Implementation of inquiry-based learning to increase autonomy awareness
This article focuses on an action research project with a fourth-grade elementary science class that showed no improvement in terms of autonomy awareness due to a traditional teacher-centered methodology. The primary objective of the project was to increase learner autonomy awareness through the implementation of an inquiry-based learning unit. Multiple data sources were used to highlight and assess instances of increased autonomy awareness. The results showed that learners increased their autonomy awareness leading me to changes in my science teaching approach in terms of methodology, tasks, materials and classroom interactions. The intervention gave students the opportunity to ask more questions, discover scientific knowledge themselves, and communicate more with other peers, thus increasing their autonomy awareness within a student-centered classroom atmosphere.
Key words: Inquiry-based learning, autonomy awareness, student-centered learning, learning styles.
At Gimnasio de Los Cerros School, students follow a Spanish-English bilingual program which includes a science course from grade K to six which is divided in four major units: life science, earth science, physical science, and human body. This science course has been taught for many years by means of a traditional teacher-centered methodology of lectures and readings which places students in a passive rather than an active role that hinders autonomous learning. The current science classes are teacher-focused and revolve around giving out information about what is known. The emphasis is on the student's ability to recall facts and master the material in the science textbooks so that they may proceed to the next grade level. Students have become only recipients of science knowledge and therefore they are not given opportunities to study science in a way that encourages them to start becoming more autonomous learners. Memorizing facts and information is not the most important skill in today's world. Facts are constantly changing and thanks to our digital age, we are overwhelmed with information. The traditional learning approach used to teach science does not provide students the skills needed for this new age of information and does not exercise the ability to examine and make sense of this avalanche of data.
During my experience teaching science classes in English to students from grades K to five at this bilingual school, I have observed what I consider a serious problem: this traditional teacher-centered methodology used to teach science lessons does not help to develop students’ autonomy awareness as expected and it does not help to promote interest and positive attitudes toward science in students, since they do not take an active role in their science learning by asking questions or by carrying out science hands-on activities that lead them to have real experiences that enhance classroom learning, improved understanding and enjoyment of science. Due to this fact, and taking into account that students who actively make observations, collect, analyze and synthesize information, and draw conclusions are more likely to increase their autonomy awareness and develop the critical skills that they will need later on, I decided to carry out a qualitative and quantitative action research study in order to find out whether the implementation of an inquiry-based learning unit about the systems of the human body could help students increase their autonomy awareness within a more student-centered environment.
I started my action research project by checking some prior research studies relevant to the current study on the subject of how inquiry-based learning has been used to improve students’ levels of learner autonomy. The first project I studied is titled “Inquiry Within: Implementing inquiry-based science in the classroom”, by Douglas Llewellyn (2001) and it was carried out at Saucon Valley School in San Diego, California. This project provides clear-cut insights along with practical suggestions on how to develop critical thinking skills and learner autonomy in fourth grade students by implementing inquiry-based hands-on science activities. His project starts taking the readers through constructing an understanding of inquiry and the characteristics of an inquiry-based classroom; then, it addresses what constitutes an inquiry investigation and the teaching strategies that enhance inquiry-based learning.
This project explores the meaning of inquiry through a constructivist approach that allows students to build scientific knowledge while becoming more autonomous learners. It follows a 4th grade class through a unit of study characterized by student-generated questions. It lays the foundation for autonomous learning strategies and shows how constructivism complements inquiry-based learning. It also compares traditional and inquiry-based classrooms as well as investigations with other hands-on science activities through a grid that divides instructional strategies into demonstrations, activities, teacher-initiated inquiries, and student-initiated inquiries. I found this project helpful to my study because it compares inquiry with the scientific method and scientific problem solving, and it introduces The Learning Cycle, a five-step approach to designing lessons that facilitate inquiry and autonomous learning. After that, the project presents a rubric for assessing and monitoring the four stages of development in becoming an inquiry-based teacher and presents questioning strategies that enable inquiry-based learning. Finally, this project presents how a beginning elementary school teacher describes her journey into implementing inquiry-based science activities; she describes her experiences including the joys, the challenges, and the rewards of teaching through inquiry and the impact it has on students’ autonomy awareness.
