Developing Independent Learners Using the Scientific Method (Oops, During Distance Learning)

Fall 2020

By Jennifer Chambers

Beyond learning to read, write, and do math, students learn executive functioning skills in school that help them navigate life in the present—and also will carry them into the future. In their article in the Psychological Bulletin, Zsofia Takacs and Reka Kassai explain that executive functioning is the ability of the frontal cortex to plan, organize, and execute conscious and goal-driven thinking within and outside a construct of that which has been practiced, as well as to generalize these skills for all thinking and situations.1 In the classroom each day, students use executive functioning to estimate the amount of time a step will take them on an assignment or to plan for a multistep project over the course of days. Distance learning has required students to place more energy into executive functioning, often independently, as, for example, they need to navigate multiple virtual platforms, documents, and interfaces.

Many students in general and special education have difficulties with executive functioning, and thus these skills need to be taught explicitly for students to generalize and apply them independently. Skills of independence can be micro and macro in scope, from the micro-skills of metacognitive thinking about how to approach a task to the macro skills of 21st century learning—critical thinking, creative problem-solving, collaboration, and communication. Parents aspire for their children to be independent thinkers, and they partner with schools—explicitly and implicitly—to model and guide their children to be prepared to be independent when they leave home. Teachers instruct, model, scaffold, provide practice and feedback, and reflect on how they guide students to navigate the world and be independent doers and thinkers. Often, teacher-to-teacher conversations focus on tools, strategies, and practices that we utilize to help students be independent, whether it is a team of kindergarten teachers strategizing about how to help their students take responsibility for their learning space or a team of high school English teachers discussing how to help their students communicate effectively in writing.

The Siena School is specifically designed to prepare students with language-based learning differences like dyslexia. During the 2018-2019 year, the Math and Science Department developed a goal to teach and model strategies and tools to help our students complete assignments independently. The ultimate desired result was this: When students have agency with their assignments, they gain self-confidence to problem-solve and demonstrate skills on their own.

While our team experienced successes with our departmental workshopping and strategies, we decided to implement the scientific method in 2019-2020 to learn more about our strategies and their efficacy. The team worked toward the same goal and outcome as the previous year to build agency and self-confidence within disciplines that many students find challenging. Through our collaborative work, we hypothesized that students would become increasingly more independent when using tools and strategies, such as some of the variables department members introduced.

The team took a Professional Learning Community (PLC) approach to our work, brainstorming our own and researching others’ tools, strategies, and methodologies for helping students become independent learners. Next, we workshopped together a testable question of inquiry about our own practices with students. We then identified a strategy or tool (our variable) that we wanted to implement and thus collect data, both qualified and quantified. For example, the elementary math teacher implemented a flowchart with imagery to develop students’ independence with math practice at math stations, while the environmental science teacher created a poster with tools and specific teacher response language to develop task independence during project-based learning.

My colleague and I were specifically curious about a concept learned when reading Make It Stick, called "desirable difficulties.” In Make It Stick, authors Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel posit that when students’ brains have to struggle through desirable difficulties, retention is increased. Grappling creates new neurological pathways in the brain.2 Therefore, my colleague created the Strugglometer, a cue and a rating scale to help students think metacognitively about how much their brains had to work on a task from “absolute zero” struggling to “the struggle is real” struggling.

Before I introduced the Strugglometer with my seventh and eighth grade students, for one month I collected baseline data about the number of times they asked me either of two types of questions: questions for which they needed validation for their thinking or processing or questions about the process of a task for which they had tools. Prior to implementing the Strugglometer, my colleague and I taught a lesson about the benefits of struggle through watching and discussing the metaphors of struggle used in the Pixar film Inside Out. Then, students paired up to engage in four different brainteaser stations, such as tangrams or an app called Brain It On! Through an exit ticket, we introduced the Stugglometer to ask students to reflect on how hard their brain had to work during each brainteaser.

At the start of the next day’s class, we shared where students would see the Stugglometer and why, connecting it to what they watched and discussed from Inside Out and their experiences with the brainteaser activities. From that point on, I placed the Stugglometer logo on an assignment next to a question and adjacent to a step in a set of directions or in a project checklist signaling to students they would need to grapple to make their brains grow.

