November 2, 2020

Improving Scientific Reasoning Levels through Active Learning Strategies

by Hannah Schmoock, Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate, University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy

Summary and Analysis of: Marušić M and Dragojević A. Assessing Pharmacy Students' Scientific Reasoning After Completing a Physics Course Taught Using Active-Learning Methods. [Internet] American journal of pharmaceutical education, 2020: 84(8): Article 7610

This article piqued my interest because it aimed to show how implementing active learning methods into physics courses could improve scientific reasoning.1 Active learning is a widely used instructional method in our pharmacy curriculum at the University of Mississippi and I find active learning techniques useful in helping to deepen my understanding of the topics we discuss. As future pharmacists, we are expected to be able to think critically when it comes to devising solutions to complex patient cases and medication regimens. Using active learning in pharmacy curricula, students build their scientific reasoning skills which will be very important throughout their careers. This study aimed to compare two groups, an active-learning group, and a traditional-learning group. The active-learning group received a traditional 60-minute lecture followed by 30 minutes of active learning activities during each class meeting. The traditional-learning group received a traditional 90-minute lecture-style class.

This study took place from 2013 to 2018 in a Physics for Pharmacists course taught by the Faculty of Chemistry and Technology at the University of Split in the Republic of Croatia. A total of 150 first-year pharmacy students participated in the course over the five years. In the first 3 years of the study, the active learning method was used. During the active learning activity, the instructors described an experiment to the students and had them predict all of the possible outcomes that might result from performing the experiment. The experiment was then be performed by the instructor. After the experiment, the students were allowed to repeat the experiment themselves and ask questions. During the 2017 and 2018 academic years, the traditional lecture style was used. This meant that no time was allotted to the active learning activity. Over the 5 years during which this study was conducted, the same professor was responsible for all instruction, and the same course syllabus was used. Each year the students were assessed before and after completing the physics course using Lawson's Classroom Test of Scientific Reasoning. This assessment consists of 12 two-tiered multiple-choice questions where students are awarded points for correctly answering the question and also correctly identifying the reason for that answer.1 This test helped differentiate how the different teaching methods affected the students' scientific reasoning skills. Based on the results of the test, students were classified as either a concrete, transitional, or formal learner, with formal being the highest level of learning.2 A formal thinker is defined as being able to understand different variables within a problem as well as explain how these variables relate to each other.

The results of this study revealed that the active learning group had a significant improvement in a students’ level of scientific reasoning and also the ability of students to transition to a higher level of scientific thinking.2 The percentage of formal thinkers in the active learning group increased from a baseline of 14.4% to 33.3%. In the traditional instructional group, the percentage of formal thinkers remained stagnant at 13.3%. When comparing the active learning group to the traditional group, performance in the physics course was significantly improved, with the mean grade point average of 4.0 on a 5.0 scale in the active learning group versus 2.8 in the traditional learning group.

The strengths of this study include the use of a control to compare the results of the two teaching approaches as well as the use of a pre- and post-assessment to assess each students’ scientific reasoning level. The LCTSR is a validated and widely used tool to assess scientific reasoning. Some of the weaknesses of the study include the fact that the control and intervention cohorts were concurrently conducted during the same academic year. It’s possible that the two groups had very different experiences in other course work that might explain the different outcomes.  By having both comparison groups happen simultaneously, students would have experienced the same course curriculum and instructors. 

A similar study by Styers was conducted in 2018; however, the investigators used Critical Thinking Assessment Test (CAT) to assess critical thinking rather than the LCTSR.3  While the findings were similar, the Styers study did not use a control group.3 A third study by Latif and Mumtaz looked at implementing active learning using a debate type approach.4 This study also showed positive outcomes, but this was only on the basis of how the student’s perceived the growth in their critical thinking skills. No test to objectively measure critical thinking was administered. 

I believe this study provides strong evidence that implementing active learning activities can help improve scientific reasoning. From my own experiences, I personally found active learning activities in my physics courses and other science-based courses helped me to be more successful because it made me think more about the topic. The goal of initiating active learning is to stimulate thinking and allow students to make mistakes. Every educator should strive to include active learning activities in their instruction to help mold future scientific thinkers. 


  1. Khoirina M, Cari C, Sukarmin. Identify Students’ Scientific Reasoning Ability at Senior High School [Internet]. Journal of Physics: Conference Series 2018; 1097: 012024.
  2. Marušić M and Dragojević A. Assessing Pharmacy Students' Scientific Reasoning After Completing a Physics Course Taught Using Active-Learning Methods. [Internet] Am J Pharm Educ 2020: 84(8): Article 7610.
  3. Styers ML. Active Learning in Flipped Life Science Courses Promotes Development of Critical Thinking Skills [Internet]. CBE-Life Sciences Education. 2018; 17 (3): [cited 2020Oct16].
  4. Latif R and Mumtaz S. Learning through debate during problem-based learning: an active learning strategy [Internet]. Adv Physiol Educ 2017; 41: 390-394.

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