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Research and Teaching

Early Exposure to Primary Literature and Interactions With Scientists Influences Novice Students’ Views on the Nature of Science

Journal of College Science Teaching—July/August 2021 (Volume 50, Issue 6)

By Kelly M. Schmid, Ryan D. P. Dunk, and Jason R. Wiles

Postsecondary science faculty often hope to help students to better understand science through engagement with primary research literature. Undergraduates in courses focused on reading and discussion of research literature, along with interactions with scientists, encounter many of the major elements of the Nature of Science (NOS). We explored whether participation in such a course may impact students’ (N = 12) NOS understandings, even though the course did not include explicit, intentional NOS instruction. Students’ qualitative responses to questions from the VNOS-C administered before and after the course suggested that participation in this course was associated with shifts in students’ NOS perceptions in three areas: (1) from the idea that science is universal to the idea that science is influenced by society and culture; (2) in students’ self-definition of science—from a single linear process to a more iterative field of shared, varied methodologies; and (3) in what ways they viewed science to be creative—from experimental design only to also including interpretation and communication of results. Results suggest that engaging with primary research literature and interacting with scientists fosters development of students’ understandings of the tools and products and the human elements of science, but development of other elements may require targeted instruction.


Additionally, these experiences have been shown to help develop students’ understanding of the nature of science. Nature of science (NOS) is a term used to broadly describe a rich description of what science is, how it works, how scientists operate as a social group, and how society itself both directs and reacts to scientific endeavors (McComas et al., 2002, p. 4). Studies have shown that developing student NOS understanding is an important outcome for students in experiential science courses. For example, Linn et al. (2015) named NOS development as a key outcome/opportunity of undergraduate research experiences. They outlined the development of students’ NOS views, specifically the processes of science, when encountering failure in the lab. However, despite the clear importance of students’ NOS understanding, how to best increase such understanding remains an open question.

Research has shown that developing NOS understanding can be accomplished in various ways across a variety of course types. Experiential courses that involved a research-based laboratory were shown specifically to improve students’ ideas about scientific processes (Russell & Weaver, 2011; Szteinberg & Weaver, 2013; Seymour et al., 2004; Ryder et al., 1999). Russell and Weaver (2011) also found that student engagement in laboratory research contributes to the development of students’ conceptions of theories and their ideas surrounding creativity in science. While students engaged in these experiences exhibit development in some areas of NOS understanding, such as the definition/process of science and an explanation of theories, other areas, such as the influence of society and culture on science, may remain unchanged (Szteinberg & Weaver, 2013; Ryder et al., 1999).

Introduction to Primary Literature (IPL) courses have been suggested as a precursor to experiential courses (NASEM, 2017) and are designed around reading published scientific research, often with writing assignments (Sandefur & Gordy, 2016; Brownell et al., 2013). IPL courses are often intended to increase students’ confidence in reading and communicating science, and have been shown to be effective in doing so (Sandefur & Gordy, 2016; Brownell et al., 2013; Hoskins et al., 2007; Carter & Wiles, 2017; ). In this study, we focus on an IPL course and measure changes in students’ NOS conceptions across the semester. Although we did not design the course as a specific intervention for teaching NOS, we expected that exposure to primary literature and formal engagement with research scientists might elicit changes in NOS understandings although there was no explicit NOS instruction. However, while students in IPL courses would be expected to show improvement in their understandings of the process of science directly related to the primary literature (such as experimental design, representation and interpretation of data, and other processes of science [DebBurman, 2002; Hoskins et al., 2011; Levine, 2001; Smith, 2001]), misconceptions about the nonlinear ways in which science sometimes progresses may remain due to the way that primary research presents scientific investigations in a linear fashion, omitting any meanderings, dead-ends, and negative results along the way.

There has been extensive research surrounding the development of NOS understanding in preservice teachers. This body of knowledge might help to conceptualize changes in NOS understanding in undergraduate science student populations in which NOS understanding is understudied. Explicit NOS instruction in addition to experiential learning has been shown to elicit significant development in NOS understanding in these student populations (Schwartz et al., 2004; Akerson et al., 2000). Preservice teachers indicate that the reflective part of these courses, involving journaling and discussing their experiences with their peers, was the most influential to their development of NOS understanding. They also indicated that their inquiry experiences provide important context for their reflective activities (Schwartz et al., 2004). Similarly, Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman (2000) found that programs with explicit NOS instruction, in addition to inquiry-based activities, were the most successful in developing preservice teachers’ NOS understanding. However, Akerson et al. (2000) warn that there is potential conflict between the precourse NOS understanding and specific NOS instruction, making designing and delivering such instruction a challenge.

