Students often look to the summer for relief from the confines of the classroom and the hard work being a student entails. But one Grinnellian has chosen to spend her summer listening to lectures for a class she’s not even taking.
This summer, Mary McDonald ’10 will study dozens of tapes of intro physics lectures as research for her summer mentored advanced project (MAP), titled “Social and Epistemological Framing in Science Classes.” Paul Hutchison, assistant professor of education, delivered the lectures as part of a class at the University of Maryland in which students investigated and made sense of physical phenomena in ways similar to those used by professional scientists.
Hutchison’s research focuses on how students receive scientific knowledge in the classroom. He asked McDonald to help by transcribing the recordings of his classes and doing some basic analysis, making sense of how students think about their learning process.
But after working with Hutchison for a few months, McDonald decided she wanted to take the research in another direction and look at how the social interactions of the students influenced how information was thought about and received.
“Ultimately, we’re interested in how students view knowledge, the epistemological part,” says Hutchison. “But Mary got interested in what is the interaction between the social and the epistemological.” Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of knowledge; cognitive psychologists use the phrase personal epistemology to refer to the ways individuals think about knowledge.
McDonald shifted her research to look at how social factors manifest themselves in the classroom and how different social situations influence a student’s learning.
“Something that doesn’t happen that often in science class is the discussion that knowledge is socially constructed,” McDonald says. “So maybe there’s a certain social dynamic we can create that will make students interpret knowledge in that way.”
Hutchison explains. “Oftentimes science teachers … work under the assumption that if you can get students into a different social framing, that will be epistemologically useful. I used to talk with some other people I worked with about getting students in a physics class to talk with each other like they do out in the hall.”
McDonald says generally, most teachers believe that changing the social situation — such as putting students in small groups — will influence how they learn. Proving that such a relationship exists and has an impact is the focus of her study.
“This relationship has been assumed,” she says. “We’re not trying to say it doesn’t exist, we’re trying to say, ‘If we’re going to assume this, we have to have a reason to assume it.’”
McDonald presented her preliminary results to the American Association of Physics Teachers conference in February. The feedback she received at that conference helped shape the design of this MAP; she plans to present the results from this summer’s research at their next conference.