Research Summary

High School Students’ Informal Reasoning Regarding a Socio-scientific Issue, with Relation to Scientific Epistemological Beliefs and Cognitive Structures

Researchers Probe Students’ Reasoning on Socio-Scientific Issues

International Journal of Science Education

Social issues that are associated with science—issues such as global warming, energy use, and genetic engineering—are called socio-scientific issues (SSIs) and are a growing component of science education. Investigating these issues offers students the opportunity to apply their scientific knowledge in real-life situations. (For more on how SSIs are used in teaching, see the summary titled “Writing Stories Builds Scientific Literacy” in this section of the Research Bulletin.)

The researchers in this study investigated Taiwanese students’ reasoning regarding the socio-scientific issue of nuclear power. The researchers describe psychological theories that explain human thinking when confronted with an ill-structured problem (such as an issue in which there may not be one correct solution). According to the researchers, people tend to tackle the problem in two phases that involve different ways of thinking. In the initial phase, a person makes an intuitive decision based on his or her past experiences, including knowledge and beliefs. That may be followed by a second deliberation stage in which the person employs logical and abstract thinking in a conscious way to arrive at a final decision. In other words, the authors explain, “People decide first and think afterward in order to justify choices that are unconsciously determined.” This way of thinking is sometimes referred to as a “belief bias.”

The authors used a series of questionnaires and interviews to examine high school students’ reasoning on the SSI of nuclear power. Sixty-eight average-performing Taiwanese tenth graders (15- and 16-year-olds) in two high school classes participated in the study. The researchers used a questionnaire with closed-ended items to assess the students’ beliefs about science and used a questionnaire with open-ended items as well as an interview to assess their cognitive structures and reasoning.

The results of the research confirm the belief-bias phenomenon. Once students had declared a personal decision about the role of nuclear power, they were less able to articulate arguments that ran counter to their own decision. The researchers explain that “students will make their personal decisions toward an SSI first, and, after making their personal positions, their ‘belief bias’ will cause them to ignore some counterarguments they have known.”

The researchers also found that although some students had extensive cognitive structures related to the nuclear power issue (meaning that they were particularly knowledgeable about the issue), they did not necessarily apply that knowledge; instead, they still made intuitive decisions. The authors suggest that these findings point to the need for science educators to help students both apply their knowledge and use more conscious, reasoned, and logical thinking in arriving at conclusions. In particular, the information processing mode of comparing (being able to state the relationships between two options) tended to be associated with better reasoning quality. This suggests that students should specifically be asked to compare contrasting positions as they apply their knowledge to an SSI.

The Bottom Line

Students’ thinking about socio-scientific issues such as the use of nuclear power is complex and involves not just students’ scientific knowledge, but also their beliefs. Students have a tendency to form an opinion through an unconscious process and then may later justify the opinion through a more conscious process. Science educators should help students use more conscious reasoning to evaluate issues. Specifically, students should be encouraged to compare contrasting arguments by applying prior social and scientific knowledge.