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Ecology is a broad field of science that encompasses many disciplines with large impacts in our society (AAAS, 2011; NRC, 2009). To understand the complex systems and concepts of this discipline requires a foundation of knowledge that students often gain in the classroom (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). Helping students develop this foundation of knowledge requires an understanding of how they use surface and deep reasoning skills to understand and learn new material. In addition, using methods to teach students to transfer these skills between multiple contexts is key to expanding their ability to broadly apply knowledge. The purpose of this research was twofold. First, I wanted to understand the differences between students who used surface reasoning skills and students who used deep reasoning skills. Second, I wanted to understand the effects of two types of instructional framing that may improve students’ ability to apply knowledge between multiple contexts.
In the first study, undergraduate introductory biology students were given during-instruction and post-instruction assessments that tested their ability to explain the effects of disturbances within a food web. Responses were coded to assess students’ surface and deep reasoning skills. Results showed a wide variation in student responses. Findings from this study suggest that when learning a new subject, students may use a combination of surface and deep reasoning to solve problems. Additionally, surface reasoning students have the potential to meet or exceed the same standards as deep reasoning students. In the second study, students were split into two instructional framing groups: bounded and expansive. Expansive framing is an instructional method designed to help students understand that the concepts and skills taught in a single context are applicable in multiple scenarios (Engle, Ngyuen, & Mendelson, 2011). Bounded framing involves presenting learning events as segmented ideas, separate from each other. The instructor focuses on developing the students’ understanding in a single context. Students were taught food web concepts and reasoning skills using either bounded framing or expansive framing methods. In a follow-up session, students were asked questions about the knowledge gained from the prior session and asked to reason about the effects of food web perturbations. Findings from the second study suggest that compared to bounded framing, expansive framing does not significantly affect the transfer of reasoning skills between contexts. In addition, regardless of prior knowledge about the subject, students were able to transfer reasoning skills and knowledge learned in the first session to the follow-up session.
Advisor: Joseph T. Dauer