The Impact of Historical Narratives on Students' NOS Understanding and Science Motivation

Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Science Education

First Advisor

David W. Rudge, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Cody T. Williams, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Brian S. Horvitz, Ph.D.


DNA structure, historical narratives, imagination and creativity in science, nature of science, science motivation, social and cultural influences in science


Scholars over the past few years have drawn attention to the enormous potential role historical stories can play in promoting student understanding of issues associated with the nature of science (NOS). Such stories, often referred to as “historical narratives,” are thought to do so by providing a rich historical context within which students are acquainted with how scientists in the past reasoned about scientific phenomena. Klassen (2009) developed a theoretical framework that identifies ten essential elements that must be present to qualify as a historical narrative. Only a few studies have empirically assessed the merits of Klassen’s framework, and in particular, the role that the ten essential elements play in promoting student understanding of NOS. The dissertation focuses on three key studies all employing the historical narratives developed based on Klassen’s framework and related to the discovery of the structure of DNA. The historical narratives were presented twice: the traditional story with reference to the work of James Watson and Francis Crick, and then an alternative account highlighting the discovery from Rosalind Franklin’s perspective. The historical narratives were shared using an explicit and reflective approach, incorporating an interrupted story technique. Study 1 compares three different versions of historical narratives and assesses their impact on student understanding of two targeted NOS issues: (1) the role of creativity and imagination in science, and (2) the role of social and cultural influences in science. In the historical narrative version, the historical narrative used contained all ten of Klassen’s elements, whereas in the abridged versions of the historical narrative, three story elements (irony, narrative appetite, and agency) were progressively removed. Despite improvements observed across all versions, results indicate that omitting these elements can negatively affect students' recall abilities and significantly diminish their understanding of the social and cultural aspects of NOS. Study 2 delves into the potential of incorporating female role models into the science curriculum to bridge gender disparities. The study specifically measures the influence of the Rosalind Franklin narrative on female students and identifies a significant increase in comprehension of the social and cultural aspects of NOS, as well as an enhanced motivation. Study 3 builds on the insights from the previous studies, examining how historical narratives affect students’ motivation using the Intrinsic Motivational Inventory (IMI) instrument. The study reveals that historical narratives enhance students’ interest and enjoyment, while reducing pressure and tension, compared to traditional textbook learning. Importantly, it also indicates that removing two essential narrative elements (irony and narrative appetite) has the potential to diminish students’ intrinsic motivation towards science, underscoring the variability in the effectiveness of historical narratives. Overall, the dissertation study can help to improve science education by providing a deeper understanding of how historical narratives can be used to enhance students’ comprehension of NOS and their motivation in science and by providing practical guidance for how to effectively integrate historical narratives into science instruction.

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