Science and technology students in China and the US have a long way to go before they can develop a deep understanding of scientific reasoning, researchers have found.
As part of a research to compare science education in China and the US, Lei Bao, a professor from the Department of Physics of the Ohio State University, gave 5,760 freshmen in three US and four Chinese universities two tests to evaluate content knowledge and another to assess scientific reasoning.
Though Chinese students did better than their US counterparts in the first two tests that emphasized on learning facts, both groups "scored relatively poorly" on the third test, designed to assess their ability to systematically explore a problem, formulate and test hypotheses, manipulate and isolate variables, and observe and evaluate the consequences, the results showed.
The current education systems of China and the US do not emphasize on deep understanding of scientific reasoning in the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the study concluded.
"Despite the huge differences in STEM education right from kindergarten to 12th grade between China and the US there is not a lot of variation when it comes to the scientific reasoning abilities of the students," it said.
Calling the findings of the study "consistent", researchers said that the current STEM education and assessment often "emphasize on factual recall rather than reasoning".
The results of the standardized FCI and BEMA tests, designed to assess students' content knowledge, suggested that "numerous and rigorous" physics courses in middle and high school years helped "raise the level of performance of the students".
According to the study, that is one reason why Chinese students, who go through very different science and math curricula, and complete an almost identical extensive physics curriculum, spanning five years from grade 8 through grade 12, outperformed students in the US in the two tests.
The results of the CTSR (Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning) - quantitative instrument that assess reasoning ability - however, showed a completely different pattern.
The performance of both groups of students was "nearly identical", suggesting that the current style of content-rich STEM education, even when carried out at a rigorous level, has "little impact on the development of students' scientific reasoning abilities", the study showed.
The researchers suggested that it is not "what we teach", but "how we teach" that makes the difference.
Meanwhile, relations between instructional methods and the development of scientific reasoning have also shown that inquiry-based science instruction promotes scientific reasoning abilities.
To cater to the students' need to develop both content knowledge and transferable reasoning skills, researchers and educators alike, need to invest more in the development of a balanced method of education, such as incorporating more inquiry-based learning that targets both goals, the study said.