Life Science Literacy of an Undergraduate Populationby

The American Biology Teacher


Public Science Literacy Measures

Svein Sjøberg

Science Literacy Revisited

J. J. Lagowski

Putting Life in Literacy

Barbara A. Boucher

Science centers and scientific literacy: Promoting a relationship with science

L�onie J. Rennie, Gina F. Williams


34 The american biology Teacher volume 76, no. 1, January 2014


Science content knowledge is a concern for educators in the United States because performance has stagnated for the past decade. Investigators designed this study to determine the current levels of scientific literacy among under graduate students in a freshman-level biology course (a core requirement for majors and nonmajors), identify factors influencing levels of scientific literacy, and make recommendations for improving scientific literacy. Participants (n = 255) answered a one-time, 18-item life science questionnaire. A significant difference in content knowledge was found between participants who engaged in informal science learning weekly and participants who did not engage in informal science learning (i.e., learning outside the classroom).

Key Words: Scientific literacy; undergraduate; questionnaire; life science; informal science learning.

The past century has seen record economic growth due to improvements in technology and industrialization – resulting in a call for improved scientific literacy. Scientific literacy is required to fill the increasing number of positions in science fields (Johnson, 2011), but many individuals do not possess well- developed scientific literacy (Odessky, 2011). Even though students construct science meaning from prior experiences (Kern & Crippen, 2008), science misconceptions are apparent among K–16 students and adults. Only 18% of 12th-grade students achieved the status of proficient on the

U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) questionnaire in 2006. Students enter the classroom already having science misconceptions; exposure to science instruction in the classroom helps to revise misconceptions into scientifically supported concepts (von

Aufschnaiter & Rogge, 2010), thereby improving scientific literacy.

It is the task of the educator to remediate student misconceptions in science to positively influence scientific literacy (Lord & Rauscher, 1991). New scientific claims made daily, usually made widespread by popular media, challenge science educators to address these misconceptions. Educators facilitate an understanding of science to help students validate the reliability of new scientific claims (Allchin, 2004).

Individuals who are scientifically literate possess skills and maintain values related to science. Scientifically literate individuals do not become so by acquiring science content through education alone; scientific literacy develops through multifaceted instruction that encompasses more than just science content (Holbrook &

Rannikmae, 2009).

The term scientific literacy has a wide range of meanings. The

National Science Teachers Association maintains that a scientifically literate individual possesses four specific attributes: (1) higherorder thinking skills – allowing individuals to differentiate between observation and inference; (2) attitude – perpetuating individuals’ curiosity; (3) society – allowing individuals to recognize human endeavors; and (4) interdisciplinary – allowing individuals to connect science and technology to other content areas (Holbrook &

Rannikmae, 2009).

The present study revisits, replicates, and expands previous research by Lord and Rauscher (1991), comparing levels of undergraduate scientific literacy today to that two decades ago. Both studies report results from a questionnaire containing basic life-science questions for undergraduates classified by gender, age, and major. They also consider the effects of advanced biology courses – having a positive or negative influence – taken by undergraduates when they were enrolled in high school. Our study, however, further considers the same effects of advanced mathematics courses taken during high school, as well as the level of engagement in informal science-learning opportunities.

Certain factors influence the development of scientific literacy.

Factors explored here include gender, prior high school experiences, and exposure to informal science-learning opportunities.

The Gender Gap in Scientific LiteracyJ JJ

It has long been known that increased interest in science positively affects scientific literacy (Zuccala, 2010). Even when males and females are equally interested in science, reasons for the interest differ

Scientific literacy is required to fill the increasing number of positions in science fields.

The American Biology Teacher, vol. 76, no. 1, pages 34–41. iSSn 0002-7685, electronic iSSn 1938-4211. ©2014 by national association of biology Teachers. all rights reserved. request permission to photocopy or reproduce article content at the university of california Press’s rights and Permissions Web site at

Doi: 10.1525/abt.2014.76.1.8


L E A R N I N G Life Science Literacy of an

Undergraduate Population

S t e p h a n i e R . M e d i n a , e va n O R t l i e b ,

S a n d R a M e t O y e R

The american biology Teacher life Science liTeracy 35 between the two groups (Baram-Tsabari & Yarden, 2011). In a study of science aspiration and achievement, both males and females held a personal interest in science; however, females also held a social responsibility for the direct outcomes of science (Chiu, 2010).

The gender gap in science also exists at the university level (Ochonogor, 2011). Even though females hold 58% of all bachelor’s degrees and 59% of all master’s degrees, <50% of females hold degrees in science. Additionally, males outnumber females 2:1 in doctoral degrees in science and 4:1 in national science faculty positions (Heilbronner, 2009).

Science self-efficacy is a predictor of science performance and scientific literacy. Zimmerman and Bandura (1994) describe selfefficacy as an individual’s beliefs concerning attainment and regulation of academic goals and achievements. A student’s gender has the potential to affect science self-efficacy (DiBenedetto, 2011). Britner (2008) found that even though females prefer to study the life sciences, as opposed to other sciences, and outperform males, females exhibit lower science self-efficacy and greater science anxiety than male counterparts (Morganson et al., 2010).