Self-directed, iterative learning can improve critical thinking in STEM classes, but…

This study was on my ‘to blog’ list, but Wilfred Rubens beat me to it. According to new University of British Columbia (UBC) research, a self-directed, iterative learning framework used in a first-year physics lab can improve students’ critical thinking skill. The press release even talks about ‘dramatically improved’.

And it does seem to be the case:

According to the PNAS study, students (N 130) using the iterative approach to experimentation were 12 times more likely to propose or carry out improvements to their data or methods than a control-group in a traditional version of the lab.

They were four times more likely to identify and explain a limitation of an underlying scientific model using their data.

Do read the press release, but also the ‘but, wait…’ underneath it.

From the press release:

In a traditional lab, a student conducts an experiment as instructed and writes it up, often chalking up discrepancies or issues to human error or lousy equipment–then they move on to the next concept,” says researcher Natasha Holmes, who oversaw the revamped lab at UBC and is lead author of a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study measuring its impact.

“Our framework designs the class more like a research program where scientists have to make decisions about data and uncertainty. It’s more about ingraining the iterative scientific process than any single result.”

According to the PNAS study, students (N 130) using the iterative approach to experimentation were 12 times more likely to propose or carry out improvements to their data or methods than a control-group in a traditional version of the lab.

They were four times more likely to identify and explain a limitation of an underlying scientific model using their data.

“The exciting thing is that giving the students the guided autonomy to decide how to follow up on a result ingrains critical thinking long term,” says UBC physicist Doug Bonn, author on the PNAS paper.

“The improvements persisted when the students were no longer prompted to take the iterative approach, and even as they moved into a more traditional lab course the following year.”

The pilot studies testing the impact of this structure, funded by UBC’s Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative, were conducted from 2012 to 2014 and further improvements are being tested this September. In January 2016, UBC will roll out the new lab formally to a much larger group of students in a new course, Physics 119.

The pendulum example

As they worked through simple physics experiments, 130 first-year students in the new lab course were asked to do more than ‘write up’ their results.

They were given explicit instructions to compare data from their experiment to existing models, or to a fellow student’s results, and then decide how to act on the comparisons.

For example, when comparing the period of a pendulum swing at various angles, students are given the autonomy and time to conduct more measurements to improve the quality of their data.

Eventually, the higher quality data exposes the limitations and assumptions of an established formula–often surprising the student. This builds confidence in their ability to then explore why the simple model failed.

But wait,… Wilfred is very corrected in pointing out that in the approach the students needed to follow a strict framework:

The framework asks students to compare their experimental data to other students’ data or to simplified models, think critically, and then rework the science–on their own.

They were given explicit instructions to compare data from their experiment to existing models, or to a fellow student’s results, and then decide how to act on the comparisons.

Ok… it worked but to call it self-directed? Maybe rather directed self-directed? Or even better guided learning?

And when looking at the actual study, there might be another issue, regarding the control group:

Our data, however, are limited in that we only evaluate what was written in the students’ books by the end of the laboratory session. It is plausible that the students in the control group were holding highlevel discussions about the disagreement but not writing them down. The students’ low-level written reflections are, at best, evidence that they needed more time to achieve the outcomes of the experimental group.

Still, they still remained well below the level of the experimental group.

Abstract of the study:

The ability to make decisions based on data, with its inherent uncertainties and variability, is a complex and vital skill in the modern world. The need for such quantitative critical thinking occurs in many different contexts, and although it is an important goal of education, that goal is seldom being achieved. We argue that the key element for developing this ability is repeated practice in making decisions based on data, with feedback on those decisions. We demonstrate a structure for providing suitable practice that can be applied in any instructional setting that involves the acquisition of data and relating that data to scientific models. This study reports the results of applying that structure in an introductory physics laboratory course. Students in an experimental condition were repeatedly instructed to make and act on quantitative comparisons between datasets, and between data and models, an approach that is common to all science disciplines. These instructions were slowly faded across the course. After the instructions had been removed, students in the experimental condition were 12 times more likely to spontaneously propose or make changes to improve their experimental methods than a control group, who performed traditional experimental activities. The students in the experimental condition were also four times more likely to identify and explain a limitation of a physical model using their data. Students in the experimental condition also showed much more sophisticated reasoning about their data. These differences between the groups were seen to persist into a subsequent course taken the following year.

 

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