Improving Student Motivation and Achievement in Biology through a Student-Centered Environment and Reciprocal Teaching Action Research Proposal Afrodita E

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Motivation & Achievement

Improving Student Motivation and Achievement in Biology through a Student-Centered Environment and Reciprocal Teaching

Action Research Proposal
Afrodita E. Fuentes
California State University, Northridge

Improving Student Motivation and Achievement in Biology through a Student-Centered Environment and Reciprocal Teaching
What is the problem?

Every semester, I am saddened to know that many of my students claim to “hate science” because it “is too hard,” “has no use,” and because “Latinos are not good in science.” It is for this reason that I have chosen to answer the following question in this action research: will a student-centered classroom and reciprocal teaching improve student motivation to learn and achieve in Biology? Perhaps the many unhealthy experiences in the classroom, the school, and the community have led students to feel helpless and unmotivated to give science a chance. Science seems to be a difficult subject for many students, especially in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Working in a mostly Latino high school for seven years, I have seen the fear and helplessness in students who are in a chemistry or biology classroom. More than half of the students fail these classes, thus causing low student and teacher moral. I am afraid many students drop out of school because of the difficulty and fear they experience in these classes.

In addition, there are many factors that contribute to this negative attitude towards doing well in science and school in general. These include academic deficiencies, but most seriously and almost unfixable are the family and community problems. Some students have enormous economic responsibilities to their families in the US and even their countries of origin. Many of them live in single family, with relatives, and even alone and in shelters. Some come from broken and abusive homes. Some students would be better off living alone than with the families they have. Their neighborhoods are plagued with drugs, gangs, and rundown living conditions. No matter how much experts and administrators claim that learning should not be affected by factors outside of the classroom, the reality is another. Administrators and experts avoid discussions about negative conditions and deny the negative effects of such conditions on student academic achievement. I am overwhelmed to know how many of my students face constant hardships and trauma. I feel helpless in helping them with that physical, emotional, and psychological weight because I am not trained and the school lacks the necessary resources for students. Sometimes I wish I did not know what my students are going through. But if I do not know, then I wouldn’t understand why a student is constantly sleeping, crying, fighting, and involved in illegal substances because they woke up with a gun to their head or they had a physical fight with their parents or their parents killed themselves a week or two ago or they were raped a year ago and did not tell anybody. Some students just hope to survive the day. Learning the daily standard is the least of their worries, for most of them.

Sometimes I just give up in getting to know my students because I find out things that I do not want to deal with. I am afraid I will end up counseling and not teaching. I realize that most things are out of my hand and that the only thing I can do for all of my students are to create a little heaven of my classroom. My hope is that when students are in my classroom they feel physically and emotional safe, forget the bad things outside, become engage at least in what others are doing and learning, and lean a thing or two about themselves and the world around them. I would like my students to communicate their knowledge and ideas efficiently, seek, analyze, and use information on their own, take initiative to solve problems, help others, work together, realize that the knowledge they gain cannot be taken away from them, understand how they learn, and use what they know to make a positive change in their lives and their community. It would be wonderful for students to understand and see the beauty of science all around them and in them.

Again, the question that I am trying to answer is, will a student-centered classroom and reciprocal teaching improve student motivation to learn and achieve in Biology? My primary goal was to motivate students to learn biology. This in turn should have lead to students’ desire to learn on their own, and not just about biology. Once that happened, student learning and achievement should have improved greatly. I firmly believe that students do their best and show their best when they are the center of the classroom and when value is given to what they own, their culture and their knowledge. Students need to be empowered and take responsibility and ownership of their learning to be successful learners. To help students feel safe and comfortable learning, the classroom needs to be student-centered. For students to show what they know and feel proud of what they know, reciprocal teaching can be a powerful tool to become their own teachers. Students need to be guided and supported to prepare and deliver lessons to their peers. While preparing and delivering lessons, the following are improvements I anticipated in my students: ability to select useful and meaningful information from different sources, reading and analyzing information, organizing and highlighting relevant information to teach a topic, and oral and written communication of their learning.
Literature Review

