Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 9, Issue 1, Article 3 (June, 2008)
Wheijen CHANG
Challenges encountered in implementing constructivist teaching in physics: A qualitative approach

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The innovative teaching design was based on the incorporation of personal and social constructivist views of learning, and is referred to as constructivist teaching. The personal constructivist view emphasizes the influence of preconceptions on the construction of new ideas (e.g., Clement, 1982). Learning tasks are viewed as mainly to achieve conceptual change, thus teaching tasks should provide anomalies and engage students in cognitive processing (Posner, Strike, Hewson & Gertzog, 1982). Therefore, the adoption of interactive teaching is regarded as superior to a didactic way of teaching in facilitating conceptual change (Hake, 1998). On the other hand, the social constructivist view of learning has highlighted the socially constructed nature of science knowledge, which has been influenced by social, historical, and cultural factors (Hennessy, 1993). Learning science requires not only individual cognitive processing (to make sense of nature by rational derivations), but also involves a process of enculturation in order to become acquainted with the artificial tools and to grasp the scientific way of viewing the world (Salomon & Perkins, 1998). Thus, the incorporation of individual cognitive reasoning and social practice is essential for achieving effective learning. In addition to providing abundant questions and time to stimulate students to think and discuss, teachers are also expected to provide essential mediations (background knowledge) for the students, to ensure the effectiveness of the interactive teaching (Driver, Asoko, Leach & Scott, 1995; Roth, McRobbie, Lucas & Boutonne, 1997).

The development of constructivism has triggered many teaching reform programs in university physics. The features can be summarized as (eg., Redish, 1996) (1) emphasizing verbal elaborations on context-rich questions rather than mathematical derivations on traditional problems (eg, Gautreau & Novemsky, 1997; Heller & Hollabaugh, 1992), (2) providing teaching time and concept questions for the students to observe, think about, and discuss the underlying principles (eg., Heller & Hollabaugh, 1992; McKittrick, Mulhall & Gunstone, 1999), (3) monitoring of the learning processes and providing instant feedback to students (eg. Beichner et al., 2000), and (4) emphasizing the responsibility of learning usually incorporated with intelligent technology, such as the adoption of on-line preview assignments (e.g. Mazur, 1996). Many studies have reported the outcomes of constructivist teaching reform programs both in academic and affective terms. Most studies note that although their teaching reforms reduced derivations in traditional problems (in the textbooks), their students’ performance in solving problems was not worse than, or was in fact superior to, that of their peers in traditional classes (eg., Crouch & Mazur, 2001; Gautreau & Novemsky, 1997). By means of adopting standardized multiple-choice tests with a large number of participants, the students’ performance in conceptual tests was found to be significantly better than that of the traditional groups (Hake, 1998).

In addition to the encouraging outcomes, several studies have reported potential challenges that instructors might need to confront regarding the constructivist teaching reforms. First, the conducting of an in-class discussion may need long-term practice to achieve an appropriate style and pace. Both the context and content of the responses and reactions to questions need to be taken into account when conducting inquiry-type questioning (Roth, 1996). Meanwhile, the ability to achieve an appropriate extent and timing of intervention during discussion is very challenging (Bell & Gilbert, 1996). Physics teaching innovation is more complex than traditional lecturing in terms of materials and activities management, i.e. thorough comprehension of the content knowledge is required by the instructor, and the classroom may be criticized as being out of control (Maclsaac & Falconer, 2002). Second, the demands for designing conceptual questions are great. The conceptual questions need to tackle the prevalent learning difficulties, but must avoid plug-in “hot formulas” without conceptual comprehension (Heller & Hollabaugh, 1992; Van Heuvelen, 1991). Third, the success of an innovative teaching program depends on the favorable attitude of the students towards the teaching design (Fraser & Wubbels, 1995). For example, when students possess transmission views of learning, they may regard the conducting of in-class discussion as ineffective in terms of knowledge accumulation ((Banerjee, Vidyapati & Vidyapati, 1997; Cottle & Hart, 1996). On the other hand, the literature suggests that different teaching designs may alter the students’ beliefs about teaching and learning (Trigwell & Prosser, 1991).

Based on quantitative analysis of closed questionnaire surveys, prior studies have suggested that constructivist teaching in university physics seems to benefit students’ affective learning outcomes as well as their beliefs about the learning process (Chang, 2005b; Elby, 2001; Gautreau & Novemsky, 1997). However, the qualitative findings of Buncick et. al. (2001) note that the students were more critical when taught in a more interactive way.


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