Student Development as a Result of Science Courses

The most recent issue of Science contains an excellent editorial by David Asai on measuring student development through science education. He hits the nail on the head by identifying the key processes that students should be able to engage in after successfully completing an experience in science education. To some, the quip that “students of science should be able to apply the scientific method” may seem like a tautology, but it’s something educators must constantly remind themselves. Why? Because the body of content under the umbrella of “science” is so massive now that it’s easier than ever to fall into a rut of teaching to memorization. Quality not quantity, right?!

Anyway, back to Dr. Asai’s key competencies (lifted verbatim from Science 2011, 332 (6032), 895):

  • Formulate a hypothesis
  • Design a meaningful experiment
  • Deal with uncertainty
  • Critically evaluate evidence
  • Engage in effective discourse

In other words, “do the scientific method”! Not quite a tautology when you see it broken up this way, right? What fascinates me is this question:

  • How do we assess and look for these competencies meaningfully?

Teaching a lecture course of 200+, I can only dream of doing this on a formative basis. But the possibilities are endless if the manpower is there! The laboratory environment in particular is an interesting battle ground for this sort of assessment. For instance, in an advanced organic chemistry lab course I took in undergrad, we were given a set of reactants and reaction conditions and told “good luck have fun!” with only a lecture or two on the reaction for that experiment. Side products were reasonable and to be expected, so critical analysis was essential. We were judged on how well we evaluated evidence and established reasonable conclusions—not our yield of some “cookie cutter” product. This is the way science education should be!



  1. In the organic chemistry class I’m teaching, the last lab of the second semester is totally self guided. We tell them they’re making 1,2-diphenylethanol… but they get to choose how to make it. After they have an approved paper synthesis, they go to the library and find a procedure where someone else used those reagents (in a reserve book of experimental procedures). Then we give them the ‘worked out’ procedure of the 5 or 6 we’ve tested and know work well enough to give meaningful results.

    Spring ’11 was the first year we piloted it, and of course it didn’t work out quite the way we envisioned it… but it’s a good learning exercise for the students. Even if they protest along the way 🙂


    1. Awesome! Stick with it—things have to “get worse before they can get better,” in the words of my advisor. Work towards a global maximum, so to speak…not just the “local maximum” status quo.


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