to direct how we educate students in the coming year.

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Original research article, factors and recommendations to support students’ enjoyment of online learning with fun: a mixed method study during covid-19.

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  • Rumpus Research Group, Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies, The Open University, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom

Understanding components that influence students’ enjoyment of distance higher education is increasingly important to enhance academic performance and retention. Although there is a growing body of research about students’ engagement with online learning, a research gap exists concerning whether fun affect students’ enjoyment. A contributing factor to this situation is that the meaning of fun in learning is unclear, and its possible role is controversial. This research is original in examining students’ views about fun and online learning, and influential components and connections. This study investigated the beliefs and attitudes of a sample of 551 distance education students including pre-services and in-service teachers, consultants and education professionals using a mixed-method approach. Quantitative and Qualitative data were generated through a self-reflective instrument during the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings revealed that 88.77% of participants valued fun in online learning; linked to well-being, motivation and performance. However, 16.66% mentioned that fun within online learning could take the focus off their studies and result in distraction or loss of time. Principal component analysis revealed three groups of students who found (1) fun relevant in socio-constructivist learning (2) no fun in traditional transmissive learning and (3) disturbing fun in constructivist learning. This study also provides key recommendations extracted from participants’ views supported by consensual review for course teams, teaching staff and students to enhance online learning experiences with enjoyment and fun.


Online learning has been considered vital in 21st century to provide flexible education for students as well to address the gap between demand for higher education and supply. Governments have advocated increasing rates of completion of secondary and higher education in the face of rapid population growth. However, they face financial pressure to support these larger numbers directly through additional infrastructure, in addition to scholarships and student loans ( Cooperman, 2014 :1).

In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in distance online learning not only to educate students who work but also who live too remotely or cannot access traditional campus universities for other reasons. However, literature shows that online distant education has dropout rates higher than traditional universities ( Xavier and Meneses, 2020 ). Studies also suggest that the students’ level of satisfaction about their online learning and own academic performance have significant correlation with their level of persistence toward completion ( Gortan and Jereb, 2007 ; Higher Education Academy (HEA), 2015 ).

Understanding components that influence students’ enjoyment in distance higher education is fundamental to promote student retention and success ( Higher Education Academy (HEA), 2015 ) during and post COVID-19 pandemic. There is a growing body of research about students’ engagement in virtual learning environments ( Arnone et al., 2011 ). However, there are key issues that whilst extensively researched in traditional teaching, remain relatively absent from research into distance education. For example, a long established body of research exists that demonstrates a link between students’ epistemological beliefs and their study, engagement, and outcomes ( Rodriguez and Cano, 2007 ; Richardson, 2013 ). The types of epistemological beliefs typically examined fall into two broad categories. The first is derived from Schommer’s research ( Schommer, 1990 ), in which she elicited dimensions that reflected students differing beliefs. This included “simple knowledge” (knowledge as isolated facts vs. knowledge as integrated conceptions) and “innate ability” (ability to learn is genetically determined vs. the ability to learn is enhanced through experience). The second category of research is more directly aligned with pedagogy. This has positioned epistemological beliefs in relation to traditional or constructivist beliefs. Traditional views of learning see learning occurring via the non-problematic transfer of untransformed knowledge from expert to student ( Chan and Elliott, 2004 ). This contrasts with constructivist beliefs in which knowledge arises through reasoning, which is facilitated by teaching ( Lee et al., 2013 ). This type of framing can be seen in large scale international comparative research, such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s survey of teachers’ epistemological beliefs across 23 countries ( Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 2010 , 2013 ). However, in relation to online and distance higher education, epistemological research is relatively absent ( Richardson, 2013 ; Knight et al., 2017 ). Given the impact of epistemological beliefs on students’ study experiences there is a need for greater epistemologically focused research in the context of online education.

Another underrepresented research area concerns fun in online learning; in particular, because the meaning of fun is unclear and controversial. There is no consensus about the value of fun in learning and what a fun learning experience means in higher education ( McManus and Furnham, 2010 ; Lesser et al., 2013 ; Tews et al., 2015 ; Whitton and Langan, 2018 ). Tews et al. (2015) argue that fun is a term used regularly in various contexts including education. Yet there is no clear agreement about its role and relationships with students’ learning experience. Congruently, McManus and Furnham (2010) highlight that fun has different meanings for different people and literature is limited about what generally comprises fun for learners. Similarly, Lesser et al. (2013) indicate that views about fun among educators are ambivalent as fun is perceived as too difficult or time-consuming to be implemented and it may distract students from serious learning. These three studies indicate that evidence about fun and learning are circumstantial and subjective for teaching staff to consider it as a compelling component for making their students’ experience more impactful. So that, further studies would be worthwhile to examine the practical meaning and educational value of fun on Distance Higher Education with a systematic and rigorous methodological approach.

To explore this challenge, this paper investigates students’ reflective views about fun and online learning and whether fun and enjoyment are interconnected components to enhance enthusiasm to learn and excel in online distant education. This investigation considers a critical question framed by the authors from Whitton and Langan (2018:11)’s work. How can we explore the impact of fun in higher education in view of the complexity of factors involved? To explore this question, this work is based on Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) approach to understanding the what, how and why fun might be a valuable key in education with and for distinctive representatives: learners, educators, researchers, consultants, and policy makers. “For pedagogic innovation to succeed, learners must personally perceive the benefits of learning activities” designed to be fun and also “these gains must be translated into outcomes that are viewed positively within the institution quality monitoring by teaching staff.” Whitton and Langan (2018) also explain that there is a negative influence from the competitive job market that values “serious” performance – as the opposite of fun – so potentially this make course teams less likely to embed playful and fun approaches in the higher education curriculum.

The RRI approach implies that community-members and researchers interact together to better align both its process and outcomes with the values, needs and expectations of society ( European Commission, 2013 ; von Schomberg, 2013 ). The purpose of RRI is to promote greater involvement of societal members with research-authors in the process of research to increase knowledge, understanding and better decision-making about both societal needs and scientific research through eight principles: diversity and inclusion; transparency and openness, anticipation and reflexivity, adaptation and responsiveness ( RRI-Tools, 2016 ; European Commission, 2020 ). These principles were used to adapt, implement and refine a self-reflective instrument about learning and fun. So that, the following section-“Previous Studies about Fun and Learning” present Learning and Fun views from literature. Section-“Methodology” shows the self-reflective instrument, which was used integrated with the methodological approach. Section-“Findings” shows the findings and section-“Discussion and Final Remarks” discussion with final remarks.

Previous Studies about Fun and Learning

Studies that appear to research fun and learning, typically focus on types of activity and the extent to which these are seen as enjoyable and indicated as being fun, rather than drilling down to examine or define fun. While fun is consistently recognized as an important part of the lived experience of children, youth and adults, relatively few seek a deeper understanding of what the construct of fun means ( Kimiecik and Harris, 1996 ; Harmston, 2005 ; Garn and Cothran, 2006 ). This situation is in stark contrast to how fun is generally positioned with regard to the domain of learning and education.

