Doing science requires that students learn to create evidence-based arguments (EBAs), defined as claims connected to supporting evidence via premises. In this CAREER project, I investigate how argumentation ability can be enhanced among middle school students. The project entails theoretical work, instructional design, and empirical work, and involves 3 middle schools in northern Utah and southern Idaho.
Doing science requires that students learn to create evidence-based arguments (EBAs), defined as claims connected to supporting evidence via premises. The question chosen for study by a new researcher at Utah State University is: How can argumentation ability be enhanced among middle school students? This study involves 325 middle school students in 12 class sections from 3 school districts in Utah and Idaho. First, students in middle school science classrooms will be introduced to problem-based learning (PBL) units that allow them to investigate ill-structured science problems. These activities provide students with something about which to argue: something that they have explored personally and with which they have grappled. Next, they will construct arguments using a powerful computer technology, the Connection Log, developed by the PI. The Connection Log provides a scaffold for building arguments, allowing each student to write about his/her reasoning and compare it to arguments built by peers. The study investigates how the Connection Log improves the quality of students' arguments. It also explores whether students are able to transfer what they have learned to new situations that call for argumentation.
This study is set in 6th and 7th grade science classrooms with students of diverse SES, ethnicity, and achievement levels. The Connection Log software supports middle school students with written prompts on a computer screen that take students through the construction of an argument. The system allows students to share their arguments with other members of their PBL group. The first generation version of the Connection Log asks students to:
1. define the problem, or state the problem in their own words
2. determine needed information, or decide on evidence they need to find to solve the problem
3. find and organize needed information
4. develop a claim, or make an assertion stating a possible problem solution
5. link evidence to claim, linking specific, relevant data to assertions
The model will be optimized through a process of design-based research. The study uses a mixed methods research design employing argument evaluation tests, video, interviews, database information, debate ratings, and a mental models measure, to evaluate student progress.
This study is important because research has shown that students do not automatically come to school prepared to create evidence-based arguments. Middle school students face three major challenges in argumentation: adequately representing the central problem of the unit; determining and obtaining the most relevant evidence; and synthesizing gathered information to construct a sound argument. Argumentation ability is crucial to STEM performance and to access to STEM careers. Without the ability to formulate arguments based upon evidence, middle school students are likely to be left out of the STEM pipeline, avoid STEM careers, and have less ability to critically evaluate and understand scientific findings as citizens. By testing and refining the Connection Log, the project has the potential for scaling up for use in science classrooms (and beyond) throughout the United States.