Scientific literacy is a complex topic that is often cited, but rarely fully defined. Teaching scientific literacy often focuses solely on scientific reading and writing. However, to be scientifically literate, one must also be able to distinguish between credible and non-credible sources of information. Such ability involves a thorough knowledge of referencing and the peer-review process. To incorporate such issues into the teaching of a specific aspect of scientific literacy, a two-part module was developed with one module focusing on each of the aforementioned topics. Pre-tests and post-tests assessed the efficacy of within-module assignments in terms of increasing student knowledge and confidence in understanding scientific literacy. Following completion of the modules, students were involved in a project that required the writing a scientific paper. Statistically significant gains were observed in student confidence after student completion of the module-specific assignments. Similar findings occurred in knowledge of basic formatting and peer-review after completion of the written paper. The timing in which gains occurred suggests that procedural learning occurred prior to declarative learning. Thus, a multistep process appears effective in explaining a complex topic such as scientific literacy to undergraduate students.

Introduction

Scientific literacy is a broad topic and notoriously difficult to define. It is often seen as a “buzzword” or a “catchphrase” used by scientists and science educators in efforts to communicate with the general public. Scientific literacy, and literacy in general, has changed much over the past decade with the increasing levels of accessibility to information through various technological and social media outlets. The public now has so much information available that it becomes imperative that they learn how to identify, understand, and develop attitudes toward scientific presentations in the media (Julien & Barker, 2009). This means they not only have to become media savvy, but they must learn some basic tenets of scientific literacy. The original notion of scientific literacy refers to learning both science facts and the ability to read and write science (Glynn & Muth, 1994). This notion is too simplistic, and thus Miller (1983) further expanded upon this idea, proposing three dimensions of scientific literacy. Though numerous expansions to scientific literacy have since been proposed, each additional category still fits neatly into Miller's (1983) original three dimensions:

Understanding of the Scientific Approach

This dimension involves the understanding of how science works, including scientific methodology and basic logic. Subsequent authors to Miller (1983) have added in many attributes that would fall under this category, including conducting scientific studies, distinguishing experts form non-experts, deciphering science from non-science, and recognizing the limits of scientific information (Hurd, 1998; McFarlane, 2013). Overall, understanding the scientific approach encompasses many different aspects of how science is done and how good science can be recognized.

Attitudes Toward Science

This second dimension, which is often viewed as the most important, or at least the most cited in recent literature, refers to how people understand the applications of science. In several cases, scientific literacy is seen as simply the knowledge and perception of science held by the general public. In such cases, this dimension is often subdivided into two distinct components: civic—how an individual perceives the interaction between science and the environment, jurisprudence, and public policy; and cultural—understanding science in terms of human achievements (Hurd, 1998; Laugksch, 2000). In either case, the goal of this dimension is to form a public that knows enough science not only to understand it but also to become interested in followings its advances (DeBoer, 2000).

Understanding of Basic Scientific Concepts

The final dimension relates to the knowledge base of science, as it is historically taught throughout the U.S. education system. The basic idea is that a science-literate person will know enough to make sense of science as it is presented by the media. Recent studies have not included this as a main area of focus, instead focusing on the process of science and the development of scientific attitudes. As such, the goal of many science educators has become to reduce content and replace it with methodology and application (Hurd, 1998; DeBoer, 2000; Laugksch, 2000).

Although these three dimensions appear to be the cornerstones for understanding scientific literacy, they each become useless if there is no effective means of communication among scientists, educators, the general public, and various policy makers. To be fully effective, science must be viewed as a collaborative effort in which information is shared among scientists. Thus, the basic concept of successful scientific literacy is rooted in effective communication skills. Though science is often communicated orally, visually, or in a tactile manner, scientific discovery is not considered valid until it has been put into text (Norris & Phillips, 2003). As a result, scientific literacy is not just about knowing methodology, understanding its applications, and having knowledge of basic scientific principles, but it is about being able to read and comprehend written scientific information.

If Scientific Literacy is So Important, How is it Taught?

