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«A US-China Interview Study: Biology Students’ Argumentation and Explanation about Energy Consumption Issues Hui Jin Educational Testing Service, ...»

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International Journal of Environmental & Science Education, 2015, 10(3), 301-318

A US-China Interview Study:

Biology Students’

Argumentation and

Explanation about Energy

Consumption Issues

Hui Jin

Educational Testing Service, USA

Hayat Hokayem

Texas Christian University, USA

Sasha Wang

Boise State University, USA

Xin Wei

People's Education Press, CHINA

Received 30 January 2015 Revised 09 February 2015 Accepted 09 February 2015

As China and the United States become the top two carbon emitters in the world, it is crucial for citizens in both countries to construct a sophisticated understanding of energy consumption issues. This interview study examines how U.S. and Chinese students compare in explaining and arguing about two critical energy consumption issues: burning fossil fuels and using electricity. In particular, we focused on using scientific knowledge to explain and argue about these issues. Based on relevant literature and our previous research, we developed a model to guide separate assessment and evaluation of students’ argumentation and explanation. We conducted clinical interviews with 40 biology majors, including 20 U.S. students and 20 Chinese students. This study generated several important findings. First, Chinese students tended to be less consistent across explanations and argumentation, and their levels of argumentation were lower than their levels of explanation. Second, in comparison to their Chinese counterparts, U.S. students provided more scientific arguments but many fewer scientific explanations. Finally, although all participants were college students and had completed at least one introductory level science course before the interviews, some of their explanations and arguments were based on informal ideas rather than matter and energy. We discuss the possible interpretations of these findings and their implications for teaching and learning of scientific explanation and argumentation in both countries.

Keywords: argumentation, comparative study, energy consumption, explanation Correspondence: Hui Jin, Research Scientist, Cognitive and Learning Sciences, Research and Development Division, Educational Testing Service, R209 Turnbull Hall, 660 Rosedale Road, Princeton, NJ 08541, USA E-mail: hjin@ets.org doi: 10.12973/ijese.2015.247a Copyright © 2015 by iSER, International Society of Educational Research ISSN: 1306-3065 H. Jin, H. Hokayem, S. Wang & X. Wei


In this study we compared U.S. and Chinese college students’ argumentation and explanation about energy consumption issues. It addresses two goals of science learning: environmental literacy and scientific practices.

First, promoting students’ environmental literacy, especially as it relates to energy consumption and global climate change, is essential in the 21st century with the alarming reports about energy production and consumption. The International Energy Agency [IEA] (2013) report provides the following data about energy


 Since 1971, fossil fuels have been the major energy source for human activities. In 2011, fossil fuels accounted for 82% of the world energy supply.

 Since the Industrial Revolution, annual carbon dioxide emissions from fuel combustion dramatically increased from near zero to over 31 GtCO2 in 2011.

 Nearly two-thirds of global emissions for 2011 originated from just ten countries, with the shares of China (25.4%) and the United States (16.9%) far surpassing those of others.

 Two sectors of energy consumption, transportation and the generation of electricity and heat, account for 64% of global carbon emission.

 Nearly two-thirds of global emissions for 2011 originated from just ten countries, with the shares of China (25.4%) and the United States (16.9%) far surpassing those of all others.

These conditions make it imperative that citizens, especially those in the United States and China, develop a more sophisticated understanding of energy consumption and carbon emissions. However, large-scale survey data show that the general public’s understanding of this issue is far from satisfactory. The National Environmental Education and Training Foundation (NEETF) conducted a ten-year, large-scale assessment and found that only 12% of Americans passed a basic quiz on human energy consumption (NEETF, 2002). In another study, Attari and his colleagues (Attari, DeKay, Davidson, & deBruin, 2010) found that people hold a variety of intuitive ideas about electricity usage. Although no large-scale study has been performed in China, a similar discrepancy could be expected, given the fact that science education in China is still largely test-driven and lacks connections to real life experiences (Zhao & Qiu, 2010). Thus, there is an urgent need to empower students to make informed decisions as voters and consumers through enhancing their understanding of energy consumption issues. To this end, more studies are needed to better understand students’ existing ideas about energy consumption issues. Therefore, we explored U.S. and Chinese college students’ understanding of two issues: burning fossil fuels for transportation and using electricity. We focus on these two issues because they are about two consumption sectors that account for nearly two thirds of global carbon emissions.

Second, the present study focuses on two scientific practices, argumentation and explanation. Scientific practices are central to scientific literacy; they have been emphasized in science education standards in the United States (National Research Council [NRC], 1996) and China (Ministry of Education of People’s Republic of China, 2003a; 2003b; 2003c) for many years. Moreover, promoting scientific practices is highlighted in the new reform efforts in both countries. In the United States, the recently released NRC framework and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) emphasize the importance of promoting students’ science understanding by involving them in scientific practices (NRC, 2012; NGSS Lead States, 2013); Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education calls for engaging college students 302 © 2015 iSER, International J. Sci. Env. Ed., 10(3), 301-318 A US-China interview study about energy “in how scientific inquiry is conducted, including evaluating and interpreting scientific explanations of the natural world” (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2009). In China, a Ten-year Reform Plan for K-16 Education (Ministry of Education of People’s Republic of China, 2010) was released in 2010. Among other goals, the plan aims to release students from exam-oriented education and increase student engagement in scientific practices.

