Article: AR Blaustein and PTJ Johnson. 2003. The complexity of deformed amphibians. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2(1): 87-94


Although ecology faculty have extensive research training, most do not realize that they can do research in their own courses. This is a different kind of research than we are used to — often not controlled, without replicates, and so on. But it is still research because we can develop hypotheses, ask specific questions based on these hypotheses, and then collect and analyze data which in turn inform the questions and hypotheses. There are numerous journals dedicated to interesting research on teaching (e.g., Journal of Research in Science Teaching).

One type of classroom research is called “Action Research.” In this type of research, faculty ask specific questions about their students or their teaching, gain information about these questions, and use this information to learn about teaching and their students in a class in particular. A list of Action Research websites are listed below. Action research is an aspect of “Scientific Teaching” (Handelsman et al. 2004).

Below we describe a four-step process which you can use to conduct research on your use of the Frontiers article. The theoretical bases for this TIEE Scientific Teaching are three areas of research on learning (D’Avanzo 2003 a,b): metacognition (knowing what we know), misconceptions (firmly held beliefs that are incorrect) and adult development stage theory (stages that learners are thought to go through as their thinking about a discipline matures). Read more about these theories here.

Scientific Teaching with Blaustein and Johnson

The classroom research we suggest you do in the context of this article is based on adult development stage theory — specifically that students less experienced with science are surprised that there is uncertainty within the scientific community. As discussed in the “Notes to Faculty” section of this Issue, students with a less mature understanding about the nature of science tend to think in black and white — that if there is disagreement between scientists, one of them has to be right. These students do not appreciate that scientists can disagree for a number of reasons — because they are asking different questions, studying different aspects of the same issue, or interpreting data differently.

To study the impact of using the Blaustein and Johnson paper on your students’ understanding of why scientists might disagree, we suggest that you follow these four steps: 1) Pre-test, 2) Teaching, 3) Post-test, and 4) Reflection and Response.

  1. Step One: Pre-test — assessing your students’ understanding of uncertainty and disagreement between scientists. The questions and answers below are adapted from “Developing Reflective Judgment” by P.M. King and K.S. Kitchener (1994, p. 2-3).
    • Ask your students to write a brief essay in response to the question in italics below. Explain to them in general terms why you are asking them to do this, stress that this is not a test, and ask them to write their essays anonymously. Read through the responses and compare the student answers to what an “expert” would say (you, for instance). (You don’t need to give the essays back to the students, but if you decide to do this, don’t “correct” them. Instead, point out positive things to encourage that kind of thinking and writing.) In the next class session, generally report what you learned from their essays (about their understanding of the nature of science) and use this as a lead-in to using the Frontiers paper in class, however you choose to do that (see “Notes to Faculty”).
    • In a small-medium size class, you can read through all of the essays (you are not correcting them — just reading them). In a large class, read a sub-sample. In big classes, logistics of collecting essays like this can be formidable, so come up with a reasonably simple solution. For instance, some faculty with classes of 300 or more students give out index cards in class, allow students 5 minutes to hand write an answer at the end of class (to a projected question), and ask students to drop the cards in boxes placed at the exit doors.
    • Here are answers that a student named Alice gave to a series of questions about chemical additives to foods. Write a brief (about 100-150 words) essay describing your opinion about what Alice says. Do you agree with her? If so, why do you agree? If not, why not? (This is not a quiz; just say what you think.)
      Question: When two scientists disagree about the safety of chemical additives in foods, does it make sense to you that one of them is right and the other one is wrong?
      Alice: Yes, I think that this would be the case — that one of them is right. Assuming that person is a good scientist of course.
      Question: What do you mean?
      Alice: Well, there is one right answer and the scientist who is right just has to use facts to show that they are right. Then, the other guy would have to be wrong.
  2. Step Two: Teaching — use the Blaustein and Johnson article in your class, putting special emphasis on the nature of the disagreements between scientists about causes of deformities. This is the focus on Question #5 in the “Notes to Faculty” section. The point is for students to appreciate why scientists working on this topic might come up with different conclusions.
  3. Step Three: Post-test — The purpose of the post-test is to assess the impact of your teaching on students’ understanding of uncertainty in science. How you do this depends in part, of course, on their pre-test essays. Here are a few ideas:
    • If many students seemed to be back-and-white science thinkers, you could ask students to simply rewrite their essay about the “Alice question.”
    • For homework you could ask students to describe why the scientists studying amphibian deformities that you discussed in class disagreed with each other.
    • Use another CAT (Classroom Assessment Technique) such as the “muddiest point “or “directed paraphrasing” to obtain immediate feedback at the end of your discussion or lecture in which you discuss correlation and causation.
    • On the next exam, add an “extra point” question focused on “why scientists might disagree.”
  4. Step Four: Reflection and Response — This is probably the hardest part of the whole process — once you have your “data,” what do you do with it.
    • This kind of evaluation is a way for you to think more deeply about your students’ learning — what you really want them to learn and what inhibits them from achieving this goal. When done well, classroom research like this can help make students’ thinking more transparent — so that you can better design on ways to “get through” to them. The idea is to reflect on their learning as opposed to your teaching.
    • Discussing your findings with a trusted and knowledgeable colleague may be the best thing to do, if you have such a colleague. You could also email one of the TIEE editors or post a question on Ecolog (ECOLOG-L@LISTSERV.UMD.EDU), a discussion forum used by ecology faculty).
    • What you do in the class, of course, depends on what you have learned and also the time you can spend on follow-up. At a minimum, in the next class session you should report back to the students and give an overview of their writings — good points and ones many missed — and use this as a way to discuss again the process of science and scientific uncertainty.
    • If students made good progress between the pre and post-tests, say so and praise them. Don’t expect a big change; modest growth as a result of one class session is a real achievement.




Action Research

Reflective Judgment