Research Summary

Nature of science and decision-making

Instruction in the Nature of Science Affects Students’ Decision Making

International Journal of Science Education

Although educators agree that exploring and forming opinions about socio-scientific issues can be an effective way for students to build scientific literacy, some approaches are more beneficial than others. As the author of this paper explains, “[Decision making] is a learned process.” Offering scientifically sound arguments supported by relevant evidence to defend a position does not come naturally to many students.

In this study, the author explores whether explicitly instructing students in the nature of science (NOS) affects their decision making around a socio-scientific issue. The researcher used an experimental design, comparing the performance of two science classes that received instruction in NOS with two similar science classes at the same school that received no instruction in NOS. All the classes received a four-week unit on genetic engineering taught by the same teacher. The unit included a variety of activities related to genetic engineering and culminated with a debate about genetically modified food.

All the students received instruction in effective argumentation, but only the treatment groups also received instruction in NOS. Five key aspects of NOS were emphasized, namely that scientific knowledge is (1) tentative, (2) empirical, (3) inferential, (4) creative and imaginative, and (5) subjective. These themes were introduced explicitly with two activities and then incorporated throughout the unit through discussion, guided questions, and written reflections designed to help the students relate the NOS aspects to the lesson.

The researcher administered pre- and post-tests of student knowledge about the five NOS aspects, presented the students with a socio-scientific scenario and asked students to provide a written response indicating their decision on the issue and their reasoning, and interviewed a subset of the students. In analyzing the results, the researchers were blind to whether they were analyzing responses from the treatment or control group.

The results indicated that explicitly teaching students about NOS improves their understanding of NOS: Scores on the NOS test for the treatment group improved after they received NOS instruction, while scores in the control group didn’t show any significant improvement.

An analysis of the students’ decisions about the socio-scientific issue related to genetically modified foods revealed that while the students’ NOS understanding didn’t affect their decision to support or oppose the practice in question, it did affect their reasoning. Students in the treatment and control groups were not different in their decisions on the issue, but their decision factors were different. About 37 percent of the students in the treatment group included references to NOS aspects in their explanations of their decisions, especially related to the empirical, tentative, and subjective aspects.

While the author considered these “modest promising results,” the results are not unambiguous. For example, the author noted that although 44 percent of the students in the treatment group improved their understanding of the subjective aspect of NOS, only about half of those students applied that understanding in their decision about the socio-scientific issue. The author concluded that “these participants might need more time and opportunities to help them assimilate and internalize the application of their acquired NOS understandings in their [decision making].” The author also noted that only three of the five NOS aspects emphasized in the program were represented in the students’ decision making.

The Bottom Line

Socio-scientific issues hold promise for engaging students and helping them apply scientific knowledge in real-world situations. But students need help in developing informed opinions based in science, and in defending their positions with well formed, science-based arguments. This study demonstrated that when students receive explicit instruction in the nature of science, those themes emerge in their decision making. Students who have a better understanding of how science works may come to the same conclusion on controversial issues as other students without the same understanding, but their opinions are more informed by science. Teachers should work to make instruction on the nature of science more explicit, clearly linking the abstract ideas of how science works to real-world situations.