Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education (Apr 2017)

Promoting the Multidimensional Character of Scientific Reasoning

  • William S. Bradshaw,
  • Jennifer Nelson,
  • Byron J. Adams,
  • John D. Bell

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 18, no. 1


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This study reports part of a long-term program to help students improve scientific reasoning using higher-order cognitive tasks set in the discipline of cell biology. This skill was assessed using problems requiring the construction of valid conclusions drawn from authentic research data. We report here efforts to confirm the hypothesis that data interpretation is a complex, multifaceted exercise. Confirmation was obtained using a statistical treatment showing that various such problems rank students differently—each contains a unique set of cognitive challenges. Additional analyses of performance results have allowed us to demonstrate that individuals differ in their capacity to navigate five independent generic elements that constitute successful data interpretation: biological context, connection to course concepts, experimental protocols, data inference, and integration of isolated experimental observations into a coherent model. We offer these aspects of scientific thinking as a “data analysis skills inventory,” along with usable sample problems that illustrate each element. Additionally, we show that this kind of reasoning is rigorous in that it is difficult for most novice students, who are unable to intuitively implement strategies for improving these skills. Instructors armed with knowledge of the specific challenges presented by different types of problems can provide specific helpful feedback during formative practice. The use of this instructional model is most likely to require changes in traditional classroom instruction.