The effectiveness of scaffolding to support inquiry learning: An intervention study for the promotion of scientific thinking skills in upper secondary level

Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education, Germany

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Developing scientific thinking skills as an ability to solve scientific problems is part of building scientific literacy. However, studies show that German students have shortcomings in this domain. To date, there are only few findings about students from upper secondary level. These findings also refer to the educational needs, which is all the more concerning because the students gain a university entrance qualification after upper secondary and can take scientific professions.

Inquiry learning is recommended as a teaching-method to promote scientific thinking skills. However, it is also argued that open learning through research quickly leads to high cognitive load and thus cannot be effective. On the other hand, strong guidance during the research process does not adequately reflect the authentic character of the nature of scientific work. Therefore, targeted support (scaffolding) is necessary in inquiry learning. However, further research is needed to find out what such scaffolds should look like.

In this project, two different material-based formats of scaffolds have been developed and their effectiveness has been evaluated using a 2x2 factorial intervention study: 1) incremental scaffolds (Research Cues) and 2) discursive reflexive scenarios (Concept Cartoons). The dependent variables were scientific thinking skills, methodological knowledge (procedural understanding), and declarative knowledge about the biological phenomena, which were collected during pre-, post- and follow-up testing. Additionally, cognitive load was measured.

The results show that both Research Cues and Concept Cartoons are effective formats for the promotion of scientific thinking skills in the context of inquiry learning. For the acquisition of methodological knowledge and the knowledge about biological phenomena, this effect could be shown by trend. Further, it was shown that the scaffolding can reduce the cognitive load of students.

The findings show that Research Cues and Concept Cartoons are two formats of scaffolding which can be used to support inquiry learning. Furthermore, the study also points out that the successful handling of the scaffolds require an adequate introduction to increase their learning effectiveness. 

Publications related to the Thesis (further publications in preparation):

In English:

Arnold, J., Kremer, K., & Mayer, J. (2014). Understanding students’ experiments – What kind of support do they need in inquiry tasks? International Journal of Science Education; 2719-2749.

In German:

Arnold, J., Kremer, K., & Mayer, J. (2014). Schüler als Forscher – Experimentieren kompetenzorientiert unterrichten und beurteilen. Mathematisch und naturwissenschaftlicher Unterricht (MNU), 67(2), 83-91.

Arnold, J., & Kremer, K. (2013). Hilfe für Kannenpflanzen. In P. Schmiemann & J. Mayer (Hrsg.), Experimentieren Sie! Biologieunterricht mit Aha-Effekt – Selbstständiges, kompetenz­orientiertes Erarbeiten von Lehrplaninhalten (S. 22-26). Berlin: Cornelsen.

Arnold, J. & Kremer, K. (2012). Lipase in Milchprodukten – Schüler erforschen die Temperaturabhängigkeit von Enzymen. In W. Jungbauer (Hrsg.) „Enzyme in Lebensmitteln“ Praxis der Naturwissenschaften – Biologie in der Schule 61 (7). 15-20.

Arnold, J., Kremer, K., & Mayer, J. (2013). Wissenschaftliches Denken beim Experimentieren – Kompetenzdiagnose in der Sekundarstufe II. In D. Krüger, A. Upmeier zu Belzen, P. Schmiemann, A. Möller & D. Elster (Hrsg.), Erkenntnisweg Biologiedidaktik 11 (S. 7-20). Kassel: Universitätsdruckerei.

Full Reference of the Thesis

Arnold, J. (2015). Die Wirksamkeit von Lernunterstützungen beim Forschenden Lernen: Eine Interventionsstudie zur Förderung des Wissenschaftlichen Denkens in der gymnasialen Oberstufe. Berlin: Logos.


Dr. Julia Arnold

Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education

Olshausenstrasse 62, 24118 Kiel, Germany

Tel. +49431880-5698

e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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