Analyzing changes in student performance as science teachers alter teaching approaches

With funding from the National Science Foundation, the project aims to inform practitioners, administrators, researchers and policymakers how to improve student achievement and interest in STEM.

 Project title 
Analyzing changes in student performance as science teachers alter teaching approaches in classrooms

 Official grant name 

Managing Uncertainty for Productive Struggle: Exploring Teacher Development for Managing Students’ Epistemic Uncertainty as a Pedagogical Resource in Project-Based Learning

 Award amount 
$442,293

 Grant effective dates 
August 1, 2021July 31, 2024

 Principal investigator(s) 
Ying-Chih Chen

 Direct sponsor 
National Science Foundation



The challenge

While scientists consider uncertainty to be a primary driver of the progression of scientific knowledge and making sense of the world, managing uncertainty in the classroom can be a challenge for teachers and students. Uncertainty, in this context, is defined as a student lacking or not feeling confident in their knowledge of a subject, topic or lesson. Few studies explore learning science as an enterprise of cognitive uncertainty management or how student uncertainty is identified by teachers and students, advances discussion, contributes to knowledge development, gets resolved, raises new uncertainties and what strategies are available to teachers to help manage students’ uncertainty. Research shows that students and teachers often avoid uncertainty as students can become anxious and resist uncertainty of open-ended problems, and teachers may respond by shutting down ambiguity and adding structure. Teachers sometimes struggle in helping students raise, maintain, reduce and resolve uncertainty in ways that are engaging and contribute to conceptual development.  Incorporating the practice of managing uncertainty is critical in preparing students to be scientifically literate. When students are provided with opportunities to practice identifying, increasing, maintaining and resolving uncertainty in their own investigations, and learn to identify desirable and undesirable sources of uncertainty, they can learn how scientists achieve this practice and how scientific knowledge evolves and develops.



The approach

Under the leadership of Ying-Chih Chen, associate professor, the project will focus on teaching in middle school science classrooms. Managing Uncertainty for Productive Struggle: Exploring Teacher Development for Managing Students’ Epistemic Uncertainty as a Pedagogical Resource in Project-Based Learning is a three-year exploratory project that will follow a cohort of 24 6th-grade teachers in Phoenix, Arizona. 

The project team will explore the effects of sustained professional development on teachers’ capacity to recognize and utilize students’ cognitive uncertainty as a resource to support project-based learning instruction. Using a longitudinal, design-based, mixed-methods study structure, the team’s goal is to increase the pedagogical understanding of how teachers recognize and develop their capacity to students’ cognitive uncertainty as a resource for teaching science and how this adaptation affects learning. 

The team will capture teacher perceptions before and after participation in a week-long professional development workshop focused on how to identify and manage student uncertainty in the science classroom. The team will also examine how teachers adapt what they learn into their classroom by using epistemic uncertainty as a pedagogical resource to teach an instructional unit on energy transfer and systems that incorporate scientific inquiry practices and engineering design processes to support understanding. Specifically, the team will analyze changes in student performance and how students manage uncertainty as their teachers alter teaching approaches. 

Three questions will guide the project: 

1.) How does sustained engagement with professional development in uncertainty management affect teachers’ capacity to recognize and utilize students’ cognitive uncertainty as a resource for engaging students in a productive struggle to develop scientific knowledge?

2.) How does teachers’ instruction in managing cognitive uncertainty change when they utilize cognitive uncertainty as a resource for engaging students in productive struggle? 

3.) How does a teacher’s approach to managing uncertainty influence student perception, practice and management of uncertainty?

Productive struggle, in this context, is defined as an effortful practice beyond passive reading, listening or watching that builds useful, lasting understanding and critical thinking skills for learning. Fostering productive struggle necessitates that teachers differentiate among sources of uncertainty. 

The results of this study will help to inform national learning standards and help teachers recognize and use student uncertainty as a pedagogical resource in the classroom. Learning materials and project findings will be available on the National Science Foundation website to help inform practitioners, administrators, researchers and policymakers who aim to improve student achievement and interest in STEM.

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