There are different views in the literature about fun and learning, in terms of meanings and its effects. Negative perspectives describe fun as the opposite concept of meaningful “work” and consider it as an unnecessary distraction for learning.

Fun is a term that has changed over time. In the 1900s, it came to indicate an absence of seriousness, work, and labor. “Fun can be seen both as a resistance to the rigid demarcation between work and leisure and also as a means of reproducing that dichotomy” ( Blythe and Hassenzahl, 2018 , p92). As it took on these meanings, fun became a loaded term that challenges the status quo ( Beckman, 2014 ). It can be positioned as a challenge to the traditional split between fun and learning; welcomed by those who embrace social views of the learning process but seen as an unnecessary distraction for those who hold a traditional transmission view of how learning takes place.

The etymological meaning of fun ( fonne and fon from Germanic), which refers to “simple, foolish, silly, unwise” ( Etymonline, 2020 ) have still influence on the meanings attributed by people and researchers nowadays. The argument that fun can have a negative influence on learning was highlighted in newspaper reports of research by the Centre for Education Economics (CEE): “Making lessons fun does not help students to learn, a new report has found. The widely held belief that learners must be happy in order to do well is nothing more than a myth” ( Turner, 2018 ). Likewise, Whitton and Langan note in their analysis of fun in United Kingdom that many educators believe fun to be unsuitable in the “serious” business of higher education ( Whitton and Langan, 2018 , p3). They also highlight a need to research whether students believe that there is any place for fun in their university studies. So, for many, fun is seen as having little or no place within learning. Within the context of education, “fun” is often a derogatory term used to refer to a trivial experience ( Glaveanu, 2011 ).

Some researchers have identified a more positive relationship between fun and learning for children and adults. An analysis of outcomes from the United Kingdom’s “Excellence and Enjoyment” teaching initiative concluded that “Learning which is enjoyable (fun) and self-motivating is more effective than sterile (boring) solely teacher-directed learning” ( Elton-Chalcraft and Mills, 2015 , p482; Tews et al., 2015 ). In the context of informal adult learning, fun has been linked to positive learning outcomes, including job performance and learner engagement ( Francis and Kentel, 2008 ; Fine and Corte, 2017 ; Tews et al., 2017 ). This raises the question of why this conflict and controversy might exist.

The positive effect is not due to fun being an integral part of the learning process, but rather because it has physiological effects such as reducing stress and improving alertness which enhance “performance” ( Bisson and Luckner, 1996 ).

Similarly, Whitton and Langan (2018) describe fun as a “fluid state” ( Prouty, 2002 ) which makes learners feel good ( Koster, 2005 : 40) to engage with learning. This fluid state allows learners to take healthy risks beyond existing personal boundaries ( Ungar, 2007 ). This is because learners are attracted to participate in learning activities that they enjoy and can “fail forward” and feel safe. In addition, Feldberg (2011 :12) indicate that fun has a positive effect on the learning process for creating a state of “relaxed alertness” ( Bisson and Luckner, 1996 ) which enables the suspension of one’s social inhibitions and the reduction of stress. The author highlights fun may contribute to the maintenance of cognitive functioning and emotional growth ( Crosnoe et al., 2004 cited by Feldberg).

Dismore and Bailey’s (2011 , p.499) study indicates positive feelings associated with enjoyment, engagement and optimal experience. The authors described fun and enjoyment underpinned by the concept of “flow” ( Csikszentmihalyi, 2015 ) which refers to “ an optimum state of inner experience incorporating joy, creativity, total involvement and an exhilarating feeling of transcendence .” The optimum state is a key component to lead students to enjoyable accomplishment and optimal learning when their perceived skill and challenge are balanced and suitable. Flow is an important concept for educators to be aware that students’ anxiety caused when their challenge becomes higher compared to their skill, and boredom when challenge becomes too little compared to their skill will reduce their enjoyment and have a negative effect on their learning. Fun learning with flow experiences is relevant for learners to grow with positive opportunities where their skill meets their effort producing intrinsic rewards ( Dismore and Bailey, 2011 ; Chu et al., 2017 ; Whitton and Langan, 2018 ).

Literature about the meaning of fun in online learning is very limited. A set of studies about engaging e-learning games highlight that fun and challenge are essential for promoting students’ enjoyment and making them want to learn ( Fu et al., 2009 ). An engaging e-learning game facilitates the flow of experiences of students by increasing their attention, achieving learning goals and enjoyment with their learning experience ( Virvou et al., 2005 ; De Freitas and Oliver, 2006 ).

This study focuses on fun and learning in the context of Distance Higher Education supported by RRI. To explore what fun is, its meaning and the effects of the phenomenon need to be understood with learners. As a first step, there is a need to identify how the relationship between fun and online learning is conceived by learners based on their own learning experience. A second step is to examine whether this relationship connection has any connection with their epistemic views.

The aim of this study is to address the following questions:

• What are the relationships between fun and online learning practices identified by students?

• What are the connections between students’ epistemic views about online learning and fun?

• What are the recommendations for students, teaching staff and course teams?


This work is part of a research program OLAF – Online Learning and Fun led by Rumpus Research Group. The methodology used in this study adopts the established epistemological questionnaire approach ( Feucht et al., 2017 ), and provides an opportunity to facilitate participants epistemic reflectivity ( Feucht et al., 2017 ). In this way the study is underpinned by the concept of reflective practitioners, by which participants “think in action” about principles and practices to share their reflective views ( Schon, 2015 ).

This study is based on a mixed-method approach. Quantitative and qualitative data were generated through a self-reflective instrument ( Feucht et al., 2017 ) constituted by two parts, both developed in Qualtrics. The first part was a Likert-scale survey with 25 statements about learning and fun. The second part was an open question (see “Instruments”).

The approach used for qualitative analysis was a systematic and novel multi methodical procedure that combined: word cloud visualization in Qualtrics ( Figure 2 ); automated thematic analysis map ( Figure 3 ) and sentiment analysis ( Figures 4 – 6 ) in NVivo 12. This integration of visualizations enabled us to identify seven themes to analyze the value of fun; and 26 themes of relationships between fun and learning. The quantitative analysis was supported by PCA – Principal Content Analysis (see “Relationships Between Fun and Learning Supported by Quantitative Analysis”). This approach enabled us to group our – multi-method qualitative analysis categorized by themes – into three groups (see “Relationships Between Fun and Learning Supported by Quantitative Analysis”) as well present our findings (section-“Findings”) with global recommendations underpinned by students’ needs, priorities and expectations, which were revealed in the qualitative data and grouped by quantitative analysis.

This study acknowledges 8 principles ( Box 1 ) of RRI ( von Schomberg, 2013 ; RRI-Tools, 2016 ) in the context of open educational research ( Okada and Sherborne, 2018 ) by which all participants reflect about practices and beliefs for better alignment between learners’ needs and research-based recommendations. The instrument with a special code to allow the withdrawal of participation without the collection of personal data was approved by the Ethics Committee and the Student Research Project Panel of the Open University-United Kingdom.


