University of Maryland Physics Education Research Group


UMD BERG PhD Dissertations:
Jennifer Richards

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Exploring what stabilizes teachers' attention and responsiveness to the substance of students' scientific thinking in the classroom

Jen Richards, Doctor of Philosophy, 2013

Dissertation directed by: Dr. Andrew Elby and Dr. David Hammer, Departments of Curriculum & Instruction and Physics


Teachersí attention and responsiveness to the substance of studentsí disciplinary thinking is critical for promoting studentsí disciplinary engagement and learning, yet such attention is rare and fleeting in American classrooms. In this dissertation, I aim to learn more from teachers who do attend and respond to studentsí scientific ideas while teaching. I explore the classroom practices of three focal teachers in a professional development program who consistently place studentsí ideas at the core of their instruction with an eye toward the following research question: What might stabilize teachersí attention and responsiveness to the substance of studentsí scientific thinking during sustained classroom episodes? Examining three episodes from each teacher, I identify aspects within these episodes that are salient to the teachers and plausibly interrelated with their attention and responsiveness to student thinking.

My primary data chapters include analyses of specific pairs of episodes that speak to my broader research question as well as other relevant topics in the literature on attending and responding to student thinking. The first data chapter makes the case that professional development efforts aimed at supporting responsiveness to student thinking primarily help teachers within planned discussions or progressions, but struggle to help teachers adapt their ongoing instruction in response to unexpected directions from students. I examine two episodes in which the discussions that emerged were not preplanned but rather emergent from studentsí contributions, with an eye toward what initiated and sustained teachersí responsiveness. The second data chapter contributes to discussions on what constitutes favorable change in attending and responding to the substance of student thinking, emphasizing the importance of disciplinary-specific considerations. Finally, I draw on the entire data set in noting specific commonalities within and across teachers, suggesting two complementary professional development approaches: 1) remaining open to and aware of what hooks and sustains individual teachers and their classroom practice, and 2) emphasizing aspects that cut across teachers, which might serve as meaningful foci for professional development efforts aimed at promoting an instructional focus on studentsí ideas.

Thesis in PDF format.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter 1: Overview
  • Chapter 2: Situating the Study in Literature on Attending and Responding to the Substance of Studentsí Disciplinary Thinking
  • Chapter 3: Methodological Approach
  • Chapter 4: Exploring When Teachers Alter Plans in Response to Studentsí Unexpected Ideas in the Science Classroom
  • Chapter 5: Characterizing a New Dimension of Change in Attending and Responding to the Substance of Studentsí Scientific Thinking
  • Chapter 6: Discussion and Future Directions


    1. Descriptions of Original Categories of Responsive Utterances
    2. Transcriptional Notations
    3. Discussion of Stability
    4. Episodes from Ms. Lís Classroom
    5. Episodes from Ms. Rís Classroom
    6. Episodes from Mr. Sís Classroom
    7. Bibliography

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