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Student Construction of Knowledge in an Active Learning Classroom

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Active and Inquiry-Based Learning

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1329.1 - 22.1329.15



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Paper Authors


Elliot P. Douglas University of Florida

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Dr. Elliot P. Douglas is Associate Chair, Associate Professor, and Distinguished Teaching Scholar in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Florida. His research activities are in the areas of active learning, problem solving, critical thinking, and use of qualitative methodologies in engineering education. Specifically, he has published and presented work on the use of guided inquiry as an active learning technique for engineering; how critical thinking is used in practice by students; and how different epistemological stances are enacted in engineering education research. He has been involved in faculty development activities since 1998, through the ExCEEd Teaching Workshops of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Essential Teaching Seminars of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the US National Science Foundation-sponsored SUCCEED Coalition. He has received several awards for his work, including the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the Ralph Teetor Education Award from the Society of Automotive Engineers, being named a University of Florida Distinguished Teaching Scholar, and being named the University of Florida Teacher of the Year for 2003-04. He is a member of the American Society for Engineering Education, the American Educational Research Association, and the American Chemical Society. He is a Past Chair of the Polymeric Materials: Science and Engineering Division of the American Chemical Society and is currently Editor-in-Chief of Polymer Reviews.

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Student Construction of Knowledge in an Active Learning ClassroomRecently there has been an increasing awareness of the effectiveness of various types of active learningapproaches. Research has shown that while there may be differences depending on the type of methodchosen, the experience of the instructor, and the characteristics of the students, in general active learningtechniques result in improved student outcomes, particularly when deep learning is the goal. In addition tothe empirical research showing improvement on various learning outcomes, the use of active learning isalso supported by cognitive models of learning. Despite the clear evidence for the effectiveness of theseapproaches, there is less understanding of how student learning occurs in an active learning classroom.This study begins to address that issue by conducting a qualitative study using contructivist groundedtheory. The specific context for this study is a second semester general chemistry course at a small liberalarts college in the Rocky Mountain region of the US. In this class, Process-Oriented Guided InquiryLearning (POGIL) was used. In a POGIL class, the instructor does not lecture. Rather students work inteams, typically of four students, to complete worksheets. The worksheets contain three components: 1)Data or information as background material; 2) Critical thinking questions, which are designed to lead thestudents to understanding the fundamental concepts represented by the data, and 3) Application exercises,which provide the students with practice in solving problems using the concepts they have derived. Theinstructor’s role is to guide the students, walking around the room and probing them with questions tocheck their understanding. The research question that guided the study design was: How do studentsconstruct knowledge in a POGIL classroom? This question was addressed from a constructivistperspective in order to emphasize the role of the individual in constructing understanding. Data wascollected using individual semi-structured interviews with 11 students, conducted at the end of thesemester. The interview questions were focused on identifying aspects of the class that helped or hinderedtheir learning. Blog entries written by the students throughout the semester were used to help tailor theinterview for each student and were used as a secondary source of data. Interviews were transcribedverbatim and then analyzed by first creating initial codes that summarized and organized the data, sortinginitial codes into focused codes that defined the primary themes, and then further sorting the focusedcodes into theoretical codes to create a substantive grounded theory of how learning occurs in this setting.The primary themes identified through the analysis are: time to adapt; conceptual understanding;developing concepts for themselves; working in groups; opportunities to practice; and ownership oflearning. The rich description from this study provides insight into how students actually go aboutlearning in an active learning environment, providing opportunities to adjust that learning environment tobetter meet their needs and enhance the effectiveness of these approaches.

Douglas, E. P. (2011, June), Student Construction of Knowledge in an Active Learning Classroom Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18479

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