After introducing my variable, the Strugglometer, I began to collect post-data with the intention of collecting it for a month. Shortly after data collection began, the coronavirus hit the U.S., and we were ordered to stay home. Thus, I was unable to collect reliable post-data to make a comparison with pre-data. While I continued including the Stugglometer through distance learning, my data collection and that of my colleagues in the department stopped because much of it was predicated on the physical classroom, and distance learning changed a constant in our experiments.

Yet after a month of distance learning, colleagues and I noticed that the distance learning had changed students’ engagement with school. For some it added more challenges, such as a disconnect between themselves, the teacher, their peers, and the curriculum, while others gained improved agency and independence. Even though our data collection was disrupted, the department was curious about the shift in students’ engagement, especially for students who were more independent in distance learning than in the classroom. We wondered if this was due to less social pressure and anxiety in the classroom, increased parental supervision in distance learning, less physical proximity reducing the ability to lean on a teacher, students’ confidence in their technology skills and thus with distance learning, or the teacher’s effectiveness in this medium. We decided to survey students to gather data to answer these questions. We asked them to rate statements about their learning and sense of agency while in the classroom before the coronavirus and after while in distance learning. Students were surveyed after completing two months of weekday synchronous learning.

Overall, the survey results revealed that students’ confidence in their learning did not change much from in-class to distance learning. In the classroom, 10% felt that they needed help from their teachers most or all of the time; in distance learning, 19% felt this way. We noticed that when the teacher had physical proximity to students, more students asked for help—25% compared to 15% in distance learning. Furthermore, in the classroom, 32% of students checked their thinking with teachers compared to 24% who did it in distance learning. The move to distance learning didn’t inhibit students from self-advocating; more than 50% advocated regularly or constantly, whether in the classroom or distance learning. (Such self-advocacy is a metacognitive skill that we model, practice, and consistently reinforce in all grade levels at Siena.) When learning in the classroom, 62% of students never or rarely asked their parents for help, while 14% sought help regularly. In comparison, during distance learning, 51% of students never or rarely asked for help from their parents and 25% regularly did. There was a 7% difference, not statistically significant, in whether students would not self-advocate during class in either environment because of fear of what their peers would think of them.

A distance learning environment can provide more agency and independence for many students as long as parents provide the space, time, and positive reinforcement to students about their agency for resilience and problem-solving. We learned that a small percentage of our students likely traded their need for an adult to check their thinking and ask for help from teacher to parent. We also learned that social pressure and anxiety don’t prevent students from self-advocating, which is likely due to normalizing this behavior within our school culture. We can also posit that the little change in student self-advocacy and feelings of confidence in their learning is due to a number of variables that Siena kept consistent, be it systemically or with our teaching methodologies.

With the need to quickly pivot within a week from in-building instruction to online, Siena created a daily learning environment that was consistent, structured, and synchronous—all of which we know benefit our students with learning challenges. From five hours daily, students engaged in active learning with teachers and peers using the same systems as in the building, such as advisory; assistive technology; daily cadence and structures; strategies for reading, writing, math, and executive functioning; and social-emotional support from each teacher. Furthermore, teachers worked hard to shift their methodologies of multisensory instruction that is highly scaffolded between the two environments while employing tools and strategies that are most effective for our students’ brains. As we begin the 2020-2021 school year, we can feel confident that we are providing a learning environment, be it through classroom, hybrid, or distance, that consistently meets the needs of our students and that helps them build agency, independence, and confidence.


1 Zsofia K. Takacs and Reka Kassai, “The Efficacy of Different Interventions to Foster Children’s Executive Function Skills: A Series of Meta-Analyses,” Psychological Bulletin, 145, no. 7 (2019), pp. 653-697.
2 Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2014).
Jennifer Chambers

Jennifer Chambers ([email protected]) is currently the Math/Science Department Chair, the Environmental and Outdoor Education Coordinator and a middle school science teacher at the Siena School, Silver Spring, MD.