Mining students' inquiry actions for understanding of complex systems

Sharona T. Levy, Uri Wilensky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study lies at an intersection between advancing educational data mining methods for detecting students' knowledge-in-action and the broader question of how conceptual and mathematical forms of knowing interact in exploring complex chemical systems. More specifically, it investigates students' inquiry actions in three computer-based models of complex chemical systems when their goal is to construct an equation relating physical variables of the system. The study's participants were 368 high-school students who interacted with the Connected Chemistry (CC11) curriculum and completed identical pre- and post-test content knowledge questionnaires. The study explores whether and how students adapt to different mathematical behaviors of the system, examines how these explorations may relate to prior knowledge and learning in terms of conceptual and mathematical models, as well as components relating to understanding systems. Students' data-collection choices were mined and analyzed showing: (1) In about half the cases, mainly for two out of the three models explored, students conduct mathematically-astute (fit) explorations; (2) A third of the students consistently adapt their strategies to the models' mathematical behavior; (3) Fit explorations are associated with prior conceptual knowledge, specifically understanding of the system as complex, however, the three explorations' fitness is predicted by the understanding of distinct sets of systems' components; (4) Fit explorations are only somewhat associated with learning along complementary dimensions. These results are discussed with respect to 1) the importance of a conceptual understanding regarding individual system elements even when engaged in large-scale quantitative problem solving, 2) how distinct results for the different models relate to previous literature on conceptual understanding and particular affordances of the models, 3) the importance of engaging students in creating mathematical representations of scientific phenomena, as well as 4) educational applications of these results in learning environments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)556-573
Number of pages18
JournalComputers and Education
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 2011

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Foremost, we thank Reuven Lerner who has provided important assistance in creating and programming the data mining tools. We thank Shira Yuval for working with us on the statistical analysis. We deeply thank Michael Novak, the lead curriculum developer who collaborated with us in designing and forming the curriculum. Modeling Across the Curriculum is funded by the Interagency Education Research Initiative (IERI) , a jointly supported project of the National Science Foundation , the US Department of Education and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development , under NSF Grant No. REC-0115699 . Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding agencies. This paper continues and expands the authors’ AERA 2010 paper with the same title.


  • Agent-based
  • Improving classroom teaching
  • Interactive learning environments
  • Modeling
  • Secondary education
  • Simulations

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Computer Science (all)
  • Education


Dive into the research topics of 'Mining students' inquiry actions for understanding of complex systems'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this