What is Modeling Instruction?

In a nationwide program supported by the National Science Foundation from 1994 to 2000, the Modeling Instruction in High School Physics Project at Arizona State University (ASU) provided extensive professional development for 200 experienced in-service teachers with exceptional qualifications and motivation from 44 states. The spectacular success of this program has resulted in many statewide efforts, in which over half the physics teachers in Arizona and 3000 science teachers nationwide have learned Modeling Instruction. The program has expanded to chemistry and physical science.

Modeling Instruction was developed at ASU over two decades to integrate insights from physics education research with classroom experience of exceptional inservice teachers. In a series of intensive three-week workshops over two years, teachers improve their physics, chemistry, or physical science content knowledge and are equipped with a robust teaching methodology for developing student abilities to:

  • make sense of physical experience,
  • understand scientific claims,
  • articulate coherent opinions of their own and defend them with cogent arguments,
  • evaluate evidence in support of justified belief.

More specifically, teachers learn to:

  • ground their teaching in a well-defined pedagogical framework (Modeling Theory), rather than following rules of thumb;
  • organize course content around scientific models as coherent units of structured knowledge;
  • engage students collaboratively in making and using models to describe, to explain, to predict, to design and control physical phenomena;
  • involve students in using computers as scientific tools for collecting, organizing, analyzing, visualizing, and modeling real data;
  • assess student understanding in more meaningful ways and experiment with more authentic means of assessment;
  • continuously improve and update instruction with new software, curriculum materials and insights from educational research;
  • work collaboratively in action research teams to mutually improve their teaching practice.

Since “teachers teach as they have been taught,” the workshops include extensive practice in implementing the curriculum as intended for high school classes. Participants rotate through roles of student and instructor as they practice techniques of guided inquiryand cooperative learning. Plans and techniques for raising the level of discourse in classroom discussions and student presentations are emphasized. Teachers are immersed in studying content of the entire year, providing indepth remediation for underprepared teachers. Altogether, the Modeling Workshops provide a detailed implementation of the National Science Education Standards.

The 200 exceptional teachers in the 1994-2000 nationwide program included 15% at urban schools and 15% at rural; 25% of the teachers are women, and 5% are disadvantaged minorities. 20% serve low income populations and 50% serve middle class populations. Of the 120 Arizona teachers who use Modeling Instruction, 20% teach in urban schools and 25% are rural (chiefly low income); 30% are women. Almost all Phoenix physics teachers use the Modeling Method.

Instruction is organized into modeling cycles that engage students in model development, evaluation and application in concrete situations  –– thus promoting an integrated understanding of modeling processes and acquisition of modeling skills. The teacher sets the stage for student activities, typically with a demonstration and class discussion to establish common understanding of a question to be asked of nature. Then, in small groups, students collaborate in planning and conducting experiments to answer or clarify the question. Students present and justify their conclusions in oral and/or written form, including a formulation of models for the phenomena in question and evaluation of the models by comparison with data.

The teacher is prepared with a definite agenda for student progress and guides student inquiry and discussion with “Socratic” questioning and remarks. The teacher is equipped with a taxonomy of typical student misconceptions to be addressed as students are induced to articulate, analyze and justify their personal beliefs.

For example, in one physics experiment students are asked to develop principles of motion for a pendulum. With the teacher as recorder, students brainstorm about properties of the pendulum which might affect its period. After compiling the list, teacher and students decide which properties should be investigated. In this case they decide to investigate how changes in mass of bob, length of string and amplitude of motion affect the period. Students then work in teams and determine their own procedure for collecting data. After collecting data, they plot it to look for relations among variables and then relate it to equations of motion. Then, in a technique called “whiteboarding”, groups present results of their experiment to the class. At the end of this process, the class reaches consensus on an appropriate model to describe the behavior of the pendulum. They do this without being given the answer from a text or a teacher.

Infusion of technology into the classroom is a key component of this project, but it is secondary to pedagogical reform. With the exception of computers, lab interfaces and probes, most equipment called for is already found in any reasonably well-equipped high school lab. (Classroom technology is not crucial for implementation but is highly advisable.)

The Modeling Method is a curriculum design, rather than a fixed curriculum; thus the instructor can flexibly adapt the conceptual development strategies of research-informed curricula to best suit their own course level and student ability. Instructional materials developed for the regular physics course have a proven track record, as they have been used by physics teachers all over the nation since 1995. A set of materials (excluding evaluation instruments) is freely available at the Modeling Instruction website, athttp://modeling.asu.edu/modeling-HS.html.

The effectiveness of Modeling Instruction has been evaluated with well-established standardized instruments, chief among them being the Force Concept Inventory (FCI). (For details, see the document entitled How effective is modeling instruction?.) Our FCI data for more than 20,000 high school students reveal that student gains in understanding under Modeling Instruction are typically double those under traditional instruction. Student FCI gains for “ordinary” Arizona teachers, 75% of whom were not physics majors, are almost as high as those for leading teachers nationwide. Teachers who implement the Modeling Method most fully have the highest student posttest FCI mean scores.

The Modeling Method has proven success with students who have not traditionally done well in physics, while enhancing the performance of all students. Experienced modelers report increased enrollments, parental satisfaction, and enhanced achievement in college courses (across the curriculum!).