Synergistic Inquiry

Synergistic Inquiry

Inquiry learning (also known as discovery learning)1 is an educational method that “places responsibility on the students to pose hypotheses, design experiments, make predictions…decide how to analyze results…and so on”.2 Several authors have attempted to define and describe the characteristics of inquiry learning in the science classroom.3,4

It is commonly assumed that higher levels of inquiry are achieved as student control over the experimental process increases. For example, Buck, Bretz, and Towns have categorized inquiry-based lessons by the level of autonomy that students experience as they carry out investigations (Table 1).3 According to these authors, the level of inquiry attained in lessons can be determined by deciding if it is the student or teacher that poses questions, uncovers relevant theory and concepts, develops procedures, analyzes and communicates results, and draws conclusions (Table 1).

 

Table 1: Levels of Inquiry Characterized by Buck, Bretz, and Towns.3

 

Evidence suggests that inquiry-based learning provides many benefits to students, including increased motivation, learning outcomes, and appreciation of science.1-4 It is argued that students learn how to “do science”2 by participating in inquiry-based activities. It is therefore no surprise that many educators argue that students should be pushed to engage in higher levels of inquiry as much as possible. Indeed, (as noted by Cooper)5 the Science and Engineering Practices (Table 2) of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)6 are essentially the same as characteristics of inquiry outlined by Buck, Bretz, and Towns.

 

Table 2: NGSS Science and Engineering Practices and Associated Characteristics of Inquiry delineated by Buck, Bretz, and Towns.

NGSS Practice

Characteristic of Inquiry Learning or Related to this NGSS Practice

Asking questions and defining problems

Problem/Question

Developing and using models

Theory/Background

Planning and carrying out investigations

Procedures/Design

Analyzing and interpreting data

Results Analysis

Using mathematics and computational thinking

Results Analysis

Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

Results Communication

Constructing explanations and designing solutions

Conclusions

Engaging in argument from evidence

Conclusions

 

It is important to note that many authors – including those who champion the practice of inquiry learning – point out exposing students to “higher levels” of inquiry can be counterproductive.1,7-9 For example, ample research shows that students given complete freedom over all aspects of the learning process (similar to authentic inquiry, Table 1) ultimately learn very little.9 On the other hand, inquiry-based approaches in which the teachers provide support (similar to structured, guided, or open inquiry, Table 1) appear to lead to the greatest gains in learning.9 Therefore, students need a great deal of support as they progress towards higher levels of inquiry learning.7-9

 

Synergistic Inquiry

I often use inquiry learning in my classes, and when doing so I attempt to guide my students towards increased independence as they conduct their experiments. However, consistent with the concerns outlined in the previous paragraph, I have begun to wonder if it is always beneficial to push students toward greater autonomy as they carry out scientific explorations. Therefore, I have begun to explore an approach wherein I work alongside my students as they carry out inquiry-based experiences that call upon the science and engineering practices (Table 2). Thus, my students and I work together to solve problems in an approach I call synergistic inquiry. Simply put, synergistic inquiry occurs when students and teachers cooperate in an attempt to answer questions. In the science classroom, this means the student and teacher work together to pose questions and attempt to answer them. I want to be clear: I am not suggesting that synergistic inquiry is a new educational method. Science teachers have been informally using this approach for a very long time. Rather, in this article I intend to describe and characterize synergistic inquiry as a valid educational tool, to contextualize it within the scope of inquiry-based methods, to propose its use as a way to prepare students for (and engage students in) valuable inquiry learning, and to provide helpful tips to teachers who wish to implement synergistic inquiry in their classrooms.

Synergistic inquiry changes the emphasis from having students “do science” to experiencing the process that people undergo when they train to become scientists. The focus is not so much on having students carry out all of the characteristics of inquiry on their own, without the input of the teacher, but rather using all the characteristics of inquiry – along with their teacher – to attempt to answer questions. Table 3 (below) indicates that synergistic inquiry contains all the characteristics of inquiry, but that the student and teacher cooperate in carrying out these tasks.

