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Encouraging Students to Experiment & Explore

It is well known by educators that there is much more to learning than just the accumulation of many little bits of information. Older text and lecture-based methods were almost completely based on the concept that knowledge was analogous to a set of building blocks. One piece of knowledge was learned, then another and another. The method of learning was largely memorization and few other learning skills or problem-solving skills were developed. It is critical that students know that they do not need to have everything memorized in order to succeed in life. Leyden asks, "Why do we lie to our students and pretend that memory is the chief source of information?" The sign of an educated person is that he or she knows where to find information.

Learning skill and problem solving skills are arguable the most important products of the education process. Students must learn to investigate, experiment, relate information and draw logical conclusions. The learning process is much improved when students are challenged to seek answers and are driven by a curiosity to learn. In addition, students should individually be able to select the level of material that is best for their knowledge level. They should also be able to conveniently review previously studied materials to refresh their memory and correctly construct their knowledge base.

The learning environment should be one that includes a mix of teaching methods including cognitive leaning methods. Cognitive learning methods place attention on the learning process itself, which help students develop self-learning and problem solving skills. The teaching practices employed place a greater degree of autonomy on the learner to collect, organize and process information than do behaviorism-teaching practices. Conversely, behaviorism practices focus on teaching the student to perform specific actions and do not direct much effort toward strengthening the mind.

Hands-on laboratory exercises are one way to develop cognitive learning skills in students. Research suggests that by doing experiments students learn the material better and develop a variety of skills in the other subject areas and with greater purpose. They'll think, observe, experiment, and validate their finding. Then, they can relate what they discovered back to their resources such as the text, media, lecture, and real-life experiences.

The laboratory exercises must be effective at getting students to think. All too often teachers have access to a multitude of exercises that are simply recipes with step-by-step directions. These cookbook activities should not be thrown out but they should be revised. Clough (1999) suggests these adaptations teachers can make:
  • Where appropriate, include students in determining the lab problem.
  • Where appropriate, have students invent laboratory procedures (consider safety, equipment, and cognitive issues)
  • When students cannot invent laboratory procedures, structure the experience so students must be mentally engaged in the lab. For example, have students explain what they perceive is the rationale for each particular step in a given procedure. Have them make and defend predictions.
  • Require students to consider and defend what information/data are relevant and irrelevant.
  • Have students decide what their data mean.
  • Require students to apply mathematical reasoning to problems.
  • Make students responsible for communicating their work in a clear manner.
  • Have students set goals, make decisions, and assess progress.

Another method of developing cognitive learning skills is to encourage students to explore the many means of collecting information that are available to them. There are many sources of information that students can use today to enhance their understanding of different ideas and concepts. Students should be made aware of the various sources that they can use for learning and then be given tasks to find certain subjects and educate themselves. They should encouraged to investigate computer technology, teachers, peers, textbook, reference books and other sources to gather information.

Teacher Tips

Appreciating and Valuing Diversity

Are You Really Listening?

Coaching for Success in the Classroom

Goal Setting

Developing an Interest in Science and Math

Developing Communication Skills

Developing Problem-solving Skills

Effective Discipline

Encouraging Cooperative Learning

Encouraging Creativity

Encouraging Students to Explore for Answers

Fostering Independent Thinking

Motivating Students

Overcoming the Fear of Making a Mistake

Practicing Effective Questioning


Self-Evaluation Using Video

Teaching with the Constructivist Learning Theory

Teamwork in the Classroom

There is Not Always Just One Right Answer

Understanding Different Learning Styles