Science Education Terminology

Constructivist learning  The key notion in this new “constructivist theory” is that people learn best by actively constructing their own understanding. This means that a student has learned a concept in such a way as to build it into his or her own world picture; the student must actively work for this to occur. Science is not just a big collection of facts to memorize – active learning leads to understanding students can retain.

Control of Variables teaching strategy  Direct instruction using the Control of Variables Strategy (CVS), rather than discovery learning, may be the best way to teach young children about science.  For children to become scientific thinkers, somewhere along the way they must obtain a set of skills for comparison and solid logic that allows them to recognize potentially important experimental results.  CVS is not something that most children acquire naturally, even if they have a lot of exposure to discovery learning experiences. Instead, CVS is a cognitive process skill that must be taught.

Multiple Intelligences  Howard Gardner’s proposed set of eight “intelligences” or “ways to be smart” or “learning styles” which include verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist. The first two are what I.Q. tests measure.

Concept mapping  A learning theory-based instructional tool that serves to clarify links between new and old knowledge and force the learner to externalize those links in a visual display that tends to be more easily remembered (cf. mind mapping).  Lots of different computer software programs have been developed for concept mapping.

Learning-cycle  The Learning Cycle is a student-centered teaching method developed from Piaget’s learning theory. It has been used at all grade levels and can be adapted to virtually any science topic. The Learning Cycle has three stages – exploration, concept introduction, and concept application – that usually comprise several days of instructional time.  V5 E’s (engage, explore, explain, extend, evaluate)

Collaborative learning  A teaching method where students work together – in science students may be presented with a problem and then collectively gather, share, and interpret data in small groups and then individually write up results. Active exchange of ideas can promote critical thinking.  Currently applied mostly at primary and secondary levels – little empirical evidence for effectiveness at college level.

Think-pair-share  Classroom method that allows everyone to be engaged in discussion by allowing students to first individually think about a question or topic, then pair up with a student sitting next to them to discuss their ideas, followed by class wide discussion to share results.

Divergent vs convergent questioning  Divergent questions, for example “What do you see in this picture”, are open-ended, may have no wrong answers, and tend to stimulate discussion.  Convergent questions, for example “What is the chemical composition of quartz?”, tend to intimidate students and stifle discussion, because the students can see that there is only one right answer and many wrong ones.

The Scientific Method  Traditionally stated as: 1) State the hypotheses 2) Design the experiment to test the hypotheses 3) Collect the data 4) Analyze the data and 5) Draw the conclusions. Only educators and science textbooks require students to memorize THE scientific method and formally state hypotheses. Much of scientific work is collecting, observing, and measuring not experimenting. Experiments rarely provide final evidence or definitive answers to questions asked during original research as the traditional method suggests. Scientists and researchers acknowledge that the “formal” definition of the scientific method is questionable and restrictive. There are numerous methods to science with many external influences to these methods. Luck, guesses, and even dreams can be components of scientific methodology.

Scientific Thinking Scientific thinking is primarily a form of inductive thought in which observations of the world are made and general principles are derived from the observations. This is opposed to deductive thought in which the observations of the world are made to fit preconceived, but flexible, ideas. Deduction is used in science, but induction takes the prominent role. Also involved in scientific thinking are the processes by which observations are made, the attitudes of those gathering the information, and problem solving skills.

Curriculum  An operational plan for instruction that details what students need to know, how students are to achieve the identified curricular goals, what teachers are to do to help students develop that knowledge, and the context in which learning and teaching occur (NCTM).  A curriculum establishes a clear overall framework in which components of conceptual development are satisfied: connectedness among concepts, connectedness to prior knowledge, and usefulness.

Assessment  Assessment provides criteria to judge progress of students, teachers, and programs. It serves as a primary feedback mechanism to evaluate student learning, attitudes and performance. Teachers and administrators use assessment data to plan curricula.  Assessments conducted by district, state, or national authorities are used to formulate, monitor, and enforce public policy; as well as to demonstrate accountability. Design and execution of exemplary assessment practices is an essential aspect of educational reform. Teachers have little time to conduct careful assessments of student learning, lack instruments for assessing richly connected learnings and higher-order thinking skills, and rarely have opportunities to compare their experiences with others who teach the same concepts and skills (Benchmarks).


Baker, D.R., and Piburn, M.D., 1997, Constructing science in middle and secondary school classrooms: Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 428p.

Lawson, A.E., 1995, Science teaching and the development of thinking: Belmont, CA, Wadsworth, 624p.

Lawson, A., Abrahamn, M., and Renner, J., 1989, A theory of instruction: Using the learning cycle to teach science concepts and teaching skills: NARST Monograph Number One: National Association for Research in Science Teaching, 79p.

Macdonald, R.H., and Korinek, L., 1995, Cooperative learning activities in large entry-level geology courses: Journal of Geological Education, v. 43, p. 341-345.