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Teaching and Learning About COVID-19 During the Pandemic

By Troy D. Sadler, Pat Friedrichsen, Laura Zangori, and Li Ke

Posted on 2020-08-26

When the COVID-19 crisis first emerged in spring 2020, we began thinking that 1) science classrooms (or their virtual equivalents) should be places that help students learn about and navigate the complexities of this difficult issue, and 2) this highlights the need to better understand how students think about and seek information about an emerging crisis in the midst of that crisis. With support from a National Science Foundation (NSF) Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant, we started working with a group of experienced high school science teachers to create some curricular resources for teaching about COVID-19. We also partnered with these teachers to collect data from students about the kinds of media formats they use, their preferred sources of information, and the criteria they use for making information choices. Our project is far from complete, but we have made some progress and think that some of this work may be useful for science teachers as they embark upon the 2020–2021 school year.

For teachers interested in teaching about COVID-19 within their science classes, we have developed curricular materials that can be accessed on our project website. We use a process for curricular co-design that brings together teachers and science education researchers to create and modify materials that reflect the needs, opportunities, and constraints of the teachers’ classroom spaces. Given that our work was situated in an Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) state, the COVID materials we have developed have an emphasis on modeling, argumentation, and data practices. Our team will continue to update the website with new materials as our teacher partners try new ideas with their students and we add to the instructional activities. 

The second part of our project focuses on research into student media and information-seeking behaviors. We think it is important for the science education community to develop better understandings of where students are looking for information about science-related issues like COVID-19 and what strategies students rely on to vet the information they find. To do this research, we designed a survey for our partner teachers to distribute to their students in spring 2020 as the students engaged in learning experiences about COVID-19. 

We asked students to provide responses to three sets of items related to their media and information choices: 1) media formats, 2) information sources, and 3) criteria for media choices. The survey was made up of Likert-scale items in which students self-reported how frequently they access a particular media format or information source and how important various criteria are for media choices. The media format items asked students to report on where they were looking for information about COVID-19. Students’ top choices were social media outlets like Twitter and online video platforms like YouTube. On average, students reported “frequently” accessing social media and online videos for information about COVID-19. Students reported accessing a second set of information formats with more limited frequency (“sometimes”); these formats included news websites as well as network and news programs. A final group of formats that included newspapers, radio, and podcasts were, on average, “never” or only “rarely” accessed. 

When asked about their preferred information sources, students suggested that they most frequently rely on family members, science teachers, and governmental agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) when looking for information about COVID-19. The next most important group of sources for the students were friends, elected officials (like the president or governor), healthcare professionals, and non-science teachers. The least frequently accessed sources included medical facilities (like the Mayo Clinic) or online healthcare information providers (like WebMD).

We also asked students to indicate how important different criteria were for them as they considered the reliability of the information they accessed. The top criteria for the students (in descending order from the most important) were 1) the information provider’s medical expertise, 2) avoiding biased information, 3) using multiple sources to confirm reliability, 4) knowing the information provider, and 5) the information provider’s political agenda. Criteria at the bottom of the students’ list of importance included the information provider’s fame, the number of re-posts and likes (for social media), the number of followers an information provider has, and how interesting a headline is. 

We were encouraged by these results in that the students’ most important criteria align with media and information literacy strategies and the least important criteria represent more superficial strategies. It is also important to note that these results represent students’ self-reports and are not verified with observations of the students’ actual behaviors. However, we were encouraged to see that students seem to understand the kinds of criteria they ought to be looking for in selecting media and information. We see this as an asset that teachers can build upon.

These results are based on responses from 85 racially and ethnically diverse students from three different high schools. This sample is limited, and we continue collecting data with more students and teachers. However, despite the limitations, we think the results can be of assistance to teachers as they consider ways to support their students’ learning about COVID-19, particularly learning related to media and information literacy. 

We think it is important for teachers to understand that students are turning to new media (i.e., social media and online videos) for information. It is also important for science teachers to know that they are among students’ most trusted sources of information in the midst of this crisis. The formats that students prefer and the information sources they rely on are important considerations for teachers planning to incorporate media literacy in their instruction. As a part of our COVID-19 curricular materials, we created several resources to help students navigate their media and information choices.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents teachers and students with unprecedented challenges. It also highlights the need to help students better understand how science can help to solve society’s most pressing challenges and develop media and information literacy skills essential for modern life.

Author Information

Troy SadlerTroy D. Sadler, Thomas James Distinguished Professor in Experiential Learning, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill., @troydsadler

Pat FriedrichsenPat Friedrichsen, Professor of Science Education, University of Missouri., @PJFried

Laura ZangoriLaura Zangori, Assistant Professor of Science Education, University of Missouri., @laura_z1127

Li KeLi Ke, Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hi., @LiKeSciEd

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