Support The World's Smartest Network

Help the New York Academy of Sciences bring late-breaking scientific information about the COVID-19 pandemic to global audiences. Please make a tax-deductible gift today.

This site uses cookies.
Learn more.


This website uses cookies. Some of the cookies we use are essential for parts of the website to operate while others offer you a better browsing experience. You give us your permission to use cookies, by continuing to use our website after you have received the cookie notification. To find out more about cookies on this website and how to change your cookie settings, see our Privacy policy and Terms of Use.

We encourage you to learn more about cookies on our site in our Privacy policy and Terms of Use.


Introduction to Scientific Teaching

Introduction to Scientific Teaching
Reported by
Jaclyn Jansen

Posted May 15, 2012

Presented By

Presented by Science Alliance


Science education informs students about the biological, chemical, and physical world around them. Yet an effective instruction in science—its methods and approaches as well as its facts and theories—provides more. A strong science education establishes the framework for critical and analytical thinking that can be applied to all aspects of daily life, including to the improvement of teaching. Unfortunately, scientific education in America lags significantly behind other developed nations. Numerous studies have found that "scientific illiteracy" is both prevalent and increasing. For this reason, on April 9, 2012, Matthew Marcello presented a seminar at the Academy titled Introduction to Scientific Teaching. Marcello advocated a new education paradigm that uses the basic principles of science to transform classroom education. Scientific inquiry is evidence-based, factual, rigorous, iterative, and inclusive. An effective educational program should incorporate all these facets both to communicate the basic tenets of science and to inculcate the fundamentals of critical thinking.

Before describing the details of an effective course plan applicable to all fields, Marcello emphasized the need for change in science education. Many studies have found that adults lack basic scientific knowledge. Consistent with this finding, American children fall at the middle or bottom of international ratings of math and science comprehension. Even those students who do decide to pursue a college degree in science frequently drop out. The retention rate for science majors at most universities in the U.S. is only 13% – 33%. And yet, science and technology represent the fastest growing sectors of the U.S. economy. Students are increasingly unable to compete for these jobs in an already difficult market. Marcello argued that a change from standard course planning to a method called "backward design" would more effectively educate and engage students in science.

Traditional course planning focuses on the instructor and gives little opportunity for the course to change based on feedback from the students once the course has begun. Ordinarily, an instructor chooses a textbook and then writes a syllabus, lectures, and PowerPoint slides. Finally, he or she writes exams and problem sets to assess what the students have learned. In contrast, "backward design" employs a more student-focused method of course planning. In this method, the instructor formulates broad learning goals and then more specific objectives to accomplish these goals. The instructor designs assessments, or tests, around these objectives and only then creates learning activities, such as homework and lectures. "Backward design" ensures that students remain the focus of the course plan and allows the instructor to dynamically reassess his or her goals and objectives based upon evaluation of the students' progress.

Matthew Marcello advocates a student-centered "backward design" for planning science courses. This method begins with the identification of broad goals and specific objectives that aim to augment the students' skill sets and to increase their level of understanding. In contrast to traditional course planning, this method ensures that students learn both the scientific fact as well as critical thinking skills. (Image courtesy of Matthew Marcello)

Marcello described in more detail how to plan a course using "backward design." Broad goals for the course challenge students to fundamentally change what they can do as a result of what they learn in the class, rather than to simply focus on memorizing new material. The instructor then creates specific learning objectives that tell the students what new skills and what level of understanding they will obtain from the course. Marcello explained that it is useful to think of levels of understanding based upon Bloom's taxonomy, which defines six levels of comprehension from simple memorization up to the ability to defend and justify ideas. Marcello simplified this list into three categories. The first level is basic factual knowledge and comprehension. The middle level is the ability to analyze and apply what the student has learned. The highest level of understanding requires the student to synthesize information and to evaluate or judge ideas. An instructor should aim for students to achieve the highest levels of understanding in their learning objectives. These objectives must be very specific because they will be the basis of course assessments.

Course assessments, which test knowledge and judge performance, can be either summative or formative. A summative assessment occurs in increments of weeks or months after the lesson has finished. This form of testing determines how much knowledge and understanding the student has retained. In contrast, formative assessments are an active part of daily instruction. These questions and exercises provide immediate feedback to the instructor so that he or she can better understand the students' knowledge level and attitude. This type of assessment helps the instructor tailor lessons specifically to the needs of his students. Marcello noted that both forms of assessment are critical in an effective course.