The second study is titled “The use of inquiry-based education in the science classroom” by Douglas Cuchiarelli (2001) and it was carried out at Gunston elementary school in Arlington, U.S.A. This project starts by comparing two distinct types of assignments that can be handed out in a science class. The first one is the “cookbook” lab or activity in which the students follow procedures and answer questions at the end of the assignment. It makes clear that sometimes those types of assignments are necessary because they facilitate efficient comprehension of information, but points out that the drawback to using “cookbook” lab assignments is that the students are not taking any ownership over what they are learning and this affects their autonomy awareness. Therefore, the information they receive from the activity is not meaningful to them since these assignments do not encourage students’ questions.
Then the projects focuses on inquiry-based education, in which the teacher must make the students feel like scientists completing this experiment for the first time. The teacher allows learners to find problems in their procedures and make necessary corrections. It also stresses that in order for the science assignments to be authentic, the students must feel like they are contributing to the scientific community. Finally, the project presents examples of different inquiry-based hands-on activities that can be included in an inquiry-based science unit to make students more autonomous learners.
I found these two studies particularly useful for my own project because they deal with important aspects related to the increase of the students’ autonomy awareness and the improvement of students’ critical skills, by studying science following an inquiry-based approach that uses inquiry-based hands-on science activities in the science classroom.
Purpose, rationale, and hypothesis
The main purpose of this action research study is to show an increase in the level of autonomy awareness of a group of fourth-grade students by means of implementing an inquiry-based learning unit about the systems of the human body in the current science program. Some specific objectives of the study include making learners more aware of their learning goals and the content of the science materials that they use by means of a student-centered methodology rather than a teacher-centered one; getting students to inquire more than they are used to about science topics and making learners more aware of their own preferred learning styles.
My intention with this action research project is to contribute to the field of teaching and learning science in English, since this study will shed light about important issues related to how the level of autonomy awareness can be increased by means of applying an inquiry-based learning approach to science rather than a traditional teacher-centered methodology. What is expected from this action research project is that students demonstrate an increased level of their autonomy awareness by showing more awareness of their learning goals and the content of the science materials that they use (Nunan, 1997); by fostering inquiry, which implies involvement in activities that lead to understanding, since involvement in learning implies developing skills and attitudes that permit students to seek resolutions to questions and issues while they construct new knowledge (Exline, 2008); and by being able to identify better their own preferred learning styles.
The implementation of an inquiry-based learning unit full of inquiry activities related to the systems of the human body will give students the opportunity to ask more questions, to discover scientific knowledge themselves, and to communicate more with other peers and the teacher, thus increasing their autonomy awareness (Sheerin, 1997) as well as developing their thinking skills while learning science in their second language within a student-centered classroom atmosphere.
This study is relevant for the students, because it will help them improve in terms of learner autonomy. Learning to be autonomous is one of the most important objectives students must accomplish nowadays because the development of this skill makes them able to make decisions in an independent way after analyzing many possibilities, and because it is very helpful for students to be successful in any project or task they have to face in their daily lives (Luke, 2006).
This action research project is also pertinent for the educational institution for which I work, because it will lead teachers of the science department to reflect on the importance of including inquiry-based science activities in the units of the current science program to help students become more autonomous while developing critical thinking skills.
Students who use inquiry to learn science engage in many of the same activities and thinking processes as scientists who are seeking to expand human knowledge of the natural world. The activities and thinking processes used by scientists will become more familiar to the educators seeking to introduce inquiry into their science classrooms. Both students and teachers will be able to use inquiry to learn how to do science, learn about the nature of science, and learn science content (Olson, 2000).
