28 December 2007

Making the Leap

A colleague and I were recently comparing the various victories and defeats we'd had with our instruction. Both of us have made some changes in our approach to teaching to the standards in biology, although we are not quite on the same track. We are tinkerers, never quite satisfied enough to do anything exactly the same way twice. Although we both feel like we're doing some of the best work we've ever done in the classroom, there is one area which is still not firing on all cylinders: when it comes to application questions on tests, kids aren't making the leap. In some ways, this is not completely alarming. We see other evidence from the classroom that students are thinking about how to take their learning and do something with it. But on the other hand, in a "pressure" situation, students aren't able to apply scientific concepts to solve a problem.

Here's an example. My friend's students recently worked on diffusion and osmosis. In class, they dissolved the shells off of eggs and then exposed the leftover egg to different concentrations of sugar and salt. They used baggies to also observe the movement of molecules across a barrier. There were other activities and demonstrations as well. On the test, nearly every kid could describe and explain aspects of osmosis. Score! But the question on making pickles? Not so much. Mind you, a cucumber has membranes just like an egg. Salt impacts it exactly the same way as the egg (and other examples done in class)...but kids didn't take those experiences and their well-demonstrated knowledge of osmosis to apply to a new situation. Why not?

We're still trying to tease out the answer to this question, as it keeps coming up. It would be an understandable issue if students had not been presented with any opportunities to apply their learning prior to the test. We want kids to have some practice before the final assessment. The larger issue is really about helping kids make connections for themselves between the class and The Real World. Yes, we can talk about examples with them and show them things...but soon enough they will leave our classes. It doesn't matter that they're not all going to make pickles at some time in their life, but they are many other instances they are dealing with on a daily basis which would apply. Is it a matter of finding some other way to foster their curiosity about the world? Is it a function of feeling like taking risks in the classroom is okay because there are no penalties for trying? Do we work on furthering their ability to solve puzzles and problems in the hope that those skills might help them find ways to transfer their learning to new places?

What do you do to help your students make the leap?


Unknown said...

Great anecdote! I've certainly experienced this same kind of frustration, so I can empathize.

I think the best, if simplest, answer is practice, practice, practice.

I like to take good responses to my practice questions and show them to the students and have them reason out why they are good responses. I also show them poor responses, so they can see the difference.

Then, it's back to the proverbial drawing board.

Most students who fail achievement tests do so because they have only crammed at the end of the year for the test. The key is giving them the same response-type questions they'll see on an achievement test, all year.

I think you're on the right track. Good luck.

The Science Goddess said...

Thanks for the "Atta Goddess!" :)

We'll keep working with kids. I almost think we need a way to pull off a few kids to interview after the test. I'd like to have some time to ask the kids who do make the leap what they're thinking about when they approach a problem...and the ones who are struggling what they are doing (or not doing), too.

Michaele Sommerville said...

It's frustrating when you find that students are 1) either unaware that there is a disconnect switch or 2) ARE aware of it and actively use it by isolating their own learning explorations to specific, hands-on situations only... never taking it to the next step, or wondering, or having it pop into their minds when they're at home and opening a jar of pickes while Mom cuts up cucumber for the dinner salad. Those "ah-ha" moments (that don't just happen on tests).... where have they gone?

The Science Goddess said...

And how much learning has been lost in the meantime?

I am sure that I have had (and continue to have) my own "dense" moments, but one would hope that younger brains would behave a bit differently from senior ones. :)

Anonymous said...

At the elementary level I struggle with the same issue regarding application of concepts. I agree that practice and modeling are essential. Using the 5E lesson plan format helps students to always identify a real-world "extension" of the learning. As an alternative to having students apply learning to a new situation on their own, I've tried presenting several scenarios and they need identify errors in scientific thinking. Since many students may lack the necessary background knowledge and experiences to be able to make their own connections, this type of scaffolding works well.

Roger Sweeny said...

Boy, does your situation sound familiar!

Last year I had a physics student who believed that it was "unfair" for me to put anything on a test that was not an exact copy of something we had done in class.

"But we never did anything like that," he would complain. Nothing exactly like it, I would respond, but we had covered all the ideas needed to answer it, and had done similar problems.

Though he was the loudest, he was hardly the only student who didn't like it.

My somewhat depressing hypothesis is that most students don't want to "make connections ... between the class and The Real World." They don't want to "apply their learning." In fact, they don't want to learn at all. They want to memorize for long enough to do well on an assessment, and then to forget.

I strongly suspect that if I could make them take any of their tests a year later, I would find that, as to the latter, most of them had succeeded.

Linda Fox said...

My husband and I were discussing this issue on the way to our school. I think some of the solution is to explicitly teach meta-cognitive skills.