Study: Learning Science Facts Doesn't Boost Science Reasoning

Jan 29, 2009 by Pam Frost Gorder

(PhysOrg.com) -- A study of college freshmen in the United States and in China found that Chinese students know more science facts than their American counterparts -- but both groups are nearly identical when it comes to their ability to do scientific reasoning.

Neither group is especially skilled at reasoning, however, and the study suggests that educators must go beyond teaching science facts if they hope to boost students' reasoning ability.

Researchers tested nearly 6,000 students majoring in science and engineering at seven universities -- four in the United States and three in China. Chinese students greatly outperformed American students on factual knowledge of physics -- averaging 90 percent on one test, versus the American students' 50 percent, for example.

But in a test of science reasoning, both groups averaged around 75 percent -- not a very high score, especially for students hoping to major in science or engineering.

The research appears in the January 30, 2009 issue of the journal Science.

Lei Bao, associate professor of physics at Ohio State University and lead author of the study, said that the finding defies conventional wisdom, which holds that teaching science facts will improve students' reasoning ability.

"Our study shows that, contrary to what many people would expect, even when students are rigorously taught the facts, they don't necessarily develop the reasoning skills they need to succeed," Bao said. "Because students need both knowledge and reasoning, we need to explore teaching methods that target both."

Bao directs Ohio State's Physics Education Research Group, which is developing new strategies for teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. For this study, he and his colleagues across the United States and in China decided to compare students from both countries, because the educational systems are so different.

In the United States, only one-third of students take a year-long physics course before they graduate from high school. The rest only study physics within general science courses. Curricula vary widely from school to school, and students can choose among elective courses.

In China, however, every student in every school follows exactly the same curriculum, which includes five years of continuous physics classes from grades 8 through 12. All students must perform well on a national exam if they hope to enter college, and the exam contains advanced physics problems.

"Each system has its strengths and weaknesses," Bao said. "In China, schools emphasize a very extensive learning of STEM content knowledge, while in the United States, science courses are more flexible, with simpler content but with a high emphasis on scientific methods. We need to think of a new strategy, perhaps one that blends the best of both worlds."

The students who participated in the study were all incoming freshmen who had just enrolled in a calculus-based introductory physics course. They took three multiple-choice tests: two which tested knowledge of physics concepts, and one which tested scientific reasoning.

The first test, the Force Concept Inventory, measures students' basic knowledge of mechanics -- the action of forces on objects. Most Chinese students scored close to 90 percent, while the American scores varied widely from 25-75 percent, with an average of 50.

The second test, the Brief Electricity and Magnetism Assessment, measures students' understanding of electric forces, circuits, and magnetism, which are often considered to be more abstract concepts and more difficult to learn than mechanics. Here Chinese students averaged close to 70 percent while American students averaged around 25 percent -- a little better than if they had simply picked their multiple-choice answers randomly.

The third test, the Lawson Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning, measures science skills beyond the facts. Students are asked to evaluate scientific hypotheses, and reason out solutions using skills such as proportional reasoning, control of variables, probability reasoning, correlation reasoning, and hypothetical-deductive reasoning. Both American and Chinese students averaged a 75 percent score.

Bao explained that STEM students need to excel at scientific reasoning in order to handle open-ended real-world tasks in their future careers in science and engineering.

Ohio State graduate student and study co-author Jing Han echoed that sentiment. "To do my own research, I need to be able to plan what I'm going to investigate and how to do it. I can't just ask my professor or look up the answer in a book," she said.

"These skills are especially important today, when we are determined to build a society with a sustainable edge in science and technology in a fast-evolving global environment," Bao said.

He quickly added that reasoning is a good skill for everyone to possess -- not just scientists and engineers.

"The general public also needs good reasoning skills in order to correctly interpret scientific findings and think rationally," he said.

How to boost scientific reasoning? Bao points to inquiry-based learning, where students work in groups, question teachers and design their own investigations. This teaching technique is growing in popularity worldwide.

Ohio State is exploring inquiry-based learning in its physics classes. Here students use hand-held electronic devices called clickers to answer multiple-choice questions during lectures. They work together to answer questions, and professors use the clicker interaction to guide student learning towards a more investigative style. The department is also adopting an inquiry-based curriculum for undergraduate physics courses.

