How to Teach the Process of Science

Initial Publication Date: February 17, 2009

How Do I Teach the Process of Science?

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This module was authored by Anne E. Egger, Stanford University, as part of a collaboration between Visionlearning and the SERC Pedagogic Service, and includes the products of a July 2009 workshop on Teaching the Process of Science.

Students measuring water displacement
Integrating the process of science into your teaching does not necessarily require making major changes. It can simply involve making the process of science more explicit in the activities and methods you are already using. On the other hand, if you are considering starting from scratch, think about designing your course around the process of science. This does not mean abandoning the core science content you wish to teach - far from it. Instead, it means using your course content as a means for exposing students to the real process of science as explicitly as possible. This approach can be taken at all course levels, from introductory science to graduate level courses. In some cases, in fact, you may wish to focus exclusively on the process of science, such as in a research preparation course that prepares undergraduates for summer research or senior thesis research.

Key strategies

Whether you are thinking about making big or small changes in your courses, the same principles apply in emphasizing the process of science:

Be explicit

Making the aspects of science that you consider implicit within your teaching explicit can significantly improve student understanding of the nature of science (McGinn & Roth, 1999 ). For example, in teaching about evolution, you might focus on the data that supports the concept of change in organisms rather than on the conclusions that Darwin and others made. In the process, you could emphasize how evolutionary theory is supported by multiple lines of evidence from many lines of research up to the present. Or in a laboratory exercise where students graph a large amount of data, you might ask them to first draw conclusions on their data before graphing it, and again after graphing it, in the process emphasizing the importance that visual representation brings to data analysis.

Most of our textbooks don't explicitly address the process of science. You can read more about Integrating the Process into Readings, and Browse Text Resources that do incorporate the process of science.

Tell stories

In addition, bringing stories about scientists into your classroom helps students understand that science is a human endeavor. Those stories fall into two broad categories: references to historical figures that can help students understand how scientific knowledge has developed over time, and stories about scientists doing research today, to help students see that science is not "complete" and that scientists are diverse. Research about including these stories suggest that stories have several benefits when used in the classroom; the use of stories results in "making the concepts being taught more memorable, reducing teacher–student distance, assisting in illuminating a point, providing "reasons for needing to know," stimulating the raising of pertinent questions in the minds of students, and producing explanation-seeking curiosity, of both a historical and scientific type, in students' minds" (Klassen, 2008 ).

In addition, telling science stories can help address some of the conflicts that students may feel between science and religion (Bickmore et al., 2009 ). For more information, read Addressing Science and Religion, contributed by participants in the July 2009 workshop.

Use real data

Perhaps one of the most significant things you can do in your classroom is to give students the opportunity to work with real data (Manduca & Mogk, 2002 ). Nothing can compare with the insight gained by students collecting and working with data, where they have a chance to experience for themselves the challenges and successes that are a part of every scientific endeavor. For more information about how to use data in your classroom, visit the module Teaching with Data.


Assessing student understanding of the process of science can be very challenging, especially when we are far more used to assessing their content knowledge. Several participants in the July 2009 workshop had developed and tested their own instruments, including:

In addition, a number of assessment instruments have been developed for addressing different aspects of the nature of science, the process of science, and student attitudes towards science. These include:

For general information about designing effective assessment tools, visit the SERC module on Assessment.