Comparatively, undergraduate students in the sciences are an understudied population with regard to NOS conceptions and changes therein. Furthermore, how to best increase undergraduate science students’ NOS understanding remains an open question. Here, we investigate the effects of an introduction to biological literature course on specific aspects of novice students’ NOS understanding. Considering the major elements of NOS as construed by McComas (2008, 2015), we presented students with representations of the “tools and products of science” through reading and discussion of primary research literature. Students engaged with the “human elements of science” through personal interactions with the biology faculty and their lab members who performed the research reported in assigned articles. This also involved student visits to research laboratories and conversations with scientists at various career stages including undergraduate researchers, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, technicians, and tenured and tenure-track faculty of all ranks.


Participants and the course

Data were collected under an Institutional Review Board–approved protocol (#17-249). Participants in this study were undergraduate students in either their first (n = 11) or second (n = 4) year, and enrolled in a seminar-style introduction to biological literature course at a large, research-intensive university (Carnegie R1 designation) in the northeastern United States. Participants in this course were majoring either in biology or a field related to biology (exercise science, psychology/neuroscience, etc.). This course ran during the spring semester and met once a week for two hours. There were no formal prerequisites listed for the course; however, all students had taken at least one semester of general biology for majors. Students read and discussed one primary research article per week, first in small groups and then as a class. Students also wrote a short summary of each primary research article using the The New York Times science page as a guide toward style (as in Brownell et al., 2013).

Each week, a different research lab in the biology department was featured for discussion. Each student chose a different lab to visit from among those who had volunteered to participate. During their lab visits, students met with lab members across different experience levels (postdoctoral, graduate student, technicians, and undergraduate researchers). Students also interviewed the labs’ principle investigators (PIs) to gain additional insight into the labs’ long-term goals. After their visits, students consulted with the PIs to choose one paper for the class discussion. In class, students gave a presentation detailing the lab of their choice before leading a discussion on the paper. In addition, students wrote a brief literature review about a biological topic of their choice. Readers seeking additional course details considered outside the scope of this paper should be aware that a more detailed description of this course has been published (Schmid & Wiles, 2019).

The stated goals for this course were: (1) to give students a broad introduction to biological research, (2) to help them learn more about what types of research are being done at the university, (3) to help students gain skills in reading, writing, and discussing science, and (4) to learn more about particular topics in biology. It is important for the purpose of this study to note that this course included no specific instruction on NOS, nor was it designed specifically to change students’ NOS conceptions.

Assessment and analysis

To assess potential changes in NOS understanding, we used four questions (Table 1) from the View of Nature of Science Questionnaire–C (VNOS–C; Lederman et al., 2002). Specifically, we chose questions that we expected might change based on the course experiences and matched aspects of NOS that we have previously measured in our student population (Dunk & Wiles, 2018). Students were asked to answer each of the four questions at the beginning of the course (during the first class meeting) and at the end of the course (during the second to last class meeting). Of the 15 enrolled students, three were either ineligible for participation in research or were missing postcourse data, and thus all comparisons between the beginning and end of the course had a sample size of 12.

Table 1
Questions from VNOS-C (Lederman et al., 2002) administered to students at the beginning and end of the course.
Questions from VNOS-C (Lederman et al., 2002) administered to students at the beginning and end of the course.

Following the completion of the course, all student responses were scanned into PDF documents and read by each of the first two authors of this manuscript. Responses were independently coded by each researcher using a constant comparative method (Glaser, 2008). Following this, the two coders met via teleconference and compared codes until consensus was reached. The authors then combined codes into themes. Themes were analyzed between the beginning and end of the semester to determine if the frequency and/or makeup of themes changed throughout the semester.


Self-definition of science. At the beginning of the semester, when students were asked “What is science?” they responded uniformly in terms of science as being process oriented. Students described how science is “a constant process of theorizing, hypothesizing, and experimenting” and how it is done “by asking questions, conducting experiments, and theorizing different hypotheses.” Students also discussed the idea of science being testable and repeatable, noting, for example, that science involves “a hypothesis that can be supported or refuted through repeated experiments” and that “science is testable and those tests are repeatable.” At the end of the semester, when students were asked the same question, their responses included similar themes, but also noted that science is naturalistic. They wrote that science is the “study of things in real life” and involves “observing actual things.” They also discussed how scientists work to “discover more about the natural world.”

