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How to Use Socioscientific Issues-Based Instruction

Providing a Socioscientific Issues-Based Instruction Environment

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There is no customary or set delivery method for teaching science using socioscientific issues. It is a feasible strategy as an in-class task or as a take-home assignment. It can also be done with classes asynchronously, in on-line courses or as take-home work for students, or synchronously as part of a real-time virtual debate. Issues-base instruction works best when students are briefly introduced to the issue at the beginning of lecture. This brief introduction imparts an interest in the facts and concepts being covered for that topic. The instructor can then use the introduction as a way of showing the students how particular facts are important to the issue. Students then take the role of active learners by using the facts and concepts to resolve the issue.

Connect the Issue to Course Content Goals

The key to a successful implementation is to find current socioscientific issues that are relevant to the specific set of students in the class and connect to the instructor's content learning goals for the course. Issues are multidisciplinary, self-guided, and open-ended so that a particular issue can be implemented in more than one subject area. For example, the issue of captive breeding in zoos could be a point of engagement to teach students about natural selection, biodiversity, inbreeding, or basic principles of genetics.

Facilitate Peer Interactions

Regardless of the format used to teach with socioscientific issues, in all cases the instructor becomes a facilitator, presenting and guiding the students through the issue rather than providing all of the information. A typical scenario places students into small break-out groups after a topic is introduced and initially discussed. It is equally effective to have students delve into an issue by themselves in a lecture session prior to sharing their thoughts with a larger group in a lecture or recitation section. The group size will be highly dependent on the number of both students and available facilitators in the classroom. Pelesko and Marsteller's "flexible facilitation models" (2008) is an excellent guide to constructing groups according to the exact needs of the classroom.

Provide Guidelines for Discussion

Providing a set of rules is another secret for ensuring a successful issues-based instruction experience. There are two important guidelines for students to follow to ensure an effective learning environment:

  1. students must argue the accurate facts and avoid fallacious debate, and
  2. students cannot discredit or denigrate a particular view from a purely emotional perspective.

The instructor needs to provide guidance so that students argue constructively and use evidence to document their arguments (M. Klosterman, personal communication). Additional research has revealed the need for instructors to provide explicit guidance for students, otherwise their arguments will not be mature (Acar, Turkman, and Roychoudhury, 2010).

Resources on argumentation from writing classes often provide valuable guidelines and help to establish connections between seemingly unrelated courses for students. The Dartmouth Writing Program has information on Teaching Argument which includes an insightful list titled, "What Students Know (or Don't Know) about Argument," (e.g., "Students sometimes confuse argument with debate, taking a strong, oppositional position on a topic...") and "Elements of Argument" (e.g., "...teach students what to do with the evidence that they have. Illustrating a point isn't quite the same thing as arguing it... Students should both discover and grow their arguments using sound reasoning skills.").

Provide a Framework for Investigating the Issue

Students with limited experience delving into an issue need guidance. They can be provided with the following set of questions to prepare them for working in a group, or defending a viewpoint to help guide them through an issue:

      1. Describe in your own words, what is the issue being debated?
      2. Explain the "yes" or "pro" position for each part of the issue?
      3. Explain the "no" or "con" position for each part of the issue?
      4. What are the pieces of evidence or facts to support each "pro" and "con"?
      5. What is your decision or the group's position and why?
      6. Is the evidence a credible fact or is it an opinion, or interpretation of the facts?
      7. What are at least two main areas of disagreement between the two sides?
      8. Is there any agreement between the two sides?
Instructors can have students consider what is behind the controversy, for example, is it political, economic, religious?

An Issue-based Instruction Classroom Scenario

Again, there is no one formula for implementing issues-based instruction. However, many law school and medical education programs use the following steps in their issues-based instructional strategies:

Scenario 1: In Class

1. Instructor introduces the issue as a contemporary, relevant concern faced by the scientific discipline. The issue must be pertinent to the topic covered in that particular session.

2. Instructor then asks the class a question about the issue (e.g., "Will human cloning be detrimental or beneficial for society?") and asks the students to develop an opinion.

3. Instructor lectures about the topic including the facts needed to understand the issue.

4. The class is then asked (as individuals or groups) to use what they learned in class to come up with a view or resolution of the issue.

5. The set of guiding rules (mentioned above) for discussing the issue is presented as a hand-out or projected on a screen.

6. Students are given ample time in class to resolve the issue. The instructor should periodically ask the students about their progress and whether a resolution is near.

7. Students are guided by the instructor to reflect on the issue.

Scenario 2: Take-home Assignment

1. Instructor introduces the issue as a contemporary, relevant concern faced by the scientific discipline. The issue must be pertinent to the topic covered in that particular session and is provided as a handout or projected on a screen (the class should be asked to write down the issue for later use).

2. Instructor then asks the class a question about the issue (e.g., "Will human cloning be detrimental or beneficial for society?") and asks the students to develop an opinion.

3. Instructor lectures about the topic including the facts needed to understand the issue.

4. The set of guiding rules (mentioned above) for addressing the issue is presented as a hand-out.

5. Students are given the task of writing a brief paper detailing their views or resolutions of the issue.

6. Students are guided by the instructor to reflect on the issue after their papers are completed and submitted.

These are just two possible scenarios, both of which are of short duration. A single issue can serve as an introduction to a topic or provide the basis for an entire unit; thus the time frame will vary based upon the goals of the instructor. To increase students' engagement in the issue, the instructor can have students do their own research after introducing the topic and having the students come up with their initial opinions. In addition, the instructor can have students perform experiments during this research phase to help them understand the science behind the issue firsthand. For a description of an extended use of an issue, see the examples or read Exploring the Sociopolitical Dimensions of Global Warming by Sadler and Klosterman (2009).

Regardless of the scenario, time in class should be made available for the students to reflect upon their resolutions to the issue. During this time, the instructor must explain the relationship between the issue and the concepts covered in class. Feedback for the take-home assignment can be presented to the whole class, based on a synopsis of the student reports. Any student arguments or disagreements should be directed back to the facts related to the issue. Instructors can share their viewpoints as long as they explain how they use to facts to come up with their view or resolution.

Other Strategies

There are other methods for using socioscientific issues in the classroom. The method chosen can reflect the educational outcomes or goals of the instructor. If the goal is to have students develop their understanding of the multiple perspectives held by different individuals or groups, students can be tasked with specifically researching those perspectives and sharing them with their peers. An example of this is provided in Negotiating Gene Therapy Controversies by Sadler and Zeidler (2004) in which the authors describe an activity which employs a "modified jigsaw" to engage students in the controversy. The article provides a narrative of the issue and specific instructions for each of the student groups.




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