Friday, April 17, 2009

Purpose of inquiry, annotations, and border crossings...

Earlier, I posted about my reflections on a post I read about concerning Border Crossings in Science (I really had not come across these before and they gave me pause to think.) The poster discussed the different types of border crossings that students must make in order to understand the language of science and to create meaning of concepts. Every science teacher has seen students who just get it and those that have difficulty constructing meaning. One reason we are in science is because we get it.

Currently the debate rages on between content and process and which is most important (this debate is being played out here and here and here for a start...) In the time of high stakes testing, content is important. But ask what they remember later or listen to what is needed from education and to be able to make decisions and construct ideas later and it is really process. Can you do both? And how do you get students to learn the basic processes which are actually global processes inherent to a large amount of content in science?

Can you also use technology for these border crossings? After having taught for 20 years, we have always heard to attend to students misconceptions. I get that, but identifying what the misconceptions are and challenging them to understand the scientific concept are two completely different things.

When we talk about borders, we talk about the beliefs that create them. We are not talking just about religion when the word belief is used, though that is one lens that can be used. Beliefs are the constructs that we make from the natural world. They are the experiences that we have had that have led us to here. Whether you have had the opportunity or had the inclination to play with materials, visit, explore, question, seek answers, etc. leads to your experience. Therefore, every persons understanding is relative to them and their construct of meaning is unique. Even two individuals with the same experiences can have very different constructs of the meaning. Think about how you view magic as a child and then as an adult. Your view as an adult is not because someone told you how the trick is performed (though that may be true in some instances.) Your view changed because you have more understanding and experiences from which to draw.

Does it really matter? Yes and no, I suspect. How do you get to deeper understanding with all students with different constructs and experiences that created their meaning to this point?

I have been mulling it over for some time. One technique we looked at, is having students annotate our lecture notes. What were we looking for? Initially, we wanted students to inquire about the material and become more acquainted to asking questions. What we also asked for was students to connect to what they already knew. So their annotations using the comment feature in Microsoft Word showed what knowledge students had, what connections they could already make, and where the sticky points of the material were. We started this in some of our harder chapters. To do again, I would use this throughout the year, as more practice with easier material would perhaps make the annotations even more meaningful later.

So what did we see/think from this?:
  • The students who initially had annotations that left no blank spaces on the page were the students who also were uninhibited to frame questions normally in class. Ironically, they were not necessarily the students with the top grades. Do they ask more questions and seem more fearless in class because they actively do this as readers already?
  • The majority of students admitted to tuning out when reading most passages assigned in schools. In the past (14 years ago), when I asked students whether they read an assignment, many students said "no, teachers just tell us the material anyway. Why read it?" This may be true some of the time, but sometimes it is because some aspect of the material is difficult. Is it worth our time then to cultivate activation of some knowledge as an important study skill? I think it is.
  • Do some students just see this as another assignment vs. learning experience? When large gaps of missing annotations exist, I would comment on whether there was anything in that passage that they recognized. Students would always find something and I urged them to annotate it. I really wanted to see what they knew, try to identify misconceptions and find those sticky points.
  • After annotating, students listened to a podcast lecture and added notes in the margins, etc. Some of the notes answered their own annotation questions and some did not.
  • Lecture then consisted of a great discussion of the background information which in my experience became the best lecture discussions we have had. More time could then be spent on those sticky points that were tough to understand. Students also had great questions that they would then ask.
  • An informal, raise your hand poll in class revealed that students found they understood the material better than if I would have just lectured the material straight. (I am planning on doing this the other more traditional way soon, to see if they still think this.) I know informal polls are not valid, but I was so excited to see how they were interacting that day.
  • Some students still do not engage fully with material (and seem to apply Fatima's rules - see my link to original post above.) Is this just how they are moving through school or is there indeed some border crossings that are difficult to address? And, how do we address them? Or do they come with time?
  • After having students work deeply with material and use inquiry, I see a definite change in many in their ability to work with material and ask questions. Would there be a bigger change if this were used all year long?
  • Additionally, this is not just my class. Another Academic bio teacher agreed to follow the same and reflect with me.

So here are my initial questions before beginning the annotating exercises:
  • How does student use of annotations of passages (identifying background information, finding problematic words and texts, questioning concepts and ideas) influence better understanding of the topic of study and learning the process and content of science topics?
  • How do understanding of student thought processes evident in the annotations change the structure and activities in class?
  • Do the use of annotations (and revisiting and continued use) influence learning and continued questioning by students?

