The art to developing science inquiry skills.

Timms’ paper “Measuring learning in complex learning environments” explores the impact of technology on student learning, specifically focusing on the impact of virtual scientific environments in the development of inquiry skills. This concurrent paper presented at the 2013 ACER Research Conference discusses how “in science, students often have difficulty connecting concepts to real world phenomena and in understanding how to use scientific practices in investigating those phenomena.” Timms suggests that online interactive learning environments provide students with a richer learning experience, beyond the scope of a textbook. Through engaging with an online environment and manipulating scientific variables, students are able to ‘engage in the construction of knowledge, rather than just receive the facts.’ Timms further suggests that such learning experiences aid the contentious debate of how much guidance is enough guidance, as these elearning resources allow students to experiment with their own learning in a controlled environment.

Extract: Measuring learning in complex learning environments

Technology offers the opportunity to enhance the learning experience through providing students with learning environments that bring to them other worlds outside the classroom. The use of animations, simulations and augmented reality can help to show dynamic processes such as geological events over time, virtual chemistry laboratories or events from history in deeper and richer ways than are possible in textbooks. These technological tools also offer the chance to allow students to explore and manipulate the virtual environments that are created, bringing opportunities for learners to engage in the construction of knowledge rather than just receiving facts.

How interactive learning environments can assist student learning

Interactive learning environments hold a lot of promise for assisting learners in ways that are tailored to the needs of each learner. Well designed interactive learning environments combine pedagogical approaches that are based on cognitive theory of learning in interactive ways in electronic environments with methods of measuring the progress of learners and techniques for providing assistance at key moments.

The challenge of providing assistance in inquiry science instruction

The goal of inquiry learning is to allow students to induce the characteristics of a domain through their own experiments and exploration (de Jong, 2006). But, even in curricula with hands-on laboratories and the opportunity to engage in inquiry learning, students are typically asked to replicate standard experiments rather than perform their own inquiries.

…Research on scaffolded inquiry learning suggests that teaching the critically important skills associated with scientific inquiry can be greatly improved if supported by the right kind of guidance (Linn & Hsi, 2000; Sandoval & Reiser, 2004; Slotta, 2004; van Joolingen, de Jong, Lazonder, Savelsbergh & Manlove, 2005; White & Frederiksen, 1998).

But what exactly is the right amount and type of guidance? While past work with inquiry learning environments makes clear that some guidance is necessary, it doesn’t fully answer this question, which in the learning sciences more generally has been variously investigated under the guise of ‘desirable difficulty’ (Schmidt & Bjork, 1992), the ‘assistance dilemma’ (Koedinger & Aleven, 2007) and ‘productive failure’ (Kapur, 2009). Essentially the issue is to find the right balance between, on the one hand, full support and, on the other hand, allowing students to make their own decisions and, at times, mistakes. There are cost benefits associated with each end of this spectrum.

Assistance giving allows students to move forwards when they are struggling and to experience success, yet can lead to shallow learning, non-activation of long-term memory and the lack of motivation to learn on their own. On the other hand, assistance withholding encourages students to think and learn for themselves, yet can lead to “floundering, frustration and wasted time when students are unsure of what to do.


Results from trials of the SimScientists and ChemVlab+ modules indicate that the kinds of feedback built into the systems are producing learning gains and, more interestingly, that they might benefit particular students.