Return to Teaching Nature of Science Unit

 Science Knowledge Survey Introduction

A recent study shows that if teachers know the likely misconceptions that their students have about a topic, those students will show greater gains than if the teacher just knows the accurate science involved. This makes a very strong case for assessing students to see what misconceptions they may have about each upcoming general topic.

In order to get an untainted insight into any misconceptions about the nature of science that your students may have, you may want to administer a short pre-test within the first day or so of the course. So, after (or before, if you prefer) your dramatic opening (Click Here and scroll down to "The First Days), plan to insert your pre-test (Science Knowledge Survey) in some 15-20 minute time slot as early as you can.

To see our "Science Knowledge Survey" (as an example), just scroll down to the bottom of this page. It's also available in PDF format, ready-to-use. Be sure to remove the "KEY" from the master copy before making your classroom set! If you decide to give this as a pre- and post-test, use the handy Pre-Post Test Analyzer to show how much your students' understanding of the NOS changes by going through your unit - it makes a good analysis of how you present the unit. See Post-Test paragraph below.

In my honest opinion, a major obligation of science teachers is to help their students repair their misconceptions about science in general, and specific topics in science as well. Much of the science illiteracy in our population can be traced to the many misconceptions about science held by the general public (not to mention the media and by many politicians as well). However, be cautuous. If you focus too much on the misconceptions, you may do little to repair them, and may even reinforce them! Research has been done to find a most effective way to help students repair their misconceptions, and the findings from that research has led to the publishing of a very useful reference: the Debunking Handbook (Cook & Lewandowsky 2011). The handbook has been made freely available online. The strategies explained there are summarized here:

1. First, present the Core Fact in a headline (with no mention of the related myth).
2. Reinforce the Core Fact with a brief, simplified opening paragraph (again, no myth).
3. Embed in that paragraph an easy-to-grasp graphic that reinforces the Core Fact.
4. Then, provide an explicit warning that cues the reader that the misinformation is coming, indicating the nature of the misinformation.
5. Briefly present the myth about the Core Fact.
6. Explain the “gap” between the Core Fact and the myth. This could be an alternative causal explanation for why the myth is wrong and, optionally, why the misinformers promoted the myth in the first place.
7. Be aware of possible backfire effects (see handbook for details).

Cook, J., and S. Lewandowsky. 2011. The Debunking Handbook. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland. November 5. ISBN 978-0-646-56812-6.


At some point in the Survey follow-up, you may be asked why certain items are considered correct - or not. To anticipate this, consult the Science Survey Discussion pages (3 pages in PDF format) prepared to clarify why each item is correct - or not - as currently understood by working scientists. By the way, notice that this qualifier is used in the directions to the student taking the Survey, primarily to focus attention on whether a statement actually fits modern science - or not, and to discourage the more casual attitude that this is merely an opinion survey. NOTICE: Before giving the survey, it may be helpful for you to read these discussion items in order to be prepared for questions that may arise during or after the survey.

HOWEVER, based on the information in the Debunking Handbook (above), I recommend that you NOT make any effort to respond to questions about the Survey items. If questions arise, just tell them that they will be doing some lessons over the next few weeks in which they will discover for themselves just what science IS and is NOT, and they might be surprised by what they learn, or they might not!

Another useful source of information on the misconceptions about science is the Understanding Science website, operated by the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP). Each misconception is clickable to a specific explanation. There are also links to Teaching Tools and Tips & Strategies (in the right panel).

1. My favorite approach to sharing results of the Science Survey with my students was to do an item analysis (if your machine scoring machine allows it) and simply use the item analysis results to point out to the class how many missed each of of the 5-8 most-missed items (without identifying which items they were). Emphasize that "there clearly are many who have been misinformed, or who have misunderstood the nature of science. This is true of the general population. Therefore my main job is to help you to repair your misconceptions. We will do that with the series of lessons that we will be doing over the next few weeks." Do not tell any students how many items they missed. Say that "you'll figure that out if you pay close attention while we do these lessons." Then, following each selected lesson, where appropriate, follow the Debunking Handbook steps for each misconception that was missed by at least a majority of the students (and others, too, if you like).


2. In the past, I used the high missing-rates as a rationale for the need to take a look at What Science is NOT. Then proceed into the several NOS lessons that present and reinforce what science IS, using the steps in the Debunking Handbook wherever you can. Now, if I used the What Science is NOT at all, I'd save it until just before your unit test.

