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Lessons from a Journal Club: Investigating Student Learning – Post 2: Affective/Cognitive Inquiry and Qualitative/quantitative approaches

Posted by on Wednesday, August 25, 2021 in News, Resource.

by Leah Marion Roberts, Senior Graduate Teaching Fellow


Assessment of student learning is an essential practice in teaching. As mentioned in the first post in this blog series, asking questions and collecting data about our classes systematically can deepen our knowledge of student experience in our classrooms, and hopefully lead to improved teaching practices

This spring, Cynthia Brame and I facilitated a journal club which looked at different ways to investigate student learning. In this blog series, I’m sharing some highlights of our collective learning, organized thematically by the types of questions instructors could ask. (Read the first post about What Is/What Works.)

Theme 2: Affective vs. Cognitive Inquiry

As teachers, we want students to learn. If they are not learning, we want to know why and we strive to create solutions. Ultimately, we want to understand what we can do to most effectively facilitate learning for our students.

One might therefore assume that the only — or the  most important — classroom research will identify whether or not, and how, students can understand and apply core concepts, skills, and attitudes. This would be a mistake. To narrow possibilities for interesting research questions in this way would foreclose opportunities to learn about contextual factors that may shape student learning.

Essential to students’ ability to learn is the context in which learning happens. The way students feel, the attitudes they hold, and their perceptions of their own learning or ability to learn (among many other factors!) could influence their learning. For example, research suggests that students who feel like they belong in a classroom are more likely to succeed (for a review of some of this research, see Chapter 1 of Science Teaching Essentials).

For the purpose of our Journal Club, we described these two categories of questions as (1) affective and (2) cognitive questions. Both are important!

Understanding student affect. Do students feel they belong? Do students believe they are learning (whether or not they are)? How comfortable or confident do students feel with conceptual material in the course? Does that confidence change over time? Do students believe the content of the course matters to their lives? These types of questions — which get at student perceptions, beliefs, and affect — are not only important because we are curious teachers. They are also important because affective, social, and contextual factors shape students’ ability to learn and their overall experiences in college courses.

Understanding student cognition. As we defined it for the purpose of our journal club discussion, cognition refers to if and how students understand core conceptual material in a course or discipline. It was important to us to think hard about what measures could reflect student learning, critically evaluating what would be the most effective measures in a given situation. For example, student grades do not necessarily reflect student learning. What other measures could help us evaluate whether or not students understand core concepts or are able to perform core skills?

To explore cognitive and affective research questions, we read one peer-reviewed research article: Do Biology Majors Really Differ from Non–STEM Majors? (Cotner, Thompson, and Wright, 2017) and several examples of research projects from the Center for Teaching’s BOLD Fellows program: (1) Blending it up: Active learning in a STEM classroom through the use of online materials (2) BME2100: Musculoskeletal Biomechanics; and (3) DIV 6800: History of Global Christianities II: Creative Historical Imagination.

Next, because conceptual material differs so much by discipline, we asked participants to:

  1. identify one conceptual understanding or skill that is essential to their discipline or course and
  2. explore, via the literature on teaching and learning, if and how previous researchers have assessed student understanding of that concept or skill.

Theme 3: Qualitative and Quantitative Research

Participants in our Journal Club came from multiple disciplines and were not necessarily familiar with the methodological essentials of social and behavioral research. We therefore wanted to ensure participants were exposed to a broad overview of research methods, including qualitative and quantitative approaches. In all of our sessions, we emphasized that what someone wants to know shapes the tools they use to answer their question (i.e., the research question shapes the methodology).

As an example of qualitative research, we read: “Coming Out in Class: Challenges and Benefits of Active Learning in a Biology Classroom for LGBTQIA Students” (Cooper & Brownell, 2017).

For an example of quantitative methods, we read “STEM faculty who believe ability is fixed have larger racial achievement gaps and inspire less student motivation in their classes” (Canning et al., 2019).

It’s very important to acknowledge our colleagues in this journal club, each of whom was a critical contributor to our experience. Thank you to all participants for awesome conversations and contributions to our collective learning!: Amanda Brockman, Sociology; Celina Callahan-Kapoor, Medicine Health and Society; Jessica Gilpin, Biological Sciences; Rachel Hanebutt, Human and Organizational Development; Brielle Harbin, Political Science; Sara Mayeux, Law; Danielle Picard, Medicine Health and Society; José Luis de Ramón Ruiz, Spanish and Portuguese; Cole Meier, Biological Sciences; Melanie Schuele, Hearing and Speech Sciences; James Sears, Biological Sciences; and Ben Yett, Electrical Engineering.

Read all the posts from the Lessons from a Journal Club Series





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