Science as a creative process. When students were asked about the role creativity plays in science at the beginning of the semester, they uniformly responded that creativity exists in experimental design. They stated that “without creativity, all experiments would be the same” and “questions are not straightforward to answer, so scientists must be creative when figuring out how to answer them.” Another student summarized their thoughts saying, “the experiments that they thought were going to work or give them good results might not. Therefore, they might have to create new experiments that they haven’t done before.” At the end of the semester, when asked the same question, students uniformly maintained that science is a creative process and that the creativity lies in the experimental design. However, some students added that there is creativity in the interpretation of results, stating that the “results of experiments are open to interpretation.” They also discussed how conveying the findings of research require creativity: “It takes creativity to make results interesting and applicable to others” and “scientists DO use their imagination and creativity… for writing.”

Science is universal or influenced by society and culture. At the beginning of the semester, when asked the third question (Table 1), “Is science universal or social and cultural?” the majority of students indicated that science is universal and not influenced by society and culture (Table 2). These students defended their statements with assertions that scientific methods and results are universal. When discussing the idea of scientific methods being universal, students stated that “data will not change when tested under different cultural settings” and that ideas and questions “can be retested anywhere given consistent conditions.” One student also discussed how science “deals with things that are the same over the entire world, like atoms and elements and mammals” and, therefore, is universal. When discussing the idea of scientific results being universal, students stated that “science and experiments can be repeated many times” and that “anywhere you are conducting an experiment, as long as the materials are kept constant, you will most likely gain the same result.”

Table 2
Number of students responding that science is “influenced by society and culture” versus that science is “universal.”
Number of students responding that science is “influenced by society and culture” versus that science is “universal.”

Students also indicated that science is universal because of the multi- or cross-culturalism of science. When discussing this reason, students stated that “scientific theories go under many review processes including replication and peer review by people all over the world” and that “scientists from all different backgrounds collaborate together for research.” For the students that maintained that science is universal from pre- to postcourse, there was little change in their responses.

In contrast, those students that indicated that science is influenced by society and culture stated that social and/or cultural context may influence science in two main areas: the research agenda, and the interpretation and reception of results. When explaining how society and culture influence research agendas, these students stated that “the way scientists come up with experiments, or why they test what they can do, can be a reflection of our society.” One student offered, “People study/test certain things because of personal desires and sometimes those desires can skew results.” Students also identified ways that society and culture influence the interpretation and reception of the results, noting that “different values in culture affect how we view the same issues” and “maybe science’s results are not themselves political, but the way results are used are.”

Finally, when discussing the influence of society and culture on science, students talked about the idea of social controversy. They explained how “some choose not to accept concepts due to their specific beliefs” and “people’s views tend to be more segregeated, thus there is more controversy on scientific topics.” One student offered evolution as an example, stating that some people “do not think evolution occurred due to their beliefs.” The number of students that stated that science is influenced by society and culture increased from the beginning of the semester to the end of the semester, with the majority indicating that they now believe that science is influenced by society and culture (Table 2). The common themes remained the same from pre- to postcourse; however, students increasingly talked about the idea of social controversy and mentioned scientific topics such as evolution, vaccination, and so on, as being influenced by culture.

Scientific theories. At the beginning of the semester, when asked whether or not theories change (Table 1), all but one student responded affirmatively (Table 3). This changed little by the end of the semester, and students’ rationale for why theories change also remained very similar pre- to postcourse. Students’ descriptions for theories changing included the introduction of new evidence/information, new technology, and the idea that theories are falsifiable.

Table 3
Students’ responses about whether scientific theories can change.
Students’ responses about whether scientific theories can change.

When discussing the introduction of new evidence/information, students stated that theories change “when new evidence is presented through experiments that contradict or disprove the first theory” and that “there is a very high possibility of new information or corrections that could occur.” Students also discussed how “it is possible when new technology is available that new research could disprove a theory” and that “as technology improves, new evidence is found to alter and improve these theories.” When discussing the idea that theories are falsifiable, students stated that “as we discover more and learn more in science, maybe past theories do not link up or connect with our current knowledge” and that “new information could be discovered at any time and may change a theory in some way.” In line with this, we noted that some students almost conceptualized theories as fragile (i.e., adding to a theory is changing a theory). Students suggested that “scientific theories are always changing depending on new evidence that is being discovered with every new experiment” and that “it only takes one of those experiments to be contradicted and the theory now change(s) as well.”