With clear goals and objectives in mind, the final step in planning a course is to develop learning activities. Marcello described the importance of incorporating the latest research on how students learn into the design of these activities. Students have preconceived ideas about all subjects, and it is the instructor's task to identify that prior knowledge and to engage with those ideas so that students can learn new material. The instructor must ensure that students know the correct facts and must then organize those ideas into a framework that students can more easily recall. The latest research in education shows that active learning is the most effective way to teach students new ideas. Active learning includes group work, problem-centered exercises, case studies, concept mapping, clickers, games, and many other methods. Active learning techniques lead to better retention and understanding of ideas, to higher order thinking, and to recognition of misconceptions.

In addition to working with students' prior knowledge and beyond using active learning strategies, Marcello also discussed the role of metacognition in developing learning activities. Metacognition is the process of making students aware of themselves as problem-solvers and of helping them to think about the methods of their learning. The students must self-assess what they do and do not understand. This approach builds connections for students and allows them to retain and to understand the material more readily. Overall, "backward design" aligns daily activities and assessments to help students meet the course objectives and goals. The feedback provided by assessment results allows the instructor to revise their activities continually to create an optimal learning environment.

Marcello ended his seminar with a discussion of diversity in the classroom. There are many types of diversity, such as racial, economic, cultural, language, personality, and motivational. An instructor must remain aware of the types of diversity within his or her classroom so that he or she can effectively teach to the entire audience. For example, an instructor might benefit significantly by surveying the class for different learning styles, such as auditory versus visual, to ensure that he or she accounts for the many different ways students learn. In another example Marcello suggested that, before assigning group work outside the classroom, an instructor might determine if his or her students commute from far away or have families and jobs outside of their educational responsibilities. Taken together, these methods can create an inclusive classroom that will engage and educate a diverse set of students in science.

Use the tab above to find multimedia from this event.

Presentation available from:
Matthew R. Marcello, PhD (UMDNJ–Robert Wood Johnson Medical School)

To download a pdf of the handouts distributed at this event, please click here.



The Yale Center for Scientific Teaching: A resource center for novel methods to strengthen science education.


Bransford J, National Research Council (U.S.). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press; 1999.

Davis B. Tools for Teaching. 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2009.

Handelsman J, Miller S, Pfund C. Scientific Teaching. New York: The Wisconsin Program for Scientific Teaching; 2007.

Wiggins G. Understanding by Design. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River N.J.: Pearson Education Inc.; 2006.

Journal Articles

Allen D, Tanner K. Approaches to cell biology teaching: questions about questions. Cell Biol. Educ. 2002;1(3):63-67.

Fischer CN. Changing the science education paradigm: from teaching facts to engaging the intellect: Science Education Colloquia Series, Spring 2011. Yale J. Biol. Med. 2011;84(3):247-251.

Handelsman J, Ebert-May D, Beichner R, et al. Education. Scientific teaching. Science 2004;304(5670):521-522.

Marbach-Ad G, Briken V, Frauwirth K, et al. A faculty team works to create content linkages among various courses to increase meaningful learning of targeted concepts of microbiology. CBE Life Sci. Educ. 2007;6(2):155-162.

Miller S, Pfund C, Pribbenow CM, et al. The Pipeline: scientific teaching in practice. Science 2008;322(5906):1329-1330.

Pfund C, Miller S, Brenner K, et al. Professional development. Summer institute to improve university science teaching. Science 2009;324(5926):470-471.

Sirum KL, Madigan D. Assessing how science faculty learning communities promote scientific teaching. Biochem. Mol. Biol. Educ. 2010;38(3):197-206.

Smith AC, Stewart R, Shields P, et al. Introductory biology courses: a framework to support active learning in large enrollment introductory science courses. Cell Biol. Educ. 2005;4(2):143-156.


Matthew R. Marcello, PhD

UMDNJ–Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
e-mail | publications

Matthew R. Marcello is an INSPIRE (IRACDA New Jersey/ New York for Science Partnerships in Research and Education) Postdoctoral Fellow at UMDNJ–Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and conducts research at the Waksman Institute at Rutgers University. Marcello was named a National Academies Education Fellow in the Life Sciences for 2011 – 2012 and currently teaches biology at CUNY–Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, NY. Marcello received his PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. His research is focused on understanding the molecular basis of sperm–egg interactions. In recognition of his research accomplishments, the American Society of Andrology honored Marcello with the Outstanding Trainee Investigator Award in 2011.