When it comes to defining and assessing scientific literacy, as mentioned above, many articles and books have been written. However, since scientific literacy is such a broad topic, with a multifaceted definition, there is no single consensus on the production of a scientifically literate person. It can be reasonably assumed that development of scientific literacy does not occur from a single assignment, or even as part of a single science course. Unfortunately, there are few concrete examples of how to teach scientific literacy, and those that do exist focus only on small components of the larger concept. For example, several publications detail how to incorporate undergraduate students in research projects (Mulnix, 2003; Rehorek, 2004; Justice et al., 2007). The idea in these projects is to expose the students to scientific methodology, and thereby teach them some basic tenants of scientific literacy along the way. Such projects, often simple, result in the students writing a scientific paper in the correct format. This exposes the students to scientific communication. Once they learn about scientific communication, it should be easier for them to distinguish between science and non-science. Such process-orientated pedagogies are problematic in that the students start with methodology, without necessarily understanding the reason for the project. They may not have the necessary communication skills to properly understand the significance of their project, or even to know how to go about learning the important details. Such understanding often occurs after the project is done, and the students are ready to write the resulting scientific report. It is at this stage that students are often overwhelmed with technical details and instructions.

One way to reduce student angst would be to introduce students to science writing before the project. Since science is a collaborative enterprise, scientists refer to other publications in their written communications (i.e., referencing other publications). A simple, quick, and effective way to teach students how to determine the scientific validity of a piece of prose, which is an aspect of scientific literacy, without having to teach factual content, effective methodology, appropriate application, or without even having to read the paper, is simply to examine whether the scientists have correctly and effectively referenced previous publications. This is called referencing.

Though referencing and basic scientific literacy is taught in science classes (Huerta & McMillan, 2000; Justice et al., 2007; Freeman & Lynd-Balta, 2010; Berger et al., 2012), the emphasis is usually largely placed specifically upon scientific literacy and not upon the art of referencing. For example, there are several descriptions of courses or assignments in which students learn about finding references and writing a paper (Janick-Buckner, 1997; Huerta & McMillan, 2000; Victor et al., 2013). Norris and Phillips (2003) also discuss scientific literacy and the understanding of concepts in text, sound logic, and correct interpretation of text. However, neither of these papers report on how to use techniques of referencing to determine the scientific legitimacy of a piece of text. The overarching supposition is that the “science material” being presented is based on correctly interpreted science. Why waste time applying critical thinking skills if the piece of “science writing” is not based on correct science? This isn't just about differentiating between primary and secondary sources (as described by Huerta & McMillan, 2000; Yarden, 2009; Paulus, 2012), but about understanding why a secondary source may not present valid science and how to recognize such sources in the reference sections. Furthermore, there is limited discussion on the process of peer review and how to distinguish between primary sources (which undergo peer review) and secondary sources (which do not).

Objectives

The objectives of this study are as follows:

  • to provide a methodology for teaching basic referencing

  • to provide a methodology for introducing scientific literacy skills

  • to show student learning success related to these newly acquired skills with a course module

  • to compare student results after a specific assignment and then a written paper based upon a class project.

What Was Done

Participants

This module was part of an introductory biology course designed for undergraduate biology majors. Students who take this course generally have no prior exposure to university-level biology courses. Although this course was designed for freshmen, some sophomore, junior, and senior non-biology majors do enroll as a pre-requisite for graduate school. After modifying this assignment for several years, we collected data from one cohort of 36 students in the spring of 2017. Specifically, 36 students (13 male, 23 female) participated in the study, ages ranging from 18 to 21 years.

Tools

A written assignment was created with the overarching aim to teach students how to critically read a piece of “scientific literature” and determine whether it is a credible scientific study, secondary literature describing a scientific study, or an example of pseudoscience using their newly gained knowledge of referencing. There were three objectives for this assignment:

  1. To show students the correct format of a scientific reference. Since peer-reviewed publications require specific formats for references, being able to identify correct reference citations is an easy way to determine the potential validity of a piece of scientific literature.

  2. To explain the process of scientific publication, including the steps involved after the study has been completed. This component involved discussing how to correctly format a scientific paper. Students are told that the papers they produce are generally early drafts, compared to the final versions sent off for peer review. Additionally, the process of peer review and how to identify evidence of peer review in a scientific manuscript were explained.

  3. To show students how to differentiate between primary and secondary scientific literature. Using their knowledge about scientific reference formatting and the peer-review process, students then compare primary and secondary literature, and thus determine scientific validilty based upon a series of specified criteria.

The written assigment that occured during a three-hour lab session was dedicated to referencing, finding primary literature, and navigating the library website. Before starting the assignment, students were provided with an overview of the university's library resources, including the library databases. A discussion about key terms and how to use them in both basic and advanced searches to find articles related to these terms was also conducted. The students were then given the assignment, consisting of two distinct parts used to cover the three aforementioned objectives.