The OU offers flexible undergraduate and postgraduate courses and qualifications supported distance and open learning for 174,898 people from the United Kingdom, Europe and some worldwide. Approximately 76% of directly registered students work full or part-time during their studies; 23% of Open University United Kingdom undergraduates live in the 25% most deprived areas and 34% of new OU undergraduates are under 25, 14% with disabilities and 32% with lower qualification at entry.

This study focused on one of the largest introductory modules offered by the Wellbeing Education and Language Studies – WELS Faculty of The Open University. Currently this module has more than 4,300 students and is part of various qualifications. So that, participants were students from all levels and qualification’ interests with different occupations, include novices, undergraduates who had just completed secondary education, pre-service and in-service teachers; as well professionals interested in Education, Psychology and Social Care.

A balanced and representative sample were constituted by a total of 625 students who participated in this study as volunteers, 551 completed a self-reflective questionnaire to reflect about fun and learning and 206 provided their reflective views by answering an “optional” open question. The response rate (40%) for the open views about fun and learning was higher than expected.

In terms of students’ previous study experience 48.55% students completed pre-A levels or equivalent (secondary school), 26.81% had already finished other OU course modules (level 1, level 2, and level 3) and 24.64% reported other different experiences. In terms of qualification pathway targeted by students: 28.80% are interested in childhood studies; 34.24% in psychology; 27.17% Education primary, 4.53% Open and 1.81% do not know and 3.44 other qualification such as Social Care.

This study focuses on a 9-month-module course with twenty-four weekly units and four assessment activities. The course integrates reading materials, online audio-visual materials, a YouTube channel “The student hub live” and radio-style broadcast audio repository. Students have also access to a set of library resources, news and special “quick guides” to provide extra-support for developing activities successfully. Students’ interaction with peers and communication with tutors typically occur asynchronously in the online discussion forum and synchronously in online tutorials (in Adobe Connect) and face-to-face tutorials organized in a specific period and locations. In addition, the course provides a channel in social media (Twitter and Facebook) for students’ social engagement. This course module presentations are opened 3 weeks prior to the start in order to provide time for students to smoothly engage in their initial activities including a series of fun and friendly online workshops to promote interaction.


Students’ recruitment occurred at the middle of the online module. It was supported by the course chair and the module course tutors through an invitation shared in course news page and via central email sent to all students. Recruitment and data generation occurred during 5 weeks (February–March 2020) and was more effective after an email invitation sent to all students.


The use of self-report questionnaires is well established as a methodology within research examining epistemological beliefs ( Feucht et al., 2017 ). The self-reflective instrument was underpinned by previous work led by the second author ( Sheehy et al., 2019b ) and adapted to the context of online learning and fun.

1. Statements 1–4, 13–17 relate to models of learning (Social Constructivist, and Banking) and are taken from Sheehy and Budiyanto’s (2015) development of the Theoretical Orientation Scale ( Hardman and Worthington, 2000 ).

2. Statements 5–7, 8, 10–12 relate to Constructivist and Traditional views of learning, from the OECD international survey ( Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 2010 , 2013 ).

3. Statements 9, 18–21 elicit beliefs about fun and happiness and emerged as stable items from Budiyanto et al.’s (2017) epistemological research.

The adapted questionnaire was implemented in Qualtrics with consent forms, study objectives and a novel embedded code to enable students’ withdrawal. This is the first study that provides anonymous withdrawal in Qualtrics. It was then tested in two pre-pilots to check its reliability and the embedded code.

In the first phase of implementation, the self-reflective instrument was used by online students to reflect about the topic “Fun and Learning” through a series of 21 statements using Likert-scale to indicate the level of agreement.

In the second phase, students were invited to complete an optional open-ended question (What is your opinion about fun in online learning?) to provide their reflective views and freely express their feelings on this topic.

Preliminary outcomes of this study ( Figure 1 ) were presented to all participants through an article published in OpenLearn ( Okada, 2020 ) and also in a journal paper ( Okada and Sheehy, 2020 : 608). The framework ‘Butterfly of fun’ including four types of fun in online learning was developed underpinned by Piaget and Inhelder (1969) , Vygotsky et al. (1978) , Csikszentmihalyi (2020) , and Freire (1967 , 1984 , 1996 , 2009) and supported by students’ views. Optimal fun is the joy of being fully involved in learning, moving toward full capability and creativity. Individual fun is the happiness of fulfilling accomplishments, supported by clear goals and strategies. Collaborative fun is the happiness of making connections with others, creating social bonding and developing group identity. Emancipatory fun is the joy of being curious, able to search and discover whilst being critically aware ( Okada and Sheehy, 2020 ).

Figure 1. Four levels of Online Learning and Fun (Source: Okada, 2020 ).

Relationships Between Fun and Online Learning Supported by Qualitative Analysis

This study started with a content analysis in NVivo 12 after importing from Qualtrics a csv file with 206 responses about students’ views related to fun and learning (qualitative data). The word cloud visualization in Qualtrics ( Figure 2 ) about students’ views indicated the most frequent words: 148 fun, 123 learning, 50 enjoy/enjoyed/enjoyable/enjoyment, 45 students, 40 distance, 31 tutorials, 29 activity, and 26 time.

Figure 2. The word cloud visualization in Qualtrics about Online Learning and Fun.

The automated thematic analysis map ( Figure 3 ) in NVivo 12; represented in Cmap tools provided 89 codes grouped through seven themes: fun, learning, students, tutorials, material, online and activities, which enabled to identify connections between fun and learning presented as following.

Figure 3. Thematic analysis map about Online Learning and Fun with codes generated by NVivo 12.

NVivo12 sentiment analysis tool ( Figure 4 ) indicated a significant amount of neutral and positive comments associated to narratives that included learning and fun. A small percentage of negative and mixed views emerged across all categories apart from course module “material.” Three largest clusters emerged focused on fun, learning and activities. Four medium clusters were online, tutorials, fun activities, and students. Two small clusters were material and group.

Figure 4. RRI sentiment analysis about Online Learning and Fun in NVivo 12.

NVivo 12 sentiment analysis were used to obtain an overview about students’ negative views ( Figure 5 ) and positive opinions ( Figure 6 ) which were highlighted in red and green by the authors to show the students’ responses with a significant narrative.

Figure 5. Sentiment analysis about students’ negative views related to Online Learning and Fun.

Figure 6. Sentiment analysis about students’ positive views related to Online Learning and Fun.

These visualizations were useful to identify two sets of themes and sub-themes ( Box 3 ) related to value and relationships between learning and fun as well review the automated sentiment analysis code manually to check nuances and recode it based on the meaning of narratives.

A total of 206 students’ testimonials were coded with these themes and the frequency of codes were represented by percentages ( Box 3 ). The first set of themes was used to code the value of fun for students; a total of 43% students indicated positive values about fun in learning, 24% indicated neutral, and 23% mixed. Only 10% indicated negative views about fun in learning. The second set of themes were used to explore the value and relationships about fun and learning. Approximately 18% of students indicated that fun is valuable, 12% fun is important, 13% fun is useful, 24% fun is needed, 11% fun is difficult, 12% fun depends, and 10% fun is unnecessary.

