Kathie M. Black, Ph.D.,
This work explored reflective journal writing through instructor designed focus questions for student self-analysis in elementary and secondary science methods. Students from both elementary and secondary science methods courses participated in journaling their experiences while learning science-teaching methods. This action research study was descriptive in nature as it consisted of discussing trends and patterns emerging from the use of focus questions in reflective journal writing. This work demonstrated the validity and possibility of using reflective journals in the science methods classroom and ultimately the transfer of that practice into K-12 classrooms. An obvious pattern of dissonance emerged in the middle of the term when students were changing their ways of knowing and adjusting to new learning situations (Magolda, 1999; Felder & Brent, 1996). Developing focus questions on the part of the instructor was not an easy task, but this work illustrated that focus questioning for written responses resulted in a fuller picture of the student learning process. Using reflective journaling helped students make connections between content and pedagogy, but more importantly, served to guide instructors in effective teaching during the term through adjusting instruction according to student thought and development.
Learning any new subject is challenging, often frustrating, but usually rewarding. Pre-service education students come to the science methods classroom with a myriad of experiences and understandings of the world around them. They’ve studied science content previously, to what extent largely dependent upon personal choice and degree programme, and they’re looking forward to learning how to teach science. Many of them are nervous about their teaching abilities and personal knowledge of science and carry a trepidation of how content and pedagogy come together successfully in the science classroom. Pre-service teachers are bombarded with a plethora of new terms and ideas related to inquiry based science, hands-on/minds-on activities, assessment in science, the nature of science, scientific literacy, current reform suggestions, and standards based instruction. Pulling together and making sense of the knowledge swirling around them and putting that knowledge into practice becomes their ultimate objective in science methods. However, pre-service students often tend to be resistant to new ideas, preferring rather to rely their existing previous knowledge and experience, but these beliefs can change as a result of instruction and experience that helps students meld old ideas with new ones (Bryan & Tippins, 2005). One of the most effective strategies at helping students merge new understanding with old is through the science-literacy connection. Linking literacy skills to learning how to teach science content helps pre-service teachers have practical and personal motivation to use language in helping them make the connections between content knowledge and teaching pedagogy (Klentschy & Molina-De La Torre, 2004). According to Klentschy & Molina-De La Torre (2004), communication through language is vital in the process of learning and conducting science. Words help us frame our understanding and give us a space to reflect on these ideas through writing. Writing helps us to attach a personal response to our experiences, clarifies our ideas, and helps us construct our knowledge.
Writing in the science classroom takes on many forms from research reports, lab reports, science notebooks, and reflective journaling. The term ‘science notebook’ and ‘science journal’ are often used interchangeably in the research. Some authors refer to ‘science notebooks’ as lab notebooks in which students write their findings of experimentations and ‘journals’ as places where students write reflections of their experiences. Science notebooks have become more than just lab reporting notebooks in most science research forums, they have become the place where students can not only record data from experiences, but also reflect on their own learning, answer questions, formulate ideas, generate new questions, and dialogue with the teacher (Akerson & Young, 2005; Fulton & Campbell, 2004; Klentschy & Molina-De La Torre, 2004).
Just asking students to write and reflect in their journals is about as effective as asking “yes” or “no” questions during a science class or simply stating to students, “are there any questions” (Olson & Clough, 2004). Questioning techniques in teaching remain a strong focus in all our teaching efforts from the first establishment of the ‘three second wait’ rule in giving students time to formulate their verbal answers to higher level questioning in class discussions. Journaling in science is most effective when developed around effective prompts and questions. Helping students formulate their answers through guiding their writing and giving them a ‘start’ point enhances knowledge construction and connections between their existing knowledge and new information (Klentschy, 2005). Miller & Calfee (2004) suggest six suggestions of writing prompts for guiding student writing. The first involves a focus statement that serves the purposes of activating student prior knowledge and draws students into critically thinking about what they are about to write. A second is to ask students to consider their audience; in journaling the audience is either the teacher or the students’ own personal voice, and a third is the type of form the writing takes, such as essay, letter, or narrative. Other suggestions are to be specific and simple with instructions regarding students’ writing and encourage students to support their written statements with details from their experiences. Finally, writing needs space – time and physical space – within which to develop.
