PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Teaching Philosophy of Science: Representation in Engagement

Recent philosophy of science literature has focused on the role of representation in science. This literature explores how different types of representations can vary in adequately representing a real system. I applied the analogy of representation in science to representation in teaching philosophy of science. The types of representations used in a learning environment can vary in effectively representing material for the purpose of completing analytical assignments. A specific research question was proposed: What forms of representation are most effective for the purpose of raising analytical test scores? But in order to model what representation types are effective, a methodologically structured experiment is necessary.

Under two grants, during 2014-2015 and 2015-2016, I researched representational engagement in lecture formats as well as in student assignment design for upper division philosophy of science. In the first experiment (2015), students were presented with supplemental lecture content, varied between different video-module types to see if this multi-modal-module content format boosts scores. Each module type focused on slightly different properties: 1) 20-60 minute PowerPoint modules presented students with detailed definitions and examples; 2) TV program-style modules with the instructor on camera and key definitions/visuals appearing on screen mimicked a multimedia approach characteristic of pop-science YouTube and TED talk presentations; 3) Modules with animated elements that emphasize the visual representation of the concept. Data shows a significant performance increase in 3 types of analytical assignments in this class compared to the previous non-module course design. However, learning is not just about designing an engaging lecture space. It is also about teaching students how to navigate that space. For this reason, the next experiment focused on how students represent information.

In the second experiment (2016), I explored what kind of preparatory activity designs boost analytical test scores? Students were randomly assigned to three different groups and prepared weekly material. One group engaged all classroom and reading material by taking structured notes on concepts and providing new examples. That is, students had to rephrase definitions, think of examples, and organize the material into structured notes. The second group engaged the material through visual representations. They drew diagrams, flowcharts, and/or neural networks to visualize the material. Students were directed to think of specific types of visuals to represent key features of presented concepts, relations between those concepts, and concept applications. The third group prepared and presented 3-4 minute video-recorded presentations, discussing the important features of the material and applying it.

Results are as follows. First, the 2016 class significantly outperformed the 2015 class for every assignment—including, multiple-choice and essay tests as well as presentations and presentation write-ups. Second, visual representation groups significantly outperformed structured notes and video groups on multiple-choice/essay tests and presentations.

The two-part experiment results suggest that visual representation in lecture and assignment design can boost analytical test scores. The larger perspective, though, is that when planning philosophy of science content, it matters not only that lecture content is effectively engaging but also that special attention is placed on how students representationally navigate that content.

Author Information:

Vadim Keyser    
San Francisco Sate University


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