Making STRIDES Toward Improving Science Instruction

September 18, 2019

Plants eat dirt. Heat causes climate change.

While these statements might not be entirely scientifically accurate, they can serve as the beginning of deeper discussions and explorations rather than shutting down a student’s thinking about scientific processes.

“Students might think that plants eat dirt, and that’s not a bad idea because there is something that plants take out of the dirt,” said Professor Marcia Linn. “If a teacher responds, `No, they don't eat dirt,’ then you as a student may be embarrassed and decide not to contribute again. You’re shut down. But if someone said, `You're right, they eat the nutrients in the dirt,’ then it’s a completely different response and you as the student might be excited.”

Underlying the student’s comment is an understanding that putting a plant in dirt is valuable, which is an important step in learning about plant growth. Continuing and encouraging a student’s further scientific exploration of photosynthesis (or any scientific lesson) requires helping teachers to understand a student’s line of thinking, and come up with a response.

A $2.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation is allowing Linn’s research group to do just that with STRIDES (Supporting Teachers in Responsive Instruction for Developing Expertise in Science). STRIDES develops and provides teachers with analytics about how their students understand target science ideas and concepts.

By integrating natural language processing in a web-based curriculum environment to automatically diagnose students’ written science explanations and arguments that appear in their essays and/or diagrams, STRIDES can help teachers quickly grasp the range of their students’ thinking.

STRIDES couples these analytics with recommendations for instructional strategies that participating teachers have tested. These suggestions help the teacher decide how to respond to students’ ideas and guide students to further their understanding. They help create a learning environment where students’ ideas are respected and valued as a starting point for further investigation. 

Sometimes a student’s idea expressed in an essay may seem odd, however their idea can make sense in the context of a classroom discussion, said doctoral student Korah Wiley, who is working with Linn and research director, Libby Gerard, on the project.

“STRIDES creates space for student ideas that are captured by the computer in text to be available for exploration as opposed to just labeling [them] as right, or wrong,” Wiley said. “Teachers can see the diversity of ideas and figure out how all of these ideas can be explored, and how students can really learn from one another and develop their ideas.”

In an exploration of the environment for instance, students may explain that littering or heat from cars and factories is causing climate change. Rather than immediately correcting these lines of thinking with the answer (carbon dioxide emissions), the teacher can use it as an opportunity for exploration. The teacher may, for instance, prompt the student to test their ideas using an interactive model featuring relationships between, littering, gasoline-fueled cars, and climate change processes.

The analysis of students’ developing ideas generated by STRIDES analytic tools also provides teachers with opportunities to reflect on and refine their practice. Teachers can use the data to plan an instructional customization and to reflect on the impact of their customization after teaching it.

This reflection process may occur almost immediately when the summary of student thinking is generated; a few days later when reviewing the lesson; and during summer professional development workshops. Thus STRIDES supports teachers to keep refining their practice based on what they learn from their students’ work. 

“All the teachers who participate in the workshops come from different schools. They are teaching the same units, but with really different populations of students. Having the time to discuss how they responded to their students’ ideas about the same science topic and how it worked, leads to this exciting bank of ideas that STRIDES can share with new teachers. It creates a really rich array of customizations for responding to students’ ideas” Gerard said.

Read more about Professor Marcia Linn's work: 

  • Abstract, "Collaborative Research: Supporting Teachers in Responsive Instruction for Developing Expertise in Science"