Learning is a process of knowledge construction, based on the constructivist model (Taber, 2001). For meaningful learning to occur, connections need to be clear between what is being taught and what one already knows. Piaget suggests that learning occurs through a process of assimilating and accommodating new information into existing organized knowledge (Taber, 2001). Prior knowledge is the foundation and framework for successful learning and application of new material. Prior knowledge is the cognitive structure a learner possesses at any given time. Taber (2001) explains this cognitive structure as the set of facts, concepts, propositions, theories, and raw perceptual data that learners have available to them at any point in time and the manner in which it is arranged. According to the Schema Theory, prior knowledge is an organized and elaborate network of abstract mental structures that represent one’s understanding of the world (Davis, 1991). So learning is successful if prior knowledge exists. To access prior knowledge, teachers need to know their students’ culture, language, and previous academic and life experiences to bring them to able to build onto what they already know. Learning is meaningful when students see connections between what they know and the applications they can make to new experiences. When students realize how much they know and how new information can be relevant to their lives, they can become motivated to set their own academic goals. Learning is successful in environments in which students are at the center and in which what students know is valued; it is for this reason that the major themes in this literature review are student/learner centered classroom environments and reciprocal teaching.

A Learner-Centered Classroom Environment

According to the National Research Council there are four lenses that can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of teaching and learning environments (2005). These are learner-centered, knowledge-centered, assessment-centered, and community centered. The learner-centered lens focuses on the students’ prior knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs they bring with them to the classroom. The knowledge-centered lens focuses on what needs to be taught, why, how and to what mastery it needs to be taught. The assessment-centered lens concentrates on how to assess/monitor student learning. The community-centered lens encourages a culture where students feel safe and comfortable asking questions and taking risks. The NRC shows an overlap of all three lenses under the community centered lens. I would like to combine the knowledge-centered and the assessment-centered lenses as they both deal with knowledge. If learning is assessed, then it was definitely taught. I would also combine the community-centered and student-centered lenses because I like to see my classroom as a community of learners. Because every semester I have a new group of students, I revise and update classroom norms and procedures based on the students’ behavior. I also modify my curriculum plan based on students’ prior knowledge and pace of learning.

I would like to concentrate on the student-centered lens as the umbrella for the other three lenses because students are at the center of my classroom and I determine what happens in that classroom based on what they bring to it and what they are capable of getting out of it in terms of academic and life experiences. An efficient teacher who provides a student-centered classroom values students and their cultures; finds out what students already know so that they can build on that knowledge, wants to know how students feel and think about certain topics, especially in science, and enriches the classroom environment with students’ skills and talents. This brings me to discuss a research I read about what a student wants, even those who do not care about school.

What do Students Really Want? In my short experience in teaching and according to Daniels and Araposthathis, there are a number of students who have the skills and abilities to succeed academically, but choose not to succeed. These are the “disengaged and reluctant teenage learners” who usually show good test scores but have low GPA (Daniels, E. & Arapostathis, M., 2005). In this research, these learners’ voices were heard. Three factors that contribute to these students’ failures and success were found, and as a consequence ways to create encouraging learning environments for these students were developed. The first factor is the relationships students build with their teachers. If students feel a genuine interest teachers have for them, they see teachers as their allies and advocates. That influence teachers have in students can raise the level of intrinsic motivation and effort towards academics. A motivating teacher has the following qualities flexibility, ability to understand situations from a student’s point of view, experimentation, discussions, and encouragement. If students feel supported and cared for, they engage. The second factor is the interest students have in the assignment because of relevance and connection they see of their academic success with their future. If the assignments relate to them, these students engage in learning. For example a student read “the Outsiders” because it related to him. Another student read computer books because they helped him help his dad and another student read art books because they gave him ideas for his art work. And yet another student liked home economics because they made “muffins and pancakes in class.” The last factor that contributes to students’ success or failure is the feeling of competency they have to complete a task. Students are successful if their skills are matched to the challenge at hand while at the same time being pushed to a slightly higher level. In short, ways to motivate disengaged and reluctant learners include educators building trusting relationships with their students, alignment of the curriculum with student interest, and decreased use of extrinsic motivation. These three ways to motivate students ultimately come from placing the students at the center of the classroom and identifying what knowledge and skills they have as well as which of them, they can build on.

