UniServe Science News Volume 11 November 1998


Improving Off-campus Students' Science Pedagogical Content Knowledge

Renato Schibeci and Ruth Hickey
The Institute of Education, Murdoch University

Why did the bulb light up? is an instructional and interactive video (90 mins) funded by CUTSD and designed to compensate for a perceived problem with existing unit materials for off-campus students in primary teacher education. Present materials do not sufficiently support student development in two areas that are critical to their success as primary teachers: they do not actively promote development of their personal science content knowledge beyond its present level; and they do not provide focused and personalised feedback on the success of their interactions with children while discussing science activities.

Our approach to counter this problem was to provide video film of student interactions with primary age children who are engaged in science activities, such as: floating and sinking, layers of liquids, and the chemical energy in batteries and circuits. These were presented as case studies in video format. Each case study was supported by a written commentary from a university tutor, or video of the students talking about the science concepts and principles involved (the content), and the processes of the interactions. Off-campus students watched these case studies, and commented on what they saw. They were able to extend their content knowledge by reading linked information on the concepts and answering questions, then view the video again and comment on how well the student teacher handled the content aspect of the interaction. Tutor commentary included in the video guided their reflections on the quality of the interaction from the point of view of questioning technique, appropriateness of response from the students, evidence of changes in the child's understanding, and making valid judgements about children's science concepts. We have found that critically analysing the interactions of others in a guided fashion is a very powerful way for students to develop their own skills. Of course this happens in the school experience component of their teacher education course, but frequently not with a science content expert, which significantly reduces the learning student teachers make about science specifically.

Students are generally loath to make comments that reveal problems they are having with the science content, or how this is reducing the effectiveness of their discussions and questioning of the child. If tutors can see the student-child interaction, they can give much more personalised comments specific to the interaction, link these precisely to instances in the video, and respond to strengths and problems that are often not included in existing written assignments. To link the method of instruction to the method of assessment, off-campus students were asked to analyse a transcript of a small group lesson in science in the examination. They demonstrated their skills in content knowledge by commenting on the stage of the child's conceptual development, and also on the student's interaction with a child, by commenting on the strengths and suggesting alternatives to any less appropriate aspects. Targeted students for this project are in a pre-service science teacher education unit, in their third year of the program, or are Diploma in Education students in a one year option. The videos would be readily transferable to internal course students.

The materials are available to other teacher education lecturers, to be used in their own courses. A free copy of the video and workbook can be requested from Ruth Hickey. The materials are suitable for many students in university level science education courses, as the lack of student confidence and skills in teaching science to primary students is frequently reported in national surveys.

Continued student monitoring of the project is a key feature, as we believe its success will lie in part in what our students tell us. Student teachers feature as the actors in the videos, and were essential to the editing team to ensure the videos say what students know they need to say. The draft package was formally evaluated by the target group of off-campus students in first semester 1998, through written surveys. Both the surveys, and analysis of the assignment and examination responses for the transcript were analysed. Generally students found the videos helpful, particularly as they showed them what was wanted from the unit, and provided clear ideas on a starting point to develop their own lesson. Analysis of how students commented on the transcript during assignments and the examination showed that most responses remained at early levels of development of reflective practice. Student teachers tended to focus on the surface features of the lessons, such as where the children sat, if there was enough equipment, and if the teacher was organised. Too few were able to comment on more sophisticated levels, such as the impact of the lesson on the learning of the children in science, the use of questions to draw out children's understandings, or the conceptual development of children as shown through their own questions. This information is being used to rework the written video commentary improving those aspects that did not appear to have sufficient effect. The reworked commentary includes more direct focus on these higher level skills, such as direct questions about the science understanding of children, the conceptual level of their responses, the understanding of the teacher of the scientific concepts involved, and the impact of teaching on learning, rather than just a focus on the teacher.

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UniServe Science News Volume 11 November 1998

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