Improved Student Learning: Some Research on Students’ Views on Learning

January 6, 2013

One of my areas of research is what I refer to as the Nature of Learning.  This construct includes students’ epistemological beliefs (their beliefs about knowledge) and the beliefs about the learning process (think Dweck’s “growth mindset” and then some)*.  I first became interested in the construct when I realized some of my (and others’) students were resisting research-based teaching because they held problematic views of what teaching and learning ought to be.  Below I briefly discuss how students’ view of learning affects their learning.

Songer and Linn (1991) found that students with dynamic views of knowledge (it can change) more deeply integrated their learning.  Conversely, those who hold beliefs that knowledge is certain are likely to not learn as well or misinterpret new information (Kardash and Scholes, 1996).  These studies are not limited to college students (as many psych studies are).  Chan and Sachs (2001) found that elementary students’ integration of new information from text are affected similarly by their beliefs about knowledge.

Of course, none of the above matters if our teaching and assessments do not target deep learning (as opposed to simple regurgitation).  Songer and Linn (1991) summarize this issue well:

These findings are consistent with the view that students who hold static views of science and memorize information will do just as well on tests that do not require knowledge integration as will students who are attempting to develop integrated understanding.  In contrast, when integrated understanding is emphasized in the curriculum and required on assessments, then students with dynamic views of science will be more successful than students with static views. (p. 775-776)

*Nature of Learning goes beyond Dweck’s work – see Schommer (1990) below if you are really interested.


Chan, C. K., & Sachs, J. (2001). Beliefs about learning in children’s understanding of science texts. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 26(2), 192-210.

Kardash, C. M., & Scholes, R. J. (1996). Effects of preexisting beliefs, epistemological beliefs,and need for cognition on interpretation of controversial issues. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 260–271.

Schommer, M. (1990). Effects of Beliefs About the Nature of Knowledge on Comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology. 82(3), 498-504.

Songer, N.B., & Linn, M.C. (1991). How do students’ views of science influence knowledge integration? Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 28, 761-764.

Why schools don’t change

October 4, 2012

You must go check out Ira Socol’s most recent post in which he links the slow progression of medicinal practice to educational change. I found myself thinking about Thomas Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” & paradigm shift. In science, a paradigm continues to reign as long as those locked into the paradigm persist or enough anomalies are collected to re-evaluate the paradigm despite the beliefs of those in power. I wonder when we will accept that too many anomalies already exist in education (i.e.: too many kids are not learning).

Looking Deeper at Dan Meyer’s 3 Acts

March 19, 2012

I’ve been following Dan Meyer’s process with his 3 acts for quite a while.  I greatly appreciate the public nature in which he develops ideas and there is a reason he has so many followers: his ideas are worth paying attention to.  As a teacher educator I started thinking about Dan’s three acts with two purposes: 1) What makes 3 Acts an effective strategy, and 2) How might I help my preservice teachers create their own 3 act-like approach to teaching.

What makes 3 Acts effective?

Dan has already written about many ideas as to why 3 Acts works, so pardon any redundancies.  I think 3 Acts fits particularly well with what I call Developmental Learning Theory.  Specifically, the initial video helps make the problem more concrete and therefore more understandable to the students.  Dan often notes that textbooks make the problem abstract far too early.  Learners struggle with abstraction and too much abstraction can easily take students beyond their zone of proximal development which leads to reduced motivation.  However, developing the problem into the abstract realm is important as the abstract approach/knowledge is what is transferable to diverse contexts.  While concrete strategies (such as timing the end of the fan cycle) might work for a specific context, using that context to develop abstract mathematical thinking will be more useful beyond that one problem.

My understanding is that Dan does not intend to use the first act to simply provide context for more traditional instruction during act two.  Instead, this is time for students to make predictions and maybe even create strategies to solve the problem.  Act two, to me, is the one teachers struggle with the most.  In many ways, act two cannot be planned for as the teacher must react to student thinking – thinking that isn’t obvious until the moment.  At some point, students will need to be introduced to formal mathematical algorithms.  While we might want students to derive formulas, we cannot expect them to do so as novice mathematicians.  However, when teachers introduce the more formal algorithm is important.  Formulas are some of the most abstract representation of mathematics so formulas should only be introduced after students have wrestled with more concrete representations and maybe even have some intuitive conceptual understanding of the concept.  After students have this conceptual understanding, they will be more likely to understand the formula and recognize its utility.

