ECR Projects

Explore past and current fundamental STEM education research projects across the three research areas that NSF's EDU Core Research (ECR) program funds, as well as across ECR funding types. Other search filters draw from both NSF's data and the ECR Hub's hand coding of award abstracts.

Ninth-grade biology students create cell models using clay.

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Advancing the Cognitive Science of Instruction: Testing the Role of Pedagogical Sequences, Scaffolding, and Prior Knowledge

Effective Years: 2021-2024

With support from NSF’s EHR Core Research (ECR) program, this project seeks to serve the national interest by identifying effective instructional methods to support student understanding of core science concepts. This project will study learning in the biological sciences among introductory and advanced undergraduates. Science educators and policy makers aim to facilitate students’ development of deep conceptual understanding and the ability to solve novel problems in the classroom and the real world. Unfortunately, even the most well- informed and diligent instructors struggle to choose pedagogies that support robust learning because of outstanding questions in instructional science. Researchers do not know whether explicit instruction should precede or follow problem solving practice, or whether problem solving practice should be scaffolded or unscaffolded. Researchers also do not know whether the optimal pedagogical sequence and level of scaffolding depends on students’ level of prior knowledge. Finally, conventional assessments likely fail to capture the full impact of different pedagogical approaches on students’ application of learning, also known as transfer. These unknowns are important because currently thousands of students leave science with inert knowledge, unprepared to use scientific concepts and practices in subsequent courses, critical day-to-day decisions about healthcare, public health, and the environment, and ultimately their professions. Thus, answering these unknowns will provide immediate guidance to educators, policy makers, and change agents to create science classrooms that prepare students to use their knowledge. The goal of the proposed research is to resolve fundamental questions concerning when and how to provide instruction and opportunities for problem solving about challenging fundamental concepts in the biological sciences.

Researchers in cognitive science and educational psychology continue to debate how to design instruction that maximizes transfer. Central to this debate is determining when, how, and for whom to provide explicit instruction and opportunities to engage in problem solving. This project seeks to make progress in resolving these contentious issues through a series of controlled experiments that compare high-fidelity implementations of competing instructional approaches with undergraduates at the University of Georgia (UGA). Specifically, the proposed research will determine how different instructional sequences and levels of scaffolding for problem-solving practice (Objective 1) impact understanding of a core biology concept for students with different levels of prior knowledge (Objective 2). In addition to conventional measures of transfer, the research will involve collecting qualitative data via semi-structured interviews to examine unexpected ways in which different instructional approaches affect knowledge transfer (Objective 3). The findings will provide insight into competing theoretical perspectives concerning how instruction affects cognitive processing and transfer. The proposed project will bring about several broader impacts. First, the project will promote improved teaching, training, and learning. Science educators are often told instruction should be “active,” but it is not clear which forms of active instruction are most effective and for whom. This project will provide instructors with clear guidelines for how to balance phases of explicit instruction and opportunities for (scaffolded or unscaffolded) problem-solving practice when teaching complex science concepts. It will also determine which instructional sequences and levels of scaffolding are most appropriate for students with different levels of background knowledge, such as students taking introductory versus upper-level science courses. By pinpointing specific ways to support transfer of science concepts, our findings will address the inert knowledge problem that is so pervasive among students taking science courses. The PIs will facilitate the propagation of their findings to educators by offering workshops and disciplinary meetings. Second, this project will contribute to broadening the participation of students of color in science by working with UGA’s Peach State Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (PSLSAMP) to involve students of color as undergraduate research assistants. Third, the findings of this project will impact educators outside of academia and the public through broad dissemination of findings on social media. This project is funded by the EHR Core Research (ECR) program, which supports work that advances fundamental research on STEM learning and learning environments, broadening participation in STEM, and STEM workforce development.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.