Supporting student construction and defense of scientific explanations

By Savannah Benally & Kerri Wingert -March 2014


Berland, L. K., & Reiser, B. J. (2008). Making sense of argumentation and explanation. Science Education, 93(1), 26–55. doi:10.1002/sce.20286

This paper focuses on the ways students can construct scientific explanations and arguments as part of scientific inquiry. Berland and Reiser synthesize understandings from philosophy, science, and logic in order to interpret students’ arguments during a unit on invasive species in the Great Lakes.

Theoretical Basis 

The authors explore the long history of argumentation and explanation in the disciplines of science, literature, and philosophy. After reviewing this history, the authors identify three basic goals for using argumentation and explanation in science learning:

These three goals function together, but not in succession. Their relationship is fluid; success in one goal is not contingent on achieving the others. For example, a student with high-quality articulation and sense-making skills may not be persuasive to others, while a highly persuasive student may not have taken the time to make much sense of the process.

Berland and Reiser describe the differences between argumentation and explanation in order to help educators understand the process of using evidence to support STEM arguments and the complementary practice of explaining a line of inquiry. In general usage, an argument is typically an emotional dispute. According to Berland and Reiser, argument is a logical debate in which new knowledge is created. Explanation is an extended statement of a belief Berland and Reiser also clarify the relationship between explanation and argumentation. Scientists and science educators need to understand how the two co-exist and build off each other in a social community (Latour & Woolgar, 1986). The researchers used these insights in their work on A Framework for Science Education (National Research Council, 2012), which also guided the formation of the Next Generation Science Standards.


Berland and Reiser apply their synthesized notion of argumentation and explanation in their review of middle school students’ work from two six-week units on invasive species in the Great Lakes region. Students responded to three prompts: “Explain which organism the invasive species competes with,” “Explain the changes in population of the chub, after the sea lamprey invaded,” and “Explain why the majority of finches died in 1977 and why some survived.” All of these prompts required students to evaluate evidence and articulate their thinking.

In their analysis of this student work, the researchers found that students consistently used evidence to make sense of phenomena. They describe differences in the students’ explanations in terms of two characteristics:

Students were significantly more likely to include persuasive statements in their arguments when they also differentiated between their evidence and inferences. Based on these findings, Berland and Reiser propose strategies for designing social interactions, which are often discouraged in traditional classroom settings.

Implications for Practice 

This paper can be useful to both formal and informal science educators, no matter the age or developmental level of their students. Because argumentation and explanation from evidence are two of the eight scientific practices explicitly detailed in A Framework for Science Education (National Research Council, 2012) and the Next Generation Science Standards, many practitioners will be concerned with incorporating these practices in STEM education.

Berland and Reiser contend that discourse is a powerful tool in attaining all three goals of good scientific argumentation. They remind practitioners to resist controlling classroom dialogue and idea flow: “What would be the point in trying to convince your classmates that your idea has merit if the teacher would step in and solve the controversy with a simple yes or no?”(Cornelius & Herrenkohl, 2004) For many educators, a shift to teaching argumentation and explanation will have to include learning new ways of talking, writing, thinking, and owning ideas in science learning environments.


Cornelius, L. L., & Herrenkohl, L. R. (2004). Power in the classroom: How the classroom environment shapes students’ relationships with each other and with concepts. Cognition and Instruction, 22(4), 467–498. doi:10.1207/s1532690Xci2204_4 

Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (1986). Laboratory life: The construction of scientific facts. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. National Research Council (U.S.). (2012). A framework for k-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, D.C: The National Academies Press.