After establishing effective parameters for student reflective writing, it is up to the instructor to develop focus questions to help students ponder while writing. These questions create the dialogue between student and teacher by exploring issues involved in the learning situation, defining evidence found, or exploring new avenues for thought. Effective focus questions ask students to give evidence for their claims, encourage them to offer other explanations for what they experienced, or ask them to elaborate on a particular event or subject discussed or explored in the science classroom (Klentschy & Molina-De La Torre, 2004).
Writing to learn and writing in science have become increasingly more important within the structure of school standards requirements as reading and writing programmes often take precedence over science instruction. A natural progression toward inclusion of writing in science to fulfill this societal need is accomplished through the use of reflective journal writing (Klentschy & Molina-De La Torre, 2004).
Writing in and writing to learn science continue as a major focus in science education research and methodology; however, helping educators implement these crucial strategies into their curriculum often proves problematic. Science education methods seek to do a myriad of things within a short time period. Preservice students learn the rudiments of planning and teaching appropriate inquiry based science lessons within the constructs of their individual situations. Many science teacher educators strive to build into this curriculum a measure of appropriate reading and writing in and to learn science techniques (Black, 2005). As teacher educators, we realize that instructors often struggle with incorporating appropriate writing to learn and writing in science activities within an already packed curriculum. Combining reflective journaling strategies with instructor designed focus questions achieves this goal (Klentschy & Molina-De La Torre, 2004). This work explored reflective journal writing through instructor designed focus questions for student self-analysis in elementary and secondary science methods. Students from both elementary and secondary science methods courses participated in journaling their experiences while learning science-teaching methods.
This action research study is descriptive in nature as it consists of discussing trends and patterns emerging from the use of focus questions in reflective journal writing. This work follows an iterative research model by examining data collected through an analytic inductive approach (Huberman & Miles, 1998). This study explores three major questions: 1) Is journal writing guided by focus questions useful in science methods courses? 2) Do students find journaling an asset in their learning process? 3) Are student journal entries effective in guiding science methods instructors in their delivery of instruction?
This work took place in two science methodology classes,
one elementary section and one secondary section, taught at a
There were 23 students in the elementary section, three males and twenty females. All of these students held an undergraduate degree in various subjects. Only two students held science based degrees. Elementary science methods students take a methodology course for every content area of the elementary school: science, math, social studies, two language arts methods courses, art/music/drama, and physical education. This section met for three hours once a week for twelve weeks. These students were in the elementary schools for six Wednesdays during the term.
Students were required to keep a self-reflective journal as part of the course requirements. At the end of each week for the secondary methods course and each class time for the elementary methods, students answered specific focus questions regarding science methods instruction posed by the instructor. The following are sample focus questions used in both classes:
· Write for one minute in your journal about everything you experienced in today’s class. After the one-minute, discuss how you might like to introduce/remind your own students of the science process skills.
· Compare & contrast the learning cycle teaching strategy with the way you’ve learned science. Discuss your feelings of teaching in this manner.
· Looking back at your own education, what has been the major form of assessment? How do you think you could incorporate more effective assessment techniques into your own planning?
The instructor checked student journals four times throughout the term to ensure students were completing the task. Students received marks for completion and the instructor reviewed student answers to help guide further instruction. The researcher then analyzed final journals for trends and patterns emerging from the course of study as compared to the research areas of question.
All students completed journals in each section. The majority of students answered all the questions thoughtfully and in-depth. Several students in the elementary section answered only half the questions posed while only one student in the secondary section did not fully answer all the questions. One student in the secondary section ranted in her writings about having to keep a journal but was able to understand and apply the value of this learning tool into her own situation (Perry, 1999).
“I hate doing journals, always have, always will. I understand they help some people, but not me. I think it is important to reflect, but I can do this w/o writing anything down. Eg: while I was sitting outside after work today waiting for my boyfriend to pick my up I reflected about the class & then I got in the car & talked to him about what we did. - Good enough. If I have any great thoughts or insights I will write it down, but all this…. I will try very hard not to be negative about this journal from here on (at least not in writing J) & will think constructively & try to benefit from it.”
Other students took the journal opportunity as one to vent frustrations with other class members and/or the instructor.
“At this point in time I still can’t think of what will be effective because I have no experience in teaching a group of teenagers. Effective teaching is something that comes either naturally or with experience. In any case, I cannot think of this right now at the end of October when I have to imagine a hypothetical situation & apply my present skills to it…”
An obvious pattern of dissonance emerged in the middle of the term when students were changing their ways of knowing and adjusting to new learning situations (Magolda, 1999; Felder & Brent, 1996).