I mentioned transfer earlier.  I do not expect students to spontaneously apply new mathematical knowledge to diverse contexts.  While we might do that as teachers, students likely lack the interest and knowledge needed to see math wherever they look.  However, we can encourage this transfer by explicitly asking students to apply their thinking to new situations.  This is where act three of Dan’s approach takes over.  These application/extensions take students back to the concrete.  That is, they are asked to apply their abstract knowledge to a new concrete situation.

How might teachers create their own 3 Act-like approach?

Dan has recently set up a new site where teachers can submit their act one for “peer review”.  I am a big fan of this site and see it as a great way for teachers to try out ideas and get ideas/resources.  While this is a great resource I can share with my preservice teachers, I want to go deeper as to what might be a conceptual framework teachers might use to help create videos or even go beyond the three act framework to design effective learning experiences.  That is, the three act framework won’t apply to every situation (both within and beyond the math classroom), so what ideas do preservice teachers need to know so that they might be able to do what Dan has done in the creation of 3 Acts?  While having more teachers copy the three-act approach would definitely be an improvement in education, I don’t want my preservice teachers to simply copy an approach.  Instead, I want my preservice teachers to have a robust knowledge set with which they can evaluate ideas like the 3 Acts and maybe even create their own strategies.

When I first started thinking more deeply about the 3 Acts approach, I realized how much the approach has in common with the Learning Cycle.  The first act correlates to the explore phase, the second act to concept development and act three to the application phase.  While there are certainly some nuanced differences, I think the learning cycle might be a more far-reaching framework than the three act.  That is, Dan’s three acts are a great enactment of the learning cycle, but other approaches might fit within the learning cycle as well.  For example, Dan focuses on act one leading to a specific question.  However, the learning cycle exploration phase could simply be a data collection event on which students might later reflect.  Both specific strategies seem to fit under the broader framework of the learning cycle.  Yet, even the learning cycle might be too narrow for the “knowledge set” I want preservice teachers to have so that they might create their own 3 Act-like approach to instruction.

I have some ideas as to what ought to be included in this “knowledge set”, but I think I want to hear from others first.  While strategies such as the 3 act or the learning cycle are extremely useful, what do you think preservice teachers need to know in order to evaluate and even create such strategies of their own?  I’d love to see a list going in the comments and hope that list expands my own thinking on the topic!

Teachers’ Beliefs and Technology

January 15, 2012

Teachers’ beliefs have always played an important role in classrooms (Fang, 1996; Haney et al., 1996; Nespor, 1987). Chen (2006, p. v) confirms this trend related to educational technology implementation:

Teachers with more constructivist beliefs made efforts to allocate time for students to engage in problem- or project-based learning occasionally. Some of them used online discussion or presentation software to anchor and encourage discussion and interaction among teachers and students. Teachers who prioritized examination preparation mostly used technology to cover content, sometimes discarding technology when they considered technology not cost-effective or a distraction for student learning.

For example, when studying novice teachers’ use of technology in science classrooms, Irving (2009) found that the technology was more often in the hands of teachers rather than students. The study noted that teachers most often used tech to provide visual images and models related to content.  Rather then engage students in collaborative meaning making, the teachers used the technology in rather mundane and teacher-centric ways. Irving (2009) noted that new teachers may espouse student-centered approaches, but observations typically indicate teacher-centered enactment of teaching.  While the teachers are using technology, the actual classroom environment is not much different than traditional teaching.


This post is from a paper I recently presented at the Association for Science Teacher Educators. For the full paper and citations, click here.

The Limited Nature of Technology (part 2)

January 11, 2012

Not only is technology limited in its ability to solve deep problems, technology may actually limit both teacher and students in profound ways.   Specifically, technology may limit students thinking and inhibit teachers’ ability to understand student thinking. Technology can effectively hide aspects of a phenomenon causing students to not mentally wrestle with important observations to develop skills or conceptual models (Olson and Clough, 2001; Potter and Kelly, 2006; Lunetta et al., 2007).  When students do not wrestle with these technologically hidden aspects of phenomena, teachers may not recognize students’ misconceptions or not understand how students are conceptualizing the phenomenon under study.

