Exploring Mental Models of Learning and Instruction in Teacher Education

From Section:
Theories & Approaches
Jul. 10, 2012

Source: Action in Teacher Education, 34, Issue 3, 2012, p. 221-238.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The purpose of this article was to derive a set of descriptive themes that pertained to the development of preservice teachers' mental models of learning and instruction.
The thematic approach in this study was guided by the following research question:
How do preservice teachers' mental models of learning and instruction change as they move through a teacher education program?

The participants were eight social science preservice teachers from a large, public, southeastern university. The authors used a qualitative methodology which relied on analyzing single lesson plans from each preservice teacher at two different points in time, with each lesson plan followed by a questionnaire and an in-depth interview.


The findings highlight the importance of exploring preservice teachers' cause-effect conceptualizations.
The authors point to several areas of potential concern in their mental model development.
The authors believe that preservice teachers' mental models can be represented by a two-level structure.
The first level of this structure consists of three a priori categories outlined by Strauss (2001) instructional strategies, learning processes, and learning outcomes.

Preservice teachers' mental models expanded in scope and reorganized.
Their knowledge, when defined by number of concepts, increased.
The organization of this knowledge changed as well.
Overall, preservice teachers increased the number of learning outcomes, learning processes, and instructional strategies in their mental models.

The second level of this structure defines the a posteriori subcategories and their causal relationships among one another.
The preservice teachers indicated they wanted their students to master new learning outcomes such as the ability to relate past events to present events and the ability to support positions with evidence.
New instructional strategies included teaching concepts, having students conduct research, relating history to current life, and having students read primary sources.
Preservice teachers considered student interaction, different ability levels, and different prior knowledge as important to the learning process, and new links could be identified in relationship to old conceptions.

The preservice teachers asserted that material repeated in several ways is remembered and helps keep students' interest.
Furthermore, preservice teachers extended their cause-effect ideas surrounding learning styles claiming that because their students have different learning styles, if material is presented in several ways, then it is likely to reach all students and be learned by them.

Despite preservice teachers acquiring new ways of thinking about instruction and learning, many remained uncertain about how best to facilitate learning complex, cognitive skills such as critical thinking and problem solving.
In Stage 2, preservice teachers had expanded their notion of thinking to critical thinking.
For preservice teachers, asking questions remained a key instructional strategy for getting students to think critically, and although preservice teachers made new links between critical thinking and instructional strategies, such as reading primary sources and relating history to current life, they only loosely described how these strategies would specifically lead to critical thinking.

Links between critical thinking and learning outcomes also changed. At Stage 2, preservice teachers defined assessable learning outcomes related to critical thinking, such as learning to provide evidence and support ideas, and learning to relate past events to current life.
Preservice teachers incorporated new content-specific practices into their models.
They acquired content-specific pedagogical practices such as relating history to present-day life, requiring students to do historical research, reading primary sources, and providing evidence when engaged in historical argumentation.

Preservice teachers' depth of knowledge related to how students learn had limited change. Although they did consider student interaction, different ability levels, different prior knowledge, and critical thinking as important to the student learning process, they also remained highly focused on learning styles.


The authors conclude that approaching teacher development from a mental models framework provides researchers and educators alike a framework for exploring the cause-effect conceptions that preservice teachers hold.
Emerging technologies that produce quantitative models may hold promise for the rapid assessment of mental models.
However, alternative explanations, such as episodic future thinking, that address knowledge used during planning activities should also be considered.

Updated: Dec. 23, 2019
Instructional strategies | Learning outcomes | Learning processes | Lesson plans | Models | Preservice teachers | Social sciences | Teacher education