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10 — How do we learn?

2015-03-08. By Kelly.


Patrick found this fantastic astronomy site called, Zooniverse. One of the founders of the site, Dr. Chris Lintott, was on The Jodcast, a podcast that Patrick listens to. Dr. Lintott talked about how the site was set up to provide a citizen science experience for amateur astronomers. This project has grown to inspire more than those interested in astronomy and now hosts a variety of projects. During the podcast the founder talked about Planet Hunter in which the participants work with graphs to gather data.

Patrick was interested especially in their discussion about graphs. Patrick believes graphs should be used to illustrate data and provided to all audiences. He is often disappointed by publishers that demand fewer graphs and math formulas to gain a wider audience. We both believe that this "dumbing down" of text and it often leads to further confusion. As a result of this podcast, we started to discuss how people learn to read a graph.

Patrick is analytical. He likes to see the data to know what is happening. He is a trained research scientist. I am not as analytical as Patrick. I like to see the wider picture and then draw conclusion from my observations. Our modes of learning and the ways we gather information are quite different.

After listening to Dr. Chris Lintott, Patrick was curious to know how students in my class learn to use graphs and work with data. I use graphs often in class and when the students collect data they have to create graphs and analyze their data. It is challenging because 8th grade students don't transfer their math skills to science. Often I have to review basic parts of a graph like dependent and independent variables and then discuss the data as a class to ensure their analysis is correct. Students do this by collecting the data whenever possible. I found that when students collect the data it makes it theirs and it is the ownership that helps give meaning and purpose to their work. After the data collection/lab activity the students have time to discuss their findings with their peers. This helps the students understand their variables, constants, controls, and sources of error. After the students create a graph and talk with their table partner, they share it with the class. I project the graph for the class to see and the students give a brief analysis of their data. Other students in class also add their insights. This gives the students time to reflect on how their data are the same or different than other students'. It also leads to our discussion of why their data are different. By giving students time to discuss in small groups, it helps build data analysis experience. The class discussion includes much more detail about their methods for data collection and sources of errors that could cause certain outcomes. It is the process of data collection and building graphs that help build my students' confidence in interpreting data. I think the success that the graph based project on Zooniverse has had is due to similar communications that participants have through tutorials. The tutorials help build the knowledge and provide practice by coaching participants as they look at similar graphs. Some participants could also have conversations with other participants and build their understanding with a shared experience. I think that, although the communication is not directly with a partner working on similar data, the online resources allow participants to gain experience and knowledge to successfully analyze their graphs. Therefore, understanding graphs can only happen with coaching and practice.

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