Relationships Between Fun and Learning Supported by Quantitative Analysis

Quantitative data analysis ( Graph 1 ) revealed largely positive views about fun and learning. Most students agreed that fun (as enjoyment) had value in supporting learning. The majority of students agreed with the following statements: 98% To learn effectively, students must enjoy learning; 91% To learn effectively, students must be happy to learn. 88.77% Learning should involve fun. However, a small group of students 16.66% beliefs that Fun activities can get in the way of student learning.

Graph 1. Descriptive analysis about Online Learning and Fun in Qualtrics.

The questionnaire data about 21 statements using Likert scale (1–5) were analyzed through SPSS 24. Cronbach’s alpha 0.717 confirmed that the principal components analysis (PCA) was supported ( Cohen et al., 2007 ). The instrument proved to be reliable for both PCAs ( Tavakol and Dennick, 2011 ). The Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin score of 0.756 indicated sample adequacy and the Bartlett’s sphericity test (Chi-square = 2329.046 with 210 degree of freedom, Sig. 0.000 < 0.5) confirmed consistency.

Table 2 illustrates factor analysis with principal components, with Varimax rotation and Kaiser Normalization indicated six groups emerged: (1) socio-constructivist perspective, (2)traditional perspective (3) fun and learning perspective, (4)constructivist perspective, (5) banking perspective, and (6) Emancipatory Learning. Table 1 using the same method but unrotated solution, indicated three relevant groups: (1) Socio-constructivist learning with traditional teaching and fun; (2) Banking model, transmissive learning and no fun and (4) Constructivist learning and disturbing fun; This approach was selected to examine students’ views and beliefs in order to develop recommendations. Therefore, based on the testimonies of the students grouped with PCA unrotated, twenty-one recommendations were listed and grouped according to three groups: apprentices, teaching professionals and the online course team. Three indexes were generated using the variables from the PCA to get an average among each group related to Fun, No Fun and Bad fun:

Table 1. FA Varimax without rotation in SPSS.

Table 2. FA with Varimax rotation in SPSS.

• C1 Fun = (V19 + V09 + V03 + V18 + V02 + V05 + V04 + V01 + V08)/9;

• C2 No fun = (V17 + V07 + V16 + V06 + -V21)/5;

• C3 Fun bad (hampers learning) = (V10 + V20 + V11)/3.

These indexes (above 3.5 – 5) allowed to group participants’ testimonies, select a variety of views and elaborate a representative list of recommendations to enhance students’ enjoyment with online learning. NVivo 12 was used to carry out a thematic qualitative analysis with an interpretative approach to extract 21 recommendations supported by inductive mapping ( Tables 3 – 5 ). A consensual review ( Hill et al., 1997 ) through three systematic checks between the recommendations against qualitative data were developed with two experts and a student: individually, in pairs and in group. Five types of feedback enabled reviewers to suggest improvements: 1. Reduce (too long, use short sentence), 2. Specify (very broad, use specific words), 3. Connect (unrelated, focus more on the data), 4. Simplify (complicated, use familiar vocabulary), 5. Clarify (confusing, revise the meaning). The results of the analysis from mixed methods are presented as follows.

Table 3. Recommendations about Online Learning and Fun for students supported by mixed methods.

Table 4. Recommendations about Online Learning and Fun for teaching staff supported by mixed methods.

Table 5. Recommendations about Online Learning and Fun for course teams supported by mixed methods.

In addition, the graphical comparison between recommendations and full set of qualitative data both auto coded ( Figure 3 ) in NVivo 24 ( Graph 2 ) ensured diversity with a variety of views and consistency with a proportional representation among qualitative themes and quantitative components.

Graph 2. Evidence-based recommendations about Online Learning and Fun supported by consensual review.

Discussion and Final Remarks

The value of students’ enjoyment with online learning has become fundamental in today’s world. The World Bank (2020) and UNESCO (2020) emphasized that more than 160 countries are facing a crisis in education due to the COVID-19 pandemic with loss of learning and in human capital; and over the long term, the economic difficulties will increase inequalities. Various factors will affect educational systems; in particular, low learning outcomes and high dropout rates in secondary school and higher education.

Students’ confidence and satisfaction with online learning are highly relevant in a world in which distance education has rapidly become a necessary practice in response to the global the pandemic. This mixed-methods research revealed significant online students’ opinions about fun for enjoyable and meaningful learning. Fun is as an important part of the lived experience; however, its meaning is underexplored by literature.

This paper provided a methodology to examine fun in online learning supported by students’ epistemic beliefs, underpinned by RRI – Responsible Research and Innovation. A self-reflective instrument with valid and reliable measurement scales with epistemic constructs of online learning and fun helped participants to think about their views about how learning occurs and its relationship with fun. An open database with a three sets of code scheme was generated and shared with all participants during the covid-19 pandemic.

In this study, light is shed on the elements, meaning and relationships about fun and learning considering the students’ “nuanced views” that integrate fun and learning in different ways. Our results provided evidence that a large majority of higher education students (88.77%) value fun because they believe it has a positive social, cognitive and emotional effects on their distance online education. A small group (16.66%) highlighted that fun impairs learning.

This study confirmed that students should experience enjoyable learning so that learning should involve joy. Freire (1996) highlight that the joy of the “serious act” of learning does not refer to the easy joy of being inactive by doing nothing. “Emancipatory fun” ( Okada and Sheehy, 2020 ) underpinned by Freire’s pedagogy of autonomy is related to the hope and confidence that students can have fun by acting, reflecting and learning with enjoyment and consciousness. They can search, research and solve problems, identify and overcome obstacles as well transform and innovate their lives with knowledge, skills and resilience to shape a desirable future.

A key contribution of this study is that different epistemological beliefs are associated with different conceptualizations of the relationship between fun and learning ( Sheehy et al., 2019a ; Okada and Sheehy, 2020 ). Principal component analysis revealed three groups of students who found (1) fun relevant in socio-constructivist learning (2) no fun in traditional transmissive learning and (3) disturbing fun in constructivist learning. A set of 21 recommendations underpinned by systematic mixed methods and consensual review is provided for Higher Education community including course teams, teaching staff and students to enhance online learning experiences with optimal fun, emancipatory fun, collaborative fun and individual fun. Creating opportunities for students to voice and reflect on their own views and values is fundamental to develop more effective online course designs aligned with their needs.

Congruent with the positive effects of optimal experience in some online environments’ studies (e.g., Esteban-Millat et al., 2014 ; Sánchez-Franco et al., 2014 ), this study confirmed that fun creates an opportunity and expectation for students to experience positive feelings in learning such as good mood, enthusiasm, interest, satisfaction and enjoyment that are all relevant for “optimal” learning.

