Volume 3
March 2005
Teaching Science Content, Concepts and Processes with Contexts
Dr Alan K. Szeto
Department of Chemistry

I would like to highlight the views of many science educators with regards to how Science curricula can be designed and courses taught in such a way that students’ minds and skills can be developed more fully. It has been argued for a long time that traditional Science courses tend to focus almost exclusively on content coverage. Courses are developed to deliver to students, often in the form of lectures, a body of content knowledge centred on textbooks or prescribed sets of curricular materials. Students lack sufficient opportunities to develop their minds and acquire cognitive skills other than rote memorisation of course content and algorithms to solve structured exercises. Students are capable of achieving much more.

Teaching science concepts (not isolated facts)

It is important that students gain a sound grasp of conceptual knowledge organised in some meaningful way. One typical meaningful organisational structure is a hierarchy. While a person cannot possibly memorise all of the information that is presented to him or her (especially if it is committed to rote memory), it is possible for him or her to organise the information into some hierarchical structure so that the information is understood meaningfully and can be retrieved efficiently when solving problems (Reif, 1983). When learning Science, students typically encounter serious difficulty in memorising the vast amount of content knowledge presented since it has grown substantially in recent decades. Therefore, students should be taught to learn concepts (as a way of acquiring content knowledge) instead of isolated facts because concepts are necessarily interrelated and thus provide a potential network of organised ideas to guide further learning. Moreover, conceptual networks of knowledge can be the basic schemas used to construct a more hierarchical organisation of knowledge.

Teaching science processes

DeBoer (1991), while acknowledging the importance of content in Science courses, also argued for the significance of science processes in a well-rounded curriculum. Therefore, inquiry-based, problem-based, and laboratory-centred courses are particularly valuable in this regard. In addition, in order for students to understand science processes, they should be allowed to do science in a way similar to how scientists do science (Roth, 1995). It is broadly accepted that such a mode of learning is most productive in helping students develop into scientific thinkers and problem solvers who are able to understand science content as well as discuss and analyse even the most scientifically novel problems.

The importance of contexts

Prior studies (e.g. Roth & Roychoudhury, 1993) have established the importance of context and situated cognition. Context as used by cognitive scientists is a broad set of cognitive representations either of abstract ideas or episodic experiences that can serve as an anchoring framework for new ideas. Situated cognition occurs when a learner is presented with a new learning task that is anchored within some readily apprehensible experiential context. Contexts such as students’ everyday experience of the physical world are probably more familiar to them than scientists’ perceptions of certain scientific theories. This contextual embedment is the most vital factor contributing to students’ growing interests and cognitive development throughout the Science course.


DeBoer, G.E. (1991). A History of Ideas in Science Education: Implications for Practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Reif, F. (1983). ‘How Can Chemists Teach Problem Solving? Suggestions Derived from Studies of Cognitive Processes’. Journal of Chemical Education, 60: 948–953.

Roth, W.M. & Roychoudhury, A. (1993). ‘The Development of Science Process Skills in Authentic Contexts’. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 30: 127–152.


published by
Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning (CDTL)
National University of Singapore
© CDTL 2000 - 2008