Research in Science Education

, Volume 43, Issue 3, pp 1135–1154 | Cite as

Factors Influencing Science Content Accuracy in Elementary Inquiry Science Lessons

  • Barbara L. Nowicki
  • Barbara Sullivan-Watts
  • Minsuk K. Shim
  • Betty Young
  • Robert Pockalny


Elementary teachers face increasing demands to engage children in authentic science process and argument while simultaneously preparing them with knowledge of science facts, vocabulary, and concepts. This reform is particularly challenging due to concerns that elementary teachers lack adequate science background to teach science accurately. This study examined 81 in-classroom inquiry science lessons for preservice education majors and their cooperating teachers to determine the accuracy of the science content delivered in elementary classrooms. Our results showed that 74 % of experienced teachers and 50 % of student teachers presented science lessons with greater than 90 % accuracy. Eleven of the 81 lessons (9 preservice, 2 cooperating teachers) failed to deliver accurate science content to the class. Science content accuracy was highly correlated with the use of kit-based resources supported with professional development, a preference for teaching science, and grade level. There was no correlation between the accuracy of science content and some common measures of teacher content knowledge (i.e., number of college science courses, science grades, or scores on a general science content test). Our study concluded that when provided with high quality curricular materials and targeted professional development, elementary teachers learn needed science content and present it accurately to their students.


Elementary education Inquiry science Preservice students Science content accuracy Science content knowledge 



This research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (Grant No. ESI-0455685). The authors would like to acknowledge the generous assistance of Sally Beauman and Elaine Mangiante who assisted us with logistics of the data collection.


