Supporting Autonomy in Science Activities (SASA)

Recent reforms of science education have focused on training teachers in methods that have been interchangeably called scientific inquiry, discovery, problem-based, and constructivist. These methods all involve new roles for teachers and learners. Teachers are now seen as providers of guidance and scaffolding more than as sources of authority; students have abandoned passive-uptake roles to become more actively engaged in the learning process. Although these reform-based approaches have gained a significant foothold in US teaching policies, they have been found difficult to implement successfully, and their effectiveness in increasing student learning and motivation has yet to be proven.

Some light may be shed on this situation by self-determination theory research, which contrasts authoritarian and autonomy-supportive classrooms. For example, a traditional science classroom features the teacher as the source of authority, whereas a reform-oriented science classroom provides autonomy to students in the learning process. A link has been established between autonomy-supportive classroom environments, learning, and motivation.

The idea of autonomy-supportive classroom environments can be further parsed into the categories of procedural autonomy support, where students are allowed, for example, to choose and handle their own experimental materials, and cognitive autonomy support, where students may find multiple solutions to problems, receive information feedback, and be supported in the re-evaluation of errors.

A focus on these two categories of autonomy support may help to clarify the nature of guidance that students need in reform-based learning contexts, and the ways in which their autonomy might be supported. For example, students might benefit from receiving considerable support in re-evaluating their errors (cognitive autonomy) during a lesson, but might actually be hindered in their learning if given too much freedom to choose materials (procedural autonomy).

The SASA project seeks to collect empirical data to evaluate the relative effectiveness of different levels (high and low) of procedural and cognitive autonomy support during reform-based science activities. It has a 2x2 pre-posttest experimental design, with procedural autonomy operationalized as hands-on vs. hands-off activities and cognitive autonomy operationalized as controlling vs. informational feedback provided to learners. Pilot studies took place during the spring and summer of 2007, and the experimental phase was implemented in the fall of 2007 with 7th grade students from international schools in the Berlin area.

Further Readings

Furtak, E. M. (2006). The dilemma of guidance in scientific inquiry teaching. Unpublished Dissertation, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.

Furtak, E. M. (2006). Formative assessment in K-8 science education: A conceptual review. Commissioned paper for the Committee on Science Learning, Kindergarten through Eighth Grade, National Research Council.

Ruiz-Primo, M. A., & Furtak, E. M. (2006). Informal formative assessment and scientific inquiry: Exploring teachers' practices and student learning. Educational Assessment, 11(3 & 4), 237–263.

Ruiz-Primo, M. A., & Furtak, E. M. (2007). Exploring teachers' informal formative assessment practices and students' understanding in the context of scientific inquiry. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(1), forthcoming.


Erin Furtak
Ilonca Hardy
Mareike Kunter