Part 1: Formatting References

Though an assigment about how to properly format references for primary sources is not a new idea, it has yet to be published in the education literature. In this section, students were given five vague descriptions of different scientific papers. The name of an author and some key terms were bolded to lead the student through the concept of key words, an important skill needed for critical reading. Using the key terms, they were responsible for finding an appropriate article (see Table 1 for an example). To prevent collusion, no identical descriptions were included. Once the student found an appropriate article, they were required to (a) type out the full reference in a specific format (as shown in Table 1), and (b) obtain a copy of the abstract of this article. They were then required to hand in both the assigment, the correct citation, and a copy of each of the five abstracts.

Table 1.
Example of incomplete and a complete citation.
Incomplete Citation 
Booblesnorf first authored a paper detailing the genetic morphology of the African Booby. 
Correctly Formatted Citation 
Booblesnorf, P.Q., and Hackback, A.D. 2012. Genetic morphology of the African birds: The tale of the African Booby. Journal of Philanthropic Birds. 66(1): 42-47. 
Incomplete Citation 
Booblesnorf first authored a paper detailing the genetic morphology of the African Booby. 
Correctly Formatted Citation 
Booblesnorf, P.Q., and Hackback, A.D. 2012. Genetic morphology of the African birds: The tale of the African Booby. Journal of Philanthropic Birds. 66(1): 42-47. 

Part 2: Peer Review and Scientific Literacy

The two interrelated concepts of peer-review and scientific literacy not only complement each other, but also build upon the first part of the assignment. Before starting this section, the differences between primary and secondary literature were defined. The concepts of author credentials, author affiliations, reference lists, and language were discussed in terms of being able to identify credible sources. To complete the assignment, students were assigned a secondary source such as Ed Yong's Blog in National Geographic. These blogs are one to three pages in length, have a few hyperlinks, and summarize a recent interesting finding in the natural world in a manner that is both easy to read (few technical terms) and written in a way that entices students to read further. Students utilized this source to complete the following four specific tasks:

Task 1: Students were required to read through the article and identify three key terms. For example: a short blog on the effects of fungus on life expectancy of South Australian Salamanders would include such key terms as “fungus,” “salamanders,” and “life expectancy.” Students are required to write out these three key terms on the assignment sheet.

Task 2: Students were to use the previously identified key terms to find primary literature on the assigned topic. Using their newly found skills in referencing and database navigation, students were asked to find a related primary article, which may or may not have been the basis of the secondary article. Additionally, they were asked to provide both a complete citation and a copy of the abstract of the identified primary research article.

Task 3: Again using the same key words, students were asked to search through a highly criticized database that is readily available to the general public (e.g., Wikipedia) and find an article on that same topic. As evidence of success, students were required to print off the first page and reference page of the newly found database article.

Task 4: Students were asked to compare the original secondary source, the derived primary source, and the database article. To accomplish this goal, students were led through the articles by a series of questions that prompt them to critically examine the credibility of each source (see Table 2). Specifically, questions revolve arround asking students to critically evaluate the creditials of the authors, their association with the study at hand, and ultimately the overall scientific credibility of each article. To evaluate each article, students used a ranking system with 1 representing a noncredible source and 3 representing a credible source.

Table 2.
Questions posed to compare the three types of articles collected.
What is the title of the article? 
What year was the article published? 
Who is the publisher (or the name of the journal)? 
Who are the authors? 
What organizations are the authors affiliated with? 
Did the authors conduct the research that they are presenting in the article? 
Do the authors reference the information they are presenting? 
What types of references are listed? (Are they Internet sources, magazines, or peer-reviewed journals?) 
Is this article reviewed by an expert in their field? 
Is the language intended for professionals in the field? 
What is the scientific credibility of this article? Rank from 1 (lowest) to 3 (highest). 
Would this article be cited in a scientific paper? 
What is the title of the article? 
What year was the article published? 
Who is the publisher (or the name of the journal)? 
Who are the authors? 
What organizations are the authors affiliated with? 
Did the authors conduct the research that they are presenting in the article? 
Do the authors reference the information they are presenting? 
What types of references are listed? (Are they Internet sources, magazines, or peer-reviewed journals?) 
Is this article reviewed by an expert in their field? 
Is the language intended for professionals in the field? 
What is the scientific credibility of this article? Rank from 1 (lowest) to 3 (highest). 
Would this article be cited in a scientific paper? 