Kruse (2012) provides an example of how modern technology might mask important aspects of natural phenomena and hinder both learners and teachers.

[I]magine students are learning about acid-base titrations using a computer simulation.  This simulation will be useful in showing students the endpoint and they may even be able to add the titrant “drop by drop”.  Yet, the simulation will likely not show the need to carefully swirl the solution in between drops and will not provide an opportunity for a skilled teacher to ask, “Why does your solution stay pink for longer and longer before going back to clear?”  This question pushes students to consider the manner in which particles are interacting.  Digital simulations hide this deep level of thinking about the particulate nature of matter.


This post is from a paper I recently presented at the Association for Science Teacher Educators. For the full paper and citations, click here.

The Limited Nature of Technology (part 1)

January 10, 2012

Unfortunately, “We have been brought up on the myth that almost any problem can be solved with a technological solution” (Ely, 1995, p. 12).  However, technology cannot solve all problems.  Preservice teachers must recognize that some problems must be dealt with at a much deeper level.  For example, Waight and Abd-El-Khalick (2007) when researching a classroom in which the teacher was known for inquiry and technology found that when technology was used, the level of inquiry suffered.  Given this negative impact of technology, we cannot expect technology to suddenly transform a traditional classroom into a highly effective inquiry-based classroom.  The issue here lies in the fundamental disposition of the teacher.  As Okan (2003, p. 255) notes:

[E]ducation is concerned with the development of cognitive structures and that educational technology is a medium, not a pedagogy that is useful in creating such learning environments.

Considering the limits of technology, one wonders why education reformers spend so much energy touting the need to infuse technology in schools. Providing a traditional teacher with modern technology simply means the technology will get used to reinforce traditional teaching (Ely, 1995; Lazlo and Castro, 1995; Fraser & Deane, 1999; Selber, 2004).


This post is from a paper I recently presented at the Association for Science Teacher Educators. For the full paper and citations, click here.

What is Technology?

January 9, 2012

Below is an excerpt from a paper I recently gave at an education conference.  For citations and the full paper go here. (Yes, I did cite myself). :)


Too often technology is simply viewed as electronic and digital technologies.  When asking prospective administrators about their considerations for technology use in schools, Buckmiller & Kruse (2011) found that not a single participant mentioned any technology other than digital technologies and the Internet.  This narrow focus ignores many other technological aspects of school and their effect on learning.  DiGironimo (2011) uses a three-pronged framework to understand technology: technology as artifacts, technology as a creation process, and technology as a human practice. Reflecting these broader ideas, the National Academy of Engineering (2009) notes that technology includes:  practical knowledge, innovation, human activities, and systems of components.


Kruse (2012) makes clear why having more robust definitions of technology are important for educators:

If educators adopt a more robust view of what constitutes technology, the technology that affects our schools includes: Carnegie Units, bell schedules, curriculum maps, and age-based promotion, in addition to the digital technologies usually considered.  Each of these technologies deserves our scrutiny.  Sadly, like the digital technologies we see being mindlessly implemented today, the technologies that have come to define our educational system were likely adopted in much the same way – based on popularity or novelty rather than deep consideration of how student learning might be enhanced or disturbed.  If technology includes all these systems and methods as well as tools, understanding how technology will affect learning environments is perhaps the most important knowledge set educators must acquire.

The Hype Cycle – but this time it’s worse

November 25, 2011

I respect Larry Cuban a lot.  I’m disappointed nervous about his most recent post.  Not because of what he has to say, but because he is a guy who knows the history of technology in schools very well.  So when he says that online schools are coming,he is probably right. (Yes, I know online schooling is not new, but he is talking about a much larger scale).

Larry talks about the hype cycle, but I think online schooling might be more problematic than previous technologies.  When each classroom was outfitted with a TV, the teacher could choose to use the TV or not.  When all schools go online, the teacher will have to teach online.  Yet, as any techno-enthusiast will note (when sufficiently pushed against a wall) we need balance.  Ya, that is true, but it’s hard to have balance between digital and non-digital instruction when school takes place online.  When we get to the “trough of disillusionment” it will be too late – you can’t simply ignore the fact that your school is now online.

