Research Matters - to the Science Teacher
No. 9004 March 1,
The Science Process Skills
by Michael J. Padilla, Professor of Science Education,
University of Georgia, Athens, GA
One of the most important and pervasive goals of schooling is to
teach students to think. All school subjects should share in
accomplishing this overall goal. Science contributes its unique
skills, with its emphasis on hypothesizing, manipulating the physical
world and reasoning from data.
The scientific method, scientific thinking and critical thinking
have been terms used at various times to describe these science
skills. Today the term "science process skills" is commonly used.
Popularized by the curriculum project, Science - A Process Approach
(SAPA), these skills are defined as a set of broadly transferable
abilities, appropriate to many science disciplines and reflective of
the behavior of scientists. SAPA grouped process skills into two
types-basic and integrated. The basic (simpler) process skills
provide a foundation for learning the integrated (more complex)
skills. These skills are listed and described below.
Basic Science Process Skills
Observing - using the senses to gather information about an object
or event. Example: Describing a pencil as yellow.
Inferring - making an "educated guess" about an object or event based
on previously gathered data or information. Example: Saying that the
person who used a pencil made a lot of mistakes because the eraser
was well worn.
Measuring - using both standard and nonstandard measures or estimates
to describe the dimensions of an object or event. Example: Using a
meter stick to measure the length of a table in centimeters.
Communicating - using words or graphic symbols to describe an action,
object or event. Example: Describing the change in height of a plant
over time in writing or through a graph.
Classifying - grouping or ordering objects or events into categories
based on properties or criteria. Example: Placing all rocks having
certain grain size or hardness into one group.
Predicting - stating the outcome of a future event based on a pattern
of evidence. Example: Predicting the height of a plant in two weeks
time based on a graph of its growth during the previous four
Integrated Science Process Skills
Controlling variables - being able to identify variables that can
affect an experimental outcome, keeping most constant while
manipulating only the independent variable. Example: Realizing
through past experiences that amount of light and water need to be
controlled when testing to see how the addition of organic matter
affects the growth of beans.
Learning basic process skills
Defining operationally - stating how to measure a variable in an
experiment. Example: Stating that bean growth will be measured in
centimeters per week.
Formulating hypotheses - stating the expected outcome of an
experiment. Example: The greater the amount of organic matter added
to the soil, the greater the bean growth.
Interpreting data - organizing data and drawing conclusions from it.
Example: Recording data from the experiment on bean growth in a data
table and forming a conclusion which relates trends in the data to
Experimenting - being able to conduct an experiment, including asking
an appropriate question, stating a hypothesis, identifying and
controlling variables, operationally defining those variables,
designing a "fair" experiment, conducting the experiment, and
interpreting the results of the experiment. Example: The entire
process of conducting the experiment on the affect of organic matter
on the growth of bean plants.
Formulating models - creating a mental or physical model of a process
or event. Examples: The model of how the processes of evaporation and
condensation interrelate in the water cycle.
Numerous research projects have focused on the teaching and
acquisition of basic process skills. For example, Padilla, Cronin,
and Twiest (1985) surveyed the basic process skills of 700 middle
school students with no special process skill training. They found
that only 10% of the students scored above 90% correct, even at the
eighth grade level. Several researchers have found that teaching
increases levels of skill performance. Thiel and George (1976)
investigated predicting among third and fifth graders, and Tomera
(1974) observing among seventh graders. From these studies it can be
concluded that basic skills can be taught and that when learned,
readily transferred to new situations (Tomera, 1974). Teaching
strategies which proved effective were: (1) applying a set of
specific clues for predicting, (2) using activities and pencil and
paper simulations to teach graphing, and (3) using a combination of
explaining, practice with objects, discussions and feedback with
observing. In other words-just what research and theory has always
defined as good teaching.
Other studies evaluated the effect of NSF-funded science curricula
on how well they taught basic process skills. Studies focusing on the
Science Curriculum Improvement Study (SCIS) and SAPA indicate that
elementary school students, if taught process skills abilities, not
only learn to use those processes, but also retain them for future
use. Researchers, after comparing SAPA students to those experiencing
a more traditional science program, concluded that the success of
SAPA lies in the area of improving process oriented skills (Wideen,
1975; McGlathery, 1970). Thus it seems reasonable to conclude that
students learn the basic skills better if they are considered an
important object of instruction and if proven teaching methods are
Learning integrated process skills
Several studies have investigated the learning of integrated
science process skills. Allen (1973) found that third graders can
identify variables if the context is simple enough. Both Quinn and
George (1975) and Wright (1981) found that students can be taught to
formulate hypotheses and that this ability is retained over time.
