The Importance for Preservice Teachers to Have Practice
Experiences to Apply Theory to Reality


Besty Price
Project Manager
The Natural History of Genes Eccles Institute of Human Genetics
UMNH Utah Museum of Natural History
University of Utah
University of Utah Medical School
Salt Lake City, Utah 84111



    An ERIC search on science methods courses brings up 1,923 entries. These articles debate how students should be taught, what is effective, and what is not. This study brings up the idea that improvement may be dependent on what doesn't happen after the courses - an opportunity to practice the pedagogy preservice teachers have learned. This may be just as important as what happens during the course and during student teaching. Much of the actual student teaching experience is devoted to learning discipline and classroom management skills not to technology, cultural diversity, and learning theory (Rothenberg, 1997; Whitworth, 1996; Ramcofer, 1992). Preservice teachers may not have the opportunity or comfort level to work on pedagogy while managing their first class.

    This paper reports on case studies of two undergraduates who showed how their level of skills, thinking, and teaching styles improved and expanded with the opportunity to practice what they acquired from their methods courses. Although this alone is not conclusive evidence, it is in agreement with the findings of other educators who also suggest that preservice teachers do better after they have had an opportunity to practice educational theory (Hill, Lee, & Lofton, 1991; Kennedy, Ball & McDiarmid, 1993; Gee, Boberg & Gabel, 1996; Yegar, Lutz, & Craven, 1996).


Description of the Course

    The independent study course observed is for preservice teachers who are planning careers in the public schools and for biology majors who are interested in non-formal (museums, zoos, etc.) education. Such students can take the course multiple times for up to 12 credit hours. The students research an education topic that interests them, propose an action plan to solve the problem, carry out the plan, and analyze the effect their efforts had on the problem. The projects are done in a constructivist environment with the university instructor acting as a facilitator to guide the students during the weekly class meetings and while they work on their individual projects.

    The two undergraduates observed chose to add an interactive website to an ongoing medical school outreach project that encourages under-served minority students to pursue careers in the health sciences. The undergraduates wanted to give the middle school students more contact time with university students, i.e., to provide a friend at the university. They also wanted to learn about the attitude this minority population had about science, to discover how they learn science, and to know in which sciences they are interested. The undergraduates built a website where the students at one of the target schools could submit science questions and the undergraduates would post the answers.

    The middle school students attended a public school in a rural area that serves an American Indian reservation and a ranching district. The science classroom was well stocked with equipment and tables for hands on activities. The school had a new computer lab and one computer was in the classroom. Both rooms had Internet access. The science teacher and the principal were both supportive of the undergraduates working with the students.

    To begin the project, the undergraduates researched the literature for articles on constructivism and on the learning preferences of the cultural group. They continued reading articles as they worked on the website, adapting their reading choices to their current needs. Each week the undergraduates met to discuss the articles that were useful and were relevant to the issues they were investigating. Data for this study were collected during the discussion sessions, in personal interviews with the students, and from written assignments.


Answering diverse science questions that students ask

    The undergraduates were unable to answer the students' questions in a manner that was easily understood by the students. Their university instructor had them analyze the content of the questions and determine the relationship the questions had to the culture and to the interests of that particular age group of students. The undergraduates then sought articles in the research literature that would help them decide how to answer the questions. Both undergraduates began the activity with great enthusiasm, but quickly discovered this was not as easy a task as they first believed. Answering the questions proved to be difficult.


Undergraduate One:
"At first this (answering questions) was exciting because I could see what kids of a diverse culture thought was interesting and also what misconceptions they had. From my readings in the area of student questioning, I realized that it is very important to learn about the diversity of students in the classrooms. I learned that students of this culture group don't like to be asked direct questions and do not like to be singled out. It was hard (answering questions) in the beginning because I did not know why they asked the questions they did. Were the questions from topics in class or were they questions that were indicative of their culture?"
"From the connection between the questions and their lifeways and using what limited knowledge I gained about them I think the questions were focused on things that were relative to their culture. An example was repeated questions about addictions to smoking and alcohol, hepatitis, and gray hair. When we came to this observation, it made it easier to answer the questions by trying to think of what they really might be asking. However, without a comparison school it is difficult to determine if it was the culture of poverty , their ethnic culture, or if they were just questions that all middle school students have."
"It is important to learn about what type of questions would influence and encourage each specific student to grow. It is also important to figure out why they asked specific questions. That is what this project has helped me do."
Undergraduate Two:
"Since this project has focused on Native American students, it was interesting to think of constructivism in terms of multicultural education. If students come from diverse backgrounds, what path will the construction of knowledge take? Will there be discrepancies between cultures that have serious implications on this construction? If the answer is yes, then whose background provides the fundamental building blocks? In addition, and perhaps more importantly, whose knowledge will gain validity? What happens when the schools are in competition with the ideals of the culture (walking between two cultures)?"