Researchers who see fun as having a close relationship with learning have proposed different types of fun. Lazzaro (2009) highlighted “easy fun” in activities such as games and role play that stimulate curiosity and exploration. Papert (2002) identified “hard fun” within goal-centered and challenging experiences, where the difficulty of the task is part of the fun. Tews et al. (2015 :17) examined fun in two contexts, fun in learning activities developed by students and fun in teaching delivery by the staff. The former was characterized as “hands-on” exercises and activities that promoted social engagement between students. The latter concerned instructor-focused teaching that included the use of humor, creative examples, and storytelling. Their findings indicated that fun delivery, and not fun activities, was positively associated with students’ motivation, interest and engagement.

Notably, their findings indicated fun delivery, but not fun activities, was positively related to student’ motivation, interest and engagement. Prior examining activities and delivery, our study highlights the importance of investigating students’ epistemic views. There is therefore the opportunity for novel research to examine factors and effects of fun and student learning experience including epistemic-guided learning design.

Our study highlights the importance of investigating students’ epistemic beliefs and its connections with the essence of their views. There is therefore the opportunity for novel research to examine factors and effects of fun and within student learning experience including the influence of epistemic-guided learning and teaching design.

A series of studies with Indonesian teachers ( Sheehy et al., 2019a ) suggested that their beliefs about how learning occurs are influenced by their views about happiness and, by implication, fun in relation to learning. These teachers often commented on the relationship between happiness and learning, and many saw happiness as an essential feature of good classroom teaching. However, they described a relationship between happiness and learning that was different in nature to that found in Western educational research. There is a tendency for Western educators to see happiness as “a tool for facilitating effective education” ( Fox et al., 2013 , p1), and as something that is promoted alongside educational excellence. In contrast, many Indonesian teachers see learning not as separate from happiness but as part of it ( Budiyanto et al., 2017 ; Budiyanto and Sheehy, 2019 ).

Other research has implied that this belief in separation arises when people see teaching as a simple transfer of “untransformed knowledge” from expert to student, in a traditional model of learning ( OECD, 2009 ) also known as the “banking model of education” Freire (2000) . This separation may be reflected in the balancing act between happiness with fun and academic achievement described in the CEE report mentioned above. In contrast, those who believe that learning is a social constructivist process are more likely to see happiness with fun as important to the process of learning. The situation remains that we have an incomplete understanding of fun in the domain of learning ( Tews et al., 2017 ) and it remains to be clarified by empirical research ( Iten and Petko, 2016 ); in particular under the lens of epistemological beliefs ( Sheehy et al., 2019a ) and practical experiences.

Our study also complemented a previous research about fun on traditional university’ campus whose students highlighted that fun in learning must integrate stimulating pedagogy; lecturer engagement; a safe learning space; shared experience; and a low-stress environment ( Whitton and Langan, 2018 ). Some key effects of fun, for example, pleasant communication and creation of a relaxed state to reduce stress ( Bisson and Luckner, 1996 ) are important factors to support learners during the isolation. Fun as an inner joy of wellbeing and engagement is an important component to propitiate learning with the creation of new patterns that are interesting, surprising and meaningful ( Schmidhuber, 2010 ) to involve students with formal education during uncertain time of post-pandemic.

As indicated by the research-authors and collaborators, further studies are important based on the RRI approach to construct new questions and also explore the issues indicated by preliminary studies ( Okada and Sheehy, 2020 ). New issues must be also examined on the effects of fun on online learning, also considering age, gender, socio-cultural aspects, accessibility, digital skills, and geographical differences. Developing further recommendations at broader institutional, national and international levels about effective and engaging online learning is also important to empower individuals and society to face, innovate and reconstruct a sustainable and enjoyable world.

Data Availability Statement

The open database can be accessed, downloaded and reused: Okada and Sheehy (2020) OLAF PROJECT data set. Open Research Data Online. The Open University. (November 2020). The Open Questionnaire can be accessed from the supplementary material Qualtrics Survey OLAF project.pdf.

Ethics Statement

The studies involving human participants were reviewed and approved by The Open University, HREC – Human Research and Ethics Committee. The patients/participants provided their written informed consent to participate in this study.

Author Contributions

AO wrote the first draft of the abstract and prepared the manuscript. KS provided the instrument and feedback about the final version. AO was responsible for the survey implementation in Qualtrics, data generation, instrument’s tests, data analysis through mixed methods, and validation supported by collaborators with consensual review. Additionally, AO created the figures, graphs, and tables. Both authors contributed to manuscript revision, read, and approved the submitted version.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

This study was funded by the Open University UK and is part of the international project OLAF – Online Learning and Fun. .


We are grateful to our collaborators who supported the recruitment of participants, our expert colleagues Prof. Dr. Daniela Melaré Barros; Prof. Dr. Maria Elizabeth de Almeida; Dr. Victoria Cooper, and Miss Ana Beatriz Rocha who provided valuable feedback and our external reviewers for useful suggestions.

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Keywords : COVID-19, online learning, fun, higher education, academic performance, epistemic views, responsible research and innovation, recommendations

Citation: Okada A and Sheehy K (2020) Factors and Recommendations to Support Students’ Enjoyment of Online Learning With Fun: A Mixed Method Study During COVID-19. Front. Educ. 5:584351. doi: 10.3389/feduc.2020.584351

Received: 17 July 2020; Accepted: 13 October 2020; Published: 11 December 2020.

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Copyright © 2020 Okada and Sheehy. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Alexandra Okada, [email protected]

This article is part of the Research Topic

COVID-19 and the Educational Response: New Educational and Social Realities

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Committee on Physical Activity and Physical Education in the School Environment; Food and Nutrition Board; Institute of Medicine; Kohl HW III, Cook HD, editors. Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2013 Oct 30.

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Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School.

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8 Recommendations

This chapter presents the committee's recommendations for strengthening and improving programs and policies for physical activity and physical education in the school environment, including before, during, and after school. These recommendations were developed in accordance with the guiding principles outlined in Chapter 1 , which included recognizing the benefits of instilling lifelong physical activity habits in children, the value of applying systems thinking in efforts to improve physical activity and physical education in the school environment, current disparities in opportunities and the need to achieve equity in physical activity and physical education, the importance of considering all types of school environments, the need to consider the diversity of students in developing recommendations, the importance of taking into account the practicality of implementation and the challenges and barriers faced by stakeholders, and the need for recommendations to be based on the best-available scientific evidence and promising approaches. The consensus recommendations presented in this chapter are a result of the committee's deliberations on the existing evidence and on the need for additional evidence.

In making its recommendations, the committee also recognized that, although schools can play a major role in improving physical activity among the nation's children, schools alone cannot implement the changes across systems that will be required to foster a healthy and educated future generation. The involvement of many more institutional players and supports will be necessary to make and sustain the needed changes. The committee applied systems thinking to delineate the elements of the overall system of policies and regulations at multiple levels that can influence physical activity and physical education in the school environment. To frame its deliberations, the committee drew on its conceptual framework (see Figure 1-4 in Chapter 1 ) and closely examined the evidence base (see Appendix B for additional detail on the study methods).


