Mobile Devices for Improving Students' Understanding of Flowers

Zacharia, Z. C., Lazaridou, C., & Avraamidou, L. (2016). The use of mobile devices as means of data collection in supporting elementary school students' conceptual understanding about plants. International Journal Of Science Education, 38, 596 - 620.

The use of mobile devices in daily life is encouraging researchers to re-think learning in the digital age. There is growing interest in what is now called “mobile learning,” which recognizes that the unique characteristics of mobile devices, such as mobility, sensitivity to context, and immediacy, can contribute to and transform the learning environment. Yet, few researchers have studied pedagogical approaches that incorporate mobile devices, and more research is needed to identify how each feature of a mobile device might individually contribute to (or distract from) students' learning.

To that end, this study focused on the data collection and recording capabilities of mobile devices. Researchers compared the learning that occurred among fourth-grade students who used mobile devices to learn about flower concepts with the learning that occurred among those who used sketching, a more traditional teaching method.

Because teachers often find it challenging to teach flower-related concepts to elementary-aged children, they used this as the central topic to study with 48 nine-year-old students (23 girls and 25 boys) in two public-school classes in Cyprus. Researchers designated one class as the experimental group and had them use mobile devices. They designated the other class as the comparison group and had them use sketching in the flower lesson.

Both groups had the same teacher, same amount of experience using mobile devices in a school setting (more than one year), and exposure to the same curriculum and field trips. Students in both groups used a personal notebook and pen to take notes, as well as to collect and record data. Students in the experimental group also used a tablet or smart phone to record field observations, including pictures, videos, and sound recordings; the comparison group used magnifying glasses and colored pencils to sketch their observations.

Researchers conducted the study over six weeks and integrated it as part of the regular school routine and science-class schedule. During the first week, the teacher and researchers administered a pre-test to assess the students' baseline knowledge of flower concepts, namely: (1) flower parts and their functions, (2) pollinators, (3) pollination processes, and (4) relationships between plants and animals. In the second week, teachers briefed students about the activity structure and gave them instructions on note-taking, as well as either sketch-making or mobile-device use.

The inquiry-based activities took place from week two to week five and consisted of four sessions; each session included a field trip to the school garden followed by an indoor learning activity. Students worked in clusters of four and engaged in collaborative learning. Time in the garden was allocated for observation and data collection, while indoor work included studying curriculum materials and answering related test questions. At all times during the sessions, students were allowed to refer to their notes (both groups); sketches (comparison group); or digital photos, videos, and sound recordings (experimental group). After each session, the researchers collected students' science notebooks and analyzed the students' responses to science test questions.

Finally, researchers asked each student to create three artifacts: (1) a list of flower parts that the student can distinguish from his/her sketches (comparison group) or photos (experimental group); (2) a list of identified pollinators; and (3) a list of evidence that a flower had been pollinated. In the final week of the study, researchers administered the knowledge post-test (identical to the pretest) and collected all student notebooks for analysis.

Both groups improved their conceptual understanding of flowers from pre-test to post-test. The mobile-device group showed larger gains in knowledge about plant concepts than the sketching group: students who used mobile devices scored significantly and consistently higher on all four components of the post-test. Further, comparisons of the three student artifacts (from the pre- and post-tests) “flower parts,” “pollinators,” and “pollinated flowers” found that the experimental group provided more detailed information about those parts. For “flower parts,” for example, students using mobile devices had more precise answers on the numbers of certain flower parts, such as petals and sepals, and they were able to identify small parts, such as pollen, which are usually difficult to see. Experimental group students were able to “re-see” details with precision because of the “zoom” feature on digital pictures. Results for “pollinators” were almost the same between groups, except a higher number of students in the experimental group identified the wind as a pollinator. The researchers attributed this result mainly to students' ability to review video recordings in slow motion and see small things carried by the wind. Finally, compared to the students using traditional sketching methods, students using mobile devices were better at identifying “pollinated flowers” and providing supporting evidence.

The researchers also analyzed the students' science notebooks and looked for differences in the scientific accuracy of their responses to the in-session test questions, which were separate from the pre- and post-test. Students in the experimental group had significantly more detailed and scientifically accurate responses than those of the comparison group. Moreover, scientific accuracy in notebook test responses was positively correlated with scores on the post-test. The researchers argued that the capacity of students in the experimental group to use more scientifically accurate information could be one of the reasons for their higher post-test results. Mobile devices supported authentic and accurate recordings of observations. Since researchers allowed all students to revisit their notes and records, the experimental group had continuous access to high-resolution digital pictures of flowers and processes, while the comparison group students relied on their memory and lower-resolution sketches.

The Bottom Line

<p>Although mobile devices and sketching methods both allow students to revisit plants, animals and other parts of nature they have examined in the past, digital photos and videos typically provide more accuracy and high-resolution detail than students' sketches. While careful observation is helpful in retaining scientific facts no matter what the medium, mobile devices specifically can assist with paying attention to details. The photo and video applications on mobile devices may be particularly well-suited for teaching plant concepts and other science and environmental topics that require students to make detailed observations.</p>