Skip to main content

Finding a better way to teach science

ASU professor honored for research into how students learn

Dr. Michelene Chi
April 08, 2016

Why is learning science so hard?

American students struggle with learning science. The Nation’s Report Card, the gold standard for nationwide benchmark testing, found that of 122,000 eighth-graders tested in 2011, only a third were proficient or better in science.

American eighth-graders’ science scores ranked 27th out of 64 countries in the Program for International Student Assessment in 2012.

A professor at Arizona State University is researching how students learn science, and her work could pave the way for better teaching methods. The science investigation is among the most recent research by Michelene Chi, the Dorothy Bray Endowed Professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. This month, she is accepting the Distinguished Contributions to Research in Education Award from the American Educational Research Association. The honor is for her lifetime contributions to research.

Chi said she takes a cognitive approach to her research, and she studies "active learning" — ways in which students engage with the materials.

“I’m not looking at motivation or cultural background,” she said. “Once you bring students to the table to learn, how are they learning and why has learning been a problem?”

Science, in particular.

“One of the problems found in the literature is that students have a lot of misconceptions about science. It’s not lack of knowledge — it’s that they believe something that is wrong,” she said.

Chi believes that science is difficult to grasp because students, like all people, are predisposed to understand sequential processes — “A” causes “B” causes “C.” But many processes in science are emergent, caused by many independent agents.

Chi gave an example of the “V” formation of flying geese.

“People might say, ‘They’re following the leader bird,’ because they’re analyzing sequentially,” she said, with one bird following another. “But there is no leader bird. In the ‘V,’ every bird is doing the same thing — finding the spot of least air resistance,” she said.

Chi is developing an online module that teaches ninth-graders the different between sequential and emergent processes as a way to prepare them to think in ways that are counterintuitive.

One of Chi’s biggest contributions to education research is a learning framework she developed called ICAP — for interactive, constructive, active and passive.

Passive learning is listening attentively, and active is doing something such as highlighting text — engaged but not making inferences from the content. Constructive learning is when the student can make connections and ask questions about the content.

Chi believes deep learning occurs in “interactive” mode, between two people who can understand each other’s contribution and innovate new ways of thinking.  

“This framework explains a lot of data in the literature already,” said Chi. She and her team won the 2014 William Elgin Wickenden Award of the American Society for Engineering Education for this study. Chi has also won 2015 E.L. Thorndike Award for Lifetime Contribution in Research from the American Psychological Association.

She’s working on another fascinating project having to do with tutoring.

“Tutoring is the most effective way to learn, but we can’t do it for everyone because it’s so expensive,” she said.

She proposed leveraging the effectiveness of the one-on-one method by capturing tutoring dialogue on video.

The key, she has found, is not what the tutor says, but what the tutee says.

Chi and her team videotaped two scenarios: a tutor working with a student and a tutor giving the exact same dialogue but as a lecture to a group. Both were shown to observers.

“When we look at the conversation of observers, they refer significantly more to the tutee. Even more, we think, what causes them to be engaged is when the tutee makes a mistake. That moment caused them to learn more,” she said.

“This could have huge effect on online learning.”

Chi will accept her award at the annual AERA meeting in Washington, D.C. Other faculty members from the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College also will receive awards:  

  • Steve Graham and Karen Harris, both Mary Emily Warner Professors, won the AERA Division K Award for Exemplary Research in Teaching and Teacher Education.
  • David Berliner, Regents' Professor of Education, is the first winner the new Outstanding Public Communication of Education Research Award.
  • Margarita Pivovarova, assistant professor, and Jeanne Powers, associate professor, won 2016 Education Research Service Project awards.
  • Eugene Garcia, professor emeritus, research professor and former dean, has been named a fellow by AERA.

More Arts, humanities and education


Portrait of MK Ford.

Multifaceted dance artist to join ASU School of Music, Dance and Theatre

The School of Music, Dance and Theatre at Arizona State University has announced that innovative dancer, choreographer and filmmaker MK Ford will be joining the faculty as a clinical assistant…

People dressed in an array of colorful fashion designs standing in a line.

ASU FIDM spotlights 12 exquisite designs at iconic LA Memorial Coliseum

On June 5, at the iconic LA Memorial Coliseum, the Central City Association (CCA) of Los Angeles hosted the 28th annual Treasures of Los Angeles. ASU FIDM was one of the seven Legacy Visionaries…

High school students hold up bright red fans.

High school students gather at ASU for annual Asian Pacific Advocacy, Culture and Education program

Across the U.S., Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities have a longstanding and rich history of resiliency and contributing to improving society, both locally and…