A Student-Centered Approach, the Constructivist Model. In a study conducted by Burrowes (2003), traditional science teaching though lectures for 100 students and the student-centered approach for 104 students was used in Biology classes at a large urban university. In the student-centered approach, she used active teaching and cooperative groups to help students achieve better grades on standard exams, develop higher level thinking skills, and spark more interest in biology. According to Burrowes’ data, more students in the student-centered group earned As and Bs in the final exam, only 4 dropped the class compared to 12 in the traditional group, the discussions in the student-centered group were a lot more engaging and alive in the portion of the final exam. In addition, at the end of the year more students in the student-centered group (70% vs. 50%) expressed that their interest in biology was high. Burrowes used the Constructivist Learning Model described as the “5 E” (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate) and cooperative learning to accomplish her goals. She engaged her student through short lectures (10-15 minutes) to introduce new material. To allow student to explore, Burrowes placed students in groups to solve problems or work on exercises immediately after the lecture. To explain, students in the group wrote their consensus answers on a sheet that was turned in a t the end of the period. Students usually explained their answers to the rest of the class as well. To elaborate, misconceptions were addressed based on student responses or new material was introduced. Mutual feedback between Burrowes and her student was immediate, which allowed for opportunities to evaluate her teaching approach, her students’ academic progress, and the students themselves. The groups in this research included four students who worked closely together, that eventually felt comfortable having one member of the group taking quizzes and earning points for the group. They became comfortable with each other to solve problems together, develop excellence by practicing, and develop high order thinking skills. Higher order thinking skills were developed through multi-answer questions, concept maps, discussion scenarios, graph interpretation, graphing data. Student attendance improved as well.

Burrows experienced success in three areas, better test scores, more student interest in biology, and improvements in attendance. I project similar results at the end of my action research. Many students claim to attend school because of their friends. Providing a classroom where students feel comfortable sharing who they are and working together will definitely encourage friendships, which should improve attendance. If students experience success in learning biology, most likely their interest in it will improve.

Small-group peer teaching was used in an introductory biology course with 70-75 students aspiring to be elementary school teachers (Tessier, 2007). The goal was to help those preservice teachers learn basic biology concepts and help them become comfortable enough with biology to share it frequently with their future students. Tessier provided students with questions in advance. Students took the responsibility to find correct and appropriate answers. They also solidified their understanding of their material before teaching to avoid misinforming their peers. According to Tessier, small-group peer teaching improved student learning and promoted active engagement in learning biology. At the end of the semester, students earned B+/A- on tests taught by peers and only B/C on material taught through lectures by the professor. Students reported not having to study the peer-taught material as much as the lecture taught material when it came to study for tests. They showed better retention of material as well as ownership of the material they taught. They said they enjoyed teaching their peers.

Reciprocal Teaching. According to a literature review conducted by Slater and Horstman, reciprocal teaching is a successful cognitive strategy used to help struggling readers and writers (Slater, W.H., and Horstman, F.R., 2002). Its main purpose is to convince all students to become actively involved in using strategies to be successful learners and take responsibility for their own learning. According to Bransford (as cited in Slater and Horstman, 2002), cognitive perspectives focuses on making learners aware of their prior knowledge, monitor their learning as they accomplish tasks and solve problems, and acquire a number of strategies that they can apply to their learning. At the beginning reciprocal teaching is teacher directed as strategies are modeled for students. Students are quickly encouraged to take leadership in their reading groups. The teacher plays the role of facilitator as he monitors group activity in the classroom. The teacher provides assistance when necessary by prompting questions and even providing extra modeling to individual groups. Slater and Horstman claim that reciprocal teaching has four supporting strategies, questioning, clarifying, summarizing and predicting.

