Research Matters - to the Science
Authentic Science: What Do Students Believe?
by Glen S. Aikenhead
Science teachers have been encouraged to concentrate on teaching
what science really is, rather than conveying the false and mythical
images of ideal science most often found in science textbooks. (See,
for example, the 1985 NSTA Yearbook,
Science-Technology-Society .) With the pressure to teach
authentic science instead of ideal science, it would be
useful to discover what the graduates of the present science
curriculum have generally learned about science. This summary also
offers guidelines for finding out what your students believe about
the scientific enterprise.
Information about how to teach and evaluate such content may be
found in another Research Matters ....publication,
"Teaching Authentic Science."
Many studies have assessed what beliefs and understandings
students have about the scientific enterprise. Very illuminating
results are obtained when students are asked to write a short
paragraph explaining their views. Such a study was recently completed
with a stratified sample of 10,800 graduating high school students
across Canada. Each student was asked to respond to a statement
concerning the nature of the scientific enterprise (see the sample
statements below) by checking "agree," "disagree," or "can't tell,"
and writing a short paragraph explaining the reasons for the choice.
The statements dealt with (a) the interactions among science,
technology, and society, (b) the characteristics of scientific
knowledge, and (c) the characteristics of scientists. These student
paragraphs yielded common arguments or beliefs on a number of topics.
Some of the findings are listed here. Unless specifically asked to do
so, students did not distinguish between science and
technology, but used an all-inclusive "technoscience" concept
when writing about the scientific enterprise. (Students tended to
equate scientific research with medical research, and to a lesser
degree, environmental and agricultural research.) Students viewed
science to be closely interrelated with
society in a number of ways:
- Scientists are, and should be, concerned with the harmful and
beneficial effects of their work.
- Social interactions (e.g. tennis, parties and conferences)
affect what scientific knowledge is discovered.
- The political climate of a country will affect scientists
especially through government funding.
Science classification schemes were generally perceived
to be man-made, though fewer students felt the same way about science
Most students believed that scientific knowledge was
tentative but did so for different and conflicting reasons (e.g.
old knowledge is reinterpreted in light of new ideas, old knowledge
was in error, and old knowledge was "added to," thereby giving a
The "scientific method" was perceived differently by each
student. Almost no one referred to the five or seven step method
portrayed in textbooks. Many students believed that the 'scientific
method' entailed meticulously and rigidly following prescribed
laboratory procedures. Is this perhaps a result of doing high school
labs in similar manner?
Students expressed confidence in scientists and engineers
deciding science-related social issues; i.e. faith in a technocratic
rather than a democratic approach.
Confidence was also expressed in more women becoming
scientists and engineers. A majority of students, male and
female equally, believed that traditional social conditions
responsible for less women being in science had subsided in their
Few gender differences surfaced, except that females
tended to believe more in creative, non-rigid thinking as an
attribute of good scientists, while males tended to believe more in
the objectivity and social isolation of science.
Getting Started On Your Own
You can investigate what your own students believe about the
Present your student with a statement or situation. Examples are
Make up your own statements to suit the topics of interest to you
and your students.
Get your students to state whether they agree, disagree, or can't
tell with the statement or situation. This forces them to take a
position on the issue.
Ask your students to write the reasons for their view (usually two
to five sentences in length).
Students usually need practice in writing paragraphs about the
scientific enterprise. Homework and quizzes are useful places for
this to begin. Students who are shy about writing need individual
attention and encouragement. English and social studies colleagues
may have suggestions for motivating students, as well as comments
about scoring schemes and efficient use of marking time.
Writing paragraph responses requires student time during a test
and teacher time for evaluating. Teachers who value the assessment of
student beliefs will find the time to do so. The speed of scoring
increases with practice. Here are some useful time-saving
1) Use only a small number of questions that require writing per
test (one to four per test hour). This is helpful even though they
might not cover the full range of content you are interested in.
2) Use format suggested above so you can recognize common student
arguments and thus score a paragraph very quickly.
In an average tenth grade class, a discussion had taken place
about whether the photographs in a science test had more to do with
technology (responding to human needs) than with science (finding out
Ken was showing a friend a new car he had bought. "Look at its
polyplastic coating, the windshield changes tint with the brightness
of the sun, and its computer fuel injection system! What will those
scientists think of next!" Do you agree or disagree with Ken's
feelings about scientists? Give a reason for your opinion (in a short
Student Response Evaluation Comment
- I agree. All those things get people to buy bigger cars that
wastes gas. Irrelevant to the statement 0 Scientists should think
about those things before they make them.
- I disagree with the statement. Scientists don't know ahead of
time what they'll come up with. True, but does not relate
explicitly 0 or 1 They do their research to find new
- I disagree. This is only one kind of science, making
things like theories. The distinction between science and 0 things
for people to use. Science is mostly discovering technology is
made, but not labeled. Then someone else uses the
discoveries to make things for people to use. The 2nd and
4th sentences are contradictory.
- Disagree. The car manufacturer makes these things, technology
is made, but the role of the scientist is not clear. The
distinction between science and 0 not the scientist.
- I disagree. The technologist will have to think of what
applies them to make things for people to use. The discussion is
clear and the answer 3 comes next. He gets the ideas from the
scientist. He relates to the statement.
- I agree, except that you have to remember that it's not the
scientist who actually makes this stuff. The discussion is clear
and the answer 3 . He comes up relates to the statement. with the
theories and the laws. It's the technologist who puts those ideas
Note that the best responses above would be scored lower in
another situation; for instance, 12th grade students who had studied
how science is as much technology-driven as technology is
science-driven. The better responses above address a distinction
between science and technology.
For further information about this research area, please
Dr. Glen S.
College of Education
University of Saskatchewan
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Canada
Research Matters - to the Science
is a publication of the National Association
for Research in Science Teaching