Wednesday, 27 January 2016

using labs to teach critical thinking

Yesterday oCUBE hosted their monthly online journal club during which we discussed this article from Carl Wieman and colleagues. In this paper, they describe the results of an approach to developing students' (first yr) critical thinking skills when analysing and designing experiments. The cohort under study were first-year physics students from 2012 and 2013 (n~ 130). A limitation of the study is that the experimental and control groups are in different years. However, the investigators seem to have controlled for this with their tests of understanding physical principles - the two cohorts (control and experiment) did not differ significantly between the two years. The interesting finding from this study is that students who were prompted to consider the accuracy of their measurement in relation to how close the data supported the physical model was encouraged over the first few weeks of the course. But the support was gradually removed from the students (instructions from the text/lab manual, then explicit instructions from the instructor and finally no longer included in the marking rubric). What they found was that by the end of the course students in the experimental cohort without being prompted continued to assess their data and develop and implement ways to improve their measurement accuracy and implement these modifications which lead them to consider whether the theoretical model was representative of the data. That is, students no longer just attributed differences between their data and the theory as being due to "human error". And what was remarkable about their findings is that this difference seemed to persist into 2nd yr PHY courses. A limitation of the study is that only ~30 students continued on into 2nd yr PHY but the differences are still striking. Another limitation of the study is that the researchers evaluated students critical thinking from what students had written in lab reports and notebooks. There is the possibility that students were engaged in higher order thinking with their peers when discussing the data but that this analysis never made its way into their writing. It could be that students in the experimental (prompted to think) cohort were encouraged to write this down and include this assessment in their lab reports whereas students in the control never realized that this was something that was valuable and insightful to include in their lab report and notebooks.

Regardless, the data indicate that by being explicit about the epistemic values in science and how to do the science needs to be made explicit to students. Similar to what I have been finding regarding student awareness of their academic skills being developed in their Augustana degree. The data also suggest the importance of giving students the time in class to reflect on what they are doing/learning. As Kimberly Tanner has written in her oft-cited article on student metacognition, just because students are being active in their learning doesn't mean they are actively learning. What this means is that the experience (activity) is only meaningful if students are given the opportunity and prompted to reflect on that experience. Without the reflection, students will not necessarily integrate the learning activity into their existing knowledge structure. Learning is a developmental process that takes time to synthesize our learning with our prior experiences/knowledge. What I find ironic, is that our labs in the sciences are ripe with active learning experiences, but that we so often pack the three hours of a lab with activities that students don't have time to process what they are doing leading to the accusation that science labs are just about following a recipe. This is likely true if students are simply following instructions in their lab manual without taking the time to consider why they are doing things they way they are. I think the prompting to think described in this article is a way of breaking the routine so that students are encouraged to consider what, how, and why they are doing things in the lab.

And that should produce a deeper learning experience.