Article Review: Students with learning disabilities and inquiry-based science classrooms

Article: McGrath, A., & Hughes, M. (2018). Students with learning disabilities in inquiry-based science classrooms: A cross-case analysis. Learning Disability Quarterly, 41(3), 131-14.

Phase 1 (Summary)

Students with learning disabilities (LD) are often included in a general science classroom setting. However, many general science classrooms are now an using inquiry-based learning approach. Therefore, McGrath and Hughes (2018) were interested in examining the effectiveness of inquiry-based learning environment, in relation to students with LD, based on how they process scientific knowledge.

The study included three research questions. The first research question focused on how well students with LD acquire scientific knowledge (e.g. asking questions, defining problems, planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data).  The second research question focused on student engagement in relation to scientific processes, as well as scientific content. The last research question focused on the strategies used by students and teachers to interpret the scientific knowledge being learned.

This study was carried out through a cross-case analysis over 9 weeks through a unit on ecology. The study took place in a suburban middle school outside a large Midwestern city. The participants included six students from grade 6, as well as four science teachers. In addition, paraprofessionals were present during the science classes to provide help to students with disabilities.

Throughout the duration of study, five classroom observations were taken place. The observers used qualitative methods to measure and to document data. Each student participated in a total of three interviews throughout week three, week six and week nine on the unit of ecology. In addition, the teachers along with the paraprofessionals went through two audiotaped interviews.

The results of the study demonstrated that students with LD’s had difficulty to understand scientific knowledge and processes, to interpret and engage with scientific vocabulary and teacher and student strategies may have affected the learning environment, such as peer support, the strategies used by teachers and student advocacy.

The authors concluded that inquiry based learning in science is important, however students with LD still struggled to effectively grasp scientific knowledge through this learning environment. There were several causes to these results, such as the content was too abstract for students with LD, characteristics of LD’s (e.g. reading and math skills) hindered students ability to fully engage  and not all teachers provided proper support with students on individualized education programs (IEP’s). In light of this, the authors further concluded that the findings in this study demonstrate the possibility of improving science teachings in the general education classroom through peer tutoring and better training for educators teaching in inquiry based settings, as well as for students with LD’s.



Comments

Harpreet Parmar February 11, 2019, 9:13 PM

**(Phase 2) Critique** This article demonstrated a valuable research question, the main purpose here was to determine the research needed for inquiry-based learning and instruction for students with learning disabilities and which strategies were most effective. This has to do with the acquisition of science knowledge for students with learning disabilities. The research question was valuable in its aim at understanding inquiry learning, by asking teachers to say what the dimensions were and those three dimensions were then used for this study. Out of the eight dimensions for inquiry learning, the three that were used to guide this research were: 1. Asking questions and defining problems, 2. Planning and carrying out investigations and 3. Analyzing and interpreting data. The other two research questions of value to this study were: How did students engage in science curriculum to acquire science process and content knowledge? And what strategies did students and teachers use to facilitate the understanding of science process knowledge? This research was conducted through a comparative analysis and case study for the students. The population targeted was the Middle School Science general education classroom. The choice of population selected was a good choice, and it consisted of the following: Teacher and student participation with parental consent. The choice of students was selected carefully and with the following criteria: Students must be in a general education science classroom where the teacher gave consent, students must exhibit learning difficulties in reading, math or both reading and math, and receive services for special education. The study included, six 11-year old students in middle school 6th grade, 3 boys and 3 girls. Students were well selected, two students had learning difficulties in reading, two in math, two in both reading and math, all have Individualized Education Plans for special education needs. In addition, the selection for teachers was well chosen and consisted of two different science teachers across four class periods. Teachers included general education teachers who taught students with learning difficulties in inclusive middle school science classrooms. Included two general education teachers and two special education paraprofessional teachers, all female white, and with experience. To add, this was the ideal school for selection for the following reasons as stated in the article: “The school met three crucial selection criteria: (a) It had adopted a curriculum that utilizes inquiry-based instruction, (b) its science teachers receive professional development through the district on implementing science curriculum, and (c) its general education science classroom practices include the use of special education supports (e.g., special education teacher and/or paraprofessional) for the duration of the class period on a daily basis.” (McGrath et al. p. 135, 2018). The right experimental steps/ data collection was chosen to conduct this study: Multiple methods to evaluate students’ knowledge, data collection involved student portfolios, interviews and observations. The portfolio: included artifacts, and was reviewed for the three dimensions of inquiry, a data form was then filled out by the teacher. Practice observations took place before the study, two person observations with a doctoral student in special education, five observations per class period, during instruction and lasted for the whole period. Observers gave preference to inquiry-based instruction, and no assessment lessons. Observers used a science learning evaluation template which included general classroom and teacher notes, then for each student the following was observed: on-task behavior, participation in class, group work, completion of classroom artifacts, class work etc, accommodation and/or modifications during the class lesson and when each student engaged in the three dimensions of inquiry. Interviews: Student artifacts were collected prior to each weekly interview. Three interviews per participant lasted about 15-20 minutes each. Knowledge of the three inquiry dimensions of learning were included, and students were asked questions to reflect on their own learning in the classroom, their understandings or misconceptions of the science unit. The first two interviews were 6 weeks into the 9 week unit. The last interview was after the unit, and students spoke about what they comprehend about the science unit, and how they engaged in curriculum. To increase reliability, students were able to review the recordings. Educator interviews were short, IEP’s were discussed. Prior to the unit, goals and objectives were discussed for student learning, during the first interview. During the second interview which was conducted at the end of the study, teachers were asked how they supported learning difficulties in the classroom, what went well and what didn’t. The paraprofessionals described support that students with LD received, and the science process knowledge each student gained. All in all, this was an excellent and effective way to collect quality data for this study. Results: The results were computed through a data matrix on students’ knowledge of inquiry, two coders discussed coding definitions for understanding. Results speak to research questions of science based inquiry learning. Although students demonstrated some science process knowledge, assessments showed that many students were not independent with these tasks. Data revealed all students struggled with the scientific process independently, however, students who took advantage of available supports were able to acquire some science process knowledge. On-task behavior was difficult, also academic vocabulary was a struggle, there was also a presence of disengaged behaviors. Peer support was necessary across all cases, however some used peer support for learning and others used it for distractions such as Jonas. Peer support, or lack thereof, may have played a role in the acquisition of science knowledge for students. Teacher strategies were not linked to IEP’s, Mrs. Rubin stated that she didn’t use specific accommodations on students IEP’s. After students communicated uncertainty, teachers did not provide additional supports. Educators provided redirection, re-teaching, task initiation, and read-aloud supports to students instead. These supports were beneficial to students, although they were nonspecific to individual student needs. The conclusion of this study did match the results, and according to McGrath (2018), the following was concluded: results from interviews, observations, and student portfolio documents shed light on (a) the difficulty students with LD face in understanding science process knowledge; (b) challenges with engagement in science curriculum, especially in learning vocabulary; and (c) teacher and student strategies that may affect learning, including peer supports, educator strategies, and student advocacy. Effective instruction in science classrooms must incorporate reading supports necessary for students to access the science curriculum. Assessments show that when teachers asked students to demonstrate knowledge of inquiry independently, students with LD struggled to do so. Even though students worked with peers in the class- room, students with LD had difficulty identifying strategies to help them succeed in the classroom. The following was determined from this article, teachers need explicit instruction to effectively teach inquiry-based curriculum in general education science classrooms (Mumba, Banda, & Chabalengula, 2015). Because structured inquiry utilizes supports while engaging students in inquiry-based instruction, explicit instruction within the context of inquiry may provide an effective form of structured inquiry beneficial for students with LD. Using peer tutoring during inquiry would allow the gradual release of student support to accommodate the diversity of students in general education classrooms. (McGrath et al, p. 141, 2018). The researchers did well in reporting all aspects, from the participants selected as mentioned above, to the careful data analysis collection with a variety of methods, interviews, observations and student portfolios. In addition, the findings from this study matched well with the conclusion that was given in the article in connection to inquiry-based learning in science curriculum. The one disadvantage of this study would be the small sample size population, also including another unit of science study would have allowed for a better understanding of student learning, as mentioned in the article.