The inquiry-based learning unit about the systems of the human body was applied to a group of twenty-two fourth grade students ages nine to ten during their science classes at Gimnasio de Los Cerros school in Bogotá, Colombia. These grade four students were selected because they have studied science, math and social studies in English for four years following a traditional teacher-centered approach. They participated in the action research project within their current science classes after they agreed to take part voluntarily with their parents’ permission granted in a consent letter that was sent to them before starting the study.
This group of students has studied English as a second language for four years following a literacy approach which includes listening and speaking (oral language), reading, writing; and the process of critical thinking, which is an integral part of each of these elements. They have a low-intermediate level of English language proficiency. They belong to emotionally stable families who have an upper-middle social class and can afford to give their children everything they need to study. A good number of these students have had the opportunity to travel to English-speaking countries mainly to the United States and some of them have relatives or friends who speak English as a first or as a second language.
The data collected for this action research project was large in scope and it was collected using data collection instruments that included a pre-test, a post-test, a pre-survey, a post-survey, students’ portfolios which contained the students’ work and results in the different inquiry-based tasks, and teacher field notes.
The sources of data for this action research project were the students and me, the science teacher. In order to get data from students, I applied tests and surveys and asked students to keep portfolios that included the whole collection of the students’ work along the intervention (Hopkins, 2008). The data from me, the teacher researcher, came especially from field notes that I took throughout the research project.
The pre-test and the post-test were administered and scored in a consistent manner. Both tests were designed in such a way that the questions, the test conditions, and the scoring procedures and interpretations were administered and scored in a predetermined, standard manner so that they were valid and relevant. The tests were composed of seven multiple-choice questions and three open questions about the most important issues related to the systems of the human body. In order to score the tests, criterion-referenced score interpretation was used in which interpretations compared test-takers to a criterion or a formal definition of the scientific content, regardless of the scores of other examinees (Brown, 1990).
The content validity of these two standard achievement tests was evaluated by making sure that the test items matched the instructional objectives proposed in the science program for fourth grade and the content contained in the unit about the systems of the human body in the students’ Scott Foresman Science textbooks for this grade. Internal consistency of the tests was high as the questions were taken from the Scott Foresman Science series for grade four which means that they were written by experienced science teachers, pretested, and selected on the basis of the results of a quantitative item analysis (Foresman, 2004)..
The pre-survey and the post-survey that were used to collect data about students’ progress in terms of inquiry, learning styles and learner autonomy tended to be strong on validity or the degree to which the study accurately reflected or assessed these specific concepts that I was attempting to measure (Burns, 1999), and also tended to be strong on reliability or the extent to which these instruments yielded the same result on repeated trials.
The survey format put a strain on validity since the students’ real feelings were hard to grasp in terms of such dichotomies as "totally agree/disagree," "neutral,” “disagree,” “totally disagree” etc., these were only approximate indicators of what I had in mind when I created the survey questions. Reliability, on the other hand, was a clearer matter. The two surveys presented all students with a standardized stimulus, and so they went a long way toward eliminating unreliability in my observations (Schwalbach, 2003). Careful wording, format, content, etc., also reduced significantly the students’ own unreliability. In general, the surveys were reliable because they measured things consistently and they were valid since they measured what they said they were measuring.
The field notes used allowed me to make a written account of the inquiry-based lessons about the systems of the human body that were taught to this group of forth grade students while they were taking place. The notes were taken as soon as the events were happening in these science sessions so that the information collected was fresh and not distorted (Jimenez, 2006). The field notes were in the form of a record of work (Burns, 1999) of the students in the science lessons in which information such as date, time, class, objectives, work done, way the work was done by the students, homework, participation, things that worked well, and things that did not work very well were all included. This record-keeping provided valuable data about the intervention to draw conclusions about how the inquiry-based learning unit increased the level of autonomy awareness in this group of forth grade students thus contributing to validity and relevance.
