The ThinkerTools instructional unit is a sequence of laboratory experiences and other learning activities that, in its initial version, yielded substantial gains in students’ understanding of Newton’s laws of motion (White, 1993). Building on these positive results, ThinkerTools was expanded to focus not only on mastery of these laws of motion but also on scientific reasoning and understanding of the nature of science (White and Frederiksen, 1998). In the 10-week unit, students were guided to reflect on their own thinking and learning while they carry out a series of investigations. The integrated instructional unit was designed to help them learn about science processes as well as about the subject of force and motion. The instructional unit supports students as they formulate hypotheses, conduct empirical investigations, work with conceptually analogous computer simulations, and refine a conceptual model for the phenomena. Across the series of investigations, the integrated instructional unit introduces increasingly complex concepts. Formative assessments are integrated throughout the instructional sequence in ways that allow students to self-assess and reflect on core aspects of inquiry and epistemological dimensions of learning.

Researchers investigated the impact of Thinker Tools in 12 7th, 8th, and 9th grade classrooms with 3 teachers and 343 students. The researchers evaluated students’ developing understanding of scientific investigations using a pre-post inquiry test. In this assessment, students were engaged in a thought experiment that asked them to conceptualize, design, and think through a hypothetical research study. Gains in scores for students in the reflective self-assessment classes and control classrooms were compared. Results were also broken out by students categorized as high and low achieving, based on performance on a standardized test conducted before the intervention. Students in the reflective self-assessment classes exhibited greater gains on a test of investigative skills. This was especially true for low-achieving students. The researchers further analyzed specific components of the associated scientific processes—formulation of hypotheses, designing an experiment, predicting results, drawing conclusions from made-up results, and relating those conclusions back to the original hypotheses. Students in the reflective-self-assessment classes did better on all of these components than those in control classrooms, especially on the more difficult components (drawing conclusions and relating them to the original hypotheses).

Computer as Learning Partner

Beginning in 1980, a large group of technologists, classroom teachers, and education researchers developed the Computer as Learning Partner (CLP)

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