Sense-of-Place Writing Templates: Connecting Student Experiences to Scientific Content before, during, and after Instruction

By Clary, Renee; Wandersee, James et al. | Science Scope, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Sense-of-Place Writing Templates: Connecting Student Experiences to Scientific Content before, during, and after Instruction


Clary, Renee, Wandersee, James, Sumrall, Jeanne Lambert, Science Scope


When we introduce a new science unit in our class-rooms, one of the most daunting tasks is identifying an effective point to begin instruction. After all, our students enter the classroom with different backgrounds and experiences, and they often retain various levels of understanding of scientific and mathematical concepts. Ausubel (1978) succinctly summarized the dilemma in this way: "The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly." How can teachers maximize classroom time and uncover the existing knowledge of our students in order to provide effective instruction and connect scientific content with students' previous experiences?

We developed sense-of-place writing templates as a convenient way to assess students' backgrounds and earlier interactions with their environments. Using short-answer, essay, and induced associative responses, sense-of-place templates provide opportunities for students to reflect upon their past connections with their general surroundings (including plants and our planet) before content instruction formally begins (Wandersee, Clary, and Guzman 2006; Clary and Wandersee 2006). Sense-of-place writing templates can be effective tools for writing across the curriculum and connecting student experiences with scientific content.

Why are sense-of-place writing templates useful?

Science instruction should be linked to and build upon students' previous knowledge and experiences (Mintzes, Wandersee, and Novak 2000, 2004). However, our students are individuals, and we should recognize that their experiences and perceptions differ. The sense-of-place concept, defined as the affective and intellectual state that a learner possesses, has been familiar in environmental and geography education since the 1990s (Matthews 1992; Nabhan and Trimble 1994; Schneider 2000; Spirn 1998). Sense of place has since been extended into other scientific disciplines. Researchers have now correlated cultural identifications with geological interpretations and sustainability issues (Semken 2005; Semken and Brandt 2010). How students perceive their surroundings and past experiences affects how they receive and respond to content in our classrooms.

We developed sense-of-place writing templates to tap into our students' prior experiences before our science units begin in order to get students to think about how their daily experiences relate to the science we are studying. We then tailor our science content during instruction to incorporate students' personal experiences and interests. Finally, we use the sense-of-place writing template to see whether students progressed in scientific concept associations at the end of the unit, before our formal unit assessment.

Sense-of-place writing templates have the additional benefit of directly incorporating writing in the science classroom. Often, students do not see the value of writing assignments in other disciplines, and the inclusion of writing in science classrooms can improve students' writing in all disciplines (Grymonpre, Cohn, and Solomon 2012). Dlugokienski and Sampson (2008) found that incorporation of refutational texts in their science classrooms helped students make sense of their experiences. Although our method does not involve refutational texts, we employ writing prompts that help students make meaning from their previous Earth interactions, and that help motivate students to write about their experiences. Sense-of-place writing templates help to address the "writing across the curriculum" mandate found in many state objectives and competencies and also called for in the new Next Generation Science Standards (Achieve 2012).

Why is a sense of place important?

Each student brings a unique sense of place to your classroom. While some students may have grown up in the marshlands of the southeastern United States, others may be more familiar with arid desert landscapes (Figure 1). …

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