Situated learning trumping information processing learning theories
April 22nd, 2009 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

This week during my laboratory periods with my biology students, we are completing a DNA fingerprinting laboratory.  The kit is manufactured by Bio-Rad and provides samples of DNA (crime scene and five subjects), restriction enzymes and materials for electrophoresis separation.  I like this lab, because, although it is a “scenario,” (read what bothers me about scenarios here) it gives students the opportunity to use authentic materials in a hands-on, minds-on, inquiry setting. 

Because the scientific concepts are complex, I often provide some prior direct instruction to situate the student learning.  I have also found that a prelab assignment with some good higher order thinking questions helps prepare the students to appropriately before they come to the laboratory experience.  (I will openly admit that the questions are provided by Bio-Rad as part of the kit – but it’s high quality stuff.  It’s not always necessary for teachers to recreate the wheel, when quality instructional tools already exist.) I am clearly following an information processing theory to teaching and learning.  Kind of ironic, since I always tout the situated cognition learning theory

Well, it turns out that my students were thinking about situated learning.  One told me about how he took the questions, Googled them, and found the online document that contained the questions from Bio-Rad.  He was actually seeking out the answers, but was dismayed not to be able to find them.  A discussion from several students in the immediate area of this student ensued questioning whether that was right or wrong.   They were specifically looking for my opinion and hadn’t really come to any conclusions themselves.

My response?  I thought it was fine.  I told them that I didn’t think that students should be denied access to information, and they should use any resources that they deem necessary to learn.  Of course, I was thinking to myself, that I have a responsibility as a teacher to ensure the work I give to students is meaningful, and that they cannot just type a few key strokes to get an answer, without some thoughtful thinking.  The assignment was demanding, and without the answers online, they retain a high level of rigor.  However, if I use work that allows the trap of the copy-paste-and-plagiarize, I am doing my students a disservice.

I guess I was lucky this time!

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