A Mile Wide or an Inch Deep? Improving Elementary Preservice Teachers’ Science Content Knowledge Within the Context of a Science Methods Course

From Section:
Instruction in Teacher Training
Dec. 01, 2014

Source: Journal of Science Teacher Education, Vol. 25, No. 8, December 2014, p. 953-976.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This study examined preservice elementary teachers’ development of science content knowledge (SCK) within the context of an elementary science methods course.

The participants were 19 undergraduate PreK-4 (early childhood) education students at a midsize university in the Northeastern United States.
A project-developed science knowledge test was administered at the beginning and the end of the science methods course, before and after science content was covered concurrent with modeled pedagogy.
All 19 students completed both the pretest and the posttest.


The findings reveal that the participating preservice elementary teachers strengthened and deepened their science content knowledge upon completing the course.

The preservice elementary teachers had adequate knowledge of low difficulty science content on the pretest, but demonstrated improvement on moderate and difficult science content, especially on topics emphasized in the methods course.
This leads the authors to conclude that preservice elementary teachers have some science content knowledge, may it be from prior experience in school or every day science, but we believe it is superficial. Several moderately difficult test items did show growth, however. These results indicate that preservice teachers strengthened their content knowledge on these topics upon them being covered in the course and potentially challenged their previously existing misconceptions.

Furthermore, the findings reveal that most short and extended response items displayed growth. All high difficulty and most moderate difficulty test items displayed growth, which strongly indicates that when preservice teachers were asked to explain scientific phenomena prior to covering the content in the course, they did not possess adequate science content knowledge to do so.

Finally, growth was generally visible across all three content areas of life, physical, and earth science. The authors noticed that improvement was linked to test item difficulty and not necessarily to content area. This result suggests that preservice elementary teachers, as generalists, may know ‘‘a little bit of everything,’’ as indicated by their performance on the low difficulty items, but during the methods course added depth to their shallow science content knowledge, as indicated by their performance on the moderate and high difficulty items.


The results indicate that preservice teachers developed ‘‘an inch deep’’ science knowledge that we hope is more likely to lead to effective science teaching than the typically ‘‘mile wide’’ science knowledge of elementary teachers.

The findings of this study make two important contributions to the field of science education.
First, it is the responsibility of science educators to re-focus the research on SCK.
Second, the authors believe that is necessary to revisit widely accepted instructional models.
This study suggests that any preexisting science content knowledge must be solidified and deepened and that potential misconceptions must be addressed.

Updated: Oct. 25, 2019
Elementary school teachers | Methods courses | Pedagogical content knowledge | Preservice teachers | Science instruction | Teaching methods