Oh, and don’t give me any BS about an effective teacher would have students doing science experiments in their homes.  AHHHH!  Maybe that is true, but an effective teacher can’t then notice an anomaly and ask just the right question at just the right time to stimulate that child’s interest and push their thinking deeper than if the student simply followed the directions.

We need to stop being led down this rabbit hole.  Unfortunately, the siren call is coming from within. When you believe technology makes you a better teacher, you fall a bit further.  YOU are what make you a good teacher.  If you can’t teach well without digital technology, I am willing to bet large sums of money that you aren’t a very good teacher with digital technology.

Stop letting the Bill Gates’ of the world decide what our school should look like.


(end of rant, but no apologies)

Dear Dr. Glass

October 3, 2011

Dr. Jason Glass spoke to the faculty at my university last week. I could tell from the discussion that Jason has learned a lot about education in Iowa over the last year. I respect that he has foregone some initial goals given the realities of the situation we are in. Furthermore, I feel less like he is pushing onward no matter the result & instead am mildly optimistic that he is putting forth some ideas to be tried & then refined. Only time will tell if my optimism is accurate.

Jason encouraged us to read the blueprint & let him know what he got right & what he got wrong. I think (hope) Jason & I have a mutual respect & that he wants honest & useful feedback. So, here goes nothing.

I like most of the document, but still maintain that the devil is in the details. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of details there. Which could be a very good thing as this leaves room for flexibility & reacting to data. I like the move toward what I call “reasonable accountability”. Teachers are evaluated by multiple measures & students are provided affordances to meet expectations in non-traditional ways as well as move on from remediation when ready. That is, the third grade retention is not simply a “do the whole year over” no matter what.

While there are many things I’m optimistic about there is a set of related issues glaringly unrepresented in the discussion of teacher quality*: pedagogical knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge & understanding how people learn. There are many references to holding new teachers to high levels of accountability regarding content knowledge, but essentially no mechanism for ensuring high levels of pedagogical knowledge or sufficient understanding of learning. There is mention of ensuring preservice teachers have high quality mentors & that they learn how to design effective lessons, but there is no plan to assess this. My own, as well as other’s, research makes very clear that what is assessed is what is valued. If we do not somehow assess teachers pedagogical knowledge & knowledge of learning I know this construct will fall by the wayside to make room for what is assessed: content.

This is related to something Jason & I disagree on. Whether increased content knowledge makes one a better teacher. Jason, from our discussion last week, supports content masters degrees over teaching masters degrees. I do not think this is prudent (but do agree many teaching masters degrees are simply devices to get paid more). While content knowledge is necessary, it is insufficient to becoming an effective teacher. Over the last 40 years researchers (who have published in peer-reviewed journals rather than a consulting firm report) have sought to make a connection between content & teaching efficacy. The best case that can be made is that the research is inconclusive. That is, some studies say content courses make better teachers (although most note content knowledge is not sufficient) while other studies find no correlation between content courses & teaching efficacy. An inconclusive result after 40 years? To me, this means there is likely not a strong correlation (certainly not one basing reform efforts on). If there were an important correlation, the overall research landscape would point in that direction after so much time.

More anecdotally, I am a content expert. I have the equivalent of a masters degree in chemistry. I can clearly recall why I entered teaching: because I was good at explaining things clearly. That is, I thought good teachers we good at explaining things in very basic ways. I no longer think that. Now, I believe a quality teacher is one who helps others construct meaning by providing rich experiences and encouraging carefully guided reflection (of course this is simplified). My point here is that my curriculum & instruction classes were instrumental in changing my view of teaching & learning! Had it not been for those courses, I would likely be a very traditional lecture-based teacher Yet, such courses are undervalued in the blueprint as I explained earlier.

As another anecdote, think back to your college content courses. How many of them were taught in a manner consistent with how people learn? My college professors all had PhDs in their field, yet believed that lecture & text were effective ways to teach. I cannot blame them. That was likely their experience & they did not have curriculum & instruction courses like I did.

Now, I do think teacher content knowledge is important & don’t want the previous three paragraphs to confuse my point. So, if I were to change one thing in the blueprint, I would ensure that we place significant importance on (which based on the blueprint’s design means to explicitly assess) teacher understanding of pedagogy & how people learn as well as their content understanding.

