Making a difference in secondary science education

Document Type

Conference publication

Publication details

Interim Citation: The contents of this conference can be freely accessed online via the association's web page (see hypertext link).


There is empirical research and scholarly debate about what constitutes effective learning. Students have offered perspectives on describing good teaching, which mainly focuses on teachers' interpersonal qualities and subject expertise. Teachers want to make a difference to students' lives, yet little research has been conducted to determine science teaching practices that may have an impact on students' lives. This qualitative study analyses responses from 167 adults (preservice teachers; 26% males and 74% females) aged between 19 and 51 about their memories of positive and negative secondary science education experiences, and high-impact science lessons that had an influence on them. Apart from obtaining demographic information, the questionnaire requested these adults to reflect on their secondary science education experiences, for example: (1) As a secondary student, was secondary school science a positive experience? Why or why not? (2) State one secondary science experience and the effect this had on you. Results indicated 52 adults claimed science as a positive experience, 56 deemed science to be a negative experience, and 59 were split in their decisions (stating both positive and negative experiences). All responses on making a difference in secondary science experiences fell within nine categories, that is: teacher's role, hands-on experiences, group work, useful and practical science, purposes articulated clearly, interactivity with life, clear explanations of abstract concepts, involvement in field work, and the topic selection choice. Some adults responded with more than one practice (e.g., group work and excursions). The most controversial science activity in the secondary school was the dissection of a small animal (e.g., toad, frog, rat) or parts of a larger animal (e.g., cow's heart, bull's eye). This act had an impact on these adults, as they remembered distinctly dissecting a creature. The feelings were divided between disgust and repulsion to delight and enlightenment. There were those who objectively dissected a creature and those who found the experience indelibly sickening. To illustrate one participant said, "Cutting a toad up made me leave the room and made me sick, I couldn't see the point, why not work with diagrams?" Low or negative impact practices involved: disengaging activities such as sensory-repulsive tasks, unclear reasons for learning science, teacher's lack of enthusiasm, chalk and talk or copying teacher's work, and denigrating students' personal ideas. Although teaching approaches can vary between different educational levels, and an individual's preferred learning style may change with age and experience, high-impact teaching practices noted in this study were predominantly student-centred or could be adapted to suit individual styles. Indeed, exemplary primary, secondary and tertiary teaching practices may be interchangeable and relevant to effective teaching practices regardless of the level of study. Implementing science lessons with one or more elements of high-impact teaching may lead towards making a difference, particularly if these teaching practices produce in students positive long-term memories about their science education.