Following completion of this assignment, students were involved in a class project in which they performed a literature search, formed hypotheses, ran an experiment, and described results in the form of a scientific paper. The students wrote this paper in a series of drafts, each of which was submitted and graded by the instructor, before being allowed to submit the final version. This mimics the peer-review process, with the instructor playing the role of the reviewer and editor.

Evaluation

A single pre-test and two sets of post-tests (see Table 3 for test questions) were used to evaluate student learning. Students were tested before the exercise, one week after submitting the assignment (Post-test 1), and again during finals week at the end of the simester (Post-test 2). Knowledge-based questions addressed student knowledge associated with the three objectives of this study (fromatting, peer review, and scientitific literacy). This cohort was also asked questions related to their confidence in understanding the same three areas (see Table 4). Individual identifiers were removed from each evaluative tool prior to examination of the data.

Table 3.
Knowledge-based questions by study objectives.
ObjectivesQuestions
Formatting (1) Recently, Gartner, with multiple co-authors, wrote a paper about cottonmouth snake scavenging behaviors at island rookeries. Which of the following is THE correct citation? 
 Answer: Multiple references were given, though only one met ALL the criteria. 
 (2) What does “15(7):7-14” mean? 
 Answer is choice of: Volume (total no. of pages): pages | Volume (issue): pages | Day (hour): minutes | Year (month): days | None of those listed. 
 (3) Which of the following is the correct format for an in-text citation? 
 Answer: Various permutations of author, date, title source are given, but only ONE is in the correct order. 
Peer Review (1) Which of the following would you find ONLY in a primary article? 
 Answer is choice of: in-text citation, evidence of peer review, reference to other people's work, list of contribution authors, and affiliation of author. 
 (2) What is an example of an appropriate peer reviewer for an article on cottonmouth snake behaviors? 
 Answer is choice of: lawyer, medical professional, academic, typist, or ALL. 
Scientific Literacy (1) In any given Wikipedia article, you can find the author(s) and their affiliations? 
 Answer: Yes or No. 
 (2) In terms of literature review, what does “source” mean in an article? 
 Answer is choice of: name of journal, name of publisher, affiliation of author, name of editor, or another word for ketchup. 
 (3) Which of the following is NOT an example of a secondary journal? 
 Answer is choice of: Discovery Magazine, National Geographic, Nature, All or None. 
ObjectivesQuestions
Formatting (1) Recently, Gartner, with multiple co-authors, wrote a paper about cottonmouth snake scavenging behaviors at island rookeries. Which of the following is THE correct citation? 
 Answer: Multiple references were given, though only one met ALL the criteria. 
 (2) What does “15(7):7-14” mean? 
 Answer is choice of: Volume (total no. of pages): pages | Volume (issue): pages | Day (hour): minutes | Year (month): days | None of those listed. 
 (3) Which of the following is the correct format for an in-text citation? 
 Answer: Various permutations of author, date, title source are given, but only ONE is in the correct order. 
Peer Review (1) Which of the following would you find ONLY in a primary article? 
 Answer is choice of: in-text citation, evidence of peer review, reference to other people's work, list of contribution authors, and affiliation of author. 
 (2) What is an example of an appropriate peer reviewer for an article on cottonmouth snake behaviors? 
 Answer is choice of: lawyer, medical professional, academic, typist, or ALL. 
Scientific Literacy (1) In any given Wikipedia article, you can find the author(s) and their affiliations? 
 Answer: Yes or No. 
 (2) In terms of literature review, what does “source” mean in an article? 
 Answer is choice of: name of journal, name of publisher, affiliation of author, name of editor, or another word for ketchup. 
 (3) Which of the following is NOT an example of a secondary journal? 
 Answer is choice of: Discovery Magazine, National Geographic, Nature, All or None. 
Table 4.
Student confidence level questions with respect to the three objectives.

The students use a ranking system from 1 (no confidence) to 5 (full confidence).

How confident do you feel about being able to identify a correctly formatted reference? 
How confident do you feel about understanding the concept of scientific literacy and its connection to source? 
How confident do you feel about how the peer-review process works? 
How confident do you feel about being able to identify a correctly formatted reference? 
How confident do you feel about understanding the concept of scientific literacy and its connection to source? 
How confident do you feel about how the peer-review process works? 

Repeated measures ANOVAs for each of the six sets of questions (three knowledge-based and three confidence-level) were conducted, comparing the means of each of the three groups:Pre-test, Post-test 1, and Post-test 2. Only students who completed all the tests (all three knowledge questions and/or all three confidence questions) were were included in the statistical analysis. For significant outcomes, Tukey's post-means comparisons were subsequently conducted to identify which pairings were significantly different.