    When the undergraduates first began to answer questions, they looked in textbooks and gave detailed, fact-laden answers. They quickly exhausted themselves when they learned how much time this required and that the students could not understand the answers. Both undergraduates moved readily to the Internet as a better resource for answering questions. On the websites the students could read experts' answers to their questions. There was also lots of information, so the students could search for the answers they sought.

    Undergraduate Two tried to engage the students by adding a page where she controlled the subject matter. Rather than be reactive to the questions, she chose to become proactive, to draw out and focus questions. She also wanted to experiment with how to solicit input about their attitudes and about their interests in science. Her solution involved picking a subject she believed would be interesting to the age group of the students: worms. She produced a webpage that was very upbeat, colorful, and interactive.

    At first, both had problems with answering questions on a level the students could understand. In seeking ways to answer the questions better, they began to ask what was the motive for the questions, what type of answers the students wanted, and what depth the students were expecting in an answer. They also began to analyze the questions for specificity of the cultural group. It wasn't until the end of the quarter that the students began using a higher level of thinking and reasoning to answer questions appropriately.

    Both undergraduates learned that finding answers was time consuming for many reasons: the answers were not readily available, were beyond their knowledge level, spanned many sciences, and many of the questions required applying basic science to medical issues. After the frustration of spending too much time composing ineffective answers from textbooks, they were eager and adventuresome about looking at what was available on the web.


Incorporating technology as a tool for enhancing learning

    The undergraduates were unable to produce a webpage with the skills they acquired from a class on educational technology. Both undergraduates had taken classes on the Internet as a part of their undergraduate courses. Undergraduate One had produced a webpage the previous quarter in a large computer class, and Undergraduate Two had built a simple page as an assessment of her project the previous quarter. Despite their experience, the element that consumed most of their time was working on the Internet, both in finding sites with answers and in producing the webpage.


Undergraduate One:
"This (the computer) was the part of the project that was very difficult, often overwhelming. At first I couldn't even work the mouse. It was hard to use someone else's programs and equipment. I felt like I was using a foreign language that no one else knew. Sometimes I just wanted to turn from the computer screaming. Sometimes I wanted to cry and plead with the computer to cooperate. I had a class on HTML and had created a web page from "scratch" which was difficult and slow going. It took me about five weeks to figure it out. So when I ventured into this project I had a limited background and had spent many hours creating a web page. I know that the computer knowledge that I have gained from this class will help me tremendously in the future."
"The barriers were not limited to me. There were problems at the middle school. The students' access to computers was very limited and that made the road tough. The computers were not in the science classroom but in the computer lab. The computer classes were full every period, so students had to use them on their own time after or before school. This was difficult for those who rode the bus or had various other commitments. Also, students who worked on their own were those that had the skills to do so. Those that didn't have time or skills could not participate."
Undergraduate Two:
"Because these students were so far away, the computer, and more specifically the Internet, proved to be the core component of this project. As it turned out, it was the sole communication with the students. There is no doubt that this is a very powerful tool for the classroom, but as with any new technology, there is a period of acclimation as well as acceptance. Once the mysteries and frustrations have been defeated, then it can take its place as a vital constituent of the educational setting."
"The computer software was definitely my biggest limiting factor, mainly due to lack of experience, as well as a hint of fear. It was of the utmost importance that I learn the intricacies of the computer world. As a result, I have been able to embrace the power of this technology, but I still have quite a path to explore before I can unlock its full potential."

    Without the benefit of the Internet, these questions would have been difficult for the students to answer in a timely and efficient manner. The undergraduates spent most of their time wrestling with the technology, not interacting with the students. This proved to be frustrating to both undergraduates. It was clear that the previous course did not give them enough experience to produce a site on their own. Both undergraduates came to the course with computer and webpage experience. In this class they had on-going and individual support with a small computer lab, computer professionals, and easy to use software. To produce the webpage they were given minimum instructions on the equipment and software, and they had open access to the computer center. Both students struggled with the technology at first, but soon became more confident.

