Which approaches to teaching science have the greatest impact on student achievement?

Why is this question important? Proficiency in science is increasingly recognized as an essential skill set for a workforce to be competitive in the international marketplace (Kilpatrick & Quinn, 2009; Duschl, Schweingruber, & Shouse, 2007). With the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996, 2000, 2012) and the Next Generation Science Standards (www.nextgenscience.org/next-generation-science-standards), general agreement has been reached about what science students need to learn. The crucial next step is to determine how best to teach science.

See further discussion below.


Results: A review of research on the achievement outcomes of the many types of approaches to teaching science in elementary schools conducted by Slavin, Lake, Hanley, and Thurston (2014) concluded that approaches focusing on teacher classroom instruction provided the greatest effect size. The study further found that approaches that emphasized cooperative learning and science-reading integration and that gave teachers technology tools to enhance instruction produced the best results.

Implications: These results should be viewed as part of a continuum of evidence when deciding on an approach to teaching science in elementary school classrooms. Because of the small number of studies meeting the criteria for review (see Study Description), educators should act with caution and track the impact of the curriculum and approach through rigorous ongoing progress monitoring.

Study Description: While numerous reviews of research on teaching science have been conducted over the past 30 years, this is the first published comprehensive review of approaches to teaching science in elementary school. A quantitative synthesis of experimental studies of elementary science education approaches, it adapted a technique identified as "best evidence synthesis" (Slavin, 2008).

Slavin et al. examined 332 published and unpublished papers of science approaches in elementary schools but found only 23 studies that met the following criteria:

  1. The study looked at programs and practices used in elementary science education.
  2. The study was conducted no earlier than 1980.
  3. Approaches began when children were in grades K–5, or K–6 if the elementary school included sixth grade.
  4. The study compared children in classes using a given science program or practice with those in control classes using an alternative program.
  5. The program or practice could be used in ordinary science classes.
  6. Random assignment or matching experimental design was used. Studies without control groups were excluded.
  7. Pretest data were provided, unless the study used random assignment of at least 30 individuals and there were no indications of initial inequality. If science pretests were not available, standardized reading or math tests, given at pretest, were accepted.
  8. The dependent measures (i.e., what is being measured in the experiment) had quantitative measures of science performance.

The approaches that met the review's criteria fell into three main categories.

  1. Inquiry-based learning: This approach to teaching offers students an opportunity to ask questions, investigate issues, select methods, and solve problems that have been posed to them by the teacher. The process is based on problem solving as a way to enhance motivation and learning. In inquiry-based instruction, students direct the learning experience and the teacher plays the role of a facilitator.
  2. Inquiry-based instruction with kits: These programs are based on inquiry-based instruction but provide teachers with packages (kits) and specific guidelines for the presentation of each lesson. The programs rely on well-designed materials prepared for teachers.
  3. Inquiry-based instruction without kits: These programs are based on inquiry-based instruction but do not provide materials (kits) for teachers to use in lessons. The teachers are given training and coaching to improve their understanding and ability to present the lessons. Staff development emphasizes generic instruction methods such as cooperative learning, concept development, and integrating the reading of science into lesson plans.

Definitions: Best-evidence synthesis: A method that aims to improve on current research synthesis by combining the benefits of quantitative analysis (e.g., meta-analysis) and traditional narrative reviews. Unlike a meta-analysis, best-evidence synthesis is not limited to statistical aggregation and the analysis of quantitative results; it supplements them with knowledge gained from qualitative studies.

Cooperative learning: An educational approach that targets integration of academic and social learning experiences into the lesson plan. Students work in groups to complete tasks that are presented by the teacher. This process capitalizes on the benefits students achieve from solving problems together as a group, asking one another for information, evaluating one another's ideas, and monitoring peers work.

Matching assignment: An alternative to a randomized experimental design used to create equivalent groups in which the subjects are matched based on a particular variable and then put into groups.

Quantitative research synthesis: A research method that relies on the analysis of numerical data. Quantitative techniques facilitate the comparison and generalization of research results across similar phenomena. The most common quantitative research synthesis technique is a meta-analysis. The technique allows for counting study outcomes, combining probabilities from inference tests, averaging effect sizes, and examining the variability in effect sizes across studies.

Technical approaches: Programs that integrate video and computer resources with science instruction and cooperative learning.

Duschl, R. A., Schweingruber, H. A., & Shouse, A. W. (Eds.) (2007). Taking science to school: Learning and teaching science in grades K–8. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Encyclopedia of public health. Vol. 244. Berlin Heidelberg New York: Springer, 2008.

Kilpatrick, J., & Quinn, H. (Eds.). (2009). Science and mathematics education: Education policy white paper. Washington, DC: National Academy of Education.

National Research Council. (1996). National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2000). Inquiry and the national science education standards: A guide for teaching and learning. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2012). A framework for K–12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Slavin, R. E. (1986). Best-evidence synthesis: An alternative to meta-analytic and traditional reviews. Educational Researcher, 15(9), 5–11.

Slavin, R. E. (2008). What works? Issues in synthesizing educational program evaluations. Educational Researcher, 37(1), 5–14.

* Slavin, R. E., Lake, C., Hanley, P., & Thurston, A. (2014). Experimental evaluations of elementary science programs: A best-evidence synthesis. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 51(7), 870–901. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/tea.21139/abstract?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

* study from which graph data were derived