The committee formulated recommendations in six areas: taking a whole-of-school approach, considering physical activity in all school-related policy decisions, designating physical education as a core subject, monitoring physical education and opportunities for physical activity in schools, providing preservice training and professional development for teachers, and ensuring equity in access to physical activity and physical education.

Taking a Whole-of-School Approach

Recommendation 1: District and school administrators, teachers, and parents should advocate for and create a whole-of-school approach to physical activity that fosters and provides access in the school environment to at least 60 minutes per day of vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity more than half (>50 percent) of which should be accomplished during regular school hours.

  • School districts should provide high-quality curricular physical education during which students should spend at least half (>50 percent) of the class time engaged in vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity. All elementary school students should spend an average of 30 minutes per day and all middle and high school students an average of 45 minutes per day in physical education class. To allow for flexibility in curriculum scheduling, this recommendation is equivalent to 150 minutes per week for elementary school students and 225 minutes per week for middle and high school students.
  • Students should engage in additional vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity throughout the school day through recess, dedicated classroom physical activity time, and other opportunities.
  • Additional opportunities for physical activity before and after school hours, including but not limited to active transport, before- and after-school programming, and intramural and extramural sports, should be made accessible to all students.

Because the vast majority of youth are in school for many hours, because schools have important infrastructure for physical activity and are critical to the education and health of children and adolescents, and because physical activity promotes health and learning, it follows that physical activity should be a priority for all schools, particularly if there is an opportunity to improve academic achievement. As discussed in Chapter 1 , schools have for years been the center for other key health-related programming, including screenings, immunizations, and nutrition and substance abuse programs. Unfortunately, school-related physical activity has been fragmented and varies greatly across the United States, within states, within districts, and even within schools. Physical education typically has been relied on to provide physical activity as well as curricular instruction for youth; however, even the best-quality physical education curriculum will not allow children to meet the guideline of at least 60 minutes per day of vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity. Interscholastic and intramural sports are another traditional opportunity for physical activity, but they are unavailable to a sizable proportion of youth. Schools are being underutilized in the ways in which they provide opportunities for physical activity for children and adolescents. A whole-of-school approach that makes the school a resource to enable each child to attain the recommended 60 minutes or more per day of vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity can change this situation.

The committee therefore recommends a whole-of-school approach to increasing physical activity for children and adolescents. Under such an approach, all of a school's components and resources operate in a coordinated and dynamic manner to provide access, encouragement, and programs that enable all students to engage in vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity 60 minutes or more each day. A whole-of-school approach encompasses all segments of the school day, including travel to and from school, school-sponsored before- and after-school activities, recess and lunchtime breaks, physical education, and classroom instructional time. Beyond the resources devoted to quality daily physical education for all students, other school resources, such as classroom teachers, staff, administrators, and aspects of the physical environment, are oriented toward physical activity. Intramural and extramural sports programs are available to all who wish to participate, active transport is used by substantial numbers of children to move from home to school and back again, recess and other types of breaks offer additional opportunities for physical activity, and lesson plans integrate physical activity as an experiential approach to instruction.

A whole-of-school approach encompasses all people involved in the day-to-day functioning of the school, including students, faculty, staff, and parents. It creates an atmosphere in which physical activity is appreciated, encouraged, and rewarded by all these groups. Similarly, inactivity is discouraged and minimized. School buildings, outdoor grounds and playgrounds, indoor and outdoor equipment, and streets and pathways leading to the school from the surrounding neighborhood encourage and enable all persons to be more physically active. Moreover, the school is part of a larger system that encompasses community partnerships to help these goals be realized.

Potential Actions

For state legislatures and state departments of education, potential actions to implement this recommendation include

  • adopting and/or strengthening physical education and recess policies so they align with existing national recommendations for total number of weekly minutes of physical education, as well as requiring students to spend at least half (≥50 percent) of the class time engaged in vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity while maintaining an appropriate emphasis on skills development;
  • adopting and/or strengthening policies on before- and after-school programs so they align with national recommendations for physical activity;
  • adopting school siting policies that encourage locating schools within residential neighborhoods; and
  • working with national- and state-level parent-teacher organizations to mobilize and create engagement in this effort.

For school districts and schools, potential actions include

  • continuing to strengthen policies by requiring time for physical education and recess that aligns with national recommendations;
  • increasing the amount of time youth spend in physical activity by providing brief classroom breaks or incorporating physical activity directly into academic sessions;
  • offering intramural sports and physical activity clubs before or after school and helping make such programs accessible to all students;
  • adopting joint- or shared-use agreements allowing school facilities to be used for physical activity programs during nonschool hours;
  • identifying key champions in schools to lead efforts to increase physical activity; and
  • working with parent groups and parent-teacher associations to create a demand for and mobilize efforts to increase physical activity.

For municipalities, local governments, and urban planners, potential actions include

  • considering renovating schools already located in existing neighborhoods rather than building new schools away from where students live;
  • incorporating strategies for traffic calming (e.g., lower speed limits, speed humps or tables, sidewalks with buffers, medians) and traffic control (e.g., marked crosswalks, traffic lights with pedestrian signals) into community planning to ensure safe active travel routes for students; and
  • adopting school policies that encourage locating schools within residential neighborhoods.

Considering Physical Activity in All School-Related Policy Decisions

Recommendation 2: Federal and state governments, school systems at all levels (state, district, and local), city governments and city planners, and parent-teacher organizations should systematically consider access to and provision of physical activity in all policy decisions related to the school environment as a contributing factor to improving academic performance, health, and development for all children.

Many examples exist of effective and promising strategies for increasing vigorous- and moderate-intensity physical activity in schools. The most thorough yet often most difficult to implement are multicomponent interventions based on a systems approach that encompasses both school and community strategies. For strategies with a singular focus, the evidence is most robust for interventions involving physical education. Quality physical education curricula increase overall physical activity, increase the intensity of physical activity, and potentially influence body mass index (BMI)/weight status in youth. However, the lack of consistent monitoring of physical activity levels during physical education classes in schools (especially elementary and middle schools) impedes monitoring and evaluation of progress toward increasing physical activity during physical education in schools across the nation (see Recommendation 4 ).

Beyond physical education, opportunities for increasing physical activity are present in the classroom and, for elementary and middle schools, during recess. Classroom physical activity and strategies to reduce sedentary time in the school setting hold promise for increasing overall physical activity among children and adolescents, yet isolating the impact of these strategies is complex, and they are often met with resistance from key stakeholders. With respect to recess, its use to increase physical activity is a nationally recommended strategy, and there is evidence that participating in recess can increase physical activity and improve classroom behavior. However, implementation of recess across school districts and states is not currently at a sufficient level to increase physical activity.

Effective and promising strategies beyond the school day include after-school programming and sports, as well as active transport to and from school. After-school programming and participation in sports are important physical activity opportunities in the school setting, but implementation of and access to these opportunities vary greatly. Moreover, formal policies adopting physical activity standards for after-school programs are needed. Finally, evidence shows that children who walk or bike to school are more physically active than those who do not. Successful active transport interventions address policy and infrastructure barriers.