    The students at the middle school were also held back by the technology. Without a computer in the room, the teacher was constrained to print out the answers and read them to the class. Some students were able to use computers on their own before and after school, but there was not enough contact for them to feel comfortable using the website. The science website didn't have enough appeal to lure them away from some of the more flashy, commercial websites that attract that age group. Both undergraduates tried changing the design of the page to be more user friendly and appealing to the students, but the lack of computers in the classroom still made it difficult for the students to use the site.


How to work with diverse students

    Both undergraduates had little exposure to minority students from their own schooling or in actual practice during their undergraduate studies. Reading the literature provided them with some useful insights into working with this culture of students.

Undergraduate One:
"They (the students) did not have the opportunity to get to know us very well because of the barriers of distance and time. It was very humbling to learn about the lives that they led and the barriers that they had to conquer which were very foreign to me. It was hard to imagine the long bus commute and the negative feelings that other schools had for them because they were from a specific cultural group. They were limited to the small computer lab in the school library. Even if they did go into town, would it be "cool" to go to the library and send in science questions or would it be better to play games with their peers? Like all schools, peer approval was very important."
Undergraduate Two:
"This (working with diverse cultures) is perhaps the most difficult part of the class in which to respond. Since there was very little contact (face-to-face) with the students, I had to rely on information that was given to me by various individuals and from readings. The teacher at the middle school provided the best insight, but that is expected since she is in close contact with these students and their culture on a daily basis. I did begin to understand the concept of walking between two cultures, and the conflicts involved with this."
    As the undergraduates were discussing how to address multicultural issues and how to analyze the questions according to cultural differences, they came to an important conclusion on their own. They reasoned that in order for them to determine what student behaviors and questions were influenced by cultural and socioeconomic factors, and what behaviors were middle school age factors, they would have to develop a comparable website with a dissimilar group. Another question that arose again and again is what "culture" the students were representing. They were the only minority group in a small rural community with a low socioeconomic status.

    Undergraduate Two became intrigued with constructivism. Specifically, what if the students constructed the wrong knowledge? Her readings told her that students can only reason within the boundaries of their experience and knowledge. She realized that the students did not have the educational advantages or exposure to ideas that other schools might have provided. What if the students come to an incorrect conclusion and actually create another misconception? This misconception would be harder to displace since it would be deeply internalized.

Working in a constructivist atmosphere

    Only one of the undergraduates had had a previous class that was conducted in a constructivist or open ended teaching style. This course gave its students the opportunity to construct their own knowledge as they solved a problem in education. There was no textbook and the undergraduates in the course were directed to seek information and answers in the educational literature. They were given instructions on how to access ERIC and other data bases via Netscape and by telnetting through their email accounts. In the group discussions they received suggestions from the instructor and from each other on what articles or authors might be useful.


Undergraduate One:
"The instructor sent us an E-mail that told us to go look in the library for journals and papers on broad topics such as questioning skills, misconceptions in science, and constructivism. At first it was hard to work on my own, to find articles, and to work on my web page. There were no time limits and there was no one telling me what to do, no book for the class, and no syllabus. I learned the hard way about constructivism. I am a firm believer that it works but not without extra hard work . Also I realize the motivation and flexibility that needs to be intrinsic in our students. This has helped me understand that when I am a teacher and I spring a constructivist activity on my students, how they might feel and the struggles they might encounter."
Undergraduate Two:
"I believe that I found my niche when I was asked to examine the topic of constructivism, and this became a driving force throughout the quarter. This concept definitely sparked an interest within me, and I set out to discover the inner workings of this seemingly simple notion. It very quickly became apparent that this was going to be a complicated task. I soon realized that this subject was much bigger than I ever expected."
"I quickly felt that I was being engulfed by the articles that had been collected. I read about constructivism and the individual, the social and cultural aspects of constructivism, the implications of constructivism, and so on. Then came the even more difficult task of sorting all of this information and synthesizing it into something that I could understand, as well as relate it to others."
    Undergraduate One used the literature to seek answers and instructions on a concrete operational level of thinking. She wanted to find the answers to her direct questions quickly and she never discovered an easy path to finding appropriate articles. This was the first time Undergraduate One was taking the course. She was less comfortable with researching the literature and wanted more direction on where to find relevant articles. The articles she found came predominately from teacher practitioner journals and books. She labored over applying what she read in the articles to the problem of answering the students' questions with cultural sensitivity.