Others have tried to teach all of the skills involved in
conducting an experiment. Padilla, Okey and Garrard (1984)
systematically integrated experimenting lessons into a middle school
science curriculum. One group of students was taught a two week
introductory unit on experimenting which focused on manipulative
activities. A second group was taught the experimenting unit, but
also experienced one additional process skill activity per week for a
period of fourteen weeks. Those having the extended treatment
outscored those experiencing the two week unit. These results
indicate that the more complex process skills cannot be learned via a
two week unit in which science content is typically taught. Rather,
experimenting abilities need to be practiced over a period of
Further study of experimenting abilities shows that they are
closely related to the formal thinking abilities described by Piaget.
A correlation of +.73 between the two sets of abilities was found in
one study (Padilla, Okey and Dillashaw, 1983). In fact, one of the
ways that Piaget decided whether someone was formal or concrete was
to ask that person to design an experiment to solve a problem. We
also know that most early adolescents and many young adults have not
yet reached their full formal reasoning capacity (Chiapetta, 1976).
One study found only 17% of seventh graders and 34% of twelfth
graders fully formal (Renner, Grant, and Sutherland, 1978).
What have we learned about teaching integrated science processes?
We cannot expect students to excel at skills they have not
experienced or been allowed to practice. Teachers cannot expect
mastery of experimenting skills after only a few practice sessions.
Instead students need multiple opportunities to work with these
skills in different content areas and contexts. Teachers need to be
patient with those having difficulties, since there is a need to have
developed formal thinking patterns to successfully "experiment."
Summary and Conclusions
A reasonable portion of the science curriculum should emphasize
science process skills according to the National Science Teachers
Association. In general, the research literature indicates that when
science process skills are a specific planned outcome of a science
program, those skills can be learned by students. This was true with
the SAPA and SCIS and other process skill studies cited in this
review as well as with many other studies not cited.
Teachers need to select curricula which emphasize science process
skills. In addition they need to capitalize on opportunities in the
activities normally done in the classroom. While not an easy solution
to implement, it remains the best available at this time because of
the lack of emphasis of process skills in most commercial
Allen, L. (1973). An examination of the ability of third grade
children from the Science Curriculum Improvement Study to identify
experimental variables and to recognize change. Science Education,
Chiapetta, E. (1976). A review of Piagetian studies relevant to
science instruction at the secondary and college level. Science
Education, 60, 253-261.
McGlathery, G. (1970). An assessment of science achievement of five
and six-year-old students of contrasting socio-economic background.
Research and Curriculum Development in Science Education,
McKenzie, D., & Padilla, M. (1984). Effect of laboratory
activities and written simulations on the acquisition of graphing
skills by eighth grade students. Paper presented at the annual
meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching,
Padilla, M., Okey, J., & Dillashaw, F. (1983). The relationship
between science process skills and formal thinking abilities.
Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 20.
Padilla, M., Cronin, L., & Twiest, M. (1985). The development and
validation of the test of basic process skills. Paper presented at
the annual meeting of the National Association for Research in
Science Teaching, French Lick, IN.
Quinn, M., & George, K. D. (1975). Teaching hypothesis formation.
Science Education, 59, 289-296.
Science Education, 62, 215-221.
Thiel, R., & George, D. K. (1976). Some factors affecting the use
of the science process skill of prediction by elementary school
children. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 13,
Tomera, A. (1974). Transfer and retention of transfer of the science
processes of observation and comparison in junior high school
students. Science Education, 58, 195-203.
Wideen, M. (1975). Comparison of student outcomes for Science - A
Process Approach and traditional science teaching for third, fourth,
fifth, and sixth grade classes: A product evaluation. Journal of
Research in Science Teaching, 12, 31-39.
Wright, E. (1981). The long-term effects of intensive instruction on
the open exploration behavior of ninth grade students. Journal of
Research in Science Teaching, 18.
Research Matters - to the Science Teacher
is a publication of NARST