When using this strategy for reading, students are placed in groups in which every member gets to be the leader. The leader begins by reading aloud a paragraph or two then follows the four steps of reciprocal teaching. Questioning helps students to focus on the main ideas and understanding what they are reading. They accomplish this by the leader or other group members generate questions and answer them based on the paragraphs read. Clarifying actively engages students as they read and unpack ambiguous portions of text. This is accomplished by members clarifying any problems or misunderstandings brought about when reading or questioning. Summarizing is the real cognitive step of reciprocal teaching. It requires students to focus on the major content of the reading and determine what is important and what is not. In this step, the leader summarizes the text read. In the predicting step, students rehearse what they learned in the reading and express expectations of the next portion of the reading. In teaching writing, the same steps are followed with the addition of actually writing the questions, answers, and summaries. The authors claim that with daily practice of this cycle students improve their reading and writing skills.

As I explained in the introduction, many of my students struggle to learn concepts in biology. Reciprocal teaching seems to be a powerful tool to improve their learning. In my research project I am using this version of reciprocal teaching with a few modifications and scaffolding strategies. I am also using the “5 E” of the constructivist model presented by Burrowes; Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate. To encourage maximum student competency to learn a student-centered classroom was also created.


(I am aware that it is written in past tense, even though it has not take place, but it will starting in July)


The participants in this action research were students in the International School of Languages, one of the small learning communities at Belmont High School. Belmont is 3-track schools with over 4,000 students since the 2006-2007 school year, over 1000 students were transferred to the new Miguel Contreras School located a few blocks away from Belmont. Ninety percent of the student population is Hispanic, 6% is Asian, and 2.5% Black. Belmont is a Title 1 School, about 60% of the student population is classified as Language Learner, and about 85% receives free lunch. For the past three years, in an effort to provide more student personalization in such a large school, every student and teacher has been forced to be part of a small learning community. Belmont currently has 9 small learning communities, some are more established than others and each has a theme or career focus.

The International School of Languages or ISOL has close to 450 students. ISOL has been in existence for four years and focuses on languages. It believes that students who speak more than two languages and even three function reasonably well in a multiethnic society. It is also developing a career focus in health and medicine as well as teaching, industries in which bilingual skills are demanding. ISOL uses a part of the building all as a way to be recognized as a community. Teachers in the ISOL academy come from different countries, most speak two and more languages, and most understand the vision and goals. ISOL receives many complements about how all teachers contribute and work well together to maintain a sense of community. Most students seem to have a sense of belonging and are very active in the activities of the SLC.

A total of 150 students participated in this research. They were in my biology classes for the fall semester which run from July to October of 2007 (C-track). Most of them were in 10th grade and took Inter-Coordinated Science in the 9th grade.

Methods and Materials

For clarity of this action research, my question was, will a student-centered classroom and reciprocal teaching improve student motivation and achievement in Biology?

A student-centered classroom environment was used to improve students’ motivation to learn biology. Reciprocal teaching was the strategy used to improve student learning and achievement. To measure student motivation, surveys were given at the beginning and end of the semester. Checklist and rubrics for presentations and multiple choice tests and essays were used to measure student learning and achievement. Students were encouraged and guided to actively learn through reciprocal teaching and within it differentiated instruction and scaffolding strategies.

Videotapes and field notes were used to reflect and examine student progress in motivation and achievement. Table 1 lists data collecting tools, rationale, and data coding.