3. After students have completed the survey individually, they could gather into small groups to compare their answers and discuss differences. This could lead to clarification, or some frustrations begging the need for clarification. After groups have each gathered a few (or several) items to discuss further in class, hold a guided class discussion, with each group sharing out an item or two of contention in turn, for discussion by the class. Be prepared to step in for clarifications, or to point out that "we will be exploring this item in some activities to follow." Take note of the items selected for class discussion, especially if there is no clear class agreement with the appropriate scientific understanding of the item. Be sure to select lessons from the ENSI collection that effectively address those issues during your unit.

4. You could make an overhead listing each numbered item, revealing it as you proceed with your comments and brief discussion. Then look at What Science IS .

From this point, you should provide your students with a variety of experiences that illustrate the true nature of science. To do this, use a fair sampling of the NOS lessonsin the ENSI collection, all designed and selected to clarify concepts and repair the main misconceptions about real science. Whenever you can, try to present each misconception in the way recommended by the Debunking Handbook.

For helpful tables showing how each ENSI lesson meets the expectations of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), see the Nature of Science Overview & Standards Index.

At the end of the unit, or end of the course, you could use this same test as a "post-test" to see how much your students have improved, and/or to see how effective your teaching has been. Pre/post scores become useful markers from year to year to see if your efforts to improve have paid off. If used as a post test, be sure to announce that the results will NOT affect their grade, and that it's mainly to see if their true understandings about the nature of science have improved. If graded, they may be more inclined to answer the way they think they are expected to answer, not necessarily the way they actually think. CLICK HERE for a handy Pre/Post Test Analyzer (Excel file). This will tell you the individual and class averages for the % change between Pre- and Post-Tests.

SUGGESTION: You might consider surveying your students before each topic/unit (or selected topic units) on what you consider to be some of the more common misconceptions about that topic, as well as any basic and critical factoids that you consider fundamental knowledge about that topic. We offer such a survey that you could use before your Evolution unit. We all acquire misconceptions throughout our lives, and the sooner they can be discovered and repaired, the more accurate will be our world view going forward on which to build, and the less likely we will be to pass along those misconceptions to others. Once we have a deep-seated misconception, it's very hard to remove... But the first step is to be convinced that we have that misconception. Then we can learn why the more accurate view works better, and add that to our knowledge bank.

FEEDBACK: As with all postings on this site, if you have questions, problems, suggestions or experiences to share about our Science Knowledge Survey, please email the webmaster.



This survey is given to check your understanding about the nature of modern science and certain basic science concepts. Please agree, or disagree, with each item on your answer sheet as you think a working scientist would. When done, please turn this survey AND your answer sheet face down on your desk.


...A = agree, (or you lean that way)
...B = disagree, (or you lean that way)

1. Science is primarily a search for truth.
2. Science can solve all kinds of problem or questions.
3. Science is mostly concerned with understanding how the natural world works.
4. Science can use supernatural explanations if necessary.
5. Astrology (predicting the future from stars and planets) is a science.
6. Science requires a lot of creative activity.
7. Scientific solutions are all equally temporary or tentative.
8. A "hypothesis" is just an "educated guess" about anything.
9. Scientists can believe in God or a supernatural being and still do good science.
10. Science is most concerned with collecting facts.
11. Most engineers and medical doctors are also scientists.
12. A scientific fact is absolute, fixed, permanen; it never changes..
13. Science can be done poorly.
14. A scientific theory is only a guess.
15. Scientists have solved most of the major mysteries of nature.
16. Science can study and explain events that happened millions of years ago.
17. Knowledge of what science is, what it can and cannot do, and how it works, is important for all educated people.
18. Modern scientific experiments usually involve trying something just to see what will happen, without predicting a likely result.
19. Anything done scientifically is always accurate and reliable.
20. Scientists have observed that nature apparently follows the same "rules" throughout the universe.
21. Scientists often try to test or disprove possible explanations.
22. Science can be influenced by the race, gender, nationality, or religion of the scientists.
23. All scientific problems must be studied with The Scientific Method.
24. Disagreement between scientists is one of the weaknesses of science.
25. Any study done carefully and based on observation is scientific.

 Click Here for Survey in PDF format

Several of these items were revised 8/18/2015

1. B
2. B
3. A
4. B
5. B
6. A
7. B
8. B
9. A
10. B
11. B
12. B
13. A
14. B
15. B
16. A
17. A
18. B
19. B
20. A
21. A
22. A
23. B
24. B
25. B