Assumptions for redesigning traditional physics laboratory practical activities

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In this chapter, some background information to the study and a short introduction to inquiry- based teaching are given. In science education communities, inquiry-based learning is often seen as the recommended method that should be used to teach physics (Abd-El-Khalick, Boujaoude, Duschl, Lederman, Mamlok-Naaman, Hofstein, Niaz, Treagust & Tuan, 2004). It is believed that inquiry-based instruction may promote the understanding of the nature of science and scientific inquiry skills as advocated by Feynman (1998), the National Research Council (NRC, 2012) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Consortium of Lead States, (2013).
Emphasis on inquiry-based instruction has recently been included as an objective in the teaching strategy of the Department of Physics within the Faculty of Agricultural and Natural Sciences, at the University of Pretoria (UP). The Department of Physics has redesigned the laboratory component of physics practical activities from a traditional format into inquiry-based instruction. This was done with the intention of enhancing learning during practical laboratory activities and improving the scientific literacy of physics students. Scientific literacy requires students to understand the nature of science and scientific enquiry (Roberts, 2007). The purpose of this study is to investigate the effects of the Explicit Reflective Guided Inquiry (ERGI) laboratory activities on student outcomes.


Reforms towards inquiry-based science education in many countries have followed the lead set by the National Research Council (NRC) and American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in the United States of America. These two organisations have contributed to science education reforms by publishing reports such as the National Science Education Standards, (1996); Science for All Americans, (1990) and Benchmarks for Science Literacy, (1993). The reform documents encouraged an inquiry-based approach which is believed to enhance conceptualisation of the nature of science (NOS), inquiry process skills and science literacy. Pine, Aschbacher, Roth, Jones, McPhee, Martin, Phelps, Kyle, and Foley (2006, p.468), have claimed that inquiry is integral to science research: ―Beginning in the 17th century, when Galileo rolled balls down ramps, scientific research has been based on inquiry experimental investigations that attempt to answer questions about the natural world‖.
Cognitive psychologists (Barron, Schwartz, Vye, Moore, Petrosino, Zech, Bransford & The Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1998; Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 1999; Vosniadou & Brewer, 1992) and education researchers (Hake, 1998; McDermott, 1991; McDermott & Redish, 1999; Redish, 2003) have agreed, after conducting extensive research studies, that active engagement in learning is essential for sustained conceptual understanding. In other words, inquiry attained a prominent role at policy level since it is believed to promote a better understanding of the science content and the application of knowledge in solving real-life situations (Blanchard, Southerland & Granger, 2008). In spite of the persistent dialogue and efforts related to science education reforms, current science curricula in the United States and many other countries have been unsuccessful in teaching students science literacy in order to become successful science learners (Linn, Davis, & Bell, 2004). Research shows that the majority of teachers and students possess naïve views about certain features of NOS (Abd-El-Khalick, 2006; Bell, Blair, Crawford & Lederman, 2003; Abd-El-Khalick & BouJaoude, 2003; Bora & Cakiroglu, 2006; Duschl, 1990; Lederman, 1992).
Researchers argue that the teaching of NOS is ineffective because most science teachers in the United States (US) are harbouring uninformed conceptions of NOS (Abd-El-Khalick, Bell, & Lederman, 1998; Abd-El-Khalick & Lederman, 2000a; Lederman, 1992). Lederman (2007) posits that various studies have shown that misconceptions regarding NOS are widespread among high school students, college students and teachers. This may be related to teacher-centred instruction methods which teachers have developed from their own experiences as students (Clark & Peterson, 1986; Nespor, 1987; Pajares, 1992; Richardson, 1996; Shulman, 2006; van Driel, Verloop & de Vos, 1998). The current teaching approaches in many school science curricula still promote the philosophical mind-set of the 20th century (Bencze & Hodson, 1999). Many teachers, scientists and curriculum developers are not willing to provide students with an opportunity to explore their own problems (Abrams, 1998). The NRC (2000, p. 17) reported ―teachers were still using traditional, didactic methods‖ and ―students were mastering disconnected facts in lieu of broader understandings, critical reasoning, and problem-solving skills.‖ According to Bartholomew, Osborne, and Ratcliffe (2004), teachers fail to recognise that gaining an understanding of the scientific processes and practices is essentially a reflective effort. Additionally, teachers should take the lead in identifying and emphasising crucial features of the scientific practices and processes and eventually students should be able to recognise the processes themselves.
However, this cannot easily happen considering that many teachers have inadequate experience with scientific inquiry (Blanchard et al., 2008) and are harbouring naïve conceptions of the process by which scientific knowledge is developed (Anderson, 2007). A comprehensive discussion of barriers to implementation of inquiry and NOS follows later. Although NOS and scientific inquiry are different constructs, they are closely connected with the aims of current science education. Teaching students to conduct scientific inquiry comprises of teachers involving students in the scientific practices.
The scientific practices include conducting scientific investigations and performing laboratory based practical activities like scientists to address questions and formulate explanations using creative and critical thinking (NRC, 2012). When scientists and students are engaged in scientific investigations and practical activities, they use observations and inferences to formulate conclusions and empirical based explanations (AAAS, 1989). Understandings of the difference between observations and inferences as well as informed conceptions of the tentativeness, subjectivity, distinction between theory and law, and role of social and cultural values associated with the construction of scientific knowledge are aspects of NOS. The aspects of NOS are also related to the understanding of scientific inquiry. Allowing students to conduct scientific investigations and practical activities is believed to provide an environment for reflection on NOS aspects, although participating in inquiry only may not promote students‘ informed views of NOS (Schwartz et al., 2004).


