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What the Research Says About Science Process Skills


Dr. Karen Ostlund
The University of Texas at Austin

Scientists engage in procedures of investigation to gain knowledge of natural phenomena. These tactics and strategies, the skills scientists use in their pursuit of understanding, are summarized below:

Observation. Science begins with observations of objects and events; these observations lead to the asking of questions. Crucial to the method of science is the ability to ask the right question and to make selected observations relevant to that question. Observations are influenced by past experience, often involve instruments (microscopes, telescopes, oscilloscopes, etc.), and require careful recording and description. Surprising or unexpected observations occasionally contribute new an d important knowledge.

Measurement. Measurement involves assigning numbers to objects or events that may be arranged in a continuum according to a set of values. Expression of observations in quantitative terms adds precision and permits more accurate descripti ons.

Experimentation. An experiment is a series of observations carried out under special conditions. The distinction between observation and experimentation is slight. An experiment always consists of observations, but it is more than that be cause the observers usually interfere to some extent with nature. Experimentation is the hallmark of good science whether it comes at the beginning - as a gathering of facts - or at the end in the final test of a hypothesis.

Communication. A scientist is obligated to make the information from observation and experimentation available to the scientific community for independent confirmation and testing. Discussion and critical analysis of findings are the key means by which science advances. Scientists disseminate their results in journals, at professional meetings, seminars, and through informal networks. This dissemination contributes to the common core of knowledge of the past and provides the vehicle for c ontinuous review of this body of knowledge. Communication is the means by which purpose and usefulness are given to scientific investigation.

Critical Thinking Skills. Although the boundaries are hazy, it appears that certain thought processes are part of the common pattern of scientific investigation. These include inductive reasoning, formulation of hypotheses, deductive reas oning, and a variety of mental skills such as analogy, extrapolation, synthesis, and evaluation. In addition to these traditional processes, scientific inquiry abounds with approaches described variously as speculation, guess, intuition, hunches, or insig ht. The exact mechanisms by which these processes function are unknown but they are commonly cited in the autobiographies of the great scientists.

Reading and activity-oriented science emphasize the same intellectual skills and are both concerned with thinking processes. When a teacher helps students develop scientific processes, reading processes are simultaneously being developed.

The research on strategies and methodologies for teaching science in elementary schools has produced clear evidence that students in process-approach programs learn more than do students in traditional textbook-based programs (Bredderman, 1983).

The research indicates that the process-approach programs of the sixties and seventies, Elementary Science Study (ESS), Science Curriculum Improvement Study (SCIS), and Science-A Process Approach (SAPA),were more effective in raisi ng student performance and attitudes than the traditional reading-based programs. Data from meta-analyses by Shymansky et al. (1983) on student performance across these activity-based programs, in terms of performance clusters (achievement, perceptions, a nd so on) and a composite performance measure show that students in the hands-on programs outperformed their traditional elementary school counterparts by 9 percentile points. Students' perceptions of these science programs as well as performance on proce ss skill measures were particularly positive, exceeding traditional students by 17 and 19 percentile points respectively. The gains in attitude and process skills make sense, considering the emphasis placed on making science fun through hands-on activity. However, the programs were generally seen as lacking rigor-a point which ultimately contributed to their demise. The data indicate that, in fact, these elementary science programs were more effective in enhancing student achievement and problem-solving s kills than were traditional programs. The data that profile the combined effect of ESS, SCIS, and SAPA on student subgroups show that students in both rural and urban classrooms with equal distributions of boys and girls from medium and high socio-economi c backgrounds performed significantly better than did their counterparts in traditional science programs. On standardized tests, students involved in at least one of the three programs performed significantly better on the composite measure and on three o f the five performance areas.

Osborne and Freyberg (1985) outline five techniques that teachers in activity-based programs have used successfully to get students to focus on strategies for learning how to learn through activities. For example, instruction or a particular task can b e written on cards and handed to small groups of students for unscrambling. Five to ten minutes spent on this kind of activity ensures that students will think about what to do rather than merely go through mechanical motions.


Bredderman, T. Effects of activity-based elementary science on student outcomes: A quantitative synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 53(4), 499-518.

Osborne, R., and Freyberg, P. (1985). Learning in science: The implication of children's science. Auckland: Heinemann Publishers.

Shymansky, J. A., Kyle, W.C., and Alport, J.M. (1983) The effects of new science curricula on student performance. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 20, 387-404.

Science Process Skills

How can teaching science process skills improve student performance

in reading, language arts, and mathematics?

The science process skills are part of and central to other disciplines. Research indicates that the integration of science with reading and mathematics has produced positive effects on student learning:

The Relationship Between Reading and Science Process Skills

Research indicates that a strong experienced-based science program, one in which students directly manipulate materials, can facilitate the development of language arts skills (Wellman, 1978).

Reading and activity-oriented science emphasize the same intellectual skills and are both concerned with thinking processes. When a teacher helps students develop science process skills, reading processes are simultaneously being developed (Mechling & Oliver, 1983 and Simon & Zimmerman, 1980).

The hands-on manipulative experiences science provides are the key to the relationship between process skills in both science and reading (Lucas & Burlando, 1975).

Science process skills have reading counterparts. For example, when a teacher is working on "describing" in science, students are learning to isolate important characteristics, enumerate characteristics, use appropriate terminology, and use synonyms which are important reading skills (Carter & Simpson, 1978).

When students have used the process skills of observing, identifying, and classifying, they are better able to discriminate between vowels and consonants and to learn the sounds represented by letters, letter blends, and syllables (Murray & Pikul ski, 1978).

