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How do I actually learn? A questionnaire for (co)participatory learning in the presence of technology

Patricia A. Forster
Curtin University of Technology
The subject of this paper is the rationale and development, based on classroom observations, of a student questionnaire for secondary-school mathematics students who were using graphics calculators as a matter of routine. The questions are consistent with sociocultural views of learning. The questionnaire could be adapted easily for other subjects and for non-technology based environments. Ways in which the questionnaire has been used for research and teaching purposes are described.

Introduction

This paper describes a questionnaire that was developed and administered as part of a research study into Year 11 students' learning of vectors, in a class where graphics calculators were in routine use. The questionnaire asks students to indicate on a four-point Likert scale for 22 questions how 'In this Maths class I actually learn' and to indicate their four preferred ways of learning. Underlying assumptions of the questionnaire include that students learn through participation in discussion and through utilising technology, but that there is diversity in learning styles among students and among classes.

My purpose in designing a questionnaire, rather than using an already statistically validated one, was to recognise that the practices used in a classroom are unique (Lave & Wenger, 1991), at least to some extent. I wanted the questionnaire to be compatible with the actual practices and language in the Year 11 classroom I was surveying, where I perceived that students engaged in exemplary learning (Forster & Taylor, 1999a, 1999b). Accordingly, the questionnaire items derived initially from students' recorded dialogue during the first three lessons of my observing the class.

Learning through conversation, which is consistent with sociocultural theory--social constructivism (Cobb, Boufi, McClain & Whitenack, 1997), social constructionism (Gergen, 1995) and situated cognition theory (Lave & Wenger, 1991) - is a factor in many items of the questionnaire. However, the questionnaire was not designed to incorporate the implications for learning of a specific theoretical orientation.

The form of the Constructivist Learning Environment Survey or CLES (Taylor, Fraser & Fisher, 1997), and the nature of the questions on its Student Negotiation scale, informed the questionnaire design. After the questionnaire was implemented with the Year 11 class, it was modified to take account of the pattern of student responses, and to take account of a detailed analysis of a lesson enacted one month after the start of classroom observations (Forster & Taylor, 1999c). My reason for reporting the questionnaire is that it may suit the purposes of teachers and researchers in other classrooms where interpersonal communication and interaction with technology are of interest as modes of learning. However, I recommend that designing such a questionnaire based on exhibited practices in a classroom is valuable in itself for heightening awareness of those practices. The Constructivist Learning Environment Survey

The original version of the CLES (Taylor & Fraser, 1991) was designed and used internationally to support and evaluate constructivist reform, for example, in studies by Watters and Ginns (1994) and Roth and Bowen (1995). As a result of a close examination of its use, the CLES was redesigned (Taylor, Fraser & Fisher, 1997) to deviate in significant ways from its original version and from the traditional form of learning environment surveys such as Wubell's (1993) 48-item instrument. The changes were to reject items whose wording was conceptually complex, minimise the use of negatively-worded items, restrict the length to 30 items, abandon the traditional cyclic format and instead group items of similar significance together, and to focus students' thinking on the significance with prompts. These design features are incorporated into the questionnaire which is the subject of this paper. The questionnaire explores further the talk, ask and explain aspects of learning that are part of the Student Negotiation scale in the revised version (Taylor, Fraser & Fisher, 1997) of the CLES, but is not restricted to questions on conversation. The Negotiation scale on the CLES comprised the following items and asked students to select from Almost Always, Often, Sometimes, Seldom, Almost Never.

Uses of questionnaires

Classroom environment questionnaires have multiple uses. These include evaluating the development and effectiveness, or counter-productiveness, of reform efforts through pre, during and post implementations of the instrument. The reform might be attempts at instituting constructivist practice (Taylor, Dawson & Fraser, 1995) or, for the questionnaire presented here, attempts at encouraging participatory or interdependent learning, consistent with sociocultural theories, including social constructivism.

Preferred and actual versions of a questionnaire for students and teachers can highlight discrepancies in how a teacher facilitates classes and how students would like them facilitated, and highlight discrepancies between teacher and student perceptions of either actual lessons or preferred lessons. This information is potentially useful to a teacher as research suggests that students' achievement outcomes are related to closeness between their actual and preferred perceptions of the classroom environment (Fraser & Fisher, 1983).

In 1995, as a teacher attempting to move from didactic to more interactive teaching with a Year 8 class, I found valuable the implementation of preferred and actual forms of the Questionnaire on Teacher Interaction (Wubells, 1993) at the beginning of a term (10 weeks), and of an actual version at the end of the term. Student responses to the questionnaires helped me become more critically self-aware of my own teaching, and alerted me to ways of potential improvement. However, whereas students used to be asked relatively infrequently to fill out questionnaires, by 1998 when I implemented pre and post versions of the CLES when attempting innovation in my teaching practice with a Year 11 class, implementation of questionnaires had become commonplace.

