Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Action research

As part of a class for the Classrooms for the Future, we have developed an action research question. My question: Which strategies and techniques are useful to make a difficult science topic more engaging, in order to increase student participation and understanding?

The plan is to use an inquiry activity, online simulation, worksheet, lecture review, and one or two other activities to illustrate cellular respiration. I am looking at using a student survey, anecdotal evidence from individual and group work, spot check quizzes after several activities, and overall student engagement. What I think may be effective as a teaching tool, may not be so.

Assessment Data Collection

Are beliefs in line with my practice? In difficult topics like cellular respiration we use a variety of techniques to learn about the topic. But which is more effective and of greater value in learning this abstract concept. There is no real laboratory exercise to see. Because of this, I employed different techniques that I would have used in the past as well as some new activities that required the use of information seeking and a variety of group and class discussions. The activities performed include:

  1. An initial introduction and discussion by the teacher with basic information
  2. Simulations and website links with accompanying questions to complete
  3. A guided inquiry "autopsy activity" that reveals information, requires small group discussion and research to answer short questions, and class discussion to relate cell respiration to the inquiry
  4. Review sessions about the steps in cell respiration
  5. Individual review using flashcards.

Anecdotal evidence has always been a good method to obtain information. Using an attitudinal survey which is subjective and may not relate to traditional methods is also appropriate.

Though my question is not the best, many other questions I can think of are obvious and actually answered by me through change in class practices through this year. However, my perception on some of these activities and student perception and achievement may be two different things.

I decided to use anecdotal evidence from each of these activities to gauge interest and involvement of students as well as a survey to determine which they feel was of value. I also used quiz averages to determine gains made in understanding between these different instructional approaches. My survey used an online survey which also included open ended questions to promote active thinking of the students.

My survey of 45 Academic Biology students revealed the following:

  • 97.8% found use of technology increased their understanding of complex topics
  • 91.1% found that it increased the interest in the class
  • 77% found that they worked more in classes that used technology
  • 98% felt they received more feedback when using technology
  • 96% felt they had more opportunities for the reinforcement of materials when using technology

In regards to the cell respiration unit (students answered whether the instructional methods were helpful in understanding the material):
  • Original teacher introduction 58% yes, 42% no
  • Simulations 89% yes 11% no
  • Guided discovery 69% yes 31% no
  • Worksheets 76% yes 24% no
  • Class reviews 93% yes 7% no
  • Flashcards 76% yes 24% no

Students also responded to open ended questions. The answers can be found here and here. More often than not, students suggested that learning happened more when they worked in small teams. Using the wiki as a means to share, review, and refine their information was also mentioned frequently byt he students.

In terms of anecdotal evidence, more interested debates and actual use of relevant topics happened during the guided inquiry when students had to do quick research and discuss possible solutions as a group. Discussing as a class immediately afterward was reinforcing and then connection to previously discussed topics further illustrated the topics. The students were engaged and interested.

Checkpoint quizzes were given after each of the activities: 1. the original introduction and use of simulations of the topic, 2. after the guided inquiry, and 3. after the use of worksheets and self-study. The following averages were obtained: 5.75 out of 10 following the original introduction, 7.5 following the guided inquiry, and 8.75 following further review and worksheets.

I was surprised by some of the survey results. For example, many students found that they worked more in classes that used technology than in classes that don't, almost all students felt they received more feedback when using technology (I thought feedback would be an issue that is easier to do on paper), and many felt they had more opportunities for the reinforcement of materials when using technology

I asked some additional questions of interest to me. For example, I asked about the level of cheating in a traditional classroom vs. one that used technology to a larger degree. The survey revealed the following:
Increased 18%
Stayed same 46%
Decreased 36%

When a class was asked what it meant by staying the same, they quoted that it referred to students explaining material they had researched to answer a question and then explaining the content to another student or asking for clarification from another. They then asked me if this was a bad thing. I said, actually no. In that case it wasn't. I then asked them how they felt about it as well. None of the students really qualified it as cheating.

From here I can see other action research questions that can be done later. They would definitely be of value and would serve a great purpose in showing others the value of not only technology in the classroom but the shift in pedagogy.

I really believed that more students would have found a benefit from the guided inquiry activity. In students where problem solving is quite a problem, they were unable to make the connections between the activity and the abstract material being studied. With more experience, will there thinking change?

I think if students were able to apply the information more than they would be able to understand the information. Technology can be used here to a greater degree but perhaps allowing more options to present, share, and collaborate their understanding in a variety of formats would be worthwhile. This would even include non-technology use. Perhaps the use of an assignment that can be demonstrated in a variety of ways would be worthwhile. In this case, it may not be possible but in other units there may be a greater flexibility.

Important points
Engagement and enthusiasm create a great learning environment that can benefit all learners. Using a variety of instructional materials (but not all using the same media) can provide gains for students. Allowing students to collaborate to find gaps in knowledge is useful. Using technology for the sake of using technology does not provide a better learning experience. Instead, a change in pedagogy increases this experience (and allows opportunities to pull in the technology).

What thoughts do you have?


  1. Louise, I like the approach you have taken and am impressed with your analysis of your teaching methods. There are definitely some difficult science concepts that our students are expected to master, and multiple approaches to the material certainly help.

    Up until a few years ago I taught Biology 12 and I found that the students routinely had difficulty with protein synthesis, nerve impulses, and the processes in the nephron. I did not have access to much technology at the time, but for each of these concepts I employed multiple ways of learning the concept, from direct note taking, to role-playing,to small teams solving problems,to watching animations of the processes etc. The repetition and appealing to different types of learners (visual, auditory, kinesthetic...)definitely helped. As you mentioned, it is not about the technology, it is about our pedagogy and how we use the technology.

  2. Claire,

    Thank you for your input. It was not the best action research but due to time constraints a quick one that worked. I was really trying to see if the "in my head" action research that all teachers do was accurate or not. I remember trying to do authentic instruction over 10 years ago and finding it difficult because of lac of resources. The activities you describe doing in the past are wonderful. Doesn't technology make this so much easier to accomplish now?

    Thank you again!

  3. I am entering comments from non-bloggers here at my school who were invited to comment on my action research (need to teach blogging and commenting at workshops this summer).

    Sue said:

    I thought it was interesting. I am still a teacher centered person, so I am having a hard time changing my class to a student centered one. It seems that you have done well in changing yours based on your students responses. Were your students able to understand the material as well by learning it on their own? What do your students mean that they work harder in a technology classroom compared to nontechnology ones? I agree that inquiry activities are frustrating for the students since they are used to having information fed to them. I also agree that using a variety of teaching methods do enhance learning. Having the time to organize the different methods is my biggest problem!!

    Steve said:

    Louise I thought you really spent a great deal of thought on your research question. I like your important points and couldn't agree more. Technology must be used as a tool to help students learn.

    Linda said:

    I do agree with you that throwing technology at kids just for technology sake is not the approach to education that we as teachers should be taking. We need to have well thought out strategies in place before we start a difficult concept. A variety of instructional techniques is extremely important when trying to reach all members of the class. However, the technology if used correctly can increase the interest level of your class.

    Thanks to all who read and commented!