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Designers Should Offer Learner Choices During the Conduct of Investigations
Steven McGee & Bruce C. Howard
Copyright © 2001

What choices can be offered?
Our goal is for students to become experts in designing and conducting independent research. Before conducting independent research, students must gain experience at making decisions during each phase of an investigation. There are a variety of activities within an investigation about which students can make decisions. Designers might offer students choices during background research, data collection, and/or data analysis. The number and types of alternatives that designers provide is based on the experience students have conducting investigations.

Why is offering choices important?

Decision-making increases conceptual understanding. Under the right circumstances, offering students an appropriate number of choices leads to effective decision-making (Williams, 1996). During the decision making process, students are actively processing and organizing information (Salomon, 1983), which leads to higher levels of conceptual understanding (Carrier & Williams, 1988).

Decision-making promotes inquiry skills. Allowing an appropriate amount of choice during ill-structured and authentic investigations leads to the development of inquiry skills (Avner, Moore, & Smith, 1980; Mayer, 1976).

How does a designer offer choices?

Match the number of choices offered to the experience level of the target students. Research indicates that students do not necessarily know how to make decisions if they are unfamiliar with the research topic and/or how to conduct investigations. For inexperienced students it is better to limit the available options and provide substantial guidance (Zimmerman, 1990). As their knowledge of a topic increases and they gain experience at conducting investigations, students make more effective use of the options that are provided (Lee & Lee, 1991; Tobias, 1987).

Care needs to be taken in designing what choices are offered. A designer can a) offer no choices by providing the exact resources needed and prescribing how those resources should be used, b) offer limited choices by providing a set of possible resources and having the students decide which resources to use and how to use them, or c) offer expansive choices by providing no resources and forcing the students to find the resources they need. During an investigation choice can be offered in the selection and use of background reading material, datasets, tools/equipment, and analysis methods. The following research summaries describe the conditions under which various ways to offer students choices are most effective: Chung and Reigeluth (1992); Laurillard (1997).

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Avner, A., Moore, C., & Smith, S. (1980). Active external control: A basis for superiority of CBI. Journal of Computer-Based Instruction 6(4), 115-118.

Carrier, C.A., & Williams, W.D. (1988). A test of one learner control strategy with students of differing levels of task persistence. American Educational Research Journal 25(2), 285-306.

Chung, J., & Reigeluth, C.M. (1992). Instructional prescriptions for learner control. Educational Technology 32(10), 14-20.

Laurillard, D.M. (1987). Computers and the emancipation of students: Giving control to the learner. Instructional Science 16(1), 3-18.

Lee, S.S., & Lee, Y.H.K. (1991). Effects of learner-control versus program-control strategies on computer-aided learning of chemistry problems: For acquisition or review? Journal of Educational Psychology 83(4), 491-498.

Mayer, R.E. (1976). Some conditions of meaningful learning for computer programming: Advance organizers and subject control of frame order. Journal of Educational Psychology 68(2), 143-150.

Salomon, G. (1983). The differential investment of mental effort in learning from different sources. Educational Psychologist 18(1), 42-50.

Tobias, S. (1987). Mandatory text review and interaction with student characteristics. Journal of Educational Psychology 79(2), 154-61.

Williams, M.D. (1996). Learner-control and instructional technologies. In D.H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research for educational communications and technology (pp. 957-983). New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan.

Zimmerman, B.J. (1990). Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: An overview. Educational Psychologist 25(1), 3-18.


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