Also associated with the school environment are agreements between schools and communities to share facilities as places to be physically active. Although this is a relatively new research topic, these joint-use agreements can be a way to give youth additional opportunities for physical activity outside of school. Further research is needed on the utilization of facilities due to these agreements and their impact on physical activity.

For states, school districts, schools, and school wellness committees, potential actions to implement this recommendation include

  • designating individuals or committees specifically responsible for physical activity–related opportunities and programs (an emphasis on physical activity is important and new enough that these individuals should not also be responsible for programs directed at worthy but already well-established health-related behaviors such as nutrition or drug abuse);
  • specifying objectives for vigorous- and moderate-intensity physical activity during all segments of the school day (e.g., physical education, recess, classroom, transport to and from school, before- and after-school programs); and
  • working with leading professional organizations across disciplines to emphasize the importance of physical activity and encourage them to embed this priority into their national recommendations or position statements.

Designating Physical Education as a Core Subject

Recommendation 3: Because physical education is foundational for lifelong health and learning, the U.S. Department of Education should designate physical education as a core subject.

Physical education in school is the only sure opportunity for all school-aged children to access health-enhancing physical activity and the only school subject area that provides education to ensure that students develop the knowledge, skills, and motivation to engage in health-enhancing physical activity for life. Yet states vary greatly in their mandates with respect to time allocated for and access to physical education. Nearly half (44 percent) of school administrators report having cut significant time from physical education and recess to increase time devoted to reading and mathematics since the No Child Left Behind Act became law, which made federal funding dependent on schools' making adequate progress in the latter subject areas. Moreover, disparities have been documented in access to physical education for students of Hispanic ethnicity and lower socioeconomic status.

Currently, despite growing concern about the negative consequences of physical inactivity, physical education is not considered or treated as a core subject. Several national studies and reports have pointed to the importance of implementing state laws and regulations mandating both time requirements for physical education and monitoring of compliance with those requirements. Although a number of national governmental, nongovernmental, private industry, and public health organizations and agencies have offered specific recommendations for the number of days and minutes per day of physical education, no standardized state policy has emerged. As a core academic subject, physical education would receive much-needed policy attention that would enhance its overall quality in terms of content offerings, instruction, and accountability. The enactment of this recommendation also would likely result in downstream accountability that would assist in policy implementation.

For the U.S. Department of Education and federal and state public health agencies, potential actions to implement this recommendation include

  • finding innovative applications of physical education as a core subject in sample states or districts to highlight and measure outcomes.

For nongovernmental organizations, potential actions include

  • developing advocacy materials and planning dissemination of these materials to key stakeholders.

Monitoring Physical Education and Opportunities for Physical Activity in Schools

Recommendation 4: Education and public health agencies at all government levels (federal, state, and local) should develop and systematically deploy data systems to monitor policies and behaviors pertaining to physical activity and physical education in the school setting so as to provide a foundation for policy and program planning, development, implementation, and assessment.

The intent of this recommendation is to give citizens and officials concerned with the education of children in the United States—including parents and teachers as well as education and public health officials at the local, state, and federal levels—the information they need to make decisions about future actions. Principals, teachers, and parents who know that regular vigorous- and moderate-intensity physical activity is an essential part of the health and potentially the academic performance of students and who have adopted a whole-of-school approach to physical activity will want and need this information. This information also is important to support the development of strategies for accountability for strengthening physical activity and physical education in schools.

Aside from a few good one-time surveys of physical activity during physical education classes, remarkably little information is available on the physical activity behaviors of students during school hours or school-related activities. Even the best public health monitoring systems do not obtain this information. This dearth of information is surprising given that school-related physical activity accounts for such a large portion of the overall volume of physical activity among youth and that vigorous- and moderate-intensity physical activity is vital to students' healthy growth and development and may also influence academic performance and classroom behavior.

Evidence is emerging that laws and policies at the state and district levels can have important influence on the physical activity behaviors of large numbers of children and adolescents. Also emerging is evidence of a gap between the intent and implementation of school physical activity– related policies, so that their final impact is commonly less, sometimes appreciably so, than expected. While the factors that create an effective policy are still being elucidated, policies that entail required reporting of outcomes, provision of adequate funding, and easing of competing priorities appear to be more likely to be implemented and effective. Further evaluation of physical activity and physical education policies is needed to fully understand their impact in changing health behavior.

Monitoring of state and district laws and policies has improved over the past decade. In general, the number of states and districts with laws and policies pertaining to physical education has increased, although many such policies remain weak. For example, most states and districts have policies regarding physical education, but few require that it be provided daily or for a minimum number of minutes per week. Those that do have such requirements rarely have an accountability system in place. Although some comprehensive national guidelines exist, more are needed to define quality standards for policies on school-based physical activity and create more uniform programs and practices across states, school districts, and ultimately schools.

The few existing monitoring systems for school-related physical activity behaviors need to be augmented. Information is needed not only on the amount of vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity in which youth are engaged but also on its distribution across segments of the school day (i.e., physical education, recess, classroom, travel to and from school, school-related before- and after-school activities). Existing national surveys are not designed to provide local or even state estimates of these student behaviors. State departments of education, local school districts, and state and local health departments will need to collaborate to provide adequate monitoring. Also needed is augmented monitoring of physical activity–related guidelines, policies, and practices at the federal, state, and local levels.

For the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, potential actions to implement this recommendation include

  • collaborating to ensure the availability and publication of information about school physical activity– and physical education–related policies and students' physical activity behaviors and
  • facilitating collaboration among state and district departments of education and state and local health departments to obtain and publicize such information.

For federal agencies, specifically the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), potential actions include

  • continuing to improve the Youth Risk Factor Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to capture more completely students' school-related physical activity behaviors;
  • developing tools suitable for use by schools and school districts for monitoring students' physical activity behaviors throughout the school day; and
  • providing training for state and local health departments and state and district school systems as they endeavor to improve the monitoring of school-related physical activity behaviors and student achievement.

For local school districts and schools, in coordination with local health departments, state departments of education, and state departments of public health, potential actions include

  • regularly assessing student achievement of physical education standards and the physical activity behaviors of students during all segments of the school day;
  • developing systems to collect and publicize the information collected by local schools;
  • augmenting existing monitoring systems for students' physical fitness to include school-related physical activity behaviors and student achievement;
  • utilizing current systems for collecting educational information within schools and districts to monitor the quality of physical education and the usual dose of physical activity for students during school hours, while going to and from school, and at school-related functions, and involving teachers in developing the most efficient ways to collect and provide the data needed for monitoring; and
  • involving wellness committee members and parents in the monitoring of opportunities for students to be physically active during physical education, recess, classroom activities, travel to and from school, and at school-related events before and after school.

Providing Preservice Training and Professional Development for Teachers

Recommendation 5: Colleges and universities and continuing education programs should provide preservice training and ongoing professional development opportunities for K-12 classroom and physical education teachers to enable them to embrace and promote physical activity across the curriculum.