The present study contributes to this effort by focusing on two scientific practices: explanation and argumentation. Explanation has long been recognized as a practice that is crucial for the development of a robust understanding of science (Braaten & Windschitl, 2011). Argumentation is of equal importance as a means for promoting conceptual understanding and critical thinking (Diver, Newton, & Osborne, 2000). Recently, there has been considerable progress in the fields of explanation and argumentation. On one hand, researchers studying students’ explanations found that students tend to provide descriptive explanations that fall short of explaining scientific mechanisms (Opfer, Nehm, & Ha, 2012). On the other hand, researchers studying argumentation found that students encounter difficulty constructing sound arguments (McNeill, 2011). Despite the advancement in each research field, research on comparisons and connections between explanations and arguments is still sparse.

To address the challenges, we carried out an interview study to compare U.S. and Chinese college students’ explanations and arguments about two energy consumption activities that make the most significant contributions to global climate change (IEA, 2013): burning fossil fuels for transportation and for electricity. Our research question is: How do U.S. students compare to Chinese students in arguing and explaining about energy consumption issues? We specifically focus on the science rather than the social aspects of these two issues.

Conceptual framework

Recently, science education researchers have debated about the distinction between argumentation and explanation. Berland and McNeil (2012) state that a text can be both an argument and an explanation, because arguments and explanations share the same logical structure: claim, evidence, and a warrant, that explains how the evidence supports the claim/conclusion. Alternatively, Osborne and Patterson (2011) suggest that there are differences between explanation and argumentation. In particular, argumentation is about justifying equivocal and uncertain issues. We believe that each of these perspectives has its affordances and challenges. Moreover, assessing explanation and assessing argumentation can be separated by different ways of eliciting responses from students. An assessment of explanation elicits and exhausts students’ ideas about how and why things happen, which provides detailed information so that researchers can identify the reasoning pattern behind the student’s explanation. An assessment of argumentation focuses on how the student autonomously uses evidence to justify a conclusion; it targets students’ understanding of the logical structure of arguments. We propose a model (see Figure 1) that guides the separate assessment of students’ ability to argue and their ability to explain.

–  –  –

Figure 1. Framework for assessing the ability to argue and the ability to explain.

As shown in the model, we view arguing and the explaining as two dimensions of a complex construct. This complex construct contains a claim, evidence, and a warrant. In addition, the warrant is the application of a scientific mechanism (e.g., matter transformation or energy transformation) to a specific energy consumption issue. The scientific mechanism, which will be elaborated later, reflects a contentspecific reasoning pattern—using a specialized way to trace matter and energy in carbon-transforming processes. In the model, the ability to explain focuses on reasoning, whereas the ability to argue targets the understanding of the logical structure.

First, we define explaining as the ability to account for an energy consumption issue. We are interested in the specific reasoning patterns behind students’ accounts. When asked to explain a phenomenon, students tend to describe what happens rather than explaining how and why things happen (Braaten & Windschitl, 2011). Therefore, it is important that interviewers use probing questions to fully elicit and exhaust students’ ideas, revealing the reasoning patterns behind their accounts. In addition, some of the probing questions must be content-specific, in order to examine whether and how students apply scientific knowledge in explanations. Second, we define arguing as the ability to autonomously 1) generate a logical argument that contains key argument elements (i.e., claim, evidence, and warrant), and 2) incorporate an appropriate scientific mechanism into the argument. In addition, arguments are not evaluated in terms of the correctness of the conclusion, because there could be several appropriate conclusions. Therefore, content-general questions (i.e., questions that do not explicitly require students to apply specific science concepts or principles.) must be used to examine the extent to which students autonomously provide arguments containing all of the key argument elements, and to what extent they identify or incorporate a scientific mechanism

–  –  –

into an argument. When students use a scientific term to argue, it is also important to have them elaborate on the meaning of the term.

Explaining The assessment of explaining should be designed in ways that enable the identification of the reasoning patterns behind students’ accounts about energy consumption issues. To elaborate the approach that we used to identify reasoning patterns, we first discuss the connections among three components: explanation, causal mechanisms, and reasoning.

Braaten and Windschitl (2011) discussed how five models of explanations are used in science classrooms and highlighted the crucial role that causal explanations play in promoting conceptual understanding. At the core of causal explanations are causal mechanisms, which usually contain entities, processes, and sometimes principles that the processes follow (Gopnik & Wellman, 1994). In the case of energy consumption and climate change, scientific explanations are constructed around scientific entities (i.e., matter and energy), processes (i.e., matter transformation, energy transformation, and chemical reactions), and principles (i.e., matter conservation, energy conservation, and energy degradation.). Students may provide explanations that contain a mechanism involving intuitive ideas. For example, instead of using matter and energy to account for events, students may talk about entities such as vital power (Inagaki & Hatano, 2002) and “stuff” (i.e., invisible pieces of material that are continuous rather than having a particulate nature, Johnson, 1998). Instead of explaining chemical reactions, students may describe processes such as conversion between carbon dioxide and oxygen or conversion between energy and matter (Jin & Anderson, 2012a; Jin, Zhan, & Anderson, 2013; Jin & Wei, 2014). Therefore, it is necessary to examine the mechanisms behind the explanations, in order to achieve an in-depth understanding of the students’ explanation practice.

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