The process of synergistic inquiry is carried out during the training of scientists. For example, when I was training to be a professional chemist, I worked under the tutelage of advisors who were experts in their area of study. My advisors helped me to learn the theory required to understand and analyze experiments within the field. They taught me how to conduct various experiments, to ask relevant questions, and to design and implement experiments intended to answer those questions. They helped me analyze results and to draw conclusions from those results. As I gained confidence and a bit of expertise in the lab, I moved from being a “student” of my advisors to a colleague that worked alongside them with the common goal of solving various problems. It was only after several years of working with these experts that I was able to formulate questions and design experiments independently. The point of relating this experience of mine is to stress that I didn’t learn to become an independent researcher – or to “do” science –by making certain that I independently worked on problems, designed experiments, analyzed results, and proposed conclusions. Rather, I learned how to do independent research by working alongside those who were doing independent research. In this vein, I have found that many of my students in my classes capture a glimpse of how the scientific process plays out by working alongside me and with their own classmates as together we attempt to use chemistry to gain insight into the workings of various phenomena.

 

Table 3: In Synergistic Inquiry, students, peers, and teachers participate together throughout the experimental process in an attempt to answer questions. This table is a modified version of that presented in Buck, Bretz, and Towns, Journal of Science Teaching (2008).

 

How might synergistic inquiry be implemented in the classroom?

I often require my students to investigate scientific questions as part of regular coursework, setting apart several laboratory periods specifically for exploratory work. These investigations are typically carried out during the latter part of a course. Students are required to give presentations (either poster or oral) to their classmates at the conclusion after the work is completed (see Appendix for a guide I give students to assist in constructing these presentations). I have used this approach in courses that span a wide range of sophistication: science for non-majors, introductory chemistry, general chemistry, analytical chemistry, and physical chemistry.

To begin the process, I ask students to individually meet with me to discuss experimental ideas. Students often have an idea of what they would like to study, but I almost always provide input. Many times I do not know what the outcome of the investigation will be. For example, I once had a student remark that she wished to determine if cooking foods in the microwave oven adversely affected the nutritional content of foods. Given the broad nature of her query, I suggested we try to answer a more specific, but related question. I recommended we determine if heating orange juice in the microwave oven diminished the content of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) in the juice. Thus, the student and I worked together to frame a question. She provided the impetus for what she wished to study, and I used my expertise to guide her into a chemical problem that could potentially be answered within a reasonable number of laboratory periods. This is a key idea of synergistic inquiry: the instructor acts as a consultant, providing expertise to help students throughout the entire scientific process.

 

Role of the teacher in synergistic inquiry 

Thus, the teacher plays the role of an expert consultant when synergistic inquiry is used in the classroom. Teachers should provide opinions on student-proposed experiments, models, and conclusions. Teachers should point out to students when conclusions display flawed reasoning or misapplication of scientific principles. This does not mean the student should always take the advice of the teacher. In almost all cases, I allow students to carry out proposed experiments that I think won’t work or are otherwise poorly designed. Some of my favorite moments occur when my students demonstrate that I am wrong (yes, this happens). If a student and I disagree on a particular model or conclusion, we try to envision and carry out experiments that – when completed and analyzed – will resolve the disagreement.

I generally find that students need assistance determining how to conduct and monitor experiments in a quantitative manner. I therefore routinely ask students to envision ways to carry out experiments that lead to the creation of graphs: Does varying some measurable parameter cause a change in another measurable phenomenon? The most common variables we manipulate are temperature or concentration of some substance. Sometimes students figure out how to do this on their own, other times I come up with ideas for them. Also, students often need help designing and recognizing the value of control experiments. In the orange juice experiment mentioned earlier we obviously tested the Vitamin C content of orange juice that had – and had not – been microwaved. However, as an additional control we tested the Vitamin C content of a solution of known concentration of ascorbic acid in water. Another good control would have been to measure the Vitamin C content of a sample of orange juice that had been heated on a stove top rather than in the microwave.

Also, students often need to be prompted to carry out multiple trials and to statistically analyze results. For example, in our orange juice experiment, my student reported to me that she found 12.2 mg of Vitamin C in a sample of fresh orange juice, but only 11.9 mg of Vitamin C in a sample of microwaved orange juice. On the basis of these observations she concluded that microwaving removed some of the Vitamin C from the orange juice. I suggested that she run additional trials and compute standard deviations of the results. After running 5 samples each, she found that 12.1 ± 0.5 mg and 12.2 ± 0.3 mg of Vitamin C was present in fresh and microwaved orange juice, respectively. Thus, after running several trials and statistically analyzing the result, her conclusion was that within experimental error, microwaving orange juice does not change its Vitamin C content.

