Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 5, Issue 3, Article 8 (Dec., 2004)
Yeung Chung LEE and Pun Hon NG
Hong Kong primary pupils' cognitive understanding and reasoning in conducting science investigation: A pilot study on the topic of "Keeping Warm"
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This study adopted a qualitative approach. Reference was drawn from other research studies reviewed in this article but it is not our intention to replicate any one of them. Two sets of investigation tasks, one on heat flow ("Keeping Warm" and "Keeping Cold"), and the other on falling motion ("Seed Model" and "The Fastest Seed") were designed to probe pupils' understanding and reasoning in scientific investigations. The two tasks within each set are inter-related and progressive in nature. This is to allow exploration of pupils' nature of reasoning in the same context but at a greater depth. The English translation of the activity sheet "Keeping Warm" is provided in Figure 1.

Activity One: Which kind of cups is the best to keep water warm?

1. Select three cups for testing their effect in keeping water warm. (Please circle your answer.)

a. paper cup b. soft plastic cup c. hard plastic cup d. foam rubber cup
e. steel cup f. porcelain cup    

2. Which of the three cups do you predict is the best one to keep water warm? Why?

The best cup to keep water warm is : _________________________________________
I believe the reason is _________________________________________

3. Design an experiment to find out the best and the worst cup to keep water warm. Write or draw your methods. The following materials are provided for you:-

Hot water, different cups, 3 thermometers, a measuring cup

My design


My group's design


4. Carry out the experiment and record your results.

5. From your results, which is the best cup to keep water warm?


6. Explain why this cup is better than the other ones in keeping water warm?


7. Do you think your results are accurate or not? Why?


8. In what ways could you improve your experiment to make the results more accurate?



Fig. 1: Activity sheet for the "Keeping Warm" Task (Translation from Chinese)

Because of time and manpower constraints, each class was asked to perform only one set of tasks. One Primary 4 and two Primary 5 groups worked on the tasks on heat flow, while another Primary 4 and Primary 5 groups were assigned to the tasks on falling motion. Each pupil was distributed a worksheet for each task which contains a problem reflecting the purpose of the investigation, and a series of questions to prompt him/her to resolve the problem. The questions were considered essential as a guide because the pupils had not received training in tackling scientific problems through self-directed investigation. However, no hints were provided to students with respect to the steps taken apart from the equipment and materials provided. Hence the tasks were relatively open. The worksheets also facilitated pupils to record their hypotheses or predictions, experimental design, results, conclusion, and results of evaluation.

A rather atypical method adopted was to engage final year teacher trainees to serve the dual role of observer and group facilitator. Each student-teacher was assigned to one or two groups. The observers observed the performance of their groups and took field notes about what pupils said and did throughout the process. In order to allow more freedom for the observers to record whatever they considered relevant, they were not provided with any pre-designed code. As facilitators, they helped to ensure that their groups progressed through the task within the designated period of time, normally one and a half hour for each set of tasks. Another role of the facilitator was to engage pupils on task all the time, and to clarify the meaning of the questions on the worksheets whenever and wherever necessary. He or she also posed questions to pupils to clarify their procedures and explore their thinking behind while avoiding giving clues. The responses of pupils were also recorded in the facilitator's field notes. Training was provided to the observers/facilitators beforehand so that they fully understood their roles. This method was proved to be of great value in obtaining more substantive data given the limited ability of primary pupils in comprehending questions and in expressing their plans or answers in written form. The facilitator also helped to ensure that pupils filled out their worksheets. As reported by Lee (2003), even for junior secondary pupils, their ability to write out investigative plans did not reflect their actual ability in planning. Moreover, it is a common experience of teachers that many academically less inclined pupils tend to avoid written work, especially when open answers are required.

The observer's field notes and student worksheets were scrutinized carefully and categorized according to their similarities to generate response categories with respect to the three themes: the experimental design, the way that the plan was implemented, and the evaluation of the design and the results, as mentioned in the purposes of the study.

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