Table of Contents :

  • Chapter 1: Introduction
    • 1.1 Background
    • 1.2 Reforms in South African‘s science education system
    • 1.3 Problem statement and rationale
    • 1.3.1 Differences between traditional recipe-based and inquiry-based practical
    • activities
    • 1.3.2 Barriers to implementation of inquiry and NOS instruction
    • 1.4 Significance of the study
    • 1.5 Aims and research questions
      • 1.5.1 Aims
      • 1.5.2 Research questions
    • 1.6 Assumptions for redesigning traditional physics laboratory practical activities
    • into guided inquiry-based format
    • 1.7 Benefits of using guided inquiry
    • 1.8 The design of the intervention
      • 1.8.1 The practical course
      • 1.8.2 Pilot study
      • 1.8.3 Training of laboratory assistants
    • 1.9 Discussion of the design of the intervention
  • Chapter 2: Literature review
    • 2.1 The role of inquiry in science education
      • 2.1.1 Role of scientific literacy in science learning
      • 2.1.2 What is inquiry?
      • 2.1.3 Continuum of inquiry
      • 2.1.4 Inquiry-based Instruction versus Traditional Instruction
      • 2.1.5 Role of argumentation in guided inquiry
      • 2.1.6 Historical background on inquiry-based teaching and learning
    • 2.2 Theories supporting inquiry based science education
    • 2.2.1 The Cognitive Basis of Inquiry Learning: Individual and social
    • constructivism
      • 2.2.2 Situated learning theory
      • 2.2.3 Collaborative/cooperative learning
      • 2.2.4 Conceptual development of individual scientific knowledge
      • 2.2.5 Problem-based Learning
    • 2.3 Nature of science
      • 2.3.1 Empirical nature of science knowledge
      • 2.3.2 Differences between observations and inferences
      • 2.3.3 Differences between scientific theories and laws
      • 2.3.4 Human imagination and creativity
      • 2.3.5 Social and cultural embeddedness
      • 2.3.6 Subjective nature
      • 2.3.7 Diverse scientific methods
      • 2.3.8 Tentativeness
      • 2.3.9 Different approaches in the teaching of NOS
    • 2.4 The role of guiding questions in learning science
    • 2.4.1 Previous studies on using guiding questions in the learning of science
    • knowledge
    • 2.4.2 Previous studies on the effect of some interventions on the understanding of
    • NOS
    • 2.5 Conceptual framework
  • Chapter 3: Methodology
    • 3.1 Philosophical worldview
    • 3.2 Research design
    • 3.3 Research approach
    • 3.4 Research paradigm
    • 3.5 Sampling
    • 3.6 Data collection
    • 3.6.1 Open-ended questionnaire
    • 3.6.2 Focus group interviews
    • 3.6.3 Explicit reflective questions
    • 3.6.4 Combined practical examination
    • 3.6.5 Theoretical year-end examination
    • 3.7 Data analysis
      • 3.7.1 Open-ended questionnaire
      • 3.7.2 Focus group interviews
      • 3.7.3 Explicit reflective questions
      • 3.7.4 Combined practical examination
      • 3.7.5 Theoretical year-end examination
      • 3.7.6 Statistical analysis
    • 3.8 Trustworthiness
    • 3.9 Ethical considerations
  • Chapter 4: Results
    • 4.1 NOS: Evaluation of students‘ understanding
    • 4.1.1 Tentative aspect (TN)
    • 4.1.2 Empirical nature (EN)
    • 4.1.3 Theory vs. law (TL)
    • 4.1.4 Observations vs. inferences (OI)
    • 4.1.5 Imagination and creativity (IC)
    • 4.1.6 Social and cultural values (SC)
    • 4.1.7 Scientific method (SM)
