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Sketching and Self-Explanation for Diagram Comprehension in Math and Science

The research reported here was supported by the US National Science Foundation, through award #DRL-1560724 to the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the National Science Foundation.

Jennifer Cromley, PI 



Julie L. Booth

Nora S. Newcombe

What are the goals of the project?

We are interested in understanding how student sketching and self-explanation aid learning in math and science.  Thus, we will ask students to solve math and science problems, while doing one or both of these activities.  That is, students may be asked to draw a diagram or provide an explanation while solving a problem, or both.  We will also examine how other factors like students’ ability to understand spatial relations relate to learning. 


Who are we?

The project is headed by three professors, respected in their field of educational psychology: Jennifer G. Cromley (UIUC), Julie L. Booth (TU), and Nora S. Newcombe (TU).  Day-to-day research activities are conducted by three staff members, Ting Dai, Ph.D. (UIUC), and Briana Chang (TU) and Damian Morden-Snipper (TU).  Briana Chang is a Ph.D. candidate at Temple and a former high school biology teacher with over 5 years of experience working with students and over 2 years of experience in research.  Damian Morden-Snipper is a graduate in psychology from Guilford College with experience in research with children.  Both staff members have school clearances for working with students. 


What are the demands on the teachers, the administration, and the school?

We are extremely flexible and can work around teacher/administration/school schedules to try to be as minimally invasive as possible.  We are happy to work with students during any free periods they might having during the school day or after school in order to ensure that instruction is not disrupted.  In addition, we can work with students individually, in small groups, or in whole class settings.  Homeroom teachers might be asked to allow us into their classrooms for 10 minutes to distribute/collect parental consent forms.  School administration might aid research staff in connecting with participating students.  Any materials needed for the study are handled by research staff and would not require any permanent space within the school.  Details of school participation are worked out on a case-by-case basis.  We understand how valuable your time is, and appreciate whatever small amounts you are able to carve out for this project!  We are also happy to discuss ways in which our staff can contribute our own skills in order to satisfy needs your school might have (e.g., homework tutoring for students, volunteering, professional development for teachers, etc.).



What students would be involved?

Only those students whose parents have consented to their participation in writing (i.e., completion of a consent form) will be considered eligible for participation; students would then be approached to provide assent before participating.  For the first year of the project (beginning Fall 2014), we are interested in recruiting both 6th grade and 8th grade students.  If consent is granted, we would follow up with the 6th grade student over the next two years (during their 7th and 8th grades) to examine changes over time.  The 8th grade students’ participation would be for one year only.


What are the benefits to the student?

There are no direct benefits to students; however, the students we have worked with in the past find it to be an enjoyable experience!  As a small form of compensation, all participating students receive one UIUC pen and pencil.  Any student who returns a parental consent form (regardless of whether the parent consents or not) is entered into a drawing to win a UIUC baseball cap at the end of the year (we usually do two drawings per classroom).  Students are contributing their time to a worthy cause by helping us understand their learning processes in science and math in hopes that these insights can help us improve instruction for all students.


What does student participation look like?

We ask students to complete some paper and pencil measures tapping their understanding of spatial relations, their motivations for diagram use and sketching, and their background knowledge in science and math.  Students also complete 4 math problems and 4 science problems where they might be asked to sketch and/or self-explain while solving.  Finally, students complete one computer-based task measuring students’ working memory skills.

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