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Graduate Defense: Christopher Taylor

March 16 @ 1:30 pm - 3:30 pm MDT

Dissertation Information

Title: Phenomenon-based Instruction in the Elementary Classroom: Impact on Student Engagement and Achievement in Science Content Learning

Program: Doctor of Education in Curriculum and Instruction

Advisor: Dr. Sara Hagenah, Curriculum, Instruction, and Foundational Studies

Committee Members: Dr. Keith Thiede, Curriculum, Instruction, and Foundational Studies, Dr. Heather Williams, Curriculum, Instruction, and Foundational Studies, and Dr. Julianne Wenner, Curriculum, Instruction, and Foundational Studies


Phenomenon-based teaching is a multidisciplinary instructional approach based on student inquiry and problem solving. Students investigate and solve their own questions by applying what subjects are relevant to the problem. The goal of phenomenon-based learning is to prepare learners to solve problems in real life. Instead of passively learning abstract or disconnected concepts, phenomenon-based instruction provides student’s rich and meaningful context to the subject by actively engaging them to discover knowledge and skills required to solve the problems. Phenomenon-based instruction gives students the opportunities for discourse, argumentation-using claims with supporting evidence, and making sense of the material being covered, ultimately engaging them in the subject matter. This mixed methodology study focused on whether using phenomenon-based instruction in elementary classrooms affect student achievement and student engagement in the subject of science.

In this study four different fifth grade classrooms with a total of 106 students participated in this controlled study. All four classrooms were provided with the same science topics during the same week. Two classrooms taught using traditional science instruction, while the other two classrooms were taught using phenomenon-based instruction. The study was conducted in two phases. The first phase measured student achievement based on scores from a pretest and a posttest. The second phase assessed student engagement based on student discourse, argumentation, and sense making.

Phase One of the study, measured whether there was a change in student achievement by using two-way analysis of variance tests. The students that received phenomenon-based instruction, had higher scores on both factual and conceptual components of their posttest. The analysis found a statistically significant improvement on factual knowledge of the students who received phenomenon-based instruction compared to students who received a more traditional approach of science instruction.

Phase Two of the study assessed whether the phenomenon-based instruction affected student engagement. Data was triangulated by discourse analysis of student data, statements made by students, and observations of the researcher and teachers. Students who received phenomenon-based instruction demonstrated higher levels of engagement by students asking more science-related questions, discussing more frequently using argumentation strategies, and making connections through sensemaking.

Phenomenon-based instruction positively affects both student achievement and engagement in fifth grade elementary science education. Additional research is needed to measure whether this type of instruction would have the same impact on other grades or disciplines.