    • 4.2 Nature of Science: Quantitative results
    • 4.2.1 Performance of the control and experimental groups in the VNOS test
    • 4.2.2 Relationship between the understanding of NOS and gender
    • 4.2.3 Relationship between the understanding of NOS and academic achievement
    • in physics
    • 4.3 Students‘ views on the practical course: Focus group interviews
    • 4.3.1 Analysis of responses given in focus group interviews
    • 4.4 Academic performance
    • 4.4.1 The relationship between ERGI laboratory practical activities and students‟
    • performance in the combined practical and theoretical year-end
    • examinations
    • 4.4.2 Relationship between ERGI laboratory practical activities and performance
    • of academically high and low achieving students in the combined practical
    • and the theoretical year-end examination
  • 4.5 Chapter summary
    • 4.5.1 Understanding of the Nature of Science
    • 4.5.2 Students‟ views on the practical course
    • 4.5.3 Academic performance
  • Chapter 5: Discussion of the findings, conclusions and recommendations
    • 5.1 The first research sub-question:
    • 5.1.1 First finding: Understanding of the various aspects of NOS by students in the
    • control group
    • 5.1.2 Second finding: Effect of ERGI laboratory practical activities on
    • understanding the various aspects of NOS
    • 5.1.3 Third finding: Difference between males‟ and females‟ understanding of NOS
    • in the control group
    • 5.1.4 Fourth finding: Differences in the effect of ERGI laboratory practical
    • activities on male and female students‟ understanding of NOS
    • 5.1.5 Fifth finding: Difference in the understanding of NOS aspects between the
    • academically high and low achieving students in the control group
    • 5.1.6 Sixth finding: Difference in the effect of ERGI laboratory practical activities
    • on the academically high and low achieving students‟ understanding of NOS
    • 5.1.7 Synthesis of the findings related to the first sub-question
    • 5.2 The second research sub-question:
    • 5.2.1 Seventh finding: Students‟ views on the ERGI and traditional laboratory
    • practical activities
    • 5.3 The third research sub-question:
    • 5.3.1 Eighth finding: Effect of ERGI laboratory practical activities on academic
    • performance
    • 5.3.2 Ninth finding: Difference in the effect of ERGI laboratory practical activities
    • on low and high achievers‟ academic performance
    • 5.4 Overall research question in terms of the theoretical framework
    • 5.4.1 Effect of ERGI laboratory practical activities on understanding of NOS
    • 5.4.2 Effect of ERGI laboratory practical activities on students‟ views on
    • laboratory work
    • 5.4.3 Effect of ERGI laboratory practical activities on academic performance
    • 5.5 Discussion
    • 5.6 Implications
    • 5.7 Limitations of the study and suggestions for further investigations
    • 5.8 Conclusion
    • 5.8.1 Understanding of the Nature of Science
    • 5.8.2 Students‟ views on the laboratory work
    • 5.8.3 Academic performance
    • 5.8.4 Reflection
    • 5.9 Recommendations
    • 5.9.1 How should science be taught?
    • 5.9.2 How should NOS be taught?
    • References

Influence of guided inquiry-based laboratory activities on outcomes achieved in first-year physics

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