Recommendations for undergraduate biology education include integration of
research experiences into the curriculum, regardless of major. While non-biology majors and biology majors differ in affective characteristics, it is not
clear if they differ in their incoming science process skills. We created a
scenario-based assessment instrument – designed to gauge science process skills –
that was accessible to nonmajors and majors. We evaluated nonmajors’ and
majors’ open-ended responses using a rubric. We also assessed students’ science
identity, confidence, and attitudes with a pre-course survey. While affective
differences between the populations are evident, we did not detect meaningful
differences in science competency. These findings indicate that nonmajors and
majors are skilled in the process of science and have the ability to engage in
meaningful scientific inquiry, confirming our hypothesis that, in supporting a
scientifically literate citizenry, educators must emphasize teaching strategies that
target affective differences between nonmajors and majors.
Key Words: Science process skill; undergraduate; nonmajors; biology majors;
Building on the foundational work of the “Science: A Process
Approach” program (Livermore, 1964), recent recommendations
for undergraduate biology education include the promotion of an
inquiry-based curriculum, regardless of a student’s major (AAAS,
2011). In response, science educators are incorporating research
experiences into their courses that emphasize developing students’
science process skills (SPS): hypothesis construction, experimental
design, data interpretation, and communication (Coil et al., 2010;
Luckie et al., 2013).
While recommendations for integrating research experiences
into the curriculum are independent of major, notable differences
between non-biology majors and biology majors (hereafter “non-
majors” and “majors”) may need consideration when designing
course research experiences (Ballen et al., 2017). Nonmajors are
less motivated by science (Knight & Smith, 2010; Glynn et al.,
2011), less interested in it (Knight & Smith, 2010), less confident
with respect to it (Cotner et al., 2017), and have less positive atti-
tudes toward it (Sundberg et al., 1994; Cotner et al., 2017) than
majors. While nonmajors and majors differ in affective characteris-
tics, it is unclear whether nonmajors are less skilled in their ability
to do science (e.g., developing testable questions and hypotheses,
designing experiments, interpreting results, and communicating
scientific information) than majors. Gauging differences in these
core competencies will be beneficial to instructors designing curric-
ula for these students.
Our SPS learning objectives for introductory biology students
are as follows:
(1) Ask a testable question.
(2) Propose a testable hypothesis and prediction that aligns with
(3) Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of an experiment or
design a well-controlled experiment that aligns with the
(4) Interpret data from tables and graphs.
(5) Draw conclusions that are supported by the data.
(6) Develop future research plans based on previous results.
(7) Communicate research plans and findings in writing.
(8) Use science in daily life.
In addition to being able to assess these learning objectives, we wanted
an instrument that was accessible to nonmajors and majors with an
open-ended question format. While each existing SPS assessment
instrument (Shortlidge & Brownell, 2016) met some of our goals,
no single instrument met them all. Thus, we developed a scenario-based SPS assessment instrument (hereafter “SPS scenario”) and
Our goal was to assess nonmajors’ and majors’ incoming science
process skills. We evaluated students’ responses from the SPS scenario using a rubric to meet this goal. We ensured that our sample
The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 81, No. 8, pp. 554–560, ISSN 0002-7685, electronic ISSN 1938-4211. © 2019 National Association of Biology Teachers. All rights
reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Reprints and Permissions web page,
www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/abt.2019.81.8.554.
L E A R N I N G A Comparison of Nonmajors’ &
Majors’ Incoming Science Process
• SADIE HEBERT, SEHOYA COTNER