The rationale:
If the language of science is a barrier to students, how can we get them thinking about their thinking? My thoughts on this have led to students taking a more active role in their thinking through the use of annotations not only for understanding the concepts but in increasing study skills for the future. (Ironically, my rationale was developed prior to reading the post on Barriers in Science.)

Data collection
The data that I will collect includes the collection of student annotations of reading text. This will help identify student thinking throughout the reading of the text. It will also serve as an indicator of material that is/is not problematic to the students. A survey will be used to determine student opinion of annotating (yet to be done.) Observation throughout the annotating process and individual discussions with students will provide with artifacts from field notes. The use of reflection by both the teacher and the student will provide information about the learning experiences.

I chose these particular assessments as quiz and test data are not an indicator of student thinking and questioning throughout the reading of passages of text. I am planning on using an online survey tool and will be collecting students digital annotations.

Addendum: Results from student survey are below (added 4/23/09). The survey results do not show more than we have already thought on our own. The largest response (scale 1-5) is that using the annotations, podcasting, etc. increased understanding of students. Though I know worksheets might do the same, I can state that student engagement in the discussions were deeper and more interactive than at any other point of teaching in the last 20 years. I had thought that students would have transferred the idea of annotations as a study skill in other topics but that does not appear to be the case. Mostly, because it is perceived as an assignment and not one in other classes, or perhaps because students do not have the same pre-discussion notes in other classes. At the end of the year, I will find it interesting to see what they think about the different opportunities for learning we used all year and their usefulness.

The results:

The survey questions:


  1. One item that I have thought of is to chart more accurately the way students question, the types of questions that they use, how they seem to interact with the text during annotation and other factors that show improvement in their understandings. It seems very important to not treat this as a quick exercise where anything is acceptable (especially at the beginning) and talk with students as they are working to be sure they are using the level of engagement necessary to interact with the text. At the beginning, this would be time consuming with class time, but would not be needed every time.

  2. Having read the blog, I agree with you in most aspects of this action that you have chosen. The questions that we ask ourselves when teaching don't really seem to come until after we have realized what just happened or that teachable moment that we are all looking for everyday-that seems far from reality. I like the annotations for the notes, but most students have problems digesting our science or biology because its new and there are many more exceptions to the rules in biology, than in math, english or history (core subjects). I think that we as educators are no different from students when it comes to change and understanding. It takes everyone more than once to make information meaningful and useful. Teaching is no different, we have great ideas, but it takes a couple of times to tweak it, so that it becomes the meaningful, usable info that we want students to have. In all, the barriers are being met by all students, teachers, etc. how we overcome those barriers depends upon the interactions(questions) and direction different people want to go, "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink".

  3. In order for note annotation to have a meaningful and significant effect on understanding of content,the student needs to "buy into the process" and realize that the end result will have a positive effect on their learning. If the student thinks of the process as just another assignment, then it is doubtful that the student will benefit from the experience and the chances of he/she using the process in other classes or in everyday life is not probable.

  4. @Louise, I like the approach you are taking. It seems that what you are really working on is the students' literacy skills when reading non-fiction text.

    Many students can mechanically read non-fiction without really understanding it. When annotating you are getting them to actively read by using the skills of questioning, paraphrasing, relating the text to what they already know, and summarizing.
    These same skills can be used internally when we listen to information; they can become habits of mind.

    A program called Smart Reading developed by Susan Close uses these strategies, but not just with annotating text. You may be interested in some of her work.

    With respect to what Linda said, perhaps showing the students how achievement improves for those using your annotating strategy may be a motivator for buying in.

    Once again, thanks for sharing what you are doing. It's great learning with you!

  5. @Todd You give lots of food for thought. Unfortunately there will always be students we don't reach but there are many barriers to break in true understanding of the processes of science. Misconceptions run deep and the content amount is great (okay of you are just memorizing) and ridiculous to cover in a year.

    @Linda The buy in will be a big issue. How do you want kids to get better for learning;s sake when they have already learned how to beat the system? Perhaps no grade for the annotations but a grade for the inquiry questions that result from that - this could be direction for the resulting course of study. Actually, any grade defeats the purpose itself.

    @Claire I always appreciate your input here as you give great perspective. Thank you for the link as I know there is more to this than just annotating (though that was just a research topic.) An action plan for next year would be to expand upon this idea into other areas and using inquiry to drive the class. Many students believed that it did indeed help them (informal and formal survey). How they feel after extended time is the question. You have given me food for thought and any change that affects student learning is a good investment in time.

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