Teaching physical education effectively and safely requires specific knowledge about physical/mental development, body composition (morphology) and functions (physiology and biomechanics), and motor skills development and acquisition. Teaching physical education also requires substantial knowledge and skill in pedagogy, the science and art of teaching, which is required for any subject. In addition, because health is associated with academic performance, priority should be given to educating both classroom and physical education teachers regarding the importance of physical activity for the present and future physical and mental health of children.

The current wave of effort to curb childhood physical inactivity has begun to influence teacher education programs. Data appear to suggest that training programs for physical education teachers are beginning to evolve from a traditionally sport- and skills-centered model to a more comprehensive physical activity– and health-centered model. However, education programs for physical education teachers are facing a dramatic decrease in the number of kinesiology doctoral programs offering training to future teacher educators, in the number of doctoral students receiving this training, and in the number of professors (including part-time) offering the training. Additional data suggest a shortage of educators in higher education institutions equipped to train future physical education teachers. With unfilled positions, these teacher education programs are subject to assuming a marginal status in higher education and even to being eliminated.

Professional development—including credit and noncredit courses, classroom and online venues, workshops, seminars, teleconferences, and webinars—improves classroom instruction and student achievement, and data suggest a strong link among professional development, teacher learning and practice, and student achievement. The most impactful statement of government policy on the preparation and professional development of teachers was the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Although Title I of the act places highly qualified teachers in the classroom, Title II addresses the same goal by funding professional development for teachers. According to the No Child Left Behind Act, professional development should be offered to improve teachers' knowledge of the subject matter they teach, strengthen their classroom management skills, advance their understanding and implementation of effective teaching strategies, and build their capabilities to address disparities in education. This professional development should be extended to include physical education instructors as well.

For the U.S. Department of Education and local school districts, potential actions to implement this recommendation include

  • identifying exemplary training programs and highlighting best practices and
  • establishing requirements for competencies in physical education and physical activity for preservice and continuing education for all teachers and school administrators.

Ensuring Equity in Access to Physical Activity and Physical Education

Recommendation 6: Federal, state, district, and local education administrators should ensure that programs and policies at all levels address existing disparities in physical activity and that all students at all schools have equal access to appropriate facilities and opportunities for physical activity and quality physical education.

All children should engage in physical education and meet the recommendation of at least 60 minutes per day of vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity regardless of their region, school attended, grade level, or individual characteristics. However, a number of studies have documented social disparities in access to physical education and other opportunities for physical activity by race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, and immigrant generation. Moreover, because not every child has the means or opportunity to participate in before- and after-school activities and intramural/extramural sports, curriculum-based physical education programs often provide the only opportunity for all school-aged children to access health-enhancing physical activity.

For the U.S. Department of Education, state departments of education, and school boards, potential actions to implement this recommendation include

  • conducting an inventory of facilities for physical activity, including type, condition, safety, and availability and opportunities for physcial activity across schools and districts to provide insight on where improvements can be made to address disparities.

For local school districts, school wellness committees, and other relevant local entities, potential actions include

  • thoroughly reviewing existing physical activity opportunities and reducing barriers to access for all students, including but not limited to creation and maintenance of physical facilities and safety of their use.

Even though much is known about physical activity in youth, more knowledge is needed. In addition to developing recommendations for action to strengthen and improve programs and policies for physical activity and physical education in the school environment, the committee was asked to identify major gaps in knowledge and recommend key topic areas in need of research. These gaps are acknowledged in the discussion of the evidence in each chapter of this report. They are also highlighted here to emphasize the importance of continuing to refine the research base on which future recommendations can be made for advancing the health and academic achievement of children and youth through physical education and physical activity in schools.

The committee identified a number of broad future research needs and areas for additional investigation:

  • What are the effects of various doses of physical activity and the settings in which those doses occur on measures of academic achievement?
  • How can the whole-of-school approach be expanded to include opportunities for community-based promotion of physical activity?
  • What are the short- and long-term health, developmental, and academic impacts of physical education on children and adolescents?
  • What are the acute and long-term health, developmental, and academic effects of daily sedentary behavior in school?
  • What specific features of the built environment in schools influence participation in physical activity?
  • What is the effect of increasing school-based physical activity on physical activity outside of school?
  • What are the specific behavioral, environmental, and policy-related barriers to increasing physical activity in schools?
  • What innovations can improve the effectiveness of physical education for children and adolescents?

More specifically:

the effects of physical activity and increases in aerobic fitness on basic measures of brain health, cognition, and learning;

the dose-response relationship between physical activity and academic performance;

the daily school schedule and how best to integrate physical education classes as well as recess and classroom physical activity breaks, given that little is known about the effects of time of day and the timing of delivery of physical activity bouts in relation to the demands of cognitive tasks;

the effects of different physical activity types, such as aerobic, motor skills oriented, or perceptual-motor, on academic performance;

the relative effects of different settings within the school in increasing physical activity; and

the multifaceted nature of the relationship between physical activity and cognitive and brain health, including the degree to which these effects can be attributed to a break from academic time and what portion is a direct result of engagement in physical activity.

the limitations of previous research, to address and facilitate a deeper level of understanding of the relationship between motor competence and physical activity—more specifically, longitudinal data to permit a full understanding of the relationship between motor skills and participation in physical activity across the life span, as well as experimental studies in which skill levels can be manipulated (positively or negatively) to determine how participation in physical activity changes;

motor skills and participation in physical activity; and

the effects of intermittent versus sustained physical activity on disease risk factors.

physical activity and physical fitness in youth and their effects on academic performance;

effective strategies for developing and employing systems to track the quality and frequency of physical education and physical activity opportunities across the curriculum;

effective implementation of systems with which to monitor school-related laws, policies, and practices that may enable or impede physical activity and physical education;

baseline estimates of the physical activity behaviors of children and adolescents at school across all age groups and grade levels; racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographic groups; and all segments of the school day (including transport to and from school, physical education, recess, classroom time, and before-and after-school activities); and

standardized, national-level data on the offering of and participation in physical education, as well as student performance of and engagement in vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity during physical education.

  • In the area of policy and programming, future research is needed to examine systematically the personal, curricular, and policy barriers to successful physical education in schools.

a reexamination of opportunities for physical activity in school-based intramural and extramural sports and active transport to school to address disparities based on race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, school location and resources, and students' disabilities or cultural/religious barriers;

the effectiveness of physical education, recess, classroom physical activity, and strategies for reducing sedentary time in increasing physical activity across subgroups based on race/ethnicity and immigrant and socioeconomic status, including the differential effects of these approaches among those subgroups;

the benefits of tailoring school-based physical education and physical activity interventions to the wide social and physical variations among schools; and

disparities in the built environment among schools and whether they contribute to disparities in physical activity across racial/ethnic and socioeconomic subgroups.

  • Cite this Page Committee on Physical Activity and Physical Education in the School Environment; Food and Nutrition Board; Institute of Medicine; Kohl HW III, Cook HD, editors. Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2013 Oct 30. 8, Recommendations.
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