Provided by Ohio State University

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User comments : 20

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JayVenter
1 / 5 (2) Jan 29, 2009
perhaps your reasoning skills are something you cant improve very much, like your IQ.
OregonWind
2.1 / 5 (7) Jan 29, 2009
I believe you can always improve your scientific reasoning skills. It might take a lot of effort sometimes for some people. I have some friends, for example, who usually interpret scientific news and facts in a mystical way, for them the change would be challenging.
VOR
2.3 / 5 (8) Jan 29, 2009
As the Voice of Reason, I support an increased emphasis on, well, sound reasoning. Of course this would mean embracing good sense and good thinking. This would naturally come at the expense of religion, popular 'mythology' and politics (choosing image over substance). You cant have good sense and promote dogmatic deity worship at the same time. So I dont see progress coming quickly, if at all. Without a systemic, overt movement to actually think more correcty, objectively, and wisely as a whole people, we have little chance of avoiding the traditional pitfalls that haunt us to this day. Thinking 'better' is still touched upon, though usually only in college, not high school. It can be present in not only science class, but others such as humanities and philosophy.
Doug_Huffman
2.6 / 5 (7) Jan 29, 2009
Without facts there are no premises to reason. Knowing plus/sum/concatenation reasoning, if there is no knowledge of cardinality, is pointless.
dirk_bruere
3.4 / 5 (7) Jan 29, 2009
I note that while US and Chinese student could apply reason equally well, the Chinese had more knowledge to which to apply their reason. Who would you hire?
JayVenter
3.3 / 5 (6) Jan 29, 2009
yes, what a choice ... americans brainwashed by religion or chinese brainwashed by their government.
i vote for europe (excluding the vatican ofcourse :P )
Crossrip
4.6 / 5 (5) Jan 29, 2009
I think this goes beyond an apples to apples comparison. I Have spent a considerable amount of time in Asia and I have worked with many fine Chinese however I still find that Americans because of their ability to question make better decisions when faced a problem that is outside their expertise. I can teach almost anybody a list of facts and formulas. Creativity is something different. Who would I hire? Why an American with Chinese parents of course.
dbren
4.3 / 5 (4) Jan 29, 2009
Critical thinking is stifled in China by the pseudo-communist regime, and at American universities by political correctness regime. At least the US benefits from an ingrained "question authority" mentality.
Mauricio
2.6 / 5 (5) Jan 29, 2009
Philosophy of science, philosophy of math, history of science and related topics, are the sources for reasoning skills in science. It is important to learn how scientific facts were discovered, not only the facts themselves. It is important to learn the process, not only the end product.
Soylent
not rated yet Jan 30, 2009
Just like batteries, critical thinking is sold separately.
Bob_Kob
1 / 5 (3) Jan 30, 2009
Maybe Chinese just aren't good scientists.
mudi
not rated yet Jan 30, 2009
There are two basic method of science learning.One is learning something and try make connection with real word(try to understand).another way is just remember every thing.First method is difficult and time consuming.In most Asian countries getting more result in an exam is very important to there life.They just follow second way which is the best method to get more marks in an exam.If some one follow second way he will be slow and will not get good marks like Einstein.If you test their skills with a normal exam, they will get less marks but there reasoning skills will be good.thats the different.I think in a most Asian counties if some follow first method of learning he will not be able to enter to a university.I heard some students get near 100% marks in very difficult science exams.But I never heard that they invent some thing.
Current education system and exam system should be change.If you didn't submit pass papers and if you make new questions in an exam,may be you will be able select students how folly the fist way of learning.

Modernmystic
2 / 5 (4) Jan 30, 2009
I note that while US and Chinese student could apply reason equally well, the Chinese had more knowledge to which to apply their reason. Who would you hire?


The US student. I want individuals, not people who were brought up in a culture that tended to make them yes men and robots.
Modernmystic
1.8 / 5 (5) Jan 30, 2009
yes, what a choice ... americans brainwashed by religion or chinese brainwashed by their government.
i vote for europe (excluding the vatican ofcourse :P )


Interesting, how would you feel about hiring arrogant biogeted a$$&^)#@?
fleem
1 / 5 (1) Jan 30, 2009
And a side point is: Academic degrees and grade point averages are almost exclusively an indication of knowledge rather than intellect, yet our society treats them almost exclusively as an indication of intellect.
marjon
1 / 5 (3) Jan 30, 2009
That's is the problem with government controlled education. Instead of teaching how to think, the state wants to teach what to think.
h1ghj3sus
4 / 5 (1) Jan 30, 2009
There are two basic method of science learning.One is learning something and try make connection with real word(try to understand).another way is just remember every thing.First method is difficult and time consuming.


I agree.

If some one follow second way he will be slow and will not get good marks like Einstein.If you test their skills with a normal exam, they will get less marks but there reasoning skills will be good.thats the different.


I disagree. Einstein has brought science into a system of belief. True science is an attempt to describe nature, based upon empiricism. You go and state an equation or "law" and confuse all of those faithful students. If you understand something completely, you will in fact make better grades than the "memorizers". For instance, the laws of thermodynamics are not 100% accurate. But most of the community will claim that they are irrefutable.

People are too quick to claim that something is a "fact".
blengi
1 / 5 (3) Jan 30, 2009
Hmmm, would be interesting to know what the reasoning scores for each group were when only like scores in the knowledge tests are compared. Given must be some positive correlation between knowledge and reasoning, the results seem to suggest that US students with comparable scores to Chinese students in the tests 1 and 2, will tend to outperform them in reasoning. Also reasonably implies that equally knowledgable US scientists are on average generally better than Chinese ones...
mudi
not rated yet Jan 30, 2009
Thank you for your reply.

Einstein has brought science into a system of belief. True science is an attempt to describe nature, based upon empiricism.

I agree with you.I state that Einstein didn't get good marks in exams.Sorry for my poor explanation.


If you understand something completely, you will in fact make better grades than the "memorizers".


It depend on the exam.In normal exams "memorizers" get better grades.they will memorize all pass papers and answers. therefor they will answer very quickly.
Student who think about the problems will be slow.
Memorizers will be very good in exams but not in reasoning.It is very diffiucalt distinct memorizers since they know how to show that they understand every thing.
freethinking
1 / 5 (4) Feb 01, 2009
US teaches kids to repeat facts without critical thinking, ie. global warming, evolution. China you do what the government tells you, and you dont disagree with them.

Christians are told to prove all thing, stand up against the pressure from government and schools, they believe in discipline. They are taught to memorize facts, exposed to music. No wonder Christians typically are better at facts.