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The Activity Model for Inquiry: Reflective Writing Prompts

This page, authored by Amy Ellwein and Ben Swanson at The University of New Mexico, describes reflective writing prompts by Amy Ellwein and the utilization of a model that we feel better encapsulates the scientific method, called the Activity Model for Inquiry (Harwood, 2004). The course, activity, and approach were designed in affiliation with the Science Education Institute of the Southwest (SEIS) and the Natural Sciences Program (NSP) at the University of New Mexico. Special thanks to Matt Nyman (SEIS and NSP).
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Summary

This reflective writing activity is a daily writing exercise requiring teacher participants to summarize scientific content they are learning as part of a fast-paced, one-week earth science course, as well as to identify and examine their misconceptions and consider their use of the Activity Model for Inquiry (a modified version of the "standard" outline of the scientific method; Harwood, 2004). It also provides an opportunity for tracking changes in their attitudes towards field science and the application of the scientific method, and following their progress in understanding the material. Insights gained from the reflective writing serve as the most important resource for the final course paper. A detailed description of the reflective writing exercise and how it fits into the learning goals is provided.

Learning Goals

The reflective writing exercise was initially designed in 2005 to help in-service teacher participants synthesize content and foster improved communication with course instructors in one-week field science courses for K-12 teachers. Each year since, reflective writing has proven to be quite useful in our courses in multiple ways. In general, reflective writing encourages

  • familiarity with the idea and utility of being a "reflective practitioner" (teachers are asked to explicitly monitor their current level of mastery and understanding of the content and question what they still need to learn),
  • learning to make meaningful field and laboratory observations with feedback from their instructors,
  • gaining an understanding of how field-based science is conducted, and
In this latest improvement to our prompts, we expect that teachers will experience first-hand how the scientific method REALLY works by conducting a scientific inquiry while self-monitoring their progress through the Activity Model for Inquiry (AMI). Unlike the linear scientific method featured in many textbooks, the AMI more closely approaches the "method" used by scientists.


Reflective writing also attends to participants' attitudes in that reflective writing combined with instructor feedback tends to

  • help increase participants' self-confidence and competence as amateur scientists, especially with field-based science,
  • generate enthusiasm for teaching multidisciplinary, field-based, and inquiry-based science in K-8 classrooms, and
  • foster an improved "comfort level" for learning and teaching earth science content and field skills.

Context for Use

In this upper-division, week-long field course for K-12 in-service and pre-service teachers, we integrate field and laboratory investigations with daily reflective writing. Teachers' responses to our reflective writing prompts at the end of each day provide instructors with very useful feedback that can be used to make mid-course corrections or address common misconceptions. Feedback from instructors improves teachers' self-confidence in conducting field-based scientific investigations, and the explicit use of the AMI encourages teachers to approach the scientific method as a more open-ended and creative tool. This approach could be used when teaching any science content.
  • Educational level of participants: variable. Summer 2009 we taught participants with experience that ranged from zero geology courses in college to a B.S. in the geosciences.
  • Institution type: research I university
  • Course type: field-based geoscience/professional development course with an emphasis on the nature and process of science for pre- and in-service teachers
  • Class size: capped at 20
  • Time for activity: between 30 minutes and 90 minutes for participants to write after class, about an hour for two instructors to provide feedback on 14 field notebooks
  • Special equipment: field notebooks that contain reflective writing prompts, the AMI figure, and other useful field information
  • Other settings: SEIS has used reflective writing in geoscience and biology field courses for teachers since 2005 and will use reflective writing in a year-long professional development project with in-service teachers during the 2009-2010 school year.

Description and Teaching Materials

We purchase hard-bound notebooks for teacher participants' field notebooks and reflective writing journals. The reflective writing prompts are taped into the front cover along with the AMI figure and AMI activity descriptions.

Reflective Writing Prompts

At the end of each day, please take a few minutes and reflect on the activities of the day and your comfort-level with them. Please write neatly and clearly delineate your course/field notes from your daily reflective writing in your journal/field notebook, perhaps by writing in different colored ink or writing your field notes on the right-hand page and your reflections on the left.

- Describe the main points you learned today providing specific examples. Consider making a visual illustration of the content you learned today, such as a flow chart or concept map. What did you learn today that surprised you? Be sure to write down any questions you have at the end of the day.

- Describe those activities you found most and least effective in terms of your learning of the course material and why.

- When did you feel uncomfortable and/or unprepared? Why?

- Track your movement through the AMI during the course of the day (activities, conversations, internal thoughts, your field notes). You may wish to annotate your field notes or draw a diagram. Which AMI activities are easy for you, and which ones are difficult? Explain.

- Brainstorm and record how you might use or modify today's content or activities for your students. Do you think the content and methods you are using in this course will help you to teach science more effectively? Explain.



Reflective Writing Portfolio (Microsoft Word 30kB Jun26 09)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Teachers who wrote their field notes on one page and used the facing page for daily reflections were best able to articulate how they progressed through the scientific method (using the Activity Model for Inquiry). We are considering requiring this format in the future, but it was also interesting to see some of the participants learn this method for themselves.

We require that students find a quiet spot away from others and write their observations for 5-15 minutes at each site before we get started with any activity (We provide a list of useful field observations.) Initially, those participants that have never kept a field notebook are somewhat unsure of the expectations. At the first field site, participants find it very useful that we share our own observations and sketches.

Participants should be encouraged to write whatever they like in their notebooks. If they are uncomfortable sharing, they can identify only those sections that they want instructors to view. Their notebooks should be a permanent record of their thinking and learning, they should not be a reflection of what participants think the instructors want to read.

Reflective writing can be a difficult activity to implement. For participants, it is initially unfamiliar, quite time consuming, and many participants find that sharing personal information with instructors that they have only recently met makes them uncomfortable. For the instructors, reading each journal every day is very time consuming. Despite the difficulties, we have found reflective writing to be an excellent communication tool that also fosters critical thinking in the course participants.

Assessment

Reflective writing is conducted by participants during and at the end of each day. Reflections are "assessed", in a formative sense, by instructors each morning on the hour-long bus ride to the field site. Instructors are looking for common misconceptions, ways to encourage participants, common questions that could be answered in a group setting, etc.

The best assessment of learning for this activity is the final paper in which participants summarize what they learned about geoscience and the nature of science and how they plan to use the new content, ideas, skills and the AMI with their students.

References and Resources

For more information on the Activity Model for Inquiry, please see Harwood's article we share with our teachers from the Journal of College Science Teaching (http://www.btanj.org/demo/2004/harwood1.pdf) or a shorter version targeted towards a K-12 teacher audience from The Science Teacher at (http://www.temple.edu/carversciencefair/activitymodel.pdf).

We used an excellent nature of science activity, Ordeal by Check, on the first day of our course: http://serc.carleton.edu/teacherprep/resources/activities/ordeal.html

See the following page for information regarding the use of reflective writing in a SEIS-sponsored Geobotany course for educators: http://serc.carleton.edu/teacherprep/resources/activities/active-learning.htm