How can we teach science in a way that supports student learning?
Children begin using an informal version of the scientific method as infants, as they take in information from their senses, form ideas about how the world works, and test and revise their hypotheses based on new information.[i] Science education builds on this natural tendency to explore and understand the physical world by teaching students both scientific content and the principles of scientific reasoning: how to gather and evaluate evidence to form hypotheses, assess the validity of claims, develop predictions, and establish reasoned arguments.
More broadly, it is important for students to learn how science operates as an approach for understanding the world.[ii] Key concepts students should understand about the nature of science include knowledge of the scientific method; concepts such as hypotheses and theories; what forms of evidence are considered legitimate; the role of creativity and experimentation in science; the idea that scientific knowledge is constantly changing and advancing; and the history of science and its role in culture.[iii]
The section below highlights key findings from the research on teaching science.
Scientific argumentation is a student’s ability to develop a claim and justify it with clear reasoning and strong evidence.[iv] Rather than simply presenting scientific facts to students, science education is more effective when educators encourage
students to gather evidence and formulate arguments. For example, educators can facilitate student participation and engagement,[v] outline the reasoning behind scientific explanations,[vi] and have students work in groups to develop arguments.[vii] Research shows that it is important that educators understand the principles of scientific argumentation, and receive training in how to foster these skills in students.[viii]
Allowing students to develop their own scientific explanations for certain phenomena can support their scientific knowledge and scientific argumentation skills.[ix] For instance, research suggests that inquiry-based learning,[x] in which students explore an open-ended question or problem, is more effective than traditional laboratory activities that ask students to follow explicit step-by-step instructions in order to verify a fact they have already been taught.[xi] One promising area for student inquiry is socioscientific issues (SSI), or controversial social issues that are related to science, such as the genetic modification of food crops or the ethics of cloning. By connecting science to social issues, SSI instruction can engage students and deepen science learning.[xii]
To learn increasingly complex scientific information, students need to organize concepts into hierarchies that show how new material connects to and builds on what they already know.[xiii] For example, when learning about states of matter, students first learn that matter exists (top of the hierarchy), that it exists in three basic states: solid, liquid, and gas (moving down the hierarchy), and finally, how it changes states.
Novice learners have a particularly difficult time incorporating new information into existing knowledge.[xiv] Scaffolding is an instructional approach that addresses this issue by helping students organize information and make connections to previously learned knowledge, while guiding them toward more independent learning.[xv] In a review of the research on scaffolding in science, written prompts, visualizations, and opportunities for students to interact and share knowledge were all found to be effective.[xvii] Scaffolds should be gradually removed to encourage students to scientifically reason on their own.[xvi]
The Physics Instruction subtopic explores various techniques for teaching physics, and how these affect student understanding and attitudes toward physics.
The Science Instruction subtopic includes research studies that describe and evaluate different methods of teaching science, as well as approaches to teacher professional development.
The Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) subtopic includes research and evaluations on teaching practices in which students work collaboratively using technology tools such as computers, videoconferencing, or the Internet.
The Scientific Argumentation subtopic includes studies on how students develop this skill, which involves using evidence to defend a scientific theory or idea. The subtopic also includes research on instructional methods that can be used to support students’ development of scientific argumentation skills, and how these skills can be applied to socioscientific issues, or complex social issues related to science.
The Beliefs About Science subtopic describes the views of students, teachers, and scientists about the nature of science, and how this understanding influences teaching and learning.
The Museums and Science Learning subtopic explores the role of educational institutions such as museums, zoos, and aquariums in students’ learning, engagement, and attitudes toward science.
Epistemic Thinking is a learner’s individual beliefs about knowledge. In this subtopic, research studies explore how students’ epistemic beliefs influence learning outcomes in different content areas.
The Laboratory Instruction subtopic includes research on methods of laboratory-based instruction in chemistry and other sciences, and ways to assess student learning in the laboratory environment.
The Formative Assessment subtopic describes principles that guide formative assessment, which is the practice of giving feedback to students during the learning process. Research in this subtopic also explores teacher and student beliefs about the practice.
The Teacher & Student Learning Experiences subtopic includes research on how teachers and students approach and experience the learning process, in both in-person and online learning environments.
The Science Understanding subtopic explores research on how people learn science concepts, with a focus on cognitive processes involved in science learning, and strategies that help students learn concepts effectively.
The Teaching about Evolution subtopic explores research on how educators teach the theory of evolution, and the factors that lead them to teach it, such as professional preparation and individual understanding and/or acceptance of the theory.
The Student Research & Science subtopic includes research on how student research programs in the sciences affect student outcomes, including their interest in science careers, and critical thinking skills.
[i] Gopnik, A. (2012). Scientific thinking in young children: Theoretical advances, empirical research, and policy implications. Science, 337(6102), 1623-1627.
[ii] Students’ Views of the Nature of Science: A Critical Review of Research [Article] Deng F, Chen DT, Tsai CC, Chai CS,SCI EDUC (2011),
[iii] Osborne, J.F., Collins, S., Ratcliffe, M., Millar, R., and Duschl, R. (2003). What “ideas-about-science” should be taught in school science? A Delphi study of the expert community.Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 40(7), 692-720.
[iv] Osborne, J. F., & Patterson, A. (2011). Scientific argument and explanation: A necessary distinction?. Science Education, 95(4), 627-638.
[v] Factors Affecting the Implementation of Argument in the Elementary Science Classroom. A Longitudinal Case Study[Article] Martin AM, Hand B,RES SCI EDUC (2009),
[vi] Scientific explanations: Characterizing and evaluating the effects of teachers’ instructional practices on student…[Article] Mcneill KL, Krajcik J,J RES SCI TEACH (2008),
[vii] The Impact of Collaboration on the Outcomes of Scientific Argumentation[Review] Sampson V, Clark D,SCI EDUC (2009),
[viii] Learning to Teach Elementary School Science as Argument [Article] Zembal-Saul C,SCI EDUC (2009)
[ix] Fostering second graders’ scientific explanations: A beginning elementary teacher’s knowledge, beliefs, and practice [Article] Beyer CJ, Davis EA,J LEARN SCI (2008),
[xi] Is Inquiry Possible in Light of Accountability?: A Quantitative Comparison of the Relative Effectiveness of Guided… [Article] Blanchard MR, Southerland SA, Osborne JW, Sampson VD, Annetta LA, Granger EM,SCI EDUC (2010)
The Effect of Guided Inquiry-Based Instruction on Middle School Students’ Understanding of Lunar Concepts[Article] Trundle KC, Atwood RK, Christopher JE, Sackes M,RES SCI EDUC (2010),
[xii] Contextualizing Nature of Science Instruction in Socioscientific Issues[Article]
Eastwood JL, Sadler TD, Zeidler DL, Lewis A, Amiri L, Applebaum S,INT J SCI EDUC (2012),
[xiii] Linn, M. C., & Eylon, B. S. (2006). Science education: Integrating views of learning and instruction. Handbook of educational psychology, 2, 511-544.
[xiv] Schunk, D. H. (1996). Learning theories. Prentice Hall Inc., New Jersey.
[xv] Synergy Between Teacher Practices and Curricular Scaffolds to Support Students in Using Domain-Specific and… [Article] Mcneill KL, Krajcik J,J LEARN SCI (2009),
[xvi] Supporting students’ construction of scientific explanations by fading scaffolds in instructional materials[Article] Mcneill KL, Lizotte DJ, Krajcik J, Marx RW,J LEARN SCI (2006),
[xvii] Lin, Tzu-Chiang, et al. “A review of empirical evidence on scaffolding for science education.” International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education 10.2 (2012): 437-455.