When the students’ portfolio was created, I made sure that it was appropriate and fair for the students as this was essential in terms of validity and reliability. Validity and reliability were considered for both the individual pieces and the entire portfolio and it was evaluated for these traits since the portfolio was a collection of students’ work and assessments. Both the audience and the purpose of the portfolio played a major role in determining content validity (Freeman, 1998). This instrument had high content validity because it was developed for a specific science
class working toward a certain purpose and specific objectives.
To evaluate the content validity I asked myself if the portfolio matched the instructional purpose and objectives of the inquiry-based project and whether the portfolio assessed what I set out to assess from the beginning. To ensure content validity, I set the purpose of the portfolio in line with project objectives, matched the contents of the portfolio to the purpose, and established clear criteria in relation to the original objectives (McFarland, 1997). In general, the students’ portfolios had high content validity because they integrated instruction and assessment as the work that students produced in the classroom and at home showed improvement in terms of autonomy awareness.
In order to accomplish the objectives proposed for this action research project, I followed three stages in which I used different data collection instruments. In the pre-stage, the instruments that helped me to confirm that there was a problem were:
1. a pre-test
2. a pre-survey
First, the group of students took a pre-test of ten multiple choice questions and three open questions about the different systems of the human body. The purpose of this pre-test was to check how much students knew about this topic, after studying it for about four years following a traditional teacher-centered approach which did not foster autonomy in students, before starting the inquiry-based unit.
The second step was to give students a pre-survey of thirty-eight questions about aspects related to inquiry-based learning and autonomy awareness. The purpose of giving students this pre-survey was to revise how much students knew about the inquiry-based learning approach compared to the traditional method they had used to learn science and also to know how autonomous they were before applying the inquiry-based learning unit which was more student-centered and fostered more autonomy in students.
During the while-stage, the implementation of the inquiry-based learning unit about the systems of the human body took place. It was a total of eight lessons that started with the skeletal system and ended with the nervous system. All the lessons had an inquiry-based learning methodology which followed these steps:
• Students engaged with a scientific question, event or phenomenon.
• Students explored ideas through hands-on experience, formulated and tested hypotheses, solved problems, and created explanations for what they observed.
• Students analyzed and interpreted data, synthesized their ideas, built models, and clarified concepts and explanations with the teacher and other sources of scientific knowledge.
• Students extended their new understanding and abilities and applied what they had learned to new situations.
• Students extended their new understanding and assessed what they had learned and how they had learned it.
The purpose of the inquiry-based lessons was to create a more student-centered class environment in which students had more opportunities to ask questions and discover knowledge by themselves using different resources in order to demonstrate how a methodology like this would increase their autonomy awareness more than the traditional methodology they had used so far. At the end of this document you will find a description of the inquiry-based lessons that were taught.
Students made a portfolio in which they collected all the work they did along the process. While students carried out the inquiry-based activities, the teacher took field notes in order to monitor students’ performance in terms of autonomy awareness and record any increase due to the implementation of the activities.
Finally, in the post-stage, I designed a post-test and a post-survey in order to confirm whether these fourth grade students had increased their level of autonomy awareness. Once students finished the inquiry-based learning unit, they were given a post-test about the different systems of the human body. The purpose was to check if they had shown improvement in terms of knowledge about the topic after studying the unit following an inquiry-based learning approach, in order to compare the results with those obtained in the pre-.test and measure to what extent they had improved. Then students took a post-survey of thirty-eight questions which provided valuable information on the way students perceived different aspects related to inquiry-based learning and autonomy awareness after the implementation of the inquiry-based learning unit. The purpose of giving students this post-survey was to check how much students had changed their views about aspects that dealt with autonomy awareness compared to those they had following a traditional teacher-centered methodology instead of a more student-centered one that encouraged students to explore and discover knowledge themselves with the teacher assuming the role of a facilitator.
Week Date Tasks
1 Monday, April 20.
Tuesday, April 21.
Thursday, April 23. Pre-test activity.
