formative assessment, summative assessment

Constructivism in STEM

Constructivism is an educational theory that promotes student-driven, independent learning.

The ‘construct’ prefix in constructivism is key to understanding the term’s meaning. Advocates of this educational theory believe that learners construct their own body of knowledge. According to constructivism, learning exists as we build it for ourselves through a kind of snowball effect. We don’t just acquire facts as we learn; we also become better at the learning process itself through the accumulation of new knowledge.

Constructivism is implemented in part through hands-on experiences that inspire students to make observations, ask questions and eventually develop their own ideas. The role of the teacher becomes one of a guide, someone who directs learning instead of transferring ideas straight from a syllabus. Professor George Hein of Lesley University describes one of the consequences of constructivism as follows: “We have to focus on the learner in thinking about learning (not on the subject/lesson to be taught).”

Constructivism also highlights that learning is contextual; it doesn’t occur unless the learner can connect these ideas or facts to a larger system. There must be a foundation to build upon for the information to make sense in any broader context. This is particularly relevant in STEM classrooms where a great deal of learning is based on a process of experimentation and logical analysis of data. In the STEM fields, there’s often a process of trial and error in an effort to construct new knowledge. That process extends beyond the classroom and into the real world. Below are a few methods for incorporating constructivism into regular STEM lessons:

Ask Students to Set Goals

One way for educators to practice constructivism is through ‘self-determination.’ Self-determination is when students are encouraged to take initiative through their own natural curiosity. Some critics debate the wisdom of allowing students too much influence over the curriculum, but organizing a constructivist classroom doesn’t mean throwing structure out the window– it’s more about giving students the room to pursue the topics that they find most meaningful. Having students write down a few of their own learning goals ensures that they have some genuine interest in their studies.

Build a ‘Jigsaw Puzzle’

Openly discussing material brings together a number of different perspectives to provide a larger, more accurate picture of a subject. The jigsaw puzzle technique may also be helpful in achieving this. It’s a strategy where each student is assigned a specific area in which they are to become an expert. After a period of individual research and reflection, students add their piece of the ‘puzzle’ to the group’s collective knowledge to construct a whole picture.

Play Games

Constructivism

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Game-based learning is another way for students to explore educational topics in a less formal atmosphere. A relaxed environment where students are able to challenge the ordinary rules of the classroom may aid the process of constructivism.

You don’t have to create a constructivist classroom overnight for students to start benefiting from its methods. Start by incorporating one of its principles, like allowing students to spend a small amount of class time pursuing their own interests within the subject – and see how students respond. Then slowly implement other constructivist approaches into your classroom.

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Leah Dearborn

Leah Dearborn is a freelance writer based in the Boston area. A graduate of the journalism program at University of Massachusetts–Amherst, she spends her time writing about science, history, and books.

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