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In Science Class, How Much Guidance Is Needed?

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Teachers of science, like teachers of other subjects, often wonder how much structure and guidance they need to provide students. A pair of researchers wondered the same thing.

Robert Tai and Philip Sadler, in a new study, find that students with relatively weak mathematics skills who were given self-led, less-structured science instruction in high school were at a disadvantage in college biology and chemistry classes, compared with similarly skilled peers who had come from more-structured classes. They found that students from the more free-form high school classes received lower grades in their college courses than students who had been given more direct guidance in their high school courses.

Yet among students with stronger math skills, there was hardly any difference in college performance between those who had been taught in structured environments and those who had been in unstructured ones.

Tai is an associate professor of science education at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. He produced the study with Sadler, the director of the science education department at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in Cambridge, Mass. It was published in the March issue of the International Journal of Science Education. A link to the abstract can be found here.

For their study, the authors used about 8,000 responses from a survey, known as Factors Influencing College Science Success, of undergraduate students.

One question I'm sure a lot of science educators will ask: How did the researchers define the level of lesson structure? The study says students were asked about their high school experiences with "inquiry-type learning activities," specifically, the number of student-designed projects they took part in and the degree of freedom they were given in designing and conducting labs. Tai and Sadler used the same data set for an earlier study on the benefits of "depth vs. breath" in high school science study, which I wrote about recently. Tai told me in an e-mail that the researchers have used the data set for articles published in about 20 peer-reviewed research journals.

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Perhaps science and math teachers could, based on these findings, be encouraged to collaborate to identify potentially varying amounts of individual attention and structure to assist varying levels of math proficiency in their students. They could, it seems, have a greater impact on those needing it most.

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