Master's Project Spotlight: Nikki Whittern

Master's Project Spotlight: Nikki Whittern

By Nikki Whittern

Title of Master's Project:

Looping through learning: Influence of choice on student learning through meaningful formative activities in the 11th grade science classroom.

Tell Us More About Your Master's Project: 

My guiding question throughout my study was “If I allow students to choose between meaningful formative activities, how will this impact student learning?”. With that question, my goals were for students to evaluate their learning preferences and develop metacognitive skills by completing surveys and differentiated activities, for students to select differentiated activities that align to their learning preferences, and for students to increase their engagement with the science content as they completed the activities. I designed multiple differentiated formative activities for the students to complete throughout the study that I called “You Pick” assignments indicating that the students would choose one activity to complete in conjunction with answering comprehension and survey-like questions. I used the same format for each of the “You Pick” assignments to help students understand the expectations. Students were given four options covering the same content while targeting different learning preferences including a video, a digital reading, a physical reading, and a computer simulation. At the end of the unit, the students completed a project-based summative assessment in which they developed and presented an argument based on evidence in whatever manner they felt most-aligned to their learning preference. Through this assessment, students were able to demonstrate their understanding of the science concepts in an authentic and meaningful way thereby allowing every student the opportunity to successfully complete the summative assessment.

What inspired you to research this topic?

As a teaching assistant, I saw students struggle to complete activities that did not match their learning preference causing them to spend more time comprehending the activity and leading to more stress for those students. Through these observations, I thought about my experiences as a student and the types of activities I struggled with compared to the activities I enjoyed. I realized that teachers tend to pick activities that appeal to them and match their learning preferences. I fell into this mindset as well when I helped develop activities for my younger students. I was focused on creating activities that made sense and were interesting to me rather than focusing on the needs of my students. For this project, I was interested in observing whether high school students had enough agency to select an activity matching their learning preference thus increasing their motivation to engage with the science concepts. These metacognitive skills involved the students’ ability to understand, evaluate, and explain their thinking. My goals as a science teacher were for students to build an understanding of the science concepts and use their time constructively. To maximize their chances of understanding the concepts, they needed activities that complemented their learning preferences and interests. A common concern from my colleagues about differentiated instruction was that it takes a long time to prepare and grade the assignments. However, I noticed that teachers spend more time with the students who struggle with the activities by reteaching the content or reexplaining the instructions. I predicted that I would spend less time grading and reteaching concepts because my students would have a better understanding of the content by selecting an activity appropriately aligned to their learning preferences and/or interests in addition to more thoughtful answers in their responses and discussions.

Did you learn anything that surprised you?

One thing that surprised me about action research was how seamless the project fit into my day-to-day lessons and activities. When I started my project in the fall, I was worried that it would take too much time away from my "regular" teaching and would feel like a separate task; however, I quickly realized that my project was an integrated part of my teaching. Also, I was surprised by how well my students reacted to my research project. They were excited and eager to reflect on their learning process and share their thoughts in the surveys and reflection questions. This positive experience of carrying out action research has inspired me to think about new guiding questions that I can investigate in the future.

Will you incorporate your findings into your future practice? If so, how?

Going forward, I plan to continue using “You Pick” assignments in my science classrooms and develop new ways to build my students’ metacognitive skills through differentiated instruction. The positive feedback I received from my students about these assignments has inspired me to think of new ways I can expand “You Pick” assignments in a physical classroom. I want to determine whether and how students’ activity selection process is influenced by their physical classroom environment as well as their peers. The other major implication for my future teaching practice is offering hands-on activities to support my hands-on learners. In my students’ written responses, the hands-on learners shared that they missed working on hands-on activities and experiments in the remote learning environment. As a hands-on learner myself, I empathized with those students. My goal is to provide equitable opportunities for students to learn and understand the science concepts. By providing meaningful differentiated activities, I can provide multiple opportunities for students to engage with and learn the science concepts.

Do you have any advice for future MSEd students working on their Master's projects?

The most important consideration when developing your Master’s project is to reflect on the needs of your students. By keeping your students at the forefront of your Master’s project, you will be more motivated to carry out your literature research, develop data sources, and analyze your findings. You will also see the positive impact of your teaching practice through your students’ relationships to you and to each other as well as to the content you are teaching. Each group of students has unique needs and personalities therefore you need to be flexible and open-minded to what you are observing during your clinical observations and student teaching experiences. By tailoring your project to your students, you can better integrate your project into your daily teaching practice. This seamless integration will make your project feel more harmonious with your lessons and reduce your stress. Another great way to hone your guiding question is by recording your noticings and wonderings during your clinical observations. These noticings and wonderings will help you find patterns in your classroom and “discover” areas of need or potential action research. My third piece of advice is to think about topics or teaching practices that you found interesting in your previous Northwestern classes. I was fascinated with differentiated instruction and the NGSS Framework therefore I knew that I wanted to incorporate these practices into my Master’s project. Ultimately your Master’s project is a way for you to explore and develop as a new teacher therefore remember to stay open to new ideas and have fun trying new activities and teaching practices!


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