University of Massachusetts, Amherst. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 424 pages. Open Access Dissertations. Paper 668.
The purpose of this study is to investigate student interactions with simulations, and teacher support of those interactions, within naturalistic high school physics classroom settings. This study focuses on data from two lesson sequences that were conducted in several physics classrooms. The lesson sequences were conducted in a whole class discussion format in approximately half of the class sections and in a hands-on-computer small group format in matched class sections. Analysis used a mixed methods approach where: (1) quantitative methods were used to evaluate pre-post data; (2) open coding and selective coding were used for transcript analysis; and (3) comparative case studies were used to consider the quantitative and qualitative data in light of each other and to suggested possible explanations. Although teachers expressed the expectation that the small group students would learn more, no evidence was found in pre-post analysis for an advantage for the small group sections. Instead, a slight trend was observed in favor of the whole class discussion sections, especially for students in the less advanced sections. In seeking to explain these results, qualitative analyses of transcript and videotape data were conducted, revealing that many more episodes of support for interpreting visual elements of the simulations occurred in the whole class setting than in the matched small group discussions; not only teachers, but, at times, students used more visual support moves in the whole class discussion setting. In addition, concepts that had been identified as key were discussed for longer periods of time in the whole class setting than in the matched small group discussions in six of nine matched sets. For one of the lesson sequences, analysis of student work on in-class activity sheets identified no evidence that any of the Honors or College Preparatory students in the small groups had made use in their thinking of the key features of the sophisticated and popular physics simulation they had used, while such evidence was identified in the work of many of the whole class students. Analysis of the whole class discussions revealed a number of creative teaching strategies in use by the teachers that may have helped offset the advantage of hands-on experience with the simulations and animations enjoyed by the small group students. These results suggest that there may exist whole class teaching strategies for promoting at least some of the active thinking and exploration that has been considered to be the strength of small group work, and appear to offer encouragement to teachers who do not have the resources to allow their classes to engage regularly in small group work at the computer. Furthermore, these examples suggest the somewhat surprising possibility that there may be certain instructional situations where there is an advantage to spending at least part of the time with a simulation or animation in a whole class discussion mode.