Table 1

Data Collecting Strategies:

Data Coding

  1. Surveys – given at the beginning of the semester to see student attitude towards science

  2. Survey – given at the end of the semester to see student attitude towards science

- presented in tables and graphs

Responses were categorized into:

    1. Negative experience with science (-ES)

    2. Positive experience with science (+ES)

    3. Unaware of everyday science (-AS)

    4. Aware of everyday science (+AS)

    5. Interested in science related careers (+IS)

    6. Not interested in science related careers (-IS)

  1. Presentation Checklist/Rubrics

(assess comprehension and predicts test scores)

Areas to assess:

    1. Knows facts about the topic (+ KT)

    2. Comprehends the topic (+CT)

    3. Able to apply the topic by giving examples (+AT)

    4. Presents material in an organized way (+OT)

    5. Uses academic language (+AL)

    6. Communicates clearly - voice and eye contact (+CL)

    7. Engages the audience (+EA)

    8. Shows confidence (+C)

  1. Student Journals to see their attitude towards science

(assess motivation and attitude towards science and their learning)

Same or similar as survey

  1. Field Notes – reflections on lessons and student improvement

Notes on how students achieved:

    1. Students’ responsibility to learn

    2. Students’ ability to connect what they are learning to their life outside of the classroom, prior knowledge, and life experiences

    3. Students’ communication

    4. Students’ interest in exploring topics more deeply

  1. Test Scores – presented in graphs

- shows student achievement

  1. Passing Rate at the end of the semester

(assessing achievement)


This action research was implemented the entire fall semester of C-track, stating July 2 and ending October 26. The class was Biology A covering the following units: Chemistry of Life, Cells, Cells and Energy (photosynthesis and cellular respiration), Cellular Reproduction and Genetics (Mendelian and Molecular). In the first week of the semester students completed the survey about science. The answers were used to plan and create a student-centered classroom in terms of group forming, academic and social strategies used. The first month of the semester was used to acquaint students with classroom norms, procedures, and routines, as well as with themselves (community building). Students were also presented with the curriculum plan for the semester that included the units to be covered along with deadlines. The Unit Chemistry of Life was taught through direct teaching with modeling of reciprocal teaching. Students received an overview of future units and were also warned that they were going to prepare lessons on given topics, become experts on those topics, and teach those topics to their peers. Students were told “one learns better when one teaches someone else.” Other reasons included practice and mastery of speaking and presentation skills, use of academic and scientific vocabulary, and just the fun of being a teacher for a day.

For every unit, most of the following activities were completed: outlines, key terms with definitions and drawings that represent each key term, lesson preparations that involves reading, questioning, clarifying, and summarizing (reciprocal teaching steps) in forms that could be presented to the class, and finally presentations to the entire class. For every unit the outline was used by the entire class to determine the topics each group was to teach. Students spent 1-2 class periods preparing their lessons which included visuals such as power points, graphic organizers, posters, transparencies. Students were also encouraged to practice their presentations and pronunciations. Lessons lasted 10-15 minutes followed by questions to the audience and from the audience. Emphasis in presentations was placed on how efficient they taught the material to their peers. Tests were given at the end of each unit, a total of 6 at the end of the semester.

Burrowes, P. (2003). A Student-Centered Approach to Teaching General Biology that Really Works: Lord’s Constructivist Model Put to a Test. The American Biology Teacher, 65(7), 491-501.
Daniels, E. & Arapostathis, M. (2005). What Do They Really Want? Student Voices and Motivation Research. Urban Education, 40(1), 34-59.
Davis, P.M., (1991). Cognition and Learning: A Review of the literature with reference to ethnolinguistic minorities. Dalla, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
Gijbels, D., van de Watering, G., Dochy, F., & van den Bossche, P. (2006) New Learning Environments and Constructivism: The Students’ Perspective. Instructional Science: An Instructional Journal of Learning and Cognition, 34(3), pp213-226.
National Research Council (2005). How Students Learn Science in the Classroom. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Slater W.H and Horstman F.R. (summer 2002). Teaching Reading and Writing to Struggling Middle School and High School Students: The Case for Reciprocal Teaching. Preventing School Failure, 46(4), 163-166.
Taber, K. (2001) The Mismatch between Assumed Prior Knowledge and the Lerner’s Conceptions: a typology of learning impediments, Educational Studies, 27(2), pp. 159-171.
Tessier, J. (2007). Small-Group Peer Teaching in an Introductory Biology Classroom. Journal of College Science Teaching, 36(4), 64-70.

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