*I’ve provided a screen capture related to teacher quality from the blueprint for reference. Highlights are mine, but related to my point.

Contextualizing Value-added

June 16, 2011

Implementation is everything.

I’m not philosophically against the notion that we ought to be expecting teachers to “add value” to students’ schooling experience.  However, when we use prescriptive tests to decide how much value is added, I take issue.  For example, in TN a restructuring of compensation is about to be implemented.  This system seems quite comprehensive and my first reaction was to think of Occam’s razor.  That is, this complex system seems to be just a new way to reward the same stuff.  Of course there are some differences – most notably the 35% of teacher’s rating from a value added measure based on Tennessee’s state exam.

So, the implicit message here is that certain things matter.  Those things are covered by a certain test.  Yet, schooling is so very much more than acquisition of certain content.  So, my beef is not with expecting teachers to add value, my beef is with expecting teachers to add certain value. When we prescribe these certain tests, my concern is that we prescribe a greater narrowing of the curriculum.  I am confident this country’s teachers can raise test scores, I’m just not sure we’re using tests on which improved test scores are desirable.

Enough complaining, how about a different idea?

When teaching middle school I often studied my students’ learning.  I gave students pretests (sometimes MC, sometimes essays, sometimes interviews, and sometimes concept maps) and then monitored student progress all the way until the end of the year (usually at least one mid-year assessment and then a final assessment)*.  The things I tracked throughout the year were academic/educational interests of mine.  Things I wanted to study how well students were learning.  The things I studied went far deeper than any standardized test I’ve seen or heard of.  Specifically, in the last two years of my k-12 teaching I studied how well students came to understand the nature of science and how students views of learning changed over time.  In both cases, my students made significant progress over the course of the year.  That is, I could reliably demonstrate added value for each of my students.  Yet, the value I could demonstrate having added is not the value for which the state would be looking.**

While I love to rage against the machine, I also like to “work the system”.  So, if value added measures are coming (and I suspect they are in my state), let’s put politicians’ money where their mouth is and actually treat teachers like professionals.  Let’s actually put power in teachers’ hands instead of just claiming to do so.

Here’s a very simple proposal***:

1) Teachers choose at least one of their goals for students to study each year. (i.e.: content understanding, communication skills, writing proficiency, critical thinking, problem-solving, attitude toward subject, or many others).  If a group of teachers wants to work collaboratively on a goal, great!

2) Professional development days are dedicated to teachers being able to research how they might promote their chosen goal, research how they might reliably assess the construct, and/or collaborate with peers to plan.

3) Teachers identify how they will track progress concerning their goal.  Ideally, tracking of progress is multi-dimensional.  Perhaps an instrument already exists in the education literature for pre/post testing, students might reflect periodically on the goal, or maybe the teacher will review classroom video to see what changes are, or are not, occurring.

4) Teachers will summarize results and perhaps present to colleagues, or at least to administrators.  I see “lessons learned” (what worked/didn’t work) being just as important as the actual improvement of students.  The 35% of “value added” could be tied to the success of the intervention or even just the completion of such a study (cause we learn a LOT from failure).

Will such a system be more work for teachers? yes.

Will such a system raise the awareness of many teachers? yes.

Will such a system stimulate school-wide improvement? yes.

Will such a system be more authentic and likely more interesting for teachers? yes.

Will such a system allow for context-based improvement of practice? yes.

Is such a system new? not really (see: action research or lesson study)

Will such a system be a better use of money? yes – we don’t need to be dumping tax-payers money into testing companies.

If we want to give teachers bonuses, learn from google and give them freedom in what they choose to study/create.  If we want to tie teacher compensation to value added, teachers ought to decide what is of most value in their context.

*Of course I assessed students much more often than this, these were just the more formal, long term assessments.

**I would challenge anyone to say improving a students view of learning is less important than learning the formula for density.  (d=m/v)

***I pretty much wrote this as I brainstorm.  I think there is something here, but it would obviously need some refinement.  The key here is giving teachers choice in how and what they improve.  Imagine if a teacher did a study like this every year for 30 years….wow!


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