Research shows how reading scientific articles can increase students’ understanding

A pile of magazines

Source: Miroslaw Dziadkowiec /

Developing students’ scientific literacy skills is clearly important for those going on to further studies in a scientific discipline. But it is also important for those who do not – members of society need to make informed decisions on the science they encounter in their everyday lives.

Teaching the chemistry curriculum in a relevant societal context gives students a hook for exploring the subject while an understanding of the underlying science is also developed. This supports students who find learning concepts without context difficult, at the same time as encouraging students to consider how what they are learning aligns with what they already know. This may help to improve students’ metacognitive abilities – how they regulate their own learning.

Crucially, a chemically-literate person needs to be able to navigate the landscape of representations: the macroscopic, microscopic and symbolic.

Thinking contextually

In a new study, researchers from Israel have developed a context-based intervention, including explicit metacognitive prompts to guide students in their understanding and improve their comprehension of scientific texts.

They selected and adapted a number of short scientific articles to match the knowledge level of high school chemistry students.

The metacognitive prompts asked students to reflect on the main subject of each article, and to link their reflections to the different levels of representations in chemistry.

The effectiveness of this approach was shown in a study involving about 670 high school students.

Two groups were exposed to high-intensity, context-based learning by reading five adapted scientific articles with topics relevant to wider society. One of these groups received metacognitive prompts. A third group was exposed to a low-intensity approach by reading only two scientific articles, and did not receive metacognitive prompts.

Pre- and post-testing measured student increases in conceptual understanding and metacognitive knowledge of reading strategies. The researchers paid close attention to the students’ ability to reason between the different levels of representation.

The students in the high-intensity group, who received metacognitive prompts, were most improved in their chemistry understanding and in their ability to regulate their learning. The high-intensity group that did not receive metacognitive prompts out-performed the low-intensity group.

Significantly, this order of improvement across the different groups of students held for their ability to explain concepts by using multiple levels of representation – macroscopic, microscopic and symbolic.

Teaching tips

  • Use scientific articles and domain-specific, metacognitive prompts on a regular basis to improve students’ scientific literacy.
  • Some examples of metacognitive prompts:
    1. What is the article about?
    2. What are the key concepts in the article?
    3. Where does the article discuss macroscopic, microscopic and symbolic representations of chemistry?
  • More prompts can be found in the research paper.
  • Try using these Education in Chemistry articles that also come with teaching resources.
  • The study suggests that this shouldn’t be a one-off activity, and that students will benefit from doing this regularly.