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26 August 2011
A picture tells a thousand words and a simple thing such as creating their own drawings helps students grasp science concepts, argues an international team of researchers from a Deakin University led research project.
In a paper, 'Drawing to Learn in Science' published today in the leading international journal, Science, the team argues that student drawing should be recognised alongside writing, reading and talking as a key element in science education.
The paper is one of several exciting insights to emerge from the Australian Research Council funded project - the Role of Representation in Learning Science (RiLS). In the paper, evidence from psychology research is coupled with RiLS data to argue five distinct reasons why creating drawings is a powerful way to enhance students' science learning.
The three-year study, carried out by the team which was led by Professor Russell Tytler and included Deakin's Dr Peter Hubber, has shown that when teachers help students generate their own representations of 'expert' science concepts such as forces, earth in space, animal adaptations, cells and genetics, changes to matter and chemical change students' understanding of science can move from the superficial to the sophisticated. The project has challenged the way scientific concepts are taught in class.
"Researchers have long recognised the difficulty students face in learning fundamental science concepts, mainly because the teaching of them focuses on the delivery of 'expert' content without paying attention to the ideas that students bring to the classroom," Professor Tytler said.
"Attempts however to change this approach have not convincingly demonstrated improvements in student learning.
"Indeed a process to move students' thinking from a naïve to a scientific view continues to remain elusive."
Professor Tytler said learning was not just purely a matter of learning concepts, research had shown language and personal context played important roles.
"For students to learn science effectively they must understand the different representations of scientific concepts and processes and be able to translate these into one another," he said.
Professor Tytler said drawing could be used to engage students in science lessons, allow them to generate their own representations of common scientific diagrams, assist in the communication of science concepts to others, show understanding of concepts and help them learn material.
"Visualisation is integral to scientific thinking," Professor Tytler said.
"Scientists do not just use words but rely on diagrams, videos, photographs and other images to make discoveries, explain findings and excite public interest.
"However when we take science to the classroom students have to interpret others visualisations of the material, when drawing does occur it is rare they are encouraged to create their own visual forms to develop and show understanding."
Professor Tytler said as part of the RiLS project a unit on water was revised to include hand-on activities and multi representations in which drawing was central.
"Students placed their wet hands on paper and then were challenged to represent what happens as the handprint faded," he said.
"The drawings produced showed that the students understood and had expanded on previous class work on particle distribution and movement, energy exchange and time sequencing."
The Science paper drew together the expertise of Associate Professor Shaaron Ainsworth, a leading British education psychologist and critical friend to RiLS, Professor Vaughan Prain from Latrobe University and Professor Tytler, to argue for a change in thinking about the emphasis on written text in science classrooms, to make student generated drawing a central plank in science teaching and learning.
In another paper published last year, Professor Tytler and Dr Hubber showed what happens when a revised teaching approach is used with students who were studying force.
"A lot of agency was given to the students, who came up with their own definitions of force and then, through changing the shape of a piece of plasticine, came up with their own representation of the actions they had taken to do that," he said.
"As the lesson went on it created a number of discussions, particularly around the use of arrows.
"Arrows to represent force are an accepted science convention and their use is nuanced. For instance, the base of the arrow is usually the application point of the force and the length of the arrow gives an indication of the strength.
"To the students, however, an arrow was an arrow and there were many different sorts, thick, thin, curved, straight.
"By challenging students to create their own conventions and then through class discussion move them to a realisation of the power of the scientific arrow 'convention', a deeper and more flexible understanding was achieved."
Professor Tytler said the research also demonstrated the richness of the way students communicated their interpretations including through hand gestures, scientific and everyday language as well as the use of graphs or equations.
The approach also led to the students making their own connections on the mathematical relationship between mass and weight.
"They also constructed their own force measurer which led quite naturally to the construction of a graph and the use of the graph to determine the magnitude of everyday forces such as the size of sliding friction on a sports shoe," he said.
"Effectively what is happening with these approaches is that student imagination and creativity is encouraged, in a way that mirrors what happens in professional science."
Professor Tytler believes that given continued concerns around students' engagement in science findings from the project have implications for future research and government policy.
Ainsworth Shaaron, Prain Vaughan, Tytler Russell, Drawing to Learn in Science, Science, vol 333, pp 1096 – 1097
Hubber, Peter, Tytler, Russell and Haslam, Filocha (2010) Teaching and learning about force with a representational focus : pedagogy and teacher change, Research in science education, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 5-28, Springer, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
ARC Discovery Project (2007-9): The role of representation in learning science. With Peter Hubber, Vaughan Prain, Bruce Waldrip.
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Russell Tytler speaks about the importance of students drawing in science
Professor Russell Tytler