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Review highlights ways of improving science learning in primary schools

Posted on 26 July 2012

A major review of research suggests that improving science learning outcomes in primary schools depends on improving teachers' presentational skills, engaging and motivating pupils, and integrating science and reading.

Researchers, led by Robert Slavin, a professor at the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York, and Director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University in the US, conducted a systematic review to summarise the evidence of three types of programmes designed to improve the science achievement of primary school pupils. These were inquiry-orientated programmes without science kits, inquiry-orientated programmes with science kits, and technology programmes.

The results of the review support the use of inquiry-orientated programmes without science kits, which help teachers to learn and use generic processes such as science-reading integration in their daily science teaching. Use of inquiry-orientated science kits, such as FOSS (Full Option Science System), did not show any benefits for science learning. Limited research on technology approaches such as BrainPop also showed positive impacts.

Professor Slavin said: “The limited achievement effects of inquiry-orientated programmes that used science kits is surprising since they are carefully designed to facilitate hands-on inquiry. One possible answer may lie in the nature of practical science teaching in primary schools. Time and resource limitations make it difficult to cover the entire science curriculum so spending a great deal of time on laboratory exercises may take time away from the rest of the science curriculum, especially objectives not covered by the kits.”

The limited achievement effects of inquiry-orientated programmes that used science kits is surprising since they are carefully designed to facilitate hands-on inquiry

Professor Robert Slavin

The review concludes that science teaching methods that are focused on improving classroom teaching have significant potential to improve science learning in primary schools.

“A teacher who learns to make effective, daily use of co-operative learning, or conceptually challenging content, or science-reading integration, can take advantage of these new skills every day, for every objective, and teach the entire range of science objectives more effectively,” Professor Slavin added.

A further finding of this review is that there are few rigorous experimental evaluations of primary science programmes. After examining 327 published and unpublished articles, only 17 studies met the review’s inclusion criteria – and only one of these took place in the UK. The report suggests that more research and development is needed to identify effective and replicable approaches to improving science achievement outcomes for primary schools.

The full report is available on the Best Evidence Encyclopaedia website at

Notes to editors:

  • The three types of science programmes reviewed were:

    Inquiry-orientated programmes without science kits, such as Increasing Conceptual Challenge, Science IDEAS, and Collaborative Concept Mapping. These programmes help teachers learn and use generic processes, such as cooperative learning, concept development, and science-reading integration, in their daily science teaching.

    Inquiry-orientated programmes with science kits, such as Insights, FOSS, STC, SCALE, and Teaching SMART. The theory of action in science kit programmes is that implementing hands-on activities helps to build deep learning about the scientific process and core concepts of primary science.

    Technology programmes, such as BrainPOP, The Voyage of the Mimi, and web-based labs. Technologies used in these approaches include computer-assisted instruction and class-focused technology (such as video and interactive whiteboard technologies).

  • The Institute for Effective Education (IEE), based at the University of York, is campaigning for better evidence of what works in education.

    The IEE:

    Develops effective education programmes for schools
    Conducts high quality research on education programmes and practices
    Writes accessible systematic reviews of existing education research
    Encourages policy makers to support evidence-based programmes in education

    For more information on the Institute for Effective Education visit or email

Contact details

Caron Lett
Press Officer

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