Jenna Yanke February 13, 2019, 5:54 AM

**(Phase 3) Analysis** Although this research was completed in America, and refers to the rigor of the American-based “Next Generation Science Standards” throughout the article, I believe its conclusions are still wholly applicable to inclusive science education in Canada as well. The research concludes that students with learning disabilities continue to struggle even in science classrooms that follow an inquiry-based learning approach. I do not think this means that the new inquiry-based framework is poor for students with learning disabilities, rather, the research shows that students likely benefit much more from the movement away from memorization of terms and concepts and from the introduction of hands-on learning. However, the research points out that inquiry still demands students to engage in science texts, many of which contain academic language that students with reading LDs struggle to understand. I think one solution to incorporate into classrooms to address this problem is the use of simple mnemonics to help all students, both with LDs and without, to remember the scientific language. This research also points out that many students with LDs have camouflage techniques in the classroom, and that “high engagement does not guarantee students truly “make meaning” of the lesson.” Teachers must consistently check for understanding by asking the class and the individual students comprehension questions. This questioning will also help to avoid off-task behaviors, which was a big problem for half of the sample size. These behaviors correlated to failing grades. Finally, teachers must be more conscientious of the peer groups they assign to students with LDs. The article suggests teachers can even train students as tutors, creating a mutually beneficial relationship of peer intervention. The students stronger in science benefit by teaching the material in simpler terms while the weaker students benefit from a peer helping them. Within the context of your own science classroom, here are some concrete solutions one can implement to help students with LDs: - Acknowledge the student’s IEP. In the article, teachers revealed that, though they attempted to provide accommodations to struggling students, they did not provide support specifically based on the goals outlined in the IEP. However, reading the IEP is the simplest way to efficiently pinpoint the student’s weak points and how to help them. - Create a word wall in your science classroom of difficult academic language such as “biodiversity,” “biotic,” and “abiotic.” This will help students with reading fluency LDs to remember these terms. During testing period, students with LDs might have access to the board while the rest of the class does not. - Purposefully pair students together. Limit off-task behavior by not pairing best friends together, encourage peer intervention by pairing weaker students with stronger students. - Provide visual supports such as videos or pictures when presenting students with text. - Allow students a text-to-speech assistive technology aide when available to help them make sense of text, especially if the student has dyslexia.

BB
Badriah Basma teacher February 18, 2019, 5:54 AM
Replying to Jenna Yanke

Very helpful and practical suggestions. Good review

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