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Modeling Instruction

Modeling Instruction attempts to enhance student achievement through a process called the Modeling Cycle, an adaptation of Robert Karplus’ Learning Cycle. Throughout the Modeling Cycle we rely on student engagement and explanation as the dynamic of learning. There are two major parts to the Modeling Cycle: model development and model deployment.

I.  Model Development (Induction)
Units begin with a paradigm experiment; a laboratory experience that sets the foundation and context for the entire unit. Conceptual and mathematical models are created from student-generated data.

A.  Qualitative description of system and identification of variables. 
Students observe a phenomenon, suggest relevant descriptors, and identify those descriptors which may have a cause and effect relationship and can be measured.


B.  Laboratory experiment.
Student groups make their measurements using the available apparatus. Most labs utilize probeware in the computer-based laboratory.

C.  Analysis of experiment.
Upon completion of their experimental plans, each lab group analyzes its data using computers and creates models of the phenomenon.

D.  Presentation of experimental results.
Groups compare their findings to the rest of the class and look for similarities and differences among results. Groups are expected to give a full account about what has been done and express the relationships between the measured variables. Peer questioning is encouraged and contradictory results among the laboratory groups are resolved by argumentation and discussion guided by the instructor so that a consensus model can be formed. 

E.  Generalization.
The instructor helps the students use their laboratory data to extract the structure and behavior of the relevant model from the details of the just-completed experiment, and to recognize that this model can be extended to a broader set of phenomena.

II.  Model Deployment (Deduction)

A.  Extrapolation and reinforcement.
Carefully selected and designed problems and activities allow students to determine how to deploy their models in a variety of contexts. They also allow students to confront common difficulties in the context of their experimental results.

Students work on these tasks in cooperative groups solving all problems on a 24" x 30" whiteboard which fosters discussion and questioning within the group. The teacher assumes the role of "physics coach," asking probing questions of the group to help them better articulate their solutions in terms of models developed throughout the course.

These discussions are exceedingly valuable because students become more articulate in defending and their points of view and, when necessary, modifying or adopting new points of view. Misconceptions can be addressed in the context of our models.

B.  Refinement and integration.
Classroom discussions, demonstrations, counterexamples, lab practica, reading assignments, and video clips help students refine the models, becoming further aware of their assumptions and limitations.

(modified from Modeling Workshop Project©)


Modeling Videos

What is "Modeling?", a promotional video that highlights the modeling methodology at a school that has "Physics First" and then applies modeling across the different science disciplines. (5:50)
Modeling teacher Frank Noschese gives a TedX talk on the modeling philosophy. (15:21)
Making the Grade report from a local NBC affiliate in North Carolina. (2:11)
Modeling Session "In Action" from the classroom of Dwain Desbian, a college physics teacher who uses modeling methodology. (13:01)


Are you skeptical of this approach and concerned about how it might affect your performance in the class or in later pursuits?

If so, you are not alone.  Because an inquiry approach toward learning is new to most people, it evokes discomfort to those who experience it the first time. Students often cite multiple reasons for their discomfort when learning in this mode.
  • They perceive it as a threat to achieving high grades.
  • They are required to do more than merely memorize and replicate information and crunch numbers with calculators.
  • They get frustrated at not "knowing the right answer."
  • They fear being wrong.
Parents, too, may experience uncertainty about this approach toward science. This uncertainty is often based upon:
  • their child's complaints as stated above.
  • a perception that their child's education is being threatened by a non-traditional approach.
  • a fear that their child will not do well on standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT.
  • a fear that their child will not be adequately prepared for college.
  • a fear of not being able to help their child with homework.
  • a realization that their child is not learning as much "material" as they might have learned when they were in high school.
In an inquiry-oriented classroom, both teacher and student take on non-traditional roles. The teacher must set up situations where students a) recognize inconsistencies between their understanding of nature and what nature actually produces and b) work to alleviate the dissonance in what is believed and what is observed. The teacher must anticipate problem areas for the students and then provide experiences and resources that help to resolve the problems. But teaching does not directly translate to learning. Students must view themselves as problem-solvers where the goal is learning to solve problems and be critical consumers of data rather than being told answers.

Fears and concerns aside, research has shown that:
  • High school students who experience inquiry practices are better prepared as college and university thinkers than students who have not experienced inquiry practices.
  • Increased depth of study on a smaller number of topics leads to significantly higher grades in college physics courses.
  • Colleges and universities are increasingly using inquiry instruction because it improves student performance in critical thinking and problem solving.
Students are not disadvantaged by this mode of instruction when it comes to standardized tests. The ACT and SAT, for example, stress critical thinking and ability to read and interpret graphs rather than stress content.

The positive aspects of inquiry-oriented instruction outweigh the discomfort experienced by students.
  • Students learn about science as both process and product, allowing them to understanding not only what we know but also how we know it.
  • Students construct accurate knowledge through dialog, refining their current understanding to formulate new knowledge based on data and observation.
  • Students learn science through considerable understanding, demonstrating prolonged retention and improved critical thinking and problem solving skills. One study1 by Richard Hake shows that students who took a conceptual posttest after completing their inquiry physics course retained more than twice as much as students learning via the traditional lecture approach.  Additionally, many students in the inquiry physics course reached the Newtonian thinking threshold, whereas very few students in the traditional lecture approach could make the same claim.
  • Another study2 shows that students who took an inquiry-based physics course retained 83-97% of the concepts 3 years after completing the course, still well above the conceptual understanding of students who took a traditional lecture course immediately following the course of instruction.
  • Students learn that science is a dynamic, cooperative, and accumulative process.
  • Students learn the content and values of science by working like scientists.
The content of this section is taken from the article Minimizing resistance to inquiry-oriented science instruction: The
importance of climate setting
, by Carl J. Wenning. This article was printed in the Journal of Physics Teacher Education Online, (JPTEO), 3(2), December 2005. Follow the link for the full issue. (Requires Adobe Reader).

Still not convinced? Phil Sadler, in conjunction with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the National Science Foundation, found some interesting results about what factors in high school affect student's success in college science. Phil Sadler is well known among science educators for his work on A Private Universe and Minds of our Own. Learn the results at the Factors Influencing College Science Success (FICSS) website.

1Hake R.R. (1998, January). Interactive-engagement versus traditional methods: A six-thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics, 66 (1), 64-74.

2Francis, G.E., Adams, J.P, and Noonan, E.J. (1998, November). Do they stay fixed?  The Physics Teacher, 36, 488-490.