Less than 50 percent of first-time teachers remain in the field for more than three years, according to associate professor Tandra Tyler-Wood. Wood is an associate professor in the College of Education's Department of Educational Psychology.
Retention of teachers is essential in the ongoing battle against the national shortage of special education teachers. Tyler-Wood and her colleagues in UNT's College of Education and College of Information are working to develop teaching methods that will produce more qualified teachers, and subsequently improve beginning teacher retention.
Tyler-Wood and her colleagues are evaluating simSchool, an online classroom simulator that allows students to practice their skills in a low-pressure environment. Tyler-Wood says that getting students acclimated to the classroom environment earlier than their senior year is essential to improving teacher quality.
"We are finding that the simSchool program allows us to give students practical experience with a classroom environment much earlier in their college career, which not only helps students better grasp the concepts that they are learning in their courses, but also builds confidence," Tyler-Wood says.
Tyler-Wood's study is particularly interested in examining how the simSchool program can help students prepare to teach special needs children. The program includes a "create a student" function that allows users to tailor each simulated student's learning styles. Students can then run sample lessons and observe how each simulated pupil responds to different teaching methods.
UNT's study of the simSchool program is being funded by a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation's Research in Disabilities Education. The team also received internal UNT funding, which allowed them to extend their testing to larger class sections.
The researchers are measuring the effectiveness of the program by having the students report their level of self-efficacy and instructional efficacy before and after using the simSchool program. The team also is studying these teacher candidates' feeling toward the belief that they can change their students' motivation to learn. All of the data collected is being compared against data from a control group that is not using the simSchool program.
Tyler-Wood and her colleagues found that undergraduate students using simSchool show significant increases in self-efficacy and instructional efficacy, which means that the students have greater confidence in themselves and their teaching methods than they did prior to using the simSchool program.
"We see simSchool as an inoculation against failure. It gives students the confidence to go into the classroom feeling empowered and prepared," Tyler-Wood says.
According to Tyler-Wood, the data is showing that the program is more effective on undergraduate students, than graduate students. She believes this is because the majority of graduate students have already taught in real world classrooms for several years, and have therefore already developed the confidence necessary to be an effective teacher.
Tyler-Wood also believes that the use of a simulated classroom is an effective learning tool because of its game-like nature.
"Many of today's students grew up playing simulation games, such as Oregon Trail and Lemonade Stand, so when they use simSchool for class it feels more like they are playing a game. It is a low-pressure and comfortable way for them to practice their skills," Tyler-Wood says.
The program currently is being used in the CECS 4100, a sophomore-level course that teaches students about technology in the classroom. This summer, the course is being used in 5710 Special Education Programs and Practices, a graduate-level course.
The next phase of the study includes incorporating subject-specific lesson plans into the simulation. The research team plans to continue applying for grants and pursue the project indefinitely.
Alyssa Aber with UNT News Service can be reached at Alyssa.firstname.lastname@example.org.