    Undergraduate Two exhibited higher level thinking about the practical as well as philosophical aspects of the pedagogy. This was her second quarter in the course and she appeared to be carrying over knowledge from the first quarter, in which she investigated what museum visitors who attended a family-style special event learned as a result of the visit. She was familiar with how to do a literature search, how to obtain articles, and she was comfortable with reading higher level articles in scholarly educational research journals where she found more questions than answers. The articles she found were about the pros and cons of constructivism. She was using the articles to theorize what the learning outcomes of constructivism activities might be.



Because of the practice:

The undergraduates were better able to answer student questions.

    Because they had this practice in a university class, not a classroom, it allowed the undergraduates the time to reflect on the questions the students asked and on the answers they gave. The undergraduates believe that they would not have had this luxury of time for reflection during student teaching, or in their own classroom. As the undergraduates progressed throughout the quarter, the quality and style of their answers to questions matured. This in turn changed their teacher-centered role from dispersing textbook-style fact-laden answers to becoming a facilitator and guiding students to seek their own answers.

    This practice gave the students the opportunity to think, research, and test the effectiveness of the answers they gave students. Supon & Wolf (1993) experience working with teachers suggested that the fear of answering questions can be a result of a lack of exposure to problem solving. O'Brien & Richardson (1987) found that teachers who were unprepared to teach content were also unprepared to answer student's questions. Godbold (1973) also states the importance of laboratory experiences for preservice teachers to build questioning skills. Gues-Newsome & Lederman (1991) found that preservice teachers are positively influenced by the opportunities to think about teaching subject matter.

    In 1968, Zimmerman & Bergan found there is much too much content in science for teachers to be expert in every aspect. Their research indicated that teachers needed to "adopt developing curriculums to transmit intellectual processes applicable to many tasks instead of subject matter content." The undergraduates in this case study found that they could not answer students questions off the top of their head. The answers they would eventually give were fact laden and time consuming to compose. How they solved the problem was to provide the students with a way to answer their own questions via Internet websites written by experts for the general public.

The undergraduates became more comfortable with using technology as a tool for enhancing learning

    Both undergraduates agree that as a result of this experience, they are comfortable and willing to use technology as a teaching tool. They believe that they would have been unprepared to cope with the difficulties of an activity with such a steep learning curve if they had tried building a website for the first time in the classroom rather than in a university class. Students in Rogan's 1996 and Lavoie's 1997 study both demonstrate the frustration and difficulty of becoming facile with computer hardware and software.

    Farenga & Joyce (1996) identified factors of success, "minimizing instruction time and maximizing the doing time" that was found successful in this case study. In Boehmer & Waugh (1997) and Slough & McGrew-Zoubi's (1996) studies they also found that preservice teachers benefit from a practical experience with computers. They found that this experience can also be used as an assessment tool to measure professional development. Computers add an opportunity for students to gain control over the curriculum as was found in Dabbagh's 1996 study of students enrolled in an introductory computer course. Our observations in this class showed how computers allow students to differ in the subject matter they want to pursue, in what learning techniques they want to use, and at what rate and to what academic level they want to advance.

The undergraduates developed a better understanding of constructivism

    The undergraduates participated in a problem solving exercise that allowed them to construct answers to their own questions. Although uncomfortable at first, they demonstrated their enthusiasm and liking for this style of learning by adopting this manner of teaching to the way they answered questions. Brown (1996) also found that not only is time needed but also teachers need practice in "tasks that simulate an authentic learning activity for students to become comfortable in using this type of learning style." Preservice teachers had a more positive attitude about inquiry after their experience.

    The undergraduates in their study benefited by using the educational literature rather than a textbook. By using the literature they were able to tailor the course to investigate areas they believed to be paramount and, importantly, at their own level of understanding. They were able to reflect on what they wanted to achieve as they searched the literature, to use small groups to discuss points of interest, and to solve a problem. Both undergraduates in our study believed that using the literature to solve a problem was a valuable skill which they would use in their own teaching careers.

    In the Hurd, Bybee, Kahle & Yager (1980) study, it was found that fewer than 25% of teachers used inquiry teaching methods. Gee & Gabrial (1996) indicated that, although teachers had been taught about inquiry in their methods classes, only one teacher in their study exhibited this style when teaching. This problem isn't restricted to teachers who can't do inquiry teaching. In Whitman's 1989 study it was found that first and fourth year medical students were unable to solve a written problem. In the 1990 Mestre & Lockhead study of physics undergraduates, the vast majority of students appeared not to be able to transfer knowledge to real-life problem solving.