“First, I have to admit that I am not entirely thrilled to be writing this journal on my observation. It’s not b/c I don’t think that it will be useful, but we were not supposed to be given assignments during our observation. Yet so many teachers have given little assignments here and there, as well as the massive assignment for [another class in the programme]. The end result – a very stressful observation with absolutely zero free time… I am thoroughly exhausted.”
Half of the students in each section wrote their journals longhand, while the rest used a word processor. Students were quick to write in their journals the first few weeks of class, but after time, it was obvious that most students wrote their entries the night before the journal checks.
While the instructor had preset focus questions going into each class, these questions often changed in nature as a reflection of that day or week’s learning environment. In the middle of the term when students experienced undue stress over multiple assignments in all their courses and health became an issue. The instructor adjusted the focus questions from science knowledge based to discuss the health of a teacher. The changing focus question helped students readjust their thinking and get themselves back on track with thinking about ‘science’ versus thinking about the magnitude of their respective work loads. This course adjustment led to several class discussions on the nature of the learner and learning situation as applied to the science classroom. It was perhaps this focus question and subsequent journal responses that elicited the most interesting findings of the study.
Question: You are obviously experiencing the stress inherent in the teaching profession of lesson and material preparation, deadlines and unexpected happenings. Develop a stress relieving activity for yourself while still considering how to complete your planning and preparation for the classroom. Carry out the activity and explain how you feel.
Student Answer: “ it is now the morning before this journal entry may or may not be due, and I am still not sure how to respond to this question. Generally speaking, I find a good way to deal with stress is to focus on something I know that I am good at doing, such as sitting down in the piano lab in the Music Education Wing – provided I’m not preventing others from actually doing their schoolwork in the lab – and ‘noodling’ for a few minutes. Another activity that I am probably using more to distract me from my schoolwork is visit a website where I can play a ‘pictionary’ type game with others. I’m not sure how to put it, but activities like this seem to ‘centre’ or ‘realign’ my brain a bit, and make me feel as though I can approach my more pressing tasks in a somewhat renewed manner. I just have to watch that these activities don’t take too much of my time. I suppose one possibility either ‘in the field’ or in school is to try to design activities that do not require a lot of advance preparation; ones that will have the learning experience ‘unfold’ from the students’ discoveries. However, the best tactics for keeping stress in check are still advance preparation, taking one’s demands in small bites, and being aware of what’s in one’s sphere of influence and what isn’t. We PDPPers are fortunate in that our instructors are well aware of the workload we face and are trying to accommodate us accordingly. This does help keep things in perspective when we have a moment to raise our heads from the surface to take a breather and have a quick look around at what we are navigating. (I’m not sure from where all these aquatic metaphors are coming! Maybe it has something to do with the microteaching lesson coming up!) I’m not terribly happy with how I’ve dealt with this journal entry, at least so far, but it has made me feel a bit better about what I’m doing and why I’m in this program!”
There was very little difference between elementary and secondary student journals; however, several of the elementary students included artwork and student activities geared toward younger children while the secondary students focused on adult language throughout.
This study determined specific patterns to the effectiveness and usefulness of journal writing guided by instructor posed focus questions in a science methods course. It demonstrated student feelings regarding journal writing as a valued part of their learning process, and guided the instructor in making necessary course adjustments related to student needs as verified by their writing. It also served to give the instructor feedback regarding the course structure other then what was reported in standard course evaluations.
“The course as a whole was decent. I really liked how you did our performance assessment mid-term. This way it forced us to review important concept that we could later use in our microteaching. It also relieved some of the end of term stress.”
Science journals have become one of the most popular forms of incorporating writing into the science classroom (Klentschy & Molina-De La Torre, 2004); however, the practical application of writing journals in the science methods classroom is often over looked. As we reflect on traditional educational theory from Bruner, “we teach the way we were taught”, we realize that if we desire our students to teach a certain way in the science classroom, it is necessary to model that behaviour in the methods classroom also (Black, 1994).
This work demonstrated the validity and possibility of using reflective journals in the science methods classroom and ultimately the transfer of that practice into K-12 classrooms. Developing focus questions on the part of the instructor was not an easy task, but this work illustrated that focus questioning for written responses resulted in a fuller picture of the student learning process. Using reflective journaling helped students make connections between content and pedagogy, but more importantly, served to guide instructors in effective teaching during the term through adjusting instruction according to student thought and development.
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