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.


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