Is science teaching failing at teaching science thinking?

The work we have been doing for the past few years in the CCU Physics Education Research Group has focused on scientific reasoning. Our research has focused mainly on university students, but there are certainly parallels to secondary and primary education. The two  big take-aways from our work to date have been that (1) improving student reasoning ability takes A LOT of explicit instruction, and (2) as a group, science teachers have sucked at this.

I want to share with you an article that just came out in the journal Research in Science Education, and not just because our work is heavily cited! Lin Ding et al. assessed student scientific reasoning ability across China. Not surprisingly, they determined that students majoring in a science field exhibited higher reasoning skills than education majors, and that first-tier university attendees scored higher than second-tier university attendee. Students that like and are good at science tend to self-select into science majors. What may be shocking is what they found when they looked at reasoning ability across the four year levels of higher education.
The title of the paper is Variations in University Students’ Scientific Reasoning Skills Across Majors, Years, and Types of InstitutionsI have taken the liberty of reproducing the abstract for you here:

This study investigates three aspects—university major, year, and institution type—in relation to student scientific reasoning. Students from three majors (science, engineering, and education), four year levels (years 1 through 4), and two tiers of Chinese universities (tiers 1 and 2) participated in the study. A large-scale written assessment was conducted using the Lawson’s Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning (LCTSR). A series of analysis of variance showed that, although science and engineering majors exhibited higher reasoning skills than education majors and first-tier university attendees higher than second-tier university attendees, student reasoning skills measured by the LCTSR remained nearly constant across the four year levels of higher education, a recurring pattern for all majors and university tiers. Results suggest that current higher education in China has little influence on student scientific reasoning, regardless of what students learn, how long they receive higher education, and what type of institutions they attend. Implications of the study call our attention to the status quo and urge us to rethink meaningful ways that can help students increase key proficiencies needed in scientific practices, such as successful reasoning skills.

Student overall scientific reasoning skills across levels.
Student overall scientific reasoning skills across levels.

The figure above shows what might be the shocking part to you. When these researchers looked across the four years of university education, NO group of students improved their scientific reasoning abilities. Not the education majors, engineering majors, or the science majors. Technically, there is zero statistical improvement, but the trend of the line for the science and engineering majors is scary, since it points down. As a good scientist, I won’t claim that that actually means something, but if you want to make a case that university education in science is actually making students worse at thinking like a scientist, then I won’t argue, because I have yet to see any data suggesting you’re wrong.

This result was not shocking  to me. Our research group has shown in our previous work that even well-research “reformed” methods of science instruction do very little if anything to improve scientific reasoning abilities. Did I mention we’re heavily cited in this paper ;). We have some similar data from Astronomy courses where measured student gains in scientific reasoning are negative (though actually statistically zero).None of this says that we, as science educators, are failing at teaching science. Content knowledge measurably increases, even if not as much as we would like. But when it comes to teaching science thinking and practice, we definitely have a lot of improvement to make.

Our current National Science Foundation grant (DUE 1244801) is focused on exactly that problem. We’re working on explicit reasoning instructional methodologies that measurably improve scientific reasoning ability. I’m touring Europe right now talking about that. Personally, I’m also excited about the Next Generation Science Standards, exactly because reasoning and process skills are now an important part of what we expect from a science education. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to teach and assess these types of skills.

What do you think? Is science teaching failing at teaching scienc

This post is cross-posted at ilovephysics.com, the main website for the Physics Education Research Group at Coastal Carolina University.

What do you think?