ERIC Identifier: ED309049
Publication Date: 1988-00-00
Author: Blosser, Patricia E.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
for Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Teaching Problem Solving--Secondary School Science. ERIC/SMEAC
Science Education Digest No. 2, 1988.
This digest is focused on problem solving in secondary school science
classes, as illustrated by research studies found in the literature for 1982-88.
PROBLEM SOLVING: WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
develop problem solving skills is a frequently cited goal of science educators.
The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), in its 1980 position
statement, advocated that science teachers help students learn and think
logically, specifying that "...high school laboratory and field activities
should emphasize not only the acquisition of knowledge, but also problem solving
and decision making" (1985:48).
Problem solving means many things to many people. For some, it includes an
attitude or predisposition toward inquiry as well as the actual processes by
which individuals attempt to gain knowledge. Usually, when teachers discuss
problem solving on the part of pupils, they anticipate pupils will become
involved with the thinking operations of analysis,synthesis, and evaluation
(considered as higher-level thinking skills). The American College Testing
program has redesigned its college admissions test with a new emphasis on
assessing higher-order thinking skills (EdLine,1989).
WHAT CHARACTERIZES PROBLEM SOLVING RESEARCH IN SCIENCE
Good and Smith (1987:31-36) provided a summary of problem solving
research in science education. In the 1960's, research on problem solving was
focused on how people solve puzzles and games. In the early 1970's, science
education researchers tape recorded "think aloud" interviews to gather data.
Current research on problem solving in science education involves information
processing theory - the idea that solving a problem requires two processes:
retrieval from memory of the pertinent information and proper application of the
information to the problem. Research studies now published are frequently
comparisons of expert and novice problem solvers in physics, biology, and
The focus of problem solving research in science varies with the discipline.
The following studies are some representative examples, grouped by biology,
chemistry, and physics:
Problem solving research in biology. Most of the problem solving research in
high school biology involves teaching genetics. In a recent article on teaching
genetics, Stewart discussed ways different problem types may contribute
differentially to learning outcomes (1988:237). Stewart contends there are two
main types of thinking involved in solving genetics problems: (1) reasoning from
causes to effects, and (2) reasoning from effects to causes. Most high school or
introductory college textbook genetics problems are cause to effect, with the
difficulty of the problem varying with genetics content an wording. Such
problems require content-specific algorithms. Cause to effect problems do not
provide students with insights into the nature of science. However, effect to
cause problems can be developed if computer-generated information is provided.
The most important insight that students may gain from solving effect to cause
problems may be the outcome of understanding science as an intellectual activity
Problem solving research in chemistry. Chemistry courses and textbooks appear
to focus on quantitative problems. There is interest in how chemistry students
solve quantitative problems and also in the effects of different instructional
strategies on students' success in problem solving. Many research reports are
focused on the use of algorithms, "..rules that can be followed more or less
automatically by reasonably intelligent systems..." (Bodner, 1987:513).
Nurrenbern and Pickering (1987:508-510) worked with five different general
chemistry classes, at two different institutions, in which students were given
examinations with "traditional questions" (could be answered using algorithmic
strategies) and multiple-choice questions with no mathematics content but which
required conceptual understanding of chemistry content for correct solution.
Students had far greater success in answering "traditional" questions than in
answering the concept questions.
Problem solving research in physics. Research in physics has gone in two
directions: information processing research concerned with observable and
measurable steps in problem solving and research in constructing solutions in
which investigators are concerned with the internal cognitive processes that
result in these steps (Omasta and Lunetta, 1988:625). Much of the research on
concepts and conceptual change in physics had been conducted against a
background of problem solving in which pupils worked on problems found in the
back of the textbook (Watts, 1988:74-79).
WHAT ARE SOME IMPLICATIONS OF PROBLEM SOLVING RESEARCH IN SCIENCE?
Problem solving is identified as a top priority in may curricula
in science. Teachers are not trained to teach problem solving. In addition,
problem solving strategies involve formal operational skills such as
proportional reasoning, logical-deductive thinking. Science education
researchers report that 50 percent of college chemistry students are not formal
operational, so it seems logical to conclude that most high school students do
not operate at this level (Powers,1984:63).
McDermott and the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington
have investigated how students learn physics. They report that many students
emerge from their study of physics or physical science without a functional
understanding of some elementary but fundamental concepts. The problem exists at
all levels of education and is particularly distressing because it means that
precollege teacher have not developed sound conceptual understanding of the
material they are expected to teach (McDermott, 1984:31).
While students' naive ideas or preconceptions may interfere with their
understanding of science concepts and thus influence their problem solving, math
anxiety may also handicap students. Gabel and Sherwood investigated the
effectiveness of four instructional strategies for teaching problem solving to
students of various proportional reasoning abilities, visual and verbal
preferences, and levels of math anxiety. They suggested that teachers need to
incorporate teaching strategies into lessons to reduce the level of students'
mathematics anxiety. Students with high levels of anxiety and the absence of
another aptitude (visual preference or proportional reasoning ability) profit by
methods containing supportive material that is not mathematical in nature.
Teachers should use supplemental materials, less mathematics, and more visual
approaches with high math-anxious students also deficient in proportional
reasoning ability or with low visual preference (1983:175).
Staver, after studying the effects of problem format and number of
independent variables on the responses of students to a control of variables
reasoning task, found that more independent variables, more pieces of
information, more steps necessary to solve the problem resulted in a decline of
student success rate. Staver suggested that teachers need to use methods of
instruction and evaluation that reduce the overload on working memory as such
ideas are introduced and evaluated (1986:535-541).
Ronning, McCurdy, and Ballinger point out that teachers need to consider more
than problem solving methods and the degree of knowledge acquisition involved in
problem solving. They also need to consider individual differences among problem
solvers. Field independent students, in the Ronning et al study, solved more
problems than did field dependent students. It is possible that field dependent
students might benefit from carefully structured instruction with clearly
defined objectives because the students seemed unable to bring past experience
(knowledge) to bear on tasks, as well as being unable to analyze the tasks
Nurrenbern and Pickering discussing conceptual learning in chemistry, stated,
"Most educators see solving chemistry problems to be the major behavioral
objective for freshman chemistry. Textbooks are written form this point of view,
and this may be what establishes the supreme importance of numerical problems in
student minds..." Chemistry teachers need to keep in mind that solving problems
is not equivalent to teaching pupils about the nature of matter (1987:509).
Technology is being used to teach problem solving. Powers (1984:13-19)
described a computer-assisted problem solving method for use with beginning
chemistry students. Krajcik et al. (1988:147-155) described several preliminary
studies involving students interacting with genetics and with the molecular
structure of gases. Group and individual patterns of how students learned
concepts and applied problem solving strategies were compared. Such research
should provide guidance to classroom teachers about the use of technology and
the design of curriculum and instruction.
Gabel, Dorothy L. and Robert D.
Sherwood. "Facilitating Problem Solving in High School Chemistry." JOURNAL OF
RESEARCH IN SCIENCE TEACHING 20(2):163-177, 1983.
Good, Ron and Mike Smith. "How do we Make Students Better Problem Solvers?"
THE SCIENCE TEACHER 54(4):31-36, April, 1987.
Krajcik, Joseph S., Patricia E. Simmons, and Vincent N. Lunetta. "A Research
Strategy for the Dynamic Study of Students' Concepts and Problem Solving
Strategies Using Science Software." JOURNAL OF RESEARCH IN SCIENCE TEACHING
McDermott, Lilian C. "Research on Conceptual Understanding in Mechanics."
PHYSICS TODAY 37:24-32, July, 1984.
National Science Teachers Association. "Science-Technology-Society: Science
Education for the 1980's," in NSTA HANDBOOK 1985-86. Washington, DC: National
Science Teachers Association, 1985, pp. 46-49.
"New ACT Test to Stress Higher-Order Thinking Skills," EDLINE, January 4,
Nurrenbern, Susan and Miles Pickering. "Concept Learning vs. Problem Solving:
Is There a Difference?" JOURNAL OF CHEMICAL EDUCATION 64(6):508-510, June, 1987.
Omasta, Eugene and Vincent N. Lunetta. "Exploring Functions: A Strategy for
Teaching Physics Concepts and Problem Solving." SCIENCE EDUCATION 72(5):625-636,
Powers, Michael H. "A Computer Assisted Problem Solving Method for Beginning
Chemistry Students." THE JOURNAL OF COMPUTERS IN MATHEMATICS AND SCIENCE
TEACHING 4(1): 13-19, Fall, 1984.
Ronning, Royce R., Donald McCurdy, and Ruth Ballinger. "Individual
Differences: A Third Component in Problem-Solving Instruction." JOURNAL OF
RESEARCH IN SCIENCE TEACHING 21(1):71-82, 1984.
Staver, John R. "The Effects of Problem Format, Number of Independent
Variables, and Their Interaction on Student Performance on a Control of
Variables Reasoning Problem." JOURNAL OF RESEARCH IN SCIENCE TEACHING
Stewart, Jim. "Potential Learning Outcomes from Solving Genetics Problems: A
Typology of Problems." SCIENCE EDUCATION 72(2):237-254, April, 1988.
Watts, Mike. "From Concept Maps to Curriculum Signposts." PHYSICS EDUCATION
23(2):74-79, March, 1988.