How Learning Theory Can Help STEM Educators
The use of learning theory may improve student-centered learning techniques.
Posted Feb 06, 2017
Post by Jacqueline Maguire, PhD Candidate (The Pennsylvania State University)
Is traditional lecture-style teaching the best technique for large science courses? As a former teaching assistant in undergraduate chemistry courses, I often find myself trying to link my experiences in chemistry classrooms to theory and research in educational psychology. Lecturing has been the main technique used in college science classrooms for years, where the instructor talks at the students about course material. In this post, I share how student-centered learning techniques provide alternatives to lecturing in STEM-based undergraduate courses. Three theoretical frameworks are presented to provide structure to the student-centered learning techniques presented, and recommendations for instructors are discussed. My purpose is to take a step towards bridging theory with practice, with the aim of learning theory informing research that examines student-centered learning.
Three student-centered learning techniques were chosen that have the potential to be used in college science lectures: think-pair-share (TPS), jigsaw activities, and clicker systems (Lom, 2012; Mayer et al., 2009). During a think-pair-share (TPS) activity, the instructor presents a prompt to the class and asks students to think about how they would respond. The students are then paired and asked to share their ideas with their partner before coming together as a class. Each pair then shares their thoughts with the rest of the class. TPS has some seemingly important benefits: the same students are not always responding to instructor prompts, talking to a partner one-on-one can ease students’ nerves before talking in front of a group, and all students are required to think about the prompt (Lom, 2012). Studies have found that TPS increases science students’ critical thinking skills and achievement test scores (Bamiro, 2015; Kaddoura, 2013).
During a jigsaw activity, the instructor places students into teams and assigns each team a different task. Individual members of a “home” team are given a different task to complete, but all tasks are related. After the tasks are completed, the instructor rearranges the students into “breakout” teams. The breakout teams are composed of one member from each of the home teams. Each student must teach their breakout group about the task their home team completed. Like TPS, jigsaw activities require students to think about the task at hand, and provide an opportunity for small group discussion. In addition, jigsaw activities allow students to play both the role of the student and the teacher, and have been found to increase academic achievement in college chemistry students (Doymus, 2008; Lom, 2012; Mari & Gumel, 2015). Similarly, retention tests in a dental school found that students who participated in a jigsaw activity retained significantly more information than those who did not (Sagsoz, Karatas, Turel, Yildiz, & Kaya, 2015).
TPS and the jigsaw activity are not as new to science classrooms as technology-based techniques. Technological innovations, such as clicker systems, have brought a new wave of student-centered learning to science classrooms. Clicker systems allow instructors to pose questions to students and gain responses via the students’ hand-held clicker device. Studies have found that clickers promote student engagement in large undergraduate courses (Oigara & Keengwe, 2013; Trees & Jackson, 2007). In addition, exam scores in a college course were higher in sections where clickers were used (Mayer et al., 2009). Exam scores were also found to be related to the number of clicker questions presented in each class; more clicker questions lead to better exam scores (Preszler, Dawe, C. B. Shuster, & M. Shuster, 2007).
Given the divide between research and practice that is all too common in education, it is worth noticing that very few of the studies conducted on these student-centered techniques offer a theoretical framework to support why these techniques may be more successful than traditional lecturing. Some studies, such as Doymus’ (2008) study looking at college chemistry students’ use of the jigsaw activity, mention Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory as being the frame of reference. To build on this, and to work towards bridging the gap between theory and practice, each of the learning techniques described are connected to three learning theories: social-cognitive theory, sociocultural theory, and information processing.
In the table below, one principle of each theoretical framework is mapped onto each of the student-centered learning techniques. During the TPS activity, the “pair” and “share” provide students an opportunity to learn through observing their peers, which could increase students’ self-efficacy according to Bandura’s social-cognitive theory. Social-cognitive theory can also be tied to the jigsaw activity through the triadic reciprocity because each student is given more than one opportunity to interact with their environment. Additionally, clicker questions promote self-efficacy and self-regulation, as students are able to find what information they do and do not know in a relatively low stakes environment.
Sociocultural theory provides a different perspective on student-centered learning than socio-cognitive theory. For example, Vygotsky’s points about modeling and group work are worth considering in student-centered learning. Group discussions during TPS and the jigsaw allow language to be the main tool that promotes thinking. Additionally, the teacher is able to model the most effective ways to approach challenging tasks that students may not be able to accomplish independently during both of these activates. Clicker questions provide a unique opportunity to evaluate a student’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) and allow instructors to consider where students are and how to help them progress, while also allowing students to work with classmates to answer questions.
The final theoretical framework presented is the Information Processing System (IPS). In the IPS, working memory (WM) has a limited capacity and not all information can be attended to at once. In addition, it takes time and practice to move information to long-term memory (LTM). TPS offers students plenty of practice: by themselves, with a partner, and with the class. The jigsaw activity also provides time to practice because students are exposed to information more than once. The jigsaw also aids the encoding process when students are required to teach their peers. Encoding and rehearsal processes are important if students are expected to retrieve information at a later date (e.g., on an exam). Clicker questions are helpful self-testing tools to aid students with retrieval because they are able to practice activating their prior knowledge. Clicker questions provide students with a better understanding of what information they know and what information they need to work on.
Instructors can work towards increasing the effectiveness of the student-centered learning techniques presented here. When using TPS or the jigsaw activity, modeling the way in which a task should be approached is helpful for students. In addition, creating dialogue between the teacher (i.e., the model) and the students is beneficial because, as Vygotsky points out, language is often developed through exposure to words. Undergraduate science courses tend to use a lot of new vocabulary, so dialogue is key in fostering that language growth. In addition to developing vocabulary skills, students will need ample time to store information in their LTM according to the IPS. Therefore, as an instructor, providing enough time for students to work through any of the three student-centered learning techniques is important. Self-efficacy should be protected during all activities through providing timely and constructive feedback. With this, clicker questions should be low stakes so self-efficacy is preserved. Clicker questions should also be concise because excess information makes it difficult to retrieve information from LTM.
It is important that both researchers and instructors consider learning theory in their work because it offers a foundation to inform research and practice focused on classroom-based learning. The recommendations made here are just a first step towards bridging research and practice, with the hopes that closing the gap will lead to enhanced learning experiences for all students.
This post is part of a special series curated by APA Division 15 President Bonnie J.F. Meyer. The series, centered around her presidential theme of "Welcoming and Advancing Research in Educational Psychology: Impacting Learners, Teachers, and Schools," is designed to spread the dissemination and impact of meaningful educational psychology research. Those interested can learn more about this theme in Division 15's 2016 Summer Newsletter.
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