Therefore, returning in 1999 to the same school for my research and wanting to use a questionnaire to ascertain students' perceptions of their learning as part of a multiple-method research approach (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994), I decided to minimise the demands on students by combining actual and preferred options on one questionnaire, keeping the items down to about 20 briefly worded items so that they could be easily read at a glance. The questionnaire asks students questions on how they actually learn and then asks them to choose four preferred ways of learning from the given items. This strategy for ascertaining students' preferences has the benefit of reducing repetitive selections on Likert scales.

So far, I have used students' responses to the questionnaire in two ways for research purposes. Using a fine-grained analysis, I compared responses of three individual class members as to their preferred ways of learning with my observations and analysis of their engagement in learning activities (Forster & Taylor, 1999b). This approach was a means to interpreting the students' individual social realities as they interacted, sometimes problematically, with peers and with the teacher. In addition, I collated actual and preferred responses from the class to determine if my impressions of the style of learning facilitated by the teacher was how students, on average, perceived they actually learnt and preferred to learn. This collation resulted in modifications to the questionnaire because of overlap in the original questions. This overlap is described later in the paper. The questionnaire itself, rather than students responses to it, was also used as a referent to start categorising students' conversations and other activities when analysing lessons (Forster & Taylor, 1999c) subsequent to the lessons that the questionnaire was based on. This approach highlighted modes of learning that had not been apparent to me initially, and which were subsequently incorporated into the questionnaire.

Besides the questionnaire being a source of research data, the way I introduced it to the class, which included giving students a spare copy to refer to, was intended to raise students' self-awareness of learning: that is, to encourage metacognition. The implementation was consistent with the teacher's encouragement for students to take responsibility for their own progress. In addition, on two other occasions during my one-month observation period, and at the invitation of the teacher, I made the questionnaire (but not students' responses to it) an object of class discussion to heighten students' awareness of their roles and responsibilities for others' academic progress; that is, to encourage sharing of ideas. Questionnaires and students' responses to them also can be used as heuristics for student interviews (Taylor, Fraser & Fisher, 1997). These might take the form of informal discussions in class with individual students, or formal interviews outside of class. For research, interviews might act as a check that students' and researchers' interpretations of the questions match, or act as a crosscheck that students' questionnaire responses reflect their beliefs; or, for a teacher, interviews might have the purpose of addressing a problem highlighted by students' questionnaire responses. One such problem was the resistance of a Year 11 student to the innovations that I put in place in 1998. I had observed the student's negativity in class, but it was her questionnaire responses that galvanised me into action. Discussing in private her objections to the teaching method and explaining further my rationale for the approach that I was taking helped us to understand each other's point of view and seemed to partially diffuse the problem. Resistance by students to teachers' attempts at reform is well-documented (Tobin, Tippins & Hook, 1995; Voigt, 1994).

Theoretical framework

The questionnaire concerns the individual student acting or participating in the social milieu of the classroom and the questions are consistent with both social constructivist and situated cognition perspectives on learning. In the 'emergent' (social constructivist) view of Cobb, Gravemeijer, Yackel, McClain and Whitenack (1997):

individual thought and social and cultural approaches are considered to be reflexively related, with neither attributed absolute priority over the other. Thus, if individual thought is social through and through, then social processes can be seen to be cognitive through and through. (p. 152)

However, in the 'emergent' view interaction with others is subject to reflection or interpretation by all participants, so that the link between the participation and cognition is considered as indirect.

From constructionist (Gergen, 1995) and situated cognition (Lave & Wenger,1991) perspectives, knowing and coming to know necessarily involve participating in dialogue and action. Language and action, or social performance (Ernest, 1995), are the source of meaning, where "languages do not reflect or picture an independent world, nor do they represent expressions of individual minds" (Gergen, p. 26). Meaning is achieved through social interdependence, that is co-participation, so that "the link between social and cultural processes and individual development is a direct one" (Cobb, Gravemeijer et al., 1997, p. 152).

Students' actual modes of learning might change over time, as might their perceptions of how they learn (Solomon, 1992): individual activity in a (social) constructivist view is a result of cumulative construction or, in a sociocultural sense, can be viewed "as an act of participation in a system of practices that are still evolving" (Cobb & Bowers, 1999, p. 8). Responses to the questionnaire should be valued as indicators at one moment in time of how students' view their learning, but not as unchangeable statements.