Inquiry-based unit introduction (The skeletal system)
2 Monday, April 27. The muscular system
Tuesday, April 28. The respiratory system
Wednesday, April 29. The circulatory system
While-stage Thursday April 30. The heart.
3 Monday, May 4. The digestive system
Tuesday, May 5. The nervous system
Wednesday, May 6. Inquiry-based unit review
4 Monday, May 11. Post-test
Wednesday, May 13 Post-survey
As a conclusion, I would say that the methodology I applied and the instruments I designed were appropriate for the study, and they helped me to collect useful data to achieve the main aim of this action research project.
Tables and graphs were created using simple descriptive techniques to note frequency counts or percentages in order to describe and display the data that was collected. The following are some tables and graphs that were used to show comparisons that were made once the data had been categorized.
Comparison of pre-test results and post-test results.
Figure 1. Pre-test VS Post-test Results.
Once the results of the pre-test and the post-test were compared, it was found that students showed improvement in terms of knowledge about the topic after studying the unit following an inquiry-based learning approach which encourages a student-centered methodology rather than a teacher-centered one. The results showed a significant increase in the students’ knowledge about the topic (73.0 %) compared with the one they had before applying the unit (38.4 %)
Comparison between results on how students perceived the science class as a teacher-centered class before and after the implementation of the inquiry-based learning unit.
Figure 2. The Teacher Class is Teacher-centered.
The results of the first five questions of the pre-survey and the post-survey were compared and the outcome was that after the implementation of the inquiry-based learning unit, the number of students who thought that the class revolved around the teacher decreased in 10 marks. The number of students who disagreed increased in 9 marks.
It is evident that students noticed a change towards a more student-centered environment which fosters more autonomy after the implementation of the inquiry-based learning unit.
Comparison of results on how students perceived themselves in terms of inquiry before and after the intervention.
Pre-survey on Students’ Opinion if They Were Encouraged to Ask Questions.
Question N° Agree Neutral Disagree
6 10 4 8
7 19 3 0
8 13 7 2
42 14 10
Post-survey on Students´ Opinion if They Were Encouraged to Ask Questions.
Question N° Agree Neutral Disagree
6 17 2 3
7 22 0 0
8 18 3 1
57 5 4
The results showed that after the implementation of the inquiry-based learning unit, the number of students who thought that they asked more questions increased in 15 marks. The number of students who disagreed decreased in 6 marks.
It is evident that students noticed a change towards a class environment which fostered more inquiry.
Comparison of results on how students perceived themselves in terms of learning autonomy before and after the intervention.
Figure 3. Degree of Autonomy Awareness Students Perceive.
The results showed that after the implementation of the inquiry-based learning unit, the number of students who thought that they were aware of different aspects related to their learner autonomy increased in 101 marks. The number of students who disagreed with the statements decreased in 54 marks as well as the number of students who were neutral which decreased in 47 marks.
It is evident that students perceived they increased their level of autonomy awareness after the implementation of the inquiry-based learning unit.
Comparison of results on how students perceived their preferred learning styles before and after the inquiry-based learning unit.
Figure 4. Pre-survey VS Post-survey Preferred Learning Styles
After the implementation of the inquiry-based learning unit, the number of students who agreed with some preferred learning styles increased in 1 mark. The number of students who were neutral decreased in 9 marks and the number of students who disagreed with some preferred learning styles increased in 8 marks. The most preferred learning styles were auditory, visual, and reading and writing.
The number of students who identified auditory, visual, and reading and writing as their most preferred learning styles increased in 7 marks, and the number of students who were neutral decreased in 9 marks. It is evident that students were able to identify their preferred learning styles more accurately after the implementation of the inquiry-based learning unit.
In order to move beyond describing, categorizing, coding and comparing to make sense of the data I had collected, I got to a point in the data analysis process that demanded a certain amount of creative thinking since it was time to articulate underlying concepts and developing theories about why particular patterns of behaviors, interactions or attitudes had emerged.