"when scientists are doing their best, they don’t really “want” a desired outcome. Ultimately, what we “want” is to observe, describe, and explain what is really happening."

The teacher also helps students deal with failure. Students often get frustrated when they can’t build a desired project or when an experiment does not achieve an anticipated result. I like to tell my students “I have never had a failed experiment – only new observations”. In essence, failure is not possible. I try to impress upon students that when scientists are doing their best, they don’t really “want” a desired outcome. Ultimately, what we “want” is to observe, describe, and explain what is really happening. Thus, I encourage students to do exactly that: report exactly what they did, exactly what they saw, and try to explain why they got the observed result. I inform students that I will very likely use their observations to try again in the future, and knowing what has already been attempted is extremely helpful in moving forward and designing new experiments. Consistent with this attitude, students are not graded on whether their experiments are “successful” or not. Rather, heavy emphasis is placed on specific and complete reporting of experimental procedures, the presentation of experimental data, and the agreement between the conclusions drawn and the evidence presented.

Ideas for investigations

Coming up with individual experiments for all students is a difficult task. One way to alleviate this problem is to have students work in groups of two or more. Over the years I have found some guidelines that are helpful in dreaming up experiments for students. Simply asking a student what it is that they want to study (again, with my input) sometimes generates fantastic ideas. I have also had students repeat experiments found in the Journal of Chemical Education, posted on ChemEdX, or attempted in previous years by former students. When repeating experiments, we try to figure out ways to tweak or extend what has already been done. Because of this, my students and I have worked on some questions over the course of several years with multiple, different students working on the same general question. Thus, new batches of students build upon the results of past generations of students – much in the same way that the scientific endeavor plays out. I often want to make improvements to demonstrations or laboratory experiments that I use in class. Having students work on these improvements makes for great project ideas. Exploring the interface between chemistry and art or cooking is a favorite of students. For example, I have had students use anthocyanin from cabbage juice at different pH levels as the only colorant for a “painting” or “drawing”. Students have generated some impressive artwork using this idea (Figure 1), but we have yet to figure out how to keep the colors from fading over time (yes, this is another question my students have explored). Finally, finding ways to connect experiments to a student’s career aspirations or favorite sport works well. My favorite example of this was when a student who was a pole vaulter tested the amount of bend his pole experienced at different temperatures. To prepare the pole at different temperatures, he incubated the pole in a rain gutter filled with water at different temperatures.


Figure 1: Drawing colored using anthocyanin with cabbage juice at different pH. Artwork by Michael Tebo.

 

"it seems that as I tell the stories of discovery and experimental work from past students, my current students begin to believe that they, too can do real science."

What are some benefits of synergistic inquiry?

Over the years I have noticed that students take a great deal of ownership in their projects, often working double or triple the time I require for in-laboratory work. Students routinely work on experiments outside of normal class time. This implies that experiments involving synergistic inquiry increase student motivation and interest in science. I regularly observe students informally communicating with each other about their experiments. They explain project details to others, brainstorm possible experiments to carry out, and discuss the merits of various explanations for observations. Because I require all students to work on different questions, students become exposed to a wide variety of inquiry-based explorations through their conversations. Furthermore, I often incorporate experiments and results that past students have achieved when presenting various chemical concepts during lecture. By doing this, students are exposed to the thinking involved during inquiry-based experimentation throughout the entire school year. While I have not collected data on this, it seems that as I tell the stories of discovery and experimental work from past students, my current students begin to believe that they, too can do real science.

 

