COS 41-1
Developing introductory college science students' data analysis skills through a short-term ecology-based sampling and graphing unit

Tuesday, August 6, 2013: 1:30 PM
L100E, Minneapolis Convention Center
Joseph A. Harsh, School of Education, Science Education, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN
Mikaela Schmitt-Harsh, Environmental Studies, Carleton College, Northfield, MN

Adequate proficiencies in graphing are held as a central element for science literacy given the importance of visual data in scientific communication and informing opinion on public policy and personal actions. Despite this perception, and the increasing position of graphs in daily life, evidence indicates that learners of all ages and levels of expertise have difficulties in displaying and reading visual data. While numerous studies have investigated the enactment of various activities to improve graphing in the college science classroom, most of this work has focused on graphing difficulties and the implications of general instructional practices as part of semester-long curriculum. As few studies have discussed how specific interventions can be implemented to effectively hone graphing abilities, an inquiry-oriented stream ecology-based data collection and graphing unit was developed for use with introductory science students at a public Midwestern research university. The purpose of this study was to evaluate (a) the effect of the short-term graphing oriented unit on developing students’ data skills, and (b) how five key instructional features, drawn from the literature, affected student learning. The five instructional features in the unit framework included authentic data collection, exposure to “real” data, two-step data transformation, explicit instruction, and collaboration.      


The effectiveness of the unit was assessed through the combination of pre/post-test performance data on students’ graphing skills with a supplemental questionnaire to obtain information on their perceptions of the unit. Pairwise comparisons of student (n=37) pre/post data demonstrated significant positive gains in data transformation and interpretation skills and affect (e.g., confidence) when presented graphical data. Overall, >90% percent of students rated high levels of satisfaction with the learning unit, and identified that the design elements were successful in contributing to their learning. Representational comments from the questionnaire such as “I learned a lot about data collection and graph making. I knew how to create graphs in Excel before, but now I understand why we use certain types of graphs” lend further support to the efficacy of the framework. Students also reported increased interest in water quality issues upon unit completion. As prior research has documented undergraduates’ difficulties in graph literacy, interventions that promote graphing skills are of educational and social importance. The framework should be of value to secondary and college educators and, while the intervention described here focuses on a stream ecology unit, the design features can be readily adapted using other case studies across disciplines.