I came back to the data I had collected several times and I posed questions about it, rethought the connections among the data and developed explanations of the bigger picture underpinning my action research project. Then I discussed the data patterns and themes with some of the school’s science teachers trying to find new discoveries or interpretations.
The main hypothesis of this action research project was whether the implementation of an inquiry-based learning unit could increase learner autonomy awareness. The results certainly support this hypothesis since students’ autonomy awareness increased due to the inquiry-based learning activities that encouraged students to search for information and discover knowledge on their own in and out of the classroom. My understanding of the impact of inquiry-based learning in students’ autonomy awareness led me to reflect on theoretical ideas, particularly related to teaching science as an inquiry-generating process which is influenced by a wide range of classroom factors. This understanding which proved to be very effective with this group of fourth grade students, also led me to changes in my science teaching approach in terms of methodology, tasks, materials and classroom interactions that other science teachers and I had overlooked because of our tendency to teach in a traditional teacher-driven way.
In this action research study, where I implemented an inquiry-based learning unit about the systems of the human body in order to increase the level of autonomy awareness in a group of twenty-two fourth grade students, my data collection and analysis revealed that:
1. The implementation of an inquiry-based learning approach to teach a unit about the systems of the human body led students to learn the basic concepts related to this topic successfully.
2. The inquiry-based learning unit promoted a student-centered classroom environment that favored the increase of autonomy awareness in most of the students.
3. The implementation of the inquiry-based learning unit encouraged students to inquire more than they used to about the subject matter of study leading to an increase of their autonomy awareness.
4. Students’ autonomy awareness increased due to the inquiry-based learning activities that encouraged students to search for information and discover knowledge on their own in and out of the classroom.
5. The implementation of the inquiry-based learning unit required students to look for information by observing, listening, reading, moving and touching, and this helped students identify their preferred learning styles better.
6. Despite attempts to make some students research more deeply about the systems of the human body at home, they did not do it as expected and this was reflected especially in their portfolios.
7. Despite attempts to improve students writing to solve open-ended questions, their different levels of language skill and proficiency made it difficult to show improvement in this aspect.
8. The students cooperated in joint inquiry-based activities and interacted generally and the classroom atmosphere was relaxed and motivating.
Regarding some recommendations for those who are interested in doing the second cycle of this study, they deal mainly with the data analysis process since this aspect turned out to be the most difficult one for me to deal with in the completion of my research project as it is the area of action research that is the least well defined making the issue of how action research data should be analyzed a very challenging one for any teacher researcher, including me (Burns, 1999).
First of all, I would recommend any other teacher researcher who decides to work on a similar project not to separate the processes of data collection and data analysis the way I did, because, in my practice, this proved to be difficult and unnecessary. In my case, I began analysis only when I had collected all the data, leaving aside an essential feature of action research which is the flexibility that results from cycling back and forth from data collection to analysis to further data collection and so on (Somekh, 2006).
Another aspect related to data analysis that I would like to recommend to other teacher researchers is to take into account from the beginning, that once there has been some overall examination of the data, it is absolutely important to develop categories or codes to identify the broad trends that have emerged from making some kind of sense of the data collected more specifically (Cohen, 2005). I took too long to start coding or attempting to reduce the large amount of data that I had collected with the data collection instruments I used, such as tests, surveys, portfolios and field notes, to more manageable categories of concepts, themes or types which would have made it easier for me to later compare the data and build interpretations. My recommendation for other researchers is to assemble all the data that can illuminate the research question, skim the data considering any and all categories for sorting, and creating their categories whenever they see repetition or a pattern emerges, giving a name to each category until they complete a list of them.
The idea that data collection, action and analysis are interrelated and recycle into each other when doing action research summarizes my recommendations for those teacher researchers who are willing to carry out the second cycle of this action research project. It is difficult as well as unnecessary to separate the process of data collection and analysis in an action research project like the one I already developed.
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