Conclusion

One of the primary goals of teaching is to move students toward greater independence. As a result, we teachers tend to see the various levels of inquiry (Table 1) as a hierarchy, where structured inquiry < guided inquiry < open inquiry < authentic inquiry. It is therefore natural for us to want our students to be in charge of all aspects of exploratory work. However, we must be careful not to give students too much freedom before they are ready: students must learn to walk before they can run. Indeed, research shows that inquiry-based work leads to the most learning gains when students experience a balance of structure and freedom.1,9 Recognizing this, some chemistry teachers have described how to properly prepare students to engage in inquiry in the chemistry classroom.7,8 Building upon this work, I have endeavored herein to describe a process I call synergistic inquiry, in which chemistry teachers guide students in inquiry-based investigations by working with them. Synergistic inquiry frees the teacher from worrying about helping students too much as they approach scientific questions: the teacher and student help each other to solve scientific problems. In this sense, it allows the teacher to help students engage with inquiry-based explorations “at their own pace”. In my experience, some students need a lot of help along every step of the way, while other students need very little assistance. Synergistic inquiry also frees students and teachers from the constraints of worrying about what level of inquiry has been attained, and to instead to just do science. Like all inquiry learning, synergistic inquiry demystifies scientific practices (and the scientific method itself) by inviting students to participate in them. However, it also emulates the process of how people become scientists. In my opinion, the best part of using synergistic inquiry is that it transforms my classroom into a team of human beings who work together to explore the many wonders of the physical world.

 

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the reviewers of this manuscript for their expertise and helpful suggestions. I would also like to thank the many students I have worked with over the years, who have allowed me to learn, explore, and question so much more than I could by myself.

 

References

1. Kirschner, P.A.; Sweller, J.; Clark, R. E. Educational Psychologist, 2006, 41, 75-86.

2. French, D.; Russell, C. BioScience, 2002, 51, 1036-1180.

3. Buck, L. B.; Bretz, S. L.; Towns, M. H. Journal of College Science Teaching, 2008, 38, 52-58.

4. Fay, M. E.; Grove, N. P.; Towns, M. H.; Bretz, S. L.; Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 2007, 8, 212-219.

5. Cooper, M. M. Journal of Chemical Education, 2013, 90, 679-680.

6. The Next Generation Science Standards

7. Criswell, B. Journal of Chemical Education, 2012, 89, 199-205.

8. Buck, L.B.; Towns, M. H. Journal of Chemical Education, 2009, 86, 820-822.

9. Mayer, R. E. American Psychologist, 2004, 59, 14-19.

 

Appendix - Presentation guidelines

 

Panel

 

 

Necessary components

 

Comments

Title

Name of your experiment, Name of author and school affiliation.

Try to make as eye-catching as possible.

Purpose

Explanation of why the project is important or interesting.

Use text large enough to view from 2 meters away.

 

Background / Introduction

Explanation of necessary theory, equations and diagrams required to understand your experiments.

Use text large enough to view from 2 meters away.

Details may be explained orally to interested persons.

Materials and Methods

Explain in detail how you carried out your experiments.

Include enough information so that your experiments can easily be replicated.

 

Data

Graphs, charts, calculations, diagrams, spectra, etc. that present data collected during your experiments.

Use color!  Keep data as visually oriented as possible.  USE ONLY ORIGINAL WORK.

Interpretation

Text and diagrams that explain why you think your data supports your conclusion.

Keep explanations as simple and visual as possible. 

 

Conclusion

Text describing, in a very concise manner, all you have learned as a result of the experiments you conducted.

2 or 3 sentences should suffice.  Keep the text large enough to view from 2 meters away.

 

References

A list of the literature you have read to provide you with the necessary background to complete your work.

At least 2 references are expected.

 

Acknowledgements

A list of the people and institutions that have provided assistance in completing your work.

People love to be thanked.  Do not discount this part of your poster.

 

 

Collection: 

NGSS

At the high school level students are expected to engage with major global issues at the interface of science, technology, society and the environment, and to bring to bear the kinds of analytical and strategic thinking that prior training and increased maturity make possible. As in prior levels, these capabilities can be thought of in three stages—defining the problem, developing possible solutions, and improving designs.

Defining the problem at the high school level requires both qualitative and quantitative analysis. For example, the need to provide food and fresh water for future generations comes into sharp focus when considering the speed at which world population is growing, and conditions in countries that have experienced famine. While high school students are not expected to solve these challenges, they are expected to begin thinking about them as problems that can be addressed, at least in part, through engineering.

Developing possible solutions for major global problems begins by breaking them down into smaller problems that can be tackled with engineering methods. To evaluate potential solutions students are expected to not only consider a wide range of criteria, but to also recognize that criteria need to be prioritized. For example, public safety or environmental protection may be more important than cost or even functionality. Decisions on priorities can then guide tradeoff choices.