  1. Abd-El-Khalick, F., & BouJaoude, S. (1997). An exploratory study of the knowledge base for science teaching. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 34(7), 673–699.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Abell, S. K. (2007). Research on science teacher knowledge. In S. K. Abell & N. G. Lederman (Eds.), Handbook of research on science education (pp. 1105–1149). New Jersey: Laurence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  3. Appleton, K. (1995). Student teachers’ confidence to teach science: is more science knowledge necessary to improve self-confidence? International Journal of Science Education, 17, 357–369.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Appleton, K. (2006). Science pedagogical content knowledge and elementary school teachers. In K. Appleton (Ed.), Elementary science teacher education (pp. 31–54). Mauwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates and Association for Science Teacher Education (ASTE).Google Scholar
  5. Atwood, R. K., & Atwood, V. A. (1996). Preservice elementary teachers’ conceptions of the causes of the seasons. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 33(5), 553–563.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Ball, D. L. (2000). Bridging practices: intertwining content and pedagogy in teaching and learning to teach. Journal of Teacher Education, 51(3), 241–247.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Ball, D. L., Thames, M. H., & Phelps, G. (2008). Content knowledge for teaching: what makes it special? Journal of Teacher Education, 59(5), 389–407.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bennett, N., & Carre, C. (1993). Learning to teach. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Burgoon, J. N., Heddle, M. L., & Duran, E. (2011). Re-examining the similarities between teacher and student conceptions about physical science. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 22, 101–114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Carlsen, W. S. (1991). Subject-matter knowledge and science teaching: a pragmatic perspective. In J. Brophy (Ed.), Advances in research on teaching (Teachers’ knowledge of subject matter as it relates to their teaching practice, Vol. 2, pp. 115–143). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press Inc.Google Scholar
  11. Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (1999). Relationships of knowledge and practice: teacher leaning in communities. Review of Research in Education, 24, 249–305.Google Scholar
  12. Colburn, A. (1997). How to make lab activities more open ended. California Science Teachers Association. CSTA Journal, 1997, 4–6. Fall.Google Scholar
  13. Darling-Hammond, L., & Youngs, P. (2002). Defining “highly qualified teachers”: What does “scientifically-based research” actually tell us? Educational Researcher, 31(9), 13–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Davis, E. A., & Krajcik, J. S. (2005). Designing educative curriculum materials to promote teacher learning. Educational Researcher, 34(3), 3–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Davis, E. A., & Petish, D. (2005). Real-world applications and instructional representations among prospective elementary science teachers. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 16, 263–286.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Davis, E. A., Petish, D., & Smithey, J. (2006). Challenges new science teachers face. Review of Educational Research, 76(4), 607–651.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Dawkins, K. R., Dickerson, D. L., McKinny, S. E., & Butler, S. (2008). Teaching density to middle school students: preservice science teacher’s content knowledge and pedagogical practices. The Clearing House, 82(1), 21–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Duschl, R. A., Schweingruber, H. A., & Shouse, A. W. (Eds.). (2007). Taking science to school: learning and teaching science in grades K-8. The National Research Council. Washington, D.C: The National Academies Press.Google Scholar
  19. Edwards, A., & Ogden, L. (1998). Constructing curriculum subject knowledge in primary school teacher training. Teaching and Teacher Education, 14(7), 735–747.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Ginns, I. S., & Watters, J. J. (1995). An analysis of scientific understanding of preservice elementary teacher education students. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 32, 205–222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Halim, L., & Meerah, S. M. (2002). Science trainee teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge and its influence on physics teaching. Research in Science & Technological Education, 20(2), 215–225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Harlen, W. (1997). Primary teachers’ understanding in science and its impact in the classroom. Research in Science Education, 27, 323–337.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Harlen, W., & Holroyd, C. (1997). Primary teachers’ understanding of concepts of science: impact on confidence and teaching. International Journal of Science Education, 19, 93–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hays, W. L. (1994). Statistics. Florida: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.Google Scholar
  25. Kikas, E. (2004). Teachers’ conceptions and misconceptions concerning three natural phenomena. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 41(5), 432–448.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Krajcik, J. S., & Sutherland, L. M. (2010). Supporting students in developing literacy in science. Science, 328, 456–459.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Krall, R. M., Lott, K. H., & Wymer, C. L. (2009). Inservice elementary and middle school teachers’ conceptions of photosynthesis and respiration. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 20, 41–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kruger, C. (1990). Some primary teachers’ ideas about energy. Physics Education, 25, 86–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kruger, C., & Summers, M. (1988). Primary school teachers’ understanding of science concepts. Journal of Education for Teaching, 14(3), 259–265.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Leite, L., Mendoza, J., & Borsese, A. (2007). Teachers’ and prospective teachers’ explanations of liquid-state phenomena: a comparative study involving three European countries. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(2), 349–374.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Luera, G. R., Moyer, R. H., & Everett, S. A. (2005). What type and level of science content knowledge of elementary education students affect their ability to construct an inquiry-based science lesson. Journal of Elementary Science Education, 17(1), 12–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Metz, K. E. (2009). Elementary school teachers as “targets and agents of change”: teachers’ learning in interaction with reform science curriculum. Science Education, 93, 915–954.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Michaels, S., Shouse, A. W., & Schweingruber, H. A. (2008). Ready, set, science! Putting research to work in K-8 science classrooms. Board on Science Education, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, D.C: The National Academies Press.Google Scholar
  34. Minner, D. D., Levy, A. J., & Century, J. (2010). Inquiry-based science instruction—what is it and does it matter? Results from a research synthesis years 1984–2002. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47(4), 474–496.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. National Research Council. (2000). Inquiry and the national science education standards: a guide for teaching and learning. Washington, DC: National Academic Press.Google Scholar
  36. Newton, D. P., & Newton, L. D. (2001). Subject content knowledge and teacher talk in the primary science classroom. European Journal of Teacher Education, 24(3), 369–379.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Nilsson, P., & van Driel, J. (2010). How will we understand what we teach?—Primary student teacher’s perceptions of their development of knowledge and attitudes towards physics. Research in Science Education. doi: 10.1007/s11165-010-9179-0.
  38. Osborne, J. (2010). Arguing to learn in science: the role of collaborative, critical discourse. Science, 328, 463–466.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Overstreet, C. (2002). HRI science assessment instrument. Chapel Hill: Horizon Research Inc.Google Scholar
  40. Parker, J., & Heywood, D. (2000). Exploring the relationship between subject knowledge and pedagogic content knowledge in primary teachers’ learning about forces. International Journal of Science Education, 22(1), 89–111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Perkes, V. A. (1967). Junior high school science teacher preparation, teaching behavior, and student achievement. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 5(2), 121–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Perkes, V. A. (1975). Relationships between a teacher’s background and sensed adequacy to teach elementary science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 12, 85–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Poulson, L. (2001). Paradigm lost? Subject knowledge, primary teachers and education policy. British Journal of Educational Studies, 49(1), 40–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Rice, D. C. (2005). I didn’t know oxygen could boil! What preservice and inservice elementary teachers’ answers to “simple” science questions reveals about their subject matter knowledge. International Journal of Science Education, 27(9), 1059–1082.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Schulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15, 4–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Schulman, L. S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57, 1–22.Google Scholar
  47. Shallcross, T., & Spink, E. (2002). How primary trainee teachers perceive the development of their own scientific knowledge: links between confidence, content and competence? International Journal of Science Education, 24(12), 1293–1312.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Shavelson, R. J. (1983). Review of research on teachers’ pedagogical judgment, plans, and decisions. The Elementary School Journal, 83, 392–413.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Stoddart, T., Connell, M., Stofflett, R., & Peck, D. (1993). Reconstructing elementary teacher candidates’ understanding of mathematics and science content. Teacher and Teacher Education, 9(3), 229–241.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Stofflett, R., & Stoddart, T. (1994). The ability to understand and use conceptual change pedagogy as a function of prior content learning experience. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 31, 31–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Trumper, R. (2006). Teaching future teachers basic astronomy concepts—seasonal changes—at a time of reform in science education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 43(9), 879–906.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Trundle, K. C., Atwood, R. K., & Christopher, J. E. (2002). Preservice elementary teachers’ conceptions of moon phases before and after instruction. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 39(7), 633–658.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Varelas, M., Pappas, C. C., Kane, J. M., & Arsenault, A. (2008). Urban primary-grade children think and talk science: curricular and instructional practices that nurture participation and argumentation. Science Education, 92, 65–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Wandersee, J. H., Mintzes, J. J., & Novak, J. D. (1994). Research on alternative conceptions in science. In D. L. Gabel (Ed.), Handbook of research on science teaching and learning (pp. 177–210). New York: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  55. Weiss, I. R., Pasley, J. D., Smith, P. S., Banilower, E. R., & Heck, D. J. (2003). Looking inside the classroom: A study of K-12 mathematics and science education in the United States. Chapel Hill, NC: Horizon Research Inc., pp. 356
  56. Wragg, E. C., Bennett, S. N., & Carre, C. (1989). Primary teachers and the national curriculum. Research Papers in Education, 4(1), 17–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Wright, S. P., Horn, S. P., & Sanders, W. L. (1997). Teacher and classroom context effects on student achievement: implications for teacher evaluation. Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education, 11(1), 57–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Yoon, H.-G., Joung, Y. J., & Kim, M. (2011). The challenges of science inquiry teaching for pre-service teachers in elementary classrooms: difficulties on and under the scene [Electronic version]. Research in Science Education. doi: 10.1007/s11165-011-9212-y.
  59. Young, B. J., & Kellogg, T. (1993). Science preparation and attitudes of pre-service elementary teachers. Science Education, 77(3), 279–291.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Zembal-Saul, C. (2009). Learning to teach elementary school science as argument. Science Education, 93, 687–719.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Zembal-Saul, C., Blumenfeld, P., & Krajcik, J. (2000). Influence of guided cycles of planning, teaching, and reflection on prospective elementary teachers’ science content representations. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37, 318–339.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Zembal-Saul, C., Krajcik, J., & Blumenfeld, P. (2002). Elementary student teachers’ science content representations. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 39, 443–463.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Barbara L. Nowicki
    • 1
  • Barbara Sullivan-Watts
    • 1
  • Minsuk K. Shim
    • 1
  • Betty Young
    • 1
  • Robert Pockalny
    • 2
  1. 1.School of EducationUniversity of Rhode IslandKingstonUSA
  2. 2.Graduate School of OceanographyUniversity of Rhode IslandNarragansettUSA

Personalised recommendations