The questionnaire accommodates a strong focus on conversation as a way of learning (Cobb, Boufi, et al., 1997; Cobb Gravemeijer et al., 1997) and a particular interest in use of graphics calculators as a means of developing mathematical understanding (Salomon, Perkins & Globerson, 1991). However, it also recognises that, as Nesher suggests (Sfard, Nesher, Streefland, Cobb & Mason, 1998), written symbolic language plays an important role in mathematical development and that the relatively passive learning modes (in a social sense) of listening (Schweichart, 1994) and reading (Goos, 1999) also play a part.

The empirical basis of the questions

The inquiry that gave rise to the questionnaire was sited at a private girl's college in Western Australia and involved a Year 11 Geometry and Trigonometry class of 18 students who owned graphics calculators and used them routinely. Geometry and Trigonometry "is intended for students desiring a strong mathematical preparation for tertiary studies" (Curriculum Council, 1998, p. 13). My experience of teaching for one term five of the students when I was a teacher at the college and when they were in Year 10 suggested that among them were some highly effective learners. Acting as a participant-observer (Atkinson & Hammersley, 1994) in the Year 11 class, observing whole-class work and being an assistant teacher in small-group work, confirmed my previous impressions of these students (Forster & Taylor, 1999a, 1999b). I recorded the classroom conversations of three of them, and of two others, from the middle of the first lesson of one month of classroom observations. Analysis of my observations and of the conversations of the first three observed lessons led to the formulation of questions for the questionnaire. I checked the interpretive validity of the questionnaire with my doctoral studies supervisor, and with the teacher of the Year 11 class, which resulted in some minor modifications.

When administering the questionnaire I told the class that the meaning I intended for answering (see Question 1 in the Questionnaire in the following section), as distinct from explaining (see Question 2), was that answers involve short responses, while explanations are longer and more detailed. I described how the questionnaire was derived from my actual observations of the class and that my interest was in finding out if they (the students) actually learnt in the way s suggested by the questions. Students' responses to the questionnaire led to removing two of the original questions, in order to avoid what was effectively repetition and to allow room for mention of other modes of learning that came out of analysing a later lesson. I actually learn by 'Listening to my friends explain things' and by 'Listening to the teacher explain things to me, one-to-one' were removed. The group responses to these questions, both the item mean score of the Likert scale choices for actual ways of learning and the rank order for preferred ways of learning (see Table 1 and the Questionnaire below), were close to the item mean score and rank order for 'Asking friends to explain things' and 'Asking the teacher one-to-one to explain things'. 'Asking' was presumably followed by 'listening' so there seemed no need to include both phenomena in the questionnaire.

Other ways students in the class were observed to learn, or which they mentioned as ways of learning, were doing practical activities, writing summaries, reading their textbook or handouts, and students challenging (disputing) statements of the teacher and of their peers, but all these were infrequent so were not included in the questionnaire. However, these modes could be the basis of questions for inserting into the questionnaire or to replace existing questions in order to suit a particular classroom context.

Table 1: Students' responses to questions on the original questionnaire


Average of Likert scale choices (a) Rank order in preferred
ways of learning (b)

I actually learn by:
Asking friends to explain things
3.6
6
Listening to my friends explain things
3.7
9

I actually learn by:
Asking the teacher one-to-one to explain things
3.4
2
Listening to the teacher explain things to me one-to-one
3.4
4

(a) n = 18, 4 = often, 3 = sometimes, 2 = seldom, 1 = almost never
(b) the frequency of selection was ranked from (1) most preferred, to (23) least preferred. Each student selected four preferred ways of learning from 23 available questions.

Modes of learning implied by the questions could call on varying degrees of student confidence or involvement in class activities, and have varying learning outcomes. For example, answering a question could be voluntary, implying the student was paying attention, or could be on request of the teacher, where a student might not be so engaged in the class conversation (Forster & Taylor, 1999c). Explaining requires sustained effort by the student and therefore is more demanding and potentially more empowering than answering a question with a short answer. A student asking if a peer agrees with her ideas implies reflective engagement on part of the student prior to initiating her question so that the ensuing conversation might be more beneficial for the one who asks than for the one who answers (Forster & Taylor, 1999a). Asking if others agree is seeking verification, whereas asking for an explanation implies confusion so that the cognitive outcomes of these types of engagement might differ significantly. Asking for an explanation in whole-class discussion might involve a higher degree of boldness or confidence than asking a friend for an explanation. A student who indicates she often learns through dialogue with the teacher but seldom through dialogue with her peers might be seen to believe that she learns better with transmission from an expert rather than through working collaboratively. A response that indicates a student prefers to learn by working with other students but who doesn't seem to have any regular working partner (Forster & Taylor, 1999b) might be a signal to the teacher that there is a problem.