At the end of the semester, as part of the instuctor evaluation process, students completed a short questionaire that addressed their level of agreement with respect to having learned about scientific literacy, literature type, and the peer-review process (see Table 5). This questionaire was completed anonymously, and thus no identifiers could be attached to the individual responses.

Table 5.
The questions posed at the end of the semester.

The students chose from the following categories: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree, and Not Applicable.

I now have a better understanding of the issue of scientific literacy. 
I now know the difference between primary and secondary literature sources. 
I now undertand the process of peer review. 
I now have a better understanding of the issue of scientific literacy. 
I now know the difference between primary and secondary literature sources. 
I now undertand the process of peer review. 

Did It Work?

Knowledge

Statistically significant differences were observed with respect to both formatting (p = 0.001) and understanding the peer review process (p = 0.002) (Figures 1 and 2). Post-tests analyses showed no significant variation in the means between either the pre-test and the first post-test, or between the two post-tests. The significant difference lay specifically between the Pre-test and Post-test 2, revealing a slight, but not statistically significant, improvement in student scores immediately after the assigment was completed. However, scores continued to improve throughout the semester, culminating in a statistically significant improvement in understanding after having applied this knowledge to a project and written paper.

Figure 1.

Average and standard error for total test scores for Formatting (F) and Scientific Literacy (SL) in pre-tests (Pre), Post-test 1 (Post 1), and Post-test 2 (Post 2). Formatting maximum attainable score was 3. Asterisks indicate the paired tests that showed statistically significant differences.

Figure 1.

Average and standard error for total test scores for Formatting (F) and Scientific Literacy (SL) in pre-tests (Pre), Post-test 1 (Post 1), and Post-test 2 (Post 2). Formatting maximum attainable score was 3. Asterisks indicate the paired tests that showed statistically significant differences.

Figure 2.

Average and standard error for total test scores for Peer-Review (PR) in pretests (Pre), Post-test 1 (Post 1), and Post-test 2 (Post 2). Formatting maximum attainable score was 2. Asterisks indicate the paired tests that showed statistically significant differences.

Figure 2.

Average and standard error for total test scores for Peer-Review (PR) in pretests (Pre), Post-test 1 (Post 1), and Post-test 2 (Post 2). Formatting maximum attainable score was 2. Asterisks indicate the paired tests that showed statistically significant differences.

With respect to scientific literacy, the student scores did not increase. The questions posed were about specific features of scientific literacy. These features were not specifically reinforced in the paper component, which could explain the non-significant score increase in this section.

Confidence

There was a significant increase in student confidence in all three categories (p < 0.0001). In each case, both post-test results were significantly higher than the pre-test results. There was no statistically significant increase in student confidence between Post-tests 1 and 2. This indicates that student confidence and their perception of their knowledge gain increases after the assignment, without a concurrent statistically significant increase in knowledge gain. Though this seems counterintuitive, this level of apparent contradiction has been previously observed. Students have been known to be more engaged in the scientific process, without necessarily being able to articulate the associated knowledge (i.e., they feel they know how to do it, but cannot use the appropriate vocabulary) (Salter & Atkins, 2014). Thus, procedural knowledge (how they do it) precedes declarative knowledge (what it means).

Student Evaluations

Across the board, students showed an overwhelming response of strongly agree/agree for each of these three categories. Students felt they had a better understanding of the issue of scientific literacy (90%) and source type (90%). Even more of them felt they had gained a grasp on the concept of peer review (93%).

Conclusions

Scientific literacy is a complex, multifaceted concept that is difficult to define and thus difficult to assess. To sucessfully teach such a complex issue, a multistep process is recommended. Such a process would allow students first to be introduced to the topics in a specific assignment with a very detailed outlook and methodology. Such an assigment boosts student confidence levels and has them thinking about the issues associated with scientific literacy. This is then reinforced in a more practical sense, so that the students are subsequently able to directly apply their knowledge during a practical assigment. Such compounding assignments are highly effective in senior-level science classes (Berzonsky & Richardson, 2008), and could be further augmented by introduction of these courses in the freshman classes.

The authors wish to thank Dean DeNicola for conducting the statistical analysis and Amber Eade for proof reading this manuscript for clarity. This project was approved by SRU IRB (protocol #2016-032-08-A and #2017-025-08-A).

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