Cert.ED (Birmingham), BSc (UWA), MSc, PhD (Iowa)



According to the 2016 reports from the Chief Scientist, more than a quarter of Australia’s economy can be attributed to advances in science over the past 20 to 30 years.1 Clearly to continue with advances in science, it is necessary to have a pipeline of students who study science in high school and continue to do so at university. Herein lies a potential problem in Australia because numerous studies in recent years have shown that student interest in science and subsequent enrolments, especially in the physical sciences and advanced mathematics, continues to decline.2 In recognising that Australian students’ performance on international benchmarks and enrolments in secondary science and advanced mathematics has stalled or declined, the Chief Scientist’s report Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future3 set about to reverse these trends with a National STEM school education strategy 2016-2026.4

Research to improve the teaching and learning of science

The role of science education researchers is to investigate and understand the teaching and learning of the concepts that are integral to chemistry, physics, biology and other subjects in the STEM curricula. Whether conducting research in primary, secondary or tertiary classrooms and laboratories, science education researchers are interested in improving science teaching and learning. In this way, their research can address the issues underlying declining enrolments and static international comparisons. As those students studying lower secondary science come from increasingly diverse backgrounds, it is important and necessary to understand the difficulties they face if they are to continue with science. To this end, for almost 40 years, a prominent field of research, conceptual change, has investigated and documented students’ learning to identify changes in conceptualisation from misunderstanding to understanding.5 With this knowledge, science teachers can better comprehend the complexities of the science and students’ difficulties in learning science. Subsequently, teachers can design and evaluate instructional strategies to support students’ learning of science concepts.

How science is taught in schools has changed dramatically over the past 40 years, from being wholly teacher-centric to being more student-centric. A range of research-proven strategies for teaching science to bring about conceptual change includes enquiry-based teaching methods, the use of models and analogies6, and engaging in multiple modes using oral, visual and interactive discourses.

Research to improve assessment practices

Research has shown that students learn more effectively if their work can be assessed and provided with feedback in situations that have no direct consequence on marks/grades. One such approach is formative assessment which refers to the means by which teachers conduct evaluations of students’ comprehension, their learning needs, and academic progress during a lesson or series of lessons or a course. When adopted regularly, teachers and students become cognisant of students’ level of understanding. Subsequently, teachers can effectively diagnose students’ learning difficulties and customise new learning activities to enhance student learning of science concepts prior to any summative assessment like an end of semester examination.7 Research on the success and benefits of formative assessment, such as two-tier items that require content knowledge and conceptual understanding, in schools and universities in many countries has resulted in a wide range of available formative diagnostic tests for use by science teachers.

Science can be represented in many ways

Today, more than at any time in the past, teaching and learning chemistry, biology and physics8 with different kinds of representations is ubiquitous given the wide range of resources available to teachers and students. External representations include written text, graphs, figures and pictures while internal representations are the mental models that a learner build with regard to the content to be learned. Research has shown the different roles of these representations in supporting learning. Accordingly, teaching strategies and resources have been developed utilising optimal representations to help construct deeper understandings of science.9

The way ahead

While there are no simple or direct solutions to increasing Australian students’ performance on international benchmarks and higher enrolment rates in secondary science and advanced mathematics, the findings of science education researchers which typically occur in live classroom settings illustrate the likely source of some of these issues and how they can be resolved.  

1. Chief Scientist 2016, REPORTS: Economic contribution of advances in science. https://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/2016/01/reports-economic-contribution-of-advances-in-science/

2. Kennedy, J., Lyons, T & Quinn, F. 2014, The continuing decline of science and mathematics enrolments in Australian high schools. Teaching Science, 60(2), 34-46.

3. Office of the Chief Scientist 2014, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future. Australian Government, Canberra. https://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/STEM_AustraliasFuture_Sept2014_Web.pdf

4. Education Council, 2015, National STEM school education strategy 2016-2026. http://www.educationcouncil.edu.au/EC-Reports-and-Publications.aspx

5. Duit, R & Treagust, DF 2003, Conceptual change: a powerful framework for improving science teaching and learning. International Journal of Science Education, 25(6), 671-688.

6. Chittleborough, G, Treagust, DF, Mamiala, TL, & Mocerino, M, 2005, Students’ perceptions of the role of models in the process of science and in the process of learning. Research in Science & Technological Education, 23 (2), 195-212.

7. Treagust, DF 1988, Development and use of diagnostic tests to evaluate students' misconceptions in science. International Journal of Science Education, 10(2),159-169

8. Gilbert, JK & Treagust, DF (Eds.) 2009, Multiple representations in chemical education. Springer. Treagust, DF &, Tsui C-Y. (Eds.) 2013, Multiple representations in biological education. Springer. Treagust, DF, Duit, R & Fischer, HE (Eds.) 2017, Multiple representation in physics education. Springer.

9. Pearson Australia, 2019, Biology/Chemistry/Physics Queensland Student Books.

John Curtin Distinguished Professor Curtin University (2011- present)

Personal Chair, Professor of Science Education (1995–present)

Associate Professor, Science and Mathematics Education Centre (1991–95)

Senior Lecturer, Science and Mathematics Education Centre (1985–90)

Lecturer, Science and Mathematics Education Centre (1980–84)

All in the Science and Mathematics Education Centre (SMEC), School of Science

Curtin University. In 2015 SMEC moved to the School of Education

Post-doctoral Lecturer Michigan State University 1978-1980

Teaching and Research Assistant, University of Iowa, USA (1974-1978)

Secondary Science Teacher:

Scotch College, Western Australia (1968-1974)

Parklands High School, Burnie TAS (1966-1968)

Buttershaw Comprehensive School, Bradford, England (1964-1966)

Visiting Professor Semester Appointments:

University of Kiel Germany (1986, 1993)

Michigan State University, USA (1986, 1993)

National Taiwan Normal University, Taiwan (2003)

Elected Fellow – Royal Society of Biology England (2008)

Elected Fellow – American Educational Research Association (2010)

Elected Fellow – Royal Society of Chemistry England (June 2016)

Memberships of:

Australasian Science Education Research Association (ASERA)

National Association for Research on Science Teaching (NARST)

American Education Research Association (AERA)

American Chemical Society (ACS)

Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC)

Royal Society of Biology (RSB)


German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) Scholarship (1986)

Distinguished Service Award, Australian Science Teachers Association (1991)

For Teaching and Learning:

Curtin Vice-Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching and Research (1990)

Curtin Excellence and Innovation in Teaching Award (2008)

Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning from the Australian           

Government’s Office of Teaching and Learning (2012)

Nominated for Western Australian Premier’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching: Tertiary (2007) (Not successful)

For Research:

From NARST (USA) - National Association for Research in Science Teaching – Science Education Research

NARST Outstanding Paper Awards (1986, 1987) – best conference papers.

NARST Best Paper Award from the 1999 issues of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching conferred by NARST (2000) - most significant manuscript for that year.

NARST Award