    The solution to better teaching may be to provide students with more opportunities in class to apply knowledge to problem solving. The input from this case study suggested that it is indeed paramount to provide undergraduates with life-sized problem solving exercises. As in the findings of this study, Coldron & Smith, (1995) also found that preservice teachers fared better after participating in a practical experience. This was also found by Layman, Ochoa, and Heikkinen (1996) when teaching students how to use the scientific method. Kaiser (1996) found that a research experience in a laboratory helped teachers understand the process of science.

The undergraduates had more of an understanding of a cultural group to which they had not been exposed

    At the beginning of the class the undergraduates had a textbook idea of how to teach in a multicultural situation. Without the Internet, the two undergraduates may not have had the opportunity to work in a multicultural environment. How they answered questions evolved as they learned about the students through the literature and communicated with them over the Internet. However, it is just as important that the middle school students had the opportunity to learn about another cultural group, the undergraduates at the university (Barba, 1993; Hynes & Socoski, 1991).

    As long as there is a focus on science education for all students, the problem of how to teach students with diverse backgrounds and beliefs will be a problem that science educators are going to have to address (Wachtel, 1995). Understanding how to teach to ethnic students requires more than just understanding cultural ways of knowing. It also encompasses understanding the social and cultural lifeways of the students (Estrin & Nelson-Barber, 1995). In Nelson's (1997) comparative study it was found that preservice teachers' direct exposure to cultural diversity increased their levels of confidence.



What did we find that was interesting?

    The most interesting finding was that the undergraduates were not prepared to answer questions from the students. Most of the literature is devoted to how teachers ask questions of their students, not how questions are asked of the teachers (Durham, 1997). We were encouraged by how quickly the undergraduates were able to problem solve and adjust to how they answered questions. The Internet played the paramount role in providing them with a source, not only for answering questions, but also for providing students with sources from which they could answer their own questions. It also gave them an opportunity to learn more about the subject.

    A second finding was the substantial role the Internet can play in answering student questions, especially in a rural school where students and teachers do not have the advantages of large school or public libraries. We were surprised to see the undergraduates, at the beginning of the course, latch on to textbooks and textbook like answers to student questions. Though the undergraduates had had experience on the Internet, it was difficult for them to find appropriate websites and use the Internet effectively. Once the benefits of the Internet were clear, however, the undergraduates quickly turned to it as the main source of information gathering and as a way to encourage the students to seek answers to their own questions by suggesting webpages the students could read.

What did we not find from this study?

    The undergraduates were not able to spend as much time as we hoped interacting with the students. Problems the undergraduates had with computers were compounded by the problems the students had. The school had what seemed at first to be adequate computer hardware and software support. However, the classroom computer broke down the first week of the courses and the computer lab was constantly overloaded. This resulted in the students not having sufficient time to have access to the website to enter questions, to read the answers, or to explore the websites the undergraduates suggested. Because of this, the undergraduates had the problem of finding how much of the students' participation and questions were biased by the poor access to computers. We learned that it was not enough for the undergraduates to be comfortable using the Internet as a classroom tool. As teachers they would also have to find ways to keep equipment running and to optimize computer access.

    The observations from this study suggest that, without a guided practice experience, much of the skills and knowledge undergraduates acquire in their methods courses may not be useful in creating the kind of improved teaching climate intended by standards (national, state, and professional).

    The time the undergraduates needed to develop Internet materials, to learn how to find resources in the educational literature, and to reflect on issues, would have been in direct conflict with the time needed to learn how to manage a classroom of students and with the number of working hours in one day. To become comfortable with teaching and with classroom management at the same time may be overwhelming.

    In Glick's (1992) research, he found that education majors' primary resources for teaching were those things they acquired and learned as a result of student teaching, not from their methods classes. An interesting question for future research may be whether or not skills that are undeveloped soon after methods courses can be retained or regained over time if they are not applied and refined.

    In final reflections on this course in which they practiced their skills, the undergraduates agreed with our observations. They realized the importance of having the opportunity to practice, in a controlled environment, what they had learned in their methods classes. They did not believe they could have accomplished the tasks of producing an interactive website, and investigating the nature of students' questions, during student teaching or the first year as a teacher. As a result of this practice they felt comfortable to answer student questions, to build a website, and to produce constructivist activities to engage students at their level of understanding.



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About the author...

Betsy Price was the Project Manager of a joint project sponsored by The Natural History of Genes Eccles Institute of Human Genetics
UMNH Utah Museum of Natural History University of Utah, and the University of Utah Medical School Salt Lake City, Utah 84112. She is now Curator of Education at The Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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