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Skills and Strategies at Work

One cannot underestimate the importance of helping learners pursue meaning by becoming active, independent problem solvers. Educators must implement and model for students the learning processes as they are applied to the science curriculum, as well as reading strategies that develop metacognition. Both are fundamental to comprehension.

Science and Process Skills

"An essential goal of science education is to encourage students to develop into independent learners—able to acquire information from many sources, to weigh alternatives, and to reach defensible conclusions" (Watson, 1983). Science educators have identified a core set of process skills those students taking science courses are expected to acquire (Carin and Sand, 1985; Esler and Esler, 1985, Peterson et al., 1984). These skills include observing, classifying, comparing, measuring, describing, organizing information, predicting, inferring, formulating hypotheses, interpreting data, communicating, experimenting, and drawing conclusions.

Some of these skills, tactics and strategies that scientists use in their pursuit of understanding are summarized by Dr. Karen Ostlund in the Electronic Journal of Science Education (June 1998):

  • Observation. Science begins with observations of objects and events; these observations lead to the asking of questions. Crucial to scientific inquiry is the ability to ask the right question and to make selected observations relevant to that question. Past experience influence observations. Observations often involve instruments (microscopes, telescopes, oscilloscopes, etc.), and require careful recording and description. Surprising or unexpected observations occasionally contribute new and important knowledge.

  • Measurement. Measurement involves assigning numbers to objects or events that may be arranged in a continuum according to a set of values. Expression of observations in quantitative terms adds precision and permits more accurate descriptions.

  • Experimentation. An experiment is a series of observations carried out under special conditions. The distinction between observation and experimentation is slight. An experiment always consists of observations, but it is more than that because the observers usually interfere to some extent with nature. Experimentation is the hallmark of good science, whether it comes at the beginning—as a gathering of facts—or at the end in the final test of a hypothesis.

  • Communication. Communication is the means by which purpose and usefulness are given to scientific investigation. Scientists are obligated to make the information from observation and experimentation available to the scientific community for independent confirmation and testing. Discussion and critical analysis of findings are the key means by which science advances.

  • Critical Thinking Skills. Critical thinking skills are part of the common pattern of scientific investigation. These include inductive reasoning, formulation of hypotheses, deductive reasoning, and a variety of mental skills such as analogy, extrapolation, synthesis, and evaluation.

Reading Strategies and Metacognition

Metacognition is awareness and control over one's cognitive processes or the ability to think about one's own thinking. Many researchers have advocated the importance metacognition plays in effective comprehension and retention of text (Baker, 1985; Brown, Armbruster, and Baker, 1986; Billmeyer and Barton, 1998). Understanding metacognition can help science educators provide better ways for their students to learn from text materials. In addition, integrating metacognitive strategies into the classroom can help foster independence in learning through lectures, discussion, laboratory work, and hands-on activities.

Metacognition allows the self-regulation of thinking through the use of strategies: planning steps for action, checking outcomes of efforts, evaluating the effectiveness of the actions and remediating any difficulties, and testing and revising learning techniques. Baker (1991) states that one of the most important self-regulatory skills for reading is monitoring comprehension, which involves deciding whether we have understood (evaluation) and taking appropriate steps to correct whatever comprehension problems are noted (regulation).

When learners appraise their understanding effectively—using relevant criteria or standards of evaluation—they should be aware of comprehension problems. Proficient readers apply the following standards of evaluation simultaneously throughout the reading of a text (Baker, 1985):

  • Lexical Standard. Readers check that they understand the meaning of each word.

  • External Consistency Standard. Readers check that the ideas in the text are true and plausible with respect to what they already know.

  • Propositional Cohesiveness Standard. Readers check that the relationship between ideas that share a local context is cohesive. Readers search for connections that allow them to link ideas.

  • Structural Cohesiveness Standard. Readers check whether ideas in a text or paragraph are thematically compatible.

  • Internal Consistency Standard. Readers check the ideas expressed in the text for logical consistency, which requires them to integrate information scattered throughout the text.

  • Informational Completeness Standard. Readers check that the text contains all the information necessary to accomplish a specific goal, and /or readers recognize a text that does not include sufficient information to explain a particular point.

In other words, metacognition provides learners methods for gauging the success of their efforts to learn and comprehend through the use of specific strategies. Such strategies include identifying important information, relating new information to prior knowledge, generating questions, making predictions, and producing summaries.

The primary purpose of providing instruction in reading strategies that develop metacognition is to enable students to take responsibility for their own learning and comprehension activities. Psychologists believe the best way to achieve this goal is by gradually transferring responsibility for regulation from more knowledgeable persons (educators) to the learners (Vygotsky, 1978).

Learners need to know how to use a particular strategy, why that strategy is useful and when it should be used. Educators must be explicit about the purposes of the strategies they would like their students to use. The ability to self-reflect on cognitive processes is a crucial first step to becoming a strategic learner. Educators can foster this skill by modeling their own thinking and problem solving approaches as they attempt a particular activity.