Authentic Science: What Do Students Believe?

Authentic Science: What Do Students Believe?

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."

Student Beliefs

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:

  1. Scientists are, and should be, concerned with the harmful and beneficial effects of their work.
  2. Social interactions (e.g. tennis, parties and conferences) affect what scientific knowledge is discovered.
  3. 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 models.

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 different picture.)

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 generation.

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 scientific enterprise. 

Present your student with a statement or situation. Examples are given below.

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 strategies:

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.

An Example


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 about nature).


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 paragraph).

Student Response Evaluation Comment Score

  • 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 knowledge.
  • 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 to work.

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 contact:

Dr. Glen S. Aikenhead
College of Education
University of Saskatchewan
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Canada