Student reasoning in tutorials (#AAPTsm10)

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 20, 2010

I’m at the American Association of Physics Teachers meeting, and will be trying to liveblog some of my observations from sessions while I’m here.  The absence of wireless may dampen the true “live”-ness of the liveblog, but I’ll aim for semi-live blogging – ie., I’ll post stuff from my hotel at night, before I collapse with exhaustion.

The University of Maine PER group (Brian Frank and Adam Kaczynski) showed us a few  of their studies on how students reason in tutorials.

For one, in tutorials, we expect students to articulate their reasoning, and argue and debate ideas.  But this isn’t always easy to do, working in social groups.  Brian Frank showed us some results from one group of girls, which I think must be pretty common.  One student said that she thought that they would see one kind of result when they did the experiment later in the tutorial.  Another disagreed.  The first student sort of laughed uncomfortably and said, oh, “I don’t know.”  She tried several times during the tutorial to bring up her concerns and confusion about that part of the tutorial and the other students either changed the subject, said it didn’t matter whether they all got the same answer, and that student always sort of deflected the potential conflict or loss of face by turning away, playing with her hair, or laughing.  This was a lost opportunity for the students to discuss and articulate their ideas.  I bet this happens a lot.  If articulating and attending to peers’ ideas are important for tutorials, we need to find ways to make this happen in the classroom.  I know at the University of Colorado we have successfully addressed this problem, at least in part, by using undergraduate Learning Assistants to circulate, ask questions f students, and model the kind of reasoning and discussion that we want from our students.

Adam Kacyznski also showed us some data on the fact that students aren’t necessarily using the resources available to them to solve the tutorial problems.  They try to solve inconsistencies as they work through tutorials, but not necessarily between ideas in the tutorial, but rather between their own formulations of the question.  They don’t bring up alternative ideas until that’s modeled by the instructor.  So, students aren’t necessarily being independent learners in quite the way that we expect them to in the tutorials.

Both of these studies suggest what we already knew, but with some more precision – the deep thinking that we expect students to do is difficult, both intellectually and socially.  In the Q&A, it was mentioned that the structure of the tutorials can be complicit in creating this kind of direction – if the answers come later in the tutorial, then students might avoid spending the time to talk about their reasoning because they know it will be resolved later on.

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