Learning science facts doesn’t boost abilities in scientific reasoning

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.

Lei Bao, 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.”

I’d have to give a bit more weight to the methods used in China – after reading the details of the article. There were three types of tests used. Only in one did U.S. students match results from the Chinese students.

Bao’s overall criticism still stands as a standard to be met and matched by educators in both systems.

3 thoughts on “Learning science facts doesn’t boost abilities in scientific reasoning

  1. K B says:

    conventional wisdom, which holds that teaching science facts will improve students’ reasoning ability

    What boneheads came up with that conventional wisdom? It’s like believing that if you can recite steps of the scientific method, you are capable of utilizing the scientific method.

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