Coding of students’ responses indicated that, of all questions asked, students experienced the most changes from pre- to postcourse on their perceptions of what science is and whether it is universal or influenced by society and culture (Table 2). There was no direct NOS instruction within the course; therefore, although we cannot eliminate experiences and lessons learned in other courses, we argue that these changes were, at least in part, a result of students’ experiences within the course, including reading primary literature and interaction with research lab members in the department.

At the beginning of the semester, when asked to explain “What is science?” students talked about the specific processes of science. They discussed things such as hypotheses and conducting experiments. These are specific identifiable parts of science tied to ideas such as the “scientific method.” At the end of the semester when asked the same question, however, students responded with much broader ideas, such as making observations about the natural world and then formulating questions. This suggested that their ideas of science shifted from a narrow, defined, process-driven idea to a much broader and encompassing field of study. These changes may have been influenced by various parts of the course, perhaps especially students’ reading of research across the breadth of biology and discussions with faculty and research lab members employing diverse methods. By interacting with faculty and lab members, students may have been able to gain a better understanding of how projects are done and what research looks like on a day-to-day basis. This could help to deconstruct students’ ideas surrounding the linear process of science that they may have previously been taught and help to facilitate a better understanding of scientific research within the context of a research team and science as a field. Developing an understanding of the process of science in novice students could eventually aid in the development of more mature epistemological beliefs, something that Hoskins et al. (2011) found to be an important outcome of a similar course for students at a more academic level.

When comparing pre- and postcourse responses to the question regarding science as a creative process, students uniformly indicated that coming up with questions and designing experiments requires creativity. While this remained the same from pre- to postcourse, after the course students also included ideas about how analyzing and interpreting data requires creativity. This addition might be the result of reading primary literature and being exposed to a variety of ways of visually conveying data within the literature. The interpretation of figures and tables was a large portion of class discussion on a daily basis and might have been a contributing factor to this outcome. There was also significant discussion about the “what’s next?” for each primary article read. This opportunity to think creatively to come up with new research questions and experiments may have also been a contributing factor to this outcome. Hoskins et al. (2011) has reported that such opportunities are important in shifting students’ views on science as a creative process, and may develop students’ interest in science careers.

At the beginning of the semester, when asked to explain whether science is universal or influenced by society and culture, the majority (64%) of students indicated that science is universal (Table 2). When asked the same question at the end of the semester, the majority of students wrote that science is influenced by society and culture. This shift in thinking could be due to the classroom discussions surrounding primary literature as well as interaction with faculty and their lab members. By interacting with faculty and lab members, students were able to see how the questions they were reading about in the primary literature are pursued. Additionally, by reading primary literature authored by researchers in the department, they were able to make the connection between the lab and the authors. Reading the literature and discussing it, coupled with interacting with researchers in the department, might have allowed students to see science as a human endeavor (Hoskins et al., 2011), and these experiences combined might have contributed to this shift.

There was little change in student responses pre- to postcourse regarding theory change. At the beginning of the semester, all but one student responded that theories do change; only one student shifted their answer from yes to no postcourse (Table 3). Theories were not discussed in this course and therefore, any misconceptions that students had upon entering the course were likely not remediated through the use of the primary literature and interactions with researchers. More direct instruction surrounding theories, however, may better facilitate student understanding.

Of particular note is that students initially held conceptions of theories as being “fragile,” and their understandings of the durability of science did not appear to change over the course of the semester. This illustrates a key weakness of our instructional model. While we did not specifically intend the course to be oriented toward improving students’ NOS conceptions, it certainly was an opportunity to do so. Figure 1 (adapted from McComas, 2015) illustrates the major elements of NOS for science instruction. Our approach indirectly emphasized the “Tools and Products of Science” (through the reading and discussion of the primary literature) and the “Human Elements of Science” (through interaction with scientists), but without any direct NOS instruction on the nature of theories or the limits of science.

Figure 1
The major elements of the Nature of Science for science instruction.
The major elements of the Nature of Science for science instruction.

This qualitative study suggests that, even without explicit NOS instruction, participation in a course that includes reading the primary literature and inviting students to learn more about biology labs allows students to develop certain aspects of their NOS understandings. But we have also learned that intentional, direct NOS instruction may be necessary for our students to develop a more complete understanding of science. ■


We wish to express our gratitude to the undergraduate students and the Biology Department at Syracuse University for their participation. This work was supported in part by a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Inclusive Excellence grant. Kelly Schmid and Ryan Dunk were additionally supported by Summer Dissertation Fellowships from the Syracuse University Graduate School and the College of Arts and Sciences.

Kelly M. Schmid is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Ryan D. P. Dunk is a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colorado. Jason R. Wiles ( is a professor in the Department of Biology at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.


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