Help Students Think like a Scientist

By Sara Rathburn

The 2002 Bringing Research on Learning to the GeoSciences workshop report (Manduca et al.) passed my desk recently. The workshop objective was to encourage dialogue between academics involved in teaching and research and science educators and cognitive scientists regarding how people learn. Here are the main ideas:

The overarching goal of science education

For majors and non-majors alike, the overarching goal is to help students think like a scientist. This includes, but is not limited to, understanding:

  1. the nature and processes of science
  2. the roles of evidence and theory
  3. complex systems involving physical, chemical, and biological interactions
  4. varying temporal and spatial scales
  5. interpretation of incomplete data, and
  6. the creation and use of complex models.

Teaching students to think like a scientist requires a deliberate, intentional approach, starting with the most basic information and the simplest of tasks, and then moving along a continuum of increasingly more challenging learning opportunities.

Research on the novice-expert continuum (Manduca and Mogk, 2006; Petcovic and Libarkin, 2007) elucidates the key cognitive dimensions of science knowledge, and helps us identify, describe, and incorporate these skills into our teaching. One way to foster scientific thinking is to begin with a consideration of the fundamental nature of expertise in the sciences. As instructors, we can begin to address this nature through:

1) Clearly defined course learning goals

Well articulated learning goals have been shown to significantly improve student learning in the sciences (NRC, 1999). Identifying our students learning goals, and incorporating them into our educational materials distills the course into key concepts while still keeping the focus on student achievement.

Imagine if everyone in a department were to develop clear, concise learning goals for each course they taught, and then shared that with their colleagues. It's possible that an entire curriculum would evolve stemming, in part, from the conversations we'd had regarding what we want our students to achieve in each course as they move toward graduation.

2) Creating effective learning environments

Research on college instruction indicates that traditional classrooms, relying on textbooks, lectures, and memory-based assessments do not engender conceptual understanding, scientific inquiry and critical thinking skills. Nor do they increase student interest in science (NRC, 1999; Chi et al., 1994).

Creating an effective learning environment is key to enhancing critical thinking, content understanding, and scientific knowledge as applied in different situations and scenarios. Many successful learning models exist, ranging from concept tests that identify student's prior knowledge to peer-led team-learning workshops; from inquiry and case-based learning projects to writing assignments with staged, structured peer and instructor feedback.

This gets back to discussing learning goals desired for the "expert" and organizing a curriculum that scaffolds learning in a developmental sequence, the main goal being to support learning at the introductory level (acquisition of coherent conceptual structures) that will, in turn, bolster reasoning and more advanced learning in higher level courses.


Bereiter, C., and Scardamalia, M., 1989, Intentional learning as a goal of instruction, in L. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, Learning, and Instruction, Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ.

Chi, M., deLeeuw, N., Chiu, M., and LaVancher, C., 1994, Eliciting self-explanations improves understanding, Cognitive Science 18:439-477.

Manduca, C., Mogk, D., and Stillings, N., 2002, Bringing Research on Learning to the Geosciences, National Science Foundation Report from Workshop (REC 021365),

Manduca, C., and Mogk, D., 2006, Earth and Mind: How Geologists Think and Learn about Earth, GSA Special Paper 413.

National Research Council, 1999, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School, Bransford, J., Brown, A., Cocking, R., Donovan, M, Pellegrino, J. (Eds.), National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

Petcovic, H., and Libarkin, J., 2007, Research in Science Education: The Novice-Expert Continuum, Journal of Geoscience Education 55: 333-339.

Copyright and Permissions:

Thanks to Dr. Sara Rathburn, Assoc. Prof. in the Dept. of Geosciences and the Master Teacher Initiative (MTI) Coordinator for the Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University, for this tip.


Peter Connor - TILT Web Content Writer and Editor