The paper concludes with the second version of the questionnaire, which has yet to be administered to the Year 11 class as a means of monitoring the changes in students' modes of learning. However, I recommend that designing a questionnaire for local conditions is perhaps as useful for teachers and researchers as implementing one, because of the insight gained into ways individual students are positioned socially in the classroom.

The questionnaire

Name _______________________

In this Maths class I actually learn by:


Often Some
times
Seldom Almost
never
I actually learn by
1 Answering questions in whole-class work

4

3

2

1

2 Explaining things to the class

4

3

2

1

3 Answering the teachers' questions one-to-one

4

3

2

1

4 Explaining my work to the teacher one-to-one

4

3

2

1

5 Answering friends' questions

4

3

2

1

6 Explaining work to friends

4

3

2

1

I actually learn by
7 Asking the teacher if he agrees with my ideas in whole-class work

4

3

2

1

8 Asking for an explanation in whole-class work

4

3

2

1

9 Asking the teacher one-to-one if he agrees with my ideas

4

3

2

1

10 Asking the teacher one-to-one to explain things

4

3

2

1

11 Asking friends if they agree with my ideas

4

3

2

1

12 Asking friends to explain things

4

3

2

1

I actually learn by
13 Working on problems along with the class

4

3

2

1

14 Working with other students on problems

4

3

2

1

15 Working by myself

4

3

2

1

16 Working out things on a diagram

4

3

2

1

17 Writing solutions

4

3

2

1

I actually learn by
18 Using a graphics calculator.

4

3

2

1

19 Trying things out on my graphics calculator

4

3

2

1

20 Checking if answers are correct

4

3

2

1

21 Listening to the teacher in whole-class work

4

3

2

1

22 Reading through my notes or work

4

3

2

1

Please tick the four ways you most prefer to learn by

Acknowledgement

I wish to thank my doctoral studies supervisor, Dr Peter Taylor, for his constructive comments on an early version of this paper.

References

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Cobb, P., Gravemeijer, K., Yackel, E., McClain, K., & Whitenack, J. (1997). Mathematizing and symbolizing: The emergence of chains of significance in one first-grade classroom. In D. Kirshner & J. A. Whitson (Eds.), Situated cognition: Social, semiotic, and psychological perspectives (pp. 151-234). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Curriculum Council (1998). Syllabus manual, Year 11 and 12 accredited subjects, 1998 (pp. 13-18). Perth, Western Australia: Curriculum Council.

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Forster, P. A., & Taylor, P. C. (1999a). The development of mathematical understanding in the presence of technology. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Forster, P. A., & Taylor, P. C. (1999b). A multiple perspective analysis of learning in the presence of technology. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Forster P. A., & Taylor, P. C. (1999c). Enactment of learning in the presence of graphics calculators. Manuscript in preparation.

Fraser, B. J., & Fisher, D. L. (1983). Student achievement as a function of person-environment fit: A regression surface analysis. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 53, 89-99.

Gergen, K. J. (1995). Social construction and educational process. In L. P. Steffe & J. Gale (Eds.), Constructivism in education (pp. 17-40). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Goos, M. (1999). Understanding mathematical text through peer explanations. In J. M. Truran & K. M. Truran (Eds.), Making the difference. Proceedings of the twenty-second annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia (pp. 238-252). Sydney: MERGA

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Roth, W., & Bowen, G. M. (1995). Knowing and interacting: A study of culture, practices, and resources in a grade 8 open-inquiry science classroom guided by a cognitive apprenticeship metaphor. Cognition and Instruction, 13, 73-128.

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Solomon, J. (1992). Images of physics: How students are influenced by social aspects of science. In Research in physics learning: Theoretical issues and empirical studies (pp. 141-154). Germany: IPN, University of Kiel.

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Tobin, K., Tippins, D. J., & Hook, K. S. (1995). Students' beliefs about epistemology, science, and classroom learning A question of fit. In S. M. Glynn & R. Duit (Eds.), Learning science in the schools (pp. 85-108). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Voigt, J. (1994). Negotiation of mathematical meaning and learning mathematics. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 26, 275-298.

Watters, J. J., & Ginns, I. S. (1994). Self-efficacy and science anxiety among preservice primary teachers: Origins and remedies. Research into Science Education, 24, 348-357.

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Please cite as: Forster, P.A. (1999). How do I actually learn? A questionnaire for (co)participatory learning in the presence of technology. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1999. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1999/forster.html


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