SYMP 12-2
Learning progression theory: Background and application to ecology teaching and learning

Wednesday, August 7, 2013: 8:30 AM
Auditorium, Rm 3, Minneapolis Convention Center
Charles W. (Andy) Anderson, College of Education, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
Jenny M. Dauer, Teacher Education, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
Jennifer H. Doherty, Department of Biology, University of Washington, East Lansing, WA

Learning progressions are empirically derived descriptions of increasingly sophisticated ways of thinking about or understanding a topic.  Well-grounded learning progressions can serve as a basis for dialogue among science education researchers and developers of standards, assessment and curriculum.  We develop learning progressions using an iterative process that creates three primary products: learning progression frameworks that describe the development of students’ knowledge and practice in specific domains, assessments that provide insight into students’ reasoning and measure progress with respect to the learning progression frameworks, and teaching resources that support successful learning.  In this presentation we discuss how we developed and used a learning progression focused on carbon cycling: Students’ inquiry and accounts of carbon-transforming processes in socio-ecological systems at multiple scales, including cellular and organismal metabolism, ecosystem energetics and carbon cycling, carbon sequestration, and combustion of fossil fuels.  These processes: (a) create organic carbon (photosynthesis), (b) transform organic carbon (biosynthesis, digestion, food webs, carbon sequestration), and (c) oxidize organic carbon (cellular respiration, combustion).  The primary cause of global climate change is the current worldwide imbalance among these processes.


We report results with respect to each of the three primary products (available on our websites:,

1. Learning progression frameworks. We have developed a learning progression framework for carbon that describe the transition from students’ informal accounts to principle-based scientific accounts, including students’ language and ideas about the causes of changes, matter, energy, and scale. For example, lower-level students often explain the causes of events in terms of actors and purposes while violating scientific conservation laws.  Understanding students’ problems can be difficult because informal and scientific discourses often use the same words (e.g., energy, growth, respiration) with different meanings. The differences can remain hidden to both teachers and students, creating the appearance of common understanding while profound differences remain hidden.

2. Assessments.  We have used both written assessments and interviews to reveal students’ knowledge and practice and to assess their progress through achievement levels defined by the learning progression frameworks.

3. Teaching resources. We have developed resources at both the high school and college level that are successful in helping students progress toward higher-level knowledge and practice, applying conservation laws when they explain carbon-transforming processes. 

In combination, these three products can contribute to transformations in teaching goals and methods that substantially enhance student learning.