Children's involvement with process skills enables them to recognize more easily the contextual and structural clues in attacking new words and better equips them to interpret data in a paragraph. Science process skills are essential to logical think ing, as well as to forming the basic skills for learning to read (Barufaldi & Swift, 1977).

Science instruction provides an alternative teaching strategy that motivates students who may have reading difficulties (Wellman, 1978).

Teaching Science Process Skills Enhances Reading Readiness

Guszak defines reading readiness as a skill-complex. Of the three areas within the skill-complex, two can be directly enhanced by science process skills: (1) physical factors (health, auditory, visual, speech, and motor); and (2) understanding fa ctors (concepts, processes). When students see, hear, and talk about science experiences, their understanding, perception, and comprehension of concepts and processes may improve (Barufaldi & Swift, 1977 and Bethel, 1974).

Evidence suggests that early experiences in science help children of all socioeconomic levels in language and logic development (Thelen, 1976).

Science activities provide opportunities for manipulating large quantities of multisensory materials which promotes perceptual skills, i.e., tactile, kinesthetic, auditory, and visual (Neuman, 1969). These skills then contribute to the development of the concepts, vocabulary, and oral language skills (listening and speaking) necessary for learning to read (Wellman, 1978).

Science programs that emphasis hands-on manipulative experiences, enhance the development of process skills in young children. The attainment of process skills developed by such science experiences are positively correlated with the development of re ading readiness (Nicodemus, 1968; Ritz, 1969; Rowe, 1968; and Stafford, 1969).

Teaching Science Process Skills Enhances Reading Skills in the Intermediate and Upper Elementary Grades

Studies viewed cumulatively suggest that science instruction at the intermediate and upper elementary grades does improve the attainment of reading skills. The findings reveal that students have derived benefits in the areas of vocabulary enrichm ent, increased verbal fluency, enhanced ability to think logically, and improved concept formation and communication skills (Campbell, 1972; Kraft, 1961; Olson, 1971; Quinn & Kessler, 1976).

Teaching Science Process Skills Enhances Oral and Written Communication Skills

As with all process skills, only through actual practice does competence in oral and written communication develop. Involvement in activity-based science programs provides learners with a multitude of experiences to draw from when they think and write (Simon & Zimmerman, 1980).

A study of the relationship between creative writing and science experiences indicates that when children write their own reading materials, their writing scores improve significantly (Jenkins, 1981).

Work with children from inner-city schools found significant gains in children's oral communication skills when they participated in Science Curriculum Improvement Study and Science-A Process Approach activities. Children who were exposed to Science- A Process Approach out-performed students who were not in tests of language output, vocabulary, sentence structure, and classifying, transmitting, and receiving oral communication skills. (Bethel, 1974 and Huff & Languis, 1973).

Teaching Science Process Skills Enhances the Language Development of Students with Special Needs

Research has shown that science can enhance the language development of children of limited English proficiency, of children from different ethnic backgrounds, and of physically handicapped children (Kral).

Bilingual students who participated in hands-on inquiry activities scored significantly higher on the Test of Oral Communication Skills than students who did not participate in science process skills (Roderiquez, I. & Bethel, L.J.).


The Relationship Between Mathematics and Science Process Skills

Science and mathematics are integrally related. Mathematics, to a great extent, is the language of science. The development of skills in logical mathematical reasoning and problem-solving is a goal of both science and mathematics instruction (Nat ional Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1980 and National Science Teachers Association, 1964 & 1983).

Science and mathematics reinforce each other, thereby facilitating better cognitive development (Almy, 1966).

Teaching Science Process Skills Enhances Achievement in Mathematics

Research has demonstrated that a variety of science experiences can facilitate the transition of students from one level of cognitive development to the next. A relationship between science and mathematics is suggested by the fact that one's achi evement in mathematics is related to one's level of cognitive development (Almy, 1966; Ayes & Ayers, 1973; Ayers & Mason; Froit, 1976; Renner, 1971; and Stafford & Renner, 1976).

Involving students in "hands-on" activities, where they count and manipulate objects, provides experiences that contribute to their understanding of number. In addition, science experiences contribute to the development of other operations basic to t he study of mathematics. Some of these operations are: conserving substance and length, one-to-one correspondence, ordering, seriating, and classifying (Campbell, 1972).

The contribution of science experiences to the development of operations basic to the study of mathematics is substantiated by research. In studying the relationship between students' ability to conserve number and quantity and mathematical performan ce, it was found that students having the ability to conserve experience greater success in learning mathematical skills and concepts. Students who had mathematics-science programs performed better on conservation and transitivity tasks than did those who received only mathematics instruction (Almy, 1966).

Research further indicates that science experiences not only enhance the operational abilities of kindergarten and first grade students, but also facilitate the transition from one level of cognitive development to the next among older students (Froi t, 1976 and Tipps, 1982).

Teaching Science Process Skills Enhances Problem-Solving Skills in Mathematics

Research has shown that science can be used to broaden the current approach to teaching problem solving in mathematics. Replacing contrived problems with real-world science problems has the potential to enhance the problem-solving abilities of st udents, while promoting a greater appreciation of the usefulness of problem solving in a multitude of circumstances (Coffia, 1971 and Shann, 1977).

Through science experiences, students can apply mathematics to real-world problems. At the elementary level, the teacher can provide hands-on science activities that facilitate the learning of abstract arithmetic concepts such as number sequencing, r egrouping, and fractions (Mechling & Oliver, 1983).


The concepts, processes, and methods found in science are used in other disciplines. Many science-class activities are predicated on students' reading and writing skills. Students read textbooks, read directions for conducting experiments, and writ e their own reports of observation. Science's integration with mathematics also requires little effort since the development of logical mathematical reasoning and problem-solving skills is a goal of instruction in both disciplines.


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