Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Name


Department or School/College

Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

Committee Co-chair

Mark S. Cracolice, John Gerdes

Commitee Members

Edward Rosenberg, Sandy Ross, Allen Szalda-Petree


Formal Thinking Skills, High School Science, Middle School Science, Science Education, Scientific Reasoning


University of Montana


Current domestic and international comparative studies of student achievement in science are demonstrating that the U.S. needs to improve science education if it wants to remain competitive in the global economy. One of the causes of the poor performance of U.S. science education is the lack of students who have developed the formal thinking skills that are necessary to obtain scientific literacy. Previous studies have demonstrated that formal thinking skills can be taught to adolescents, however only 25% of incoming college freshman have these necessary skills. There is some evidence that adolescence (girls aged 11-13, boys aged 12-14) is a critical period where students must learn formal thinking skills, similar to the critical period that exists for young children learning languages. It is not known whether it is more difficult for students to learn formal thinking skills either prior to or following adolescence. The purpose of this quantitative case study is to determine whether adolescence is a critical period for students to learn formal thinking skills. The study also investigates whether a formal thinking skills focused program can improve students' intelligence.

In this study 32 students who had not developed any formal thinking skills, ranging in age from 10-16, underwent an intensive four-week, inquiry-based, formal thinking skill intervention program that focused on two formal thinking skills: (1) the ability to control and exclude variables and (2) the ability to manipulate ratios and proportionalities. The students undergoing the training were matched with control students by age, gender, formal thinking skill ability, and intelligence. The control group attended their traditional science course during the intervention periods.

The results of the study showed that the intervention program was successful in developing students' formal thinking skills. The pre-adolescents (males, age 10-11, females, age 10) were unable to learn formal thinking skills. The data indicated that there is not a significant difference between adolescents and post-adolescents (up to 16-years-old) ability to learn formal thinking skills. Both groups (adolescent and post-adolescent) showed improvement in their formal thinking skill ability after the intervention. The intervention also demonstrated evidence of improving students' intelligence scores.



© Copyright 2009 Forrest Towne