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Exploring the complexity of inquiry learning in an open-ended problem space

, Harvard University, United States

Harvard University . Awarded


Data-gathering and problem identification are key components of scientific inquiry. However, few researchers have studied how students learn these skills because historically this required a time-consuming, complicated method of capturing the details of learners' data-gathering processes. Nor are classroom settings authentic contexts in which students could exhibit problem identification skills parallel to those involved in deconstructing complex real world situations.

In this study of middle school students, because of my access to an innovative technology, I simulated a disease outbreak in a virtual community as a complicated, authentic problem. As students worked through the curriculum in the virtual world, their time-stamped actions were stored by the computer in event-logs. Using these records, I tracked in detail how the student scientists made sense of the complexity they faced and how they identified and investigated the problem using science-inquiry skills.

To describe the degree to which students' data collection narrowed and focused on a specific disease over time, I developed a rubric and automated the coding of records in the event-logs. I measured the ongoing development of the students' “systematicity” in investigating the disease outbreak. I demonstrated that coding event-logs is an effective yet non-intrusive way of collecting and parsing detailed information about students' behaviors in real time in an authentic setting.

My principal research question was “Do students who are more thoughtful about their inquiry prior to entry into the curriculum demonstrate increased systematicity in their inquiry behavior during the experience, by narrowing the focus of their data-gathering more rapidly than students who enter with lower levels of thoughtfulness about inquiry?” My sample consisted of 403 middle-school students from public schools in the US who volunteered to participate in the River City Project in spring 2008. Contrary to my hypothesis, I found that prior thoughtfulness of inquiry was not a predictor of the subsequent development of systematicity. However, all students did indeed become more systematic in their scientific behavior over time. On average, boys were generally more systematic than girls, but the rates at which systematicity increased with time was identical across the genders.


Clarke, J. Exploring the complexity of inquiry learning in an open-ended problem space. Ph.D. thesis, Harvard University. Retrieved August 19, 2019 from .

This record was imported from ProQuest on October 23, 2013. [Original Record]

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