Quantitative Research

ASSESSING THE EFFECTIVENESS OF SYSTEMS-ORIENTED INSTRUCTION 
FOR PREPARING STUDENTS TO UNDERSTAND COMPLEXITY

BY 
Richard Randall Plate
December 2006

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Abstract

Complex systems abound. They affect every aspect of our lives, from our social and economic endeavors down to the food we eat and the air we breathe. And for the first time in history, the effects of human activity on large-scale environmental systems is occurring rapidly enough to be observed over only a few decades. In addition, the inability of individuals to apprehend even fundamental aspects of these systems has been well documented.

This research presents systems-oriented instruction as a promising pedagogical tool for preparing students to understand complex social and ecological systems. A methodology is presented using cognitive mapping to evaluate how systems-oriented instruction affects the way students learn about complex systems. This methodology is used in two studies, one with undergraduate students from the University of Florida (UF) and a second with middle school students from Portland, Oregon. In each study, participants read an article about a hypothetical fishing controversy involving the interaction of social, economic, and ecological processes and worked through a cognitive mapping exercise during which they were able to express their interpretation of the situation described in the article. The cognitive maps produced by the students were then subjected to a battery of quantitative and qualitative evaluations.

The UF study involved a pre-test/post-test format, in which the students were evaluated at the beginning and end of a semester class using systems-oriented instruction. In the Portland study the cognitive maps of students who have been receiving systems-oriented instruction were compared to those of students who have been receiving conventional instruction. In the UF study, results showed that students’ ability to apprehend key aspects of the situation described in the article had improved significantly over the semester. In the Portland study the systems groups displayed a greater understanding of the situation described in the article than the control groups. While the differences observed are not definitive enough to make strong claims about systems-oriented instruction based only on these studies, they are strong enough to warrant further studies assessing systems-oriented instruction’s worth as a pedagogical tool. The methodology described here is presented as a model for those studies.

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