Developing a Framework for Assessing Students' Construction of Scientific Explanations in Physics

Project Number
OER 13/13 JY

Project Duration
January 2014 - July 2017


The ability to construct scientific explanation to account for the world's phenomena is one of the main objectives of science education. Yet, literature shows that there is insufficient understanding of what scientific explanation is, both at the theoretical and practice level. Besides, studies show that students and teachers generally have difficulties with its construction. Thus, the goals of this proposed study are to develop a framework to identify the features of scientific explanation and the relationships among the features, and to use the framework to characterize the explanations for different types of scientific explanations, topics and degree of success. This study extends the outcomes of an existing study which has developed a prototype framework of scientific explanation drawn from multiple perspectives of scientific explanations - philosophy, semiotics and science education. Three aspects of scientific explanation - function, form and level, were identified and found to be useful to describe students' construction of explanation in electromagnetic induction. It was also found that students' construction of scientific explanation in electromagnetic induction involved a complex orchestration of representations, rules, and conventions, which Yeo and Gilbert (under consideration) have described as a representational scheme. This might explain why some students found its construction difficult. To further extend the findings and outcomes of the present small-scale study, the proposed study will test the prototype framework with a larger set of topics in physics and with a larger group of students from schools with different academic profiles. This is to ensure that the framework that results is both comprehensive and parsimonious. Using a multi-phase mixed methods approach, each phase consists of an individual two-phase exploratory approach. Think-aloud interviews on a range of physcis topics that are representative of the various physics themes of the A-level syllabus, will be conducted with 500 students drawn from different junior colleges. It is expected that the framework that defines scientific explanation can potentially provide a useful assessment tool for teachers to identify the difficulties students face in constructing a scientific explanation during problem solving or during inquiry activities. This framework of scientific explanation can also be extended to provide a structure for designing activities to support construction of scientific explanations.

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