A comparative study of the effectiveness of the 'history of science' approach and 'socio-scientific issue' approach on developing high school biology students' understanding of the nature of science

Hon Yuen CHAN

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Theses


The aim of this study was to compare the effectiveness of two teaching approaches for senior secondary biology students to learn about the nature of science (NOS): the History of Science (HOS) approach, which is the most commonly used approach in Hong Kong schools, and the Socio- scientific Issue (SSI) approach, which develops students’ understanding of NOS through analysis of socio-scientific issues. This study was motivated by the consistent reports by the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA) on the poor performance of Grade 12 Biology students in the Hong Kong Diploma of Education Examination (HKDSE) regarding their understanding of the Nature of Science (NOS). From the literature, the SSI approach presents a viable alternative in improving students learning of NOS. Three research questions were construed. 1) Could the SSI or HOS approach enhance Hong Kong senior secondary students’ understanding of major tenets of NOS? 2) Which approach, SSI or HOS, could help Senior Secondary Biology students develop more informed conceptions of major NOS tenets? 3) Are there any influences of gender or biology performance on students’ learning of NOS using either approach?
This research was based on a quasi-experiment design. The sample consists of 67 secondary students from four intact classes, two of which were biology classes at Grade 11 and two biology classes at Grade 12. They were divided into two treatment groups (HOS and SSI), with each group comprising one Grade 11 and one Grade 12 class. All students received a pre-test consisting of 10 open-ended questions based on the Views of Nature of Science form D+ (VNOS-D+) instrument to test students’ understanding of NOS before the intervention. After this, both groups went through a 3-day learning process to enhance their understanding of NOS. The only difference was that one group was taught through the HOS approach, while the other group received the intervention by using SSI. After almost two weeks of the intervention, all participants completed a post-test exactly identical to the pre-test. Some of the participants were invited for a semi-structured interview to elicit further information about their concepts and ideas about NOS as revealed in their post-test. The quantitative data from the post-test and pre-test for the two treatment groups were analyzed by paired t-tests independently, so as to test whether each of the two teaching approaches could improve the learning of NOS. The performance of the two treatment groups were also compared using ANCOVA, with the pretest result as the covariate, to analyze the difference of the two groups in their improvement, if any, from post-test to pre-test. This was to determine the effect of HOS and SSI teaching approaches on post-test test score after controlling for the pre-test test score.
The findings of the paired t-test showed that there was statistically significant difference between the pre-test and post-test test score after intervention using either teaching approach, which means that both approaches were able to improve students’ NOS concepts. However, there was no statistically significant difference between the two approaches in improving students in learning of NOS. There was no interaction between the teaching approaches and students’ gender or general biology achievement as shown by the two-way ANCOVA. Despite this, analysis using Pearson’s correlation showed that higher achievers performed better regarding the NOS tenet of theory & law than lower achievers in the HOS group but not the SSI group.
The qualitative data obtained from the VNOS-D+ post-test were analyzed to reveal hints for the reason why an approach was successful or not, thus revealing the missing link in the whole picture. The qualitative data from the post-test and semi-structured interview revealed that more students in the HOS group tended to believe in “knowing is seeing”, which may contribute to the rejection of the tenet of creativity & imagination in the post-test questionnaire. Both treatment groups displayed only a partial understanding of the NOS tenet of subjectivity. Students of the HOS group made more reference to historical cases as evidence to support their assertions or arguments across different NOS tenets. By contrast, students of the SSI group seemed to show a greater tendency to use more recent issues or examples to substantiate their own claims. However, the SSI group appeared to use more examples from previous learning or their biology lessons than the HOS students to explain the tenets of NOS. These inferences drawn from the VNOS-D+ questionnaire were also supported by the findings of the semi-structured interview.
To conclude, both teaching approaches were able to improve students in learning the concepts of NOS, but the HOS group seemed to play down the tenet of creativity & imagination and SSI students seemed to support the claim with examples related to SSIs. It also appeared that the HOS approach was able to help high achievers to learn the tenet of theory & law more effectively. There were implications from this study. Both of the SSI and HOS approach may be appropriate for improving students learning of NOS in the current Hong Kong context. Based on the inherent strengths and weaknesses of both teaching approaches revealed by the present study, it is suggested that the two approaches may complement each other in developing students’ understanding of NOS, such that educational practitioners may use them simultaneously to deliver the concepts of NOS to Hong Kong students. All rights reserved.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • History of science
  • Socio-scientific issues
  • Nature of science
  • Thesis (Ed.D.)--The Education University of Hong Kong, 2019.

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