Views of the nature of science (VNOS)
It is often an objective of undergraduate science curricula that students develop accurate and sophisticated understandings of the nature of science, and there is a body of work building around evaluating students’ understanding and the effectiveness of curricula in promoting students’ understanding (Lederman, Abd-El-Khalick, Bell, & Schwartz, 2002; Schwartz, Lederman, & Crawford, 2004). While this body of work does not aim to present some final and unchallenged definition of what is meant by the ‘nature of science’, Schwartz, Lederman and Crawford (2004, p. 611-612) note broad agreement that a “scientifically literate individual” should be able to understand the following features of the nature of science:
- Science is “a human endeavour, directed by theory and culture”
- Science is “reliant on empirical observation”
- Science is “subject to change”
- The above aspects of science “should be viewed as interdependent”
Why evaluate students’ understanding of the nature of science?
Many undergraduate curricula give students an opportunity to engage in inquiry-based or discovery-based activities in the hope that they will learn about the nature of science through inquiry – a ‘learn by doing’ approach. However, some studies have found that inquiry-based activities on their own are not always enough for students to develop accurate understandings of the nature of science, and they may also require explicit instruction on what science is and how and why scientific inquiry works the way that it does (Abd-El-Khalick & Lederman, 2000; Russell & Weaver, 2008; Schwartz, Lederman, & Crawford, 2004).
If you are interested in evaluating how your students’ understanding of the nature of science develops in the context of a particular course or module, you could use the tools below, which include one questionnaire and one interview protocol. These will help you to think about whether the current curriculum and activities that your students are engaging with are sufficient to help them develop the level of understanding of the nature of science that you would expect of them. The tools might be best used longitudinally in order to assess development of understanding over time.
Tools to measure and evaluate students’ VNOS
The Views of Nature of Science (VNOS) open-ended questionnaire aims to understand learners’ views on and the meanings they attribute to various aspects on the nature of science. The creators of the questionnaire (Lederman, Abd-El-Khalick, Bell, & Schwartz, 2002) recommend that:
- students are encouraged to take time to answer the questions fully;
- students are reminded that it is not a formal assessment, but an opportunity to think in some depth about the nature of science and for teachers to get a sense of students’ views;
- the survey be supplemented by interviews with at least some of the questionnaire respondents so that they can elaborate on their answers to the questionnaire.
Note that the below questionnaire was developed in the United States undergraduate context (Abd-El-Khalick & Lederman, 2000; Lederman, Abd-El-Khalick, Bell, & Schwartz, 2002). It may be appropriate to skip some questions if you feel they are less relevant to your students. A downloadable version is available at the top of this page.
- What, in your view, is science? What makes science (or a scientific discipline such as physics, biology, etc.) different from other disciplines of inquiry (e.g., religion, philosophy)?
- What is an experiment?
- Does the development of scientific knowledge require experiments? - If yes, explain why. Give an example to defend your position. - If no, explain why. Give an example to defend your position.
- After scientists have developed a scientific theory (e.g., atomic theory, evolution theory), does the theory ever change? - If you believe that scientific theories do not change, explain why. Defend your answer with examples. - If you believe that scientific theories do change: (i) Explain why theories change, and (ii) Explain why we bother to learn scientific theories. Defend your answer with examples.
- Is there a difference between a scientific theory and a scientific law? Illustrate your answer with an example.
- Science textbooks often represent the atom as a central nucleus composed of protons (positively charged particles) and neutrons (neutral particles) with electrons (negatively charged particles) orbiting that nucleus. How certain are scientists about the structure of the atom? What specific evidence do you think scientists used to determined what an atom looks like?
- Science textbooks often define a species as a group of organisms that share similar characteristics and can interbreed with one another to produce fertile offspring. How certain are scientists about their characterization of what a species is? What specific evidence do you think scientists used to determined what a species is?
- It is believed that about 65 million years ago the dinosaurs became extinct. Of the hypotheses formulated by scientist to explain extinction, two enjoy wide support. The first, formulated by one group of scientists, suggests that a huge meteorite hit the earth 65 million years ago and led to a series of events that caused the extinction. The second hypothesis, formulated by another group of scientists, suggests that massive and violent volcanic eruptions were responsible for the extinction. How are these different conclusions possible if scientists in both groups have access to and use the same set of data to derive their conclusions?
- Some claim that science is infused with social and cultural values. That is, science reflects the social and political values, philosophical assumptions, and intellectual norms of the culture in which it is practiced. Others claim that science is universal. That is, science transcends national and cultural boundaries and is not affected by social, political, and philosophical values, and intellectual norms of the culture in which it is practiced. - If you believe that science reflects social and cultural values, explain why. Defend your answer with examples. - If you believe that science is universal, explain why. Defend your answer with examples.
- Scientists perform experiments/investigations when trying to find answers to the questions they put forth. Do scientists use their creativity and imagination during their investigations?If yes, then at which stages of the investigations do you believe scientists use their imagination and creativity: planning and design, data collection, after data collection? - Please explain why scientists use imagination and creativity. Provide examples if appropriate. - If you believe that scientists do not use imagination and creativity, please explain why. Provide examples if appropriate.
VNOS interview protocol
The questionnaire has also been adapted by Russell and Weaver (2010) into an interview protocol. Although there are five fixed questions, the interview is intended to be conversational. Therefore, do feel free to ask follow-up questions and to ask for points of clarification, and also to offer prompts if the student requires.
- What is an experiment?
- Does the development of scientific knowledge require experiments? Please explain.
- What is a theory?
- After scientists have developed a scientific theory (e.g. atomic theory) does the theory ever change?
- Scientists perform experiments and investigations when trying to find answers to the questions they put forth. Do scientists use creativity and imagination during their investigations? Why or why not? If yes, at which stages of investigation?
Abd-El-Khalick, F., & Lederman, N. G. (2000). The Infuence of History of Science Courses on Students' Views of Nature of Science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37(10), 1057-1095.
Lederman, N. G., Abd-El-Khalick, F., Bell, R. L., & Schwartz, R. S. (2002). Views of Nature of Science Questionnaire: Toward Valid and Meaningful Assessment of Learners’ Conceptions of Nature of Science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 39(6), 497-521.
Russell, C. B., & Weaver, G. (2008). Student Perceptions of the Purpose and Function of the Laboratory in Science: A Grounded Theory Study. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 2(2), 1-14. doi:10.20429/ijsotl.2008.020209
Schwartz, R. S., Lederman, N. G., & Crawford, B. A. (2004). Developing Views of Nature of Science in an Authentic Context: An Explicit Approach to Bridging the Gap Between Nature of Science and Scientific Inquiry. Science Teacher Education, 610-645.