Improving designs at the high school level may involve sophisticated methods, such as using computer simulations to model proposed solutions. Students are expected to use such methods to take into account a range of criteria and constraints, to try and anticipate possible societal and environmental impacts, and to test the validity of their simulations by comparison to the real world.

Connections with other science disciplines help high school students develop these capabilities in various contexts. For example, in the life sciences students are expected to design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing human impact on the environment (HS-LS2-7) and to create or revise a simulation to test solutions for mitigating adverse impacts of human activity on biodiversity (HS-LS4-6). In the physical sciences students solve problems by applying their engineering capabilities along with their knowledge of conditions for chemical reactions (HS-PS1-6), forces during collisions (HS-PS2-3), and conversion of energy from one form to another (HS-PS3-3). In the Earth and space sciences students apply their engineering capabilities to reduce human impacts on Earth systems, and improve social and environmental cost-benefit ratios (HS-ESS3-2, HS-ESS3- 4).

By the end of 12th grade students are expected to achieve all four HS-ETS1 performance expectations (HS-ETS1-1, HS-ETS1-2, HS-ETS1-3, and HS-ETS1-4) related to a single problem in order to understand the interrelated processes of engineering design. These include analyzing major global challenges, quantifying criteria and constraints for solutions; breaking down a complex problem into smaller, more manageable problems, evaluating alternative solutions based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs, and using a computer simulation to model the impact of proposed solutions. While the performance expectations shown in High School Engineering Design couple particular practices with specific disciplinary core ideas, instructional decisions should include use of many practices that lead to the performance expectations.

 

Summary:

At the high school level students are expected to engage with major global issues at the interface of science, technology, society and the environment, and to bring to bear the kinds of analytical and strategic thinking that prior training and increased maturity make possible. As in prior levels, these capabilities can be thought of in three stages—defining the problem, developing possible solutions, and improving designs.

 

Assessment Boundary:

By the end of 12th grade students are expected to achieve all four HS-ETS1 performance expectations (HS-ETS1-1, HS-ETS1-2, HS-ETS1-3, and HS-ETS1-4) related to a single problem in order to understand the interrelated processes of engineering design. These include analyzing major global challenges, quantifying criteria and constraints for solutions; breaking down a complex problem into smaller, more manageable problems, evaluating alternative solutions based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs, and using a computer simulation to model the impact of proposed solutions. While the performance expectations shown in High School Engineering Design couple particular practices with specific disciplinary core ideas, instructional decisions should include use of many practices that lead to the performance expectations.

Clarification:

Defining the problem at the high school level requires both qualitative and quantitative analysis. For example, the need to provide food and fresh water for future generations comes into sharp focus when considering the speed at which world population is growing, and conditions in countries that have experienced famine. While high school students are not expected to solve these challenges, they are expected to begin thinking about them as problems that can be addressed, at least in part, through engineering.

Developing possible solutions for major global problems begins by breaking them down into smaller problems that can be tackled with engineering methods. To evaluate potential solutions students are expected to not only consider a wide range of criteria, but to also recognize that criteria need to be prioritized. For example, public safety or environmental protection may be more important than cost or even functionality. Decisions on priorities can then guide tradeoff choices.

Improving designs at the high school level may involve sophisticated methods, such as using computer simulations to model proposed solutions. Students are expected to use such methods to take into account a range of criteria and constraints, to try and anticipate possible societal and environmental impacts, and to test the validity of their simulations by comparison to the real world.

 

Analyze a Major Global Challenge is a performance expectation related to Engineering Design HS-ETS1. 

 

Summary:

Analyze a major global challenge to specify qualitative and quantitative criteria and constraints for solutions that account for societal needs and wants.

Assessment Boundary:
Clarification:

Students analyze a major global problem. In their analysis, students: Describe the challenge with a rationale for why it is a major global challenge; Describe, qualitatively and quantitatively, the extent and depth of the problem and its major consequences to society and/or the natural world on both global and local scales if it remains unsolved; and Document background research on the problem from two or more sources, including research journals. Defining the process or system boundaries, and the components of the process or system: In their analysis, students identify the physical system in which the problem is embedded, including the major elements and relationships in the system and boundaries so as to clarify what is and is not part of the problem: and In their analysis, students describe* societal needs and wants that are relative to the problem. Defining the criteria and constraints: Students specify qualitative and quantitative criteria and constraints for acceptable solutions to the problem.

Engineering Design - Design a solution to a complex real-world problem is a performance expectation related to Engineering Design HS-ETS1.page1image680758384

 

Summary:

Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.

page1image680758384page1image680758720

Assessment Boundary:
Clarification:

Using scientific knowledge to generate the design solution: Students restate the original complex problem into a finite set of two or more sub-problems (in writing or as a diagram or flow chart). For at least one of the sub-problems, students propose two or more solutions that are based on student-generated data and/or scientific information from other sources. Students describe* how solutions to the sub-problems are interconnected to solve all or part of the larger problem.

Describing criteria and constraints, including quantification when appropriate: Students describe criteria and constraints for the selected sub-problem. Students describe the rationale for the sequence of how sub-problems are to be solved, and which criteria should be given highest priority if tradeoffs must be made.

page1image591697904

page1image680758384page1image680758720

HS-ETS1-4 Use a Computer Simulation to Model the Impact of Proposed Solution is a performance expectation related to Engineering Design HS-ETS1.

Summary:

Use a computer simulation to model the impact of proposed solutions to a complex real-world problem with numerous criteria and constraints on interactions within and between systems relevant to the problem.

page1image679657632page1image679657968

Assessment Boundary:
Clarification:

Representation - Students identify the following components from a given computer simulation: The complex real-world problem with numerous criteria and constraints; The system that is being modeled by the computational simulation, including the boundaries of the systems; What variables can be changed by the user to evaluate the proposed solutions, tradeoffs, or other decisions; and The scientific principle(s) and/or relationship(s) being used by the model.

Computational Modeling - Students use the given computer simulation to model the proposed solutions by: Selecting logical and realistic inputs; and Using the model to simulate the effects of different solutions, tradeoffs, or other decisions.

Analysis - Students compare the simulated results to the expected results. Students interpret the results of the simulation and predict the effects of the proposed solutions within and between systems relevant to the problem based on the interpretation. Students identify the possible negative consequences of solutions that outweigh their benefits. Students identify the simulation’s limitations.

Join the conversation.

Comments 4

Eric Nelson | Mon, 01/14/2019 - 19:24

Tom -- 

First, here is a new study:

John Jerrim, Mary Oliver, Sam Sims,

The relationship between inquiry-based teaching and students’ achievement.

Learning and Instruction, Volume 61, 2019,

Abstract

Inquiry-based science teaching involves supporting pupils to acquire scientific knowledge indirectly by conducting their own scientific experiments, rather than receiving scientific knowledge directly from teachers. This approach to instruction is widely used among science educators in many countries. However, researchers and policymakers have recently called the effectiveness of inquiry approaches into doubt. Using nationally-representative, linked survey and administrative data, we find little evidence that the frequency of inquiry-based instruction is positively associated with teenagers’ performance in science examinations. This finding is robust to the use of different measures of inquiry, different examinations/measures of attainment, across classrooms with varying levels of disciplinary standards and across gender and prior attainment subgroups.

Second:  In your reference #1 (Kirschner et al.), it says this:

Klahr and Nigam (2004), in a very important study, not only tested whether science learners learned more via a discovery versus direct instruction route but also, once learning had occurred, whether the quality of learning differed. Specifically, they tested whether those who had learned through discovery were better able to transfer their learning to new contexts. The findings were unambiguous..Direct instruction involving considerable guidance, including examples, resulted in vastly more learning than discovery. Those relatively few students who learned via discovery showed no signs of superior quality of learning.

In a later review of their 2006 paper, Kirschner et al. add:

“Independent problems and projects can be effective – not as vehicles for making discoveries, but as a means of practicing recently learned content and skills.”

Science says there is a time and place for inquiry, but it is only effective after the fundamentals involved can be quickly recalled from the neurons of long-term memory.  And movement of the usually exact facts and procedures of math and science into memory, and then making them retrievable, takes drill and practice, spaced over time.

Chemistry Education has become a multidisciplinary combination of two sciences:  Chemistry (molecular behavior) and Cognitive Science (what the brain needs to know to be able to solve problems).  I appreciate your research that includes consensus knowledge from research scientists with credentials in each of those two fields,

 

Tom Kuntzleman's picture
Tom Kuntzleman | Tue, 01/15/2019 - 14:46

Hi Eric:

 

I appreciate your comments and the additional articles that you have provided. I hope I have the time to fully read these in the future. As you can probably see from the references in the article above, I am aware of some limitations imposed by inquiry-based methods. Thus, I take my students through synergistic-inquiry experiments only after they have complete General Chemistry 1 and almost all of General Chemistry 2 (thus, most of the students who conduct inquiry in the manner I describe in the article above have completed two full years of chemistry: one at the high school level and one at the university level). Throughout my General Chemistry courses I continually stress to students the importance of drilling, practicing, and re-visiting material throughout the semester so that they can become fluent in chemical knowledge. Thus, my students are well versed in the basic fundamentals of chemistry prior to taking on inquiry-based exploration.

 

Having said all this, I think it is important to stress that I do not have my students participate in inquiry-based learning for the goal of having them obtain knowledge, retain that knowledge, and then use that knowledge to perform well on the final exam in my course (which is the ACS standardized examination in General Chemistry). My reasons for having students participate in inquiry learning extend well beyond acquisition of chemical knowledge. I want my students to appreciate science in general and chemistry in particular. I want them to learn about the scientific method by participating in it. I want them to practice appropriate methods of collecting and analyzing data. I want students to see that it can be an enjoyable experience to apply chemical knowledge (that they have acquired through much practice and drilling) to answer questions about everyday phenomena they observe. I also wish to begin training future engineers, doctors, researchers, lawyers, politicians, parents, and citizens to think scientifically. Ultimately, I want to motivate and inspire students to want to learn more about science in general and chemistry in particular. I agree that much drilling and repeated practice play an essential role in the learning process, and that they will help students score well on chemistry examinations. But drilling and practice are not going to guide people towards an appreciation of science and chemistry like inquiry learning does. In my opinion, drilling and practice are well-suited for the cognitive domain, while inquiry-learning is best for the affective domain.

Eric Nelson | Wed, 01/16/2019 - 08:08

Tom –

That timing description helps in understanding what you do, and I think what you describe is the care in using inquiry that the cognitive experts recommend.  My own feeling would be that the research supports integrating inquiry projects into coursework at the end of a topic, after students have learned the basics and practiced applying them on paper and pencil problems, as long as that careful guidance you describe is included to be sure misconceptions do not develop.

I think reading the Krischner 2006 paper, one might come away thinking cognitive science says don’t do inquiry.  That 2006 paper caused great controversy and a led to a fascinating debate in the 2009 book Constructivist Instruction, where the brain researchers went back and forth on their data.

When it was over, Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark issued a kind of re-write of their paper in 2012, aimed more at instructors, which included that caveat:

“Independent problems and projects can be effective – not as vehicles for making discoveries, but as a means of practicing recently learned content and skills.”

For faculty interested in these issues, I’d recommend starting with the 2012 re-write, available at

http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/spring2012/Clark.pdf

In science in particular, the recent cognitive research suggests that the value of the lab follow-up is in part the importance of context cues:  the finding that the student ability to recall the information they need to solve a problem depends heavily on the context.  Just as we may recognize someone at the grocery store as someone we know, but have trouble recalling from where, the ability to transfer the pencil and paper applications of knowledge to the lab setting is challenging for students because information recall is so dependent in the brain on context cues.

And to build the conceptual framework that allows recall in different settings (transfer), “working memory” requires room for the context cues during processing, room which is only available if most of the facts and procedures used in solving a problem can be recalled “with automaticity” because they have previously been well memorized. 

I found the Kirschner et al. articles especially helpful for their description of the key interaction of working and long-term memory during problem solving.

The research summary I think would be:  Design instruction so that students first master recall of new facts and procedures, but then practice their application in a variety of distinctive contexts (including the lab).

Bottom line: I appreciate very much your help for instructors in learning about and grappling with the implications of the findings of the science of learning to the classroom --and then the lab!

--rick nelson

Tom Kuntzleman's picture
Tom Kuntzleman | Thu, 01/17/2019 - 07:01

Hi Rick: 

Thank you for your kind words, and for directing me to additional resources that deal with the issues of learning, cognition, inquiry, and constructivism. Thank you for commenting, as it allowed me to provide some context on where I fit in inquiry in the learning process. I resonate strongly with the approach outlined in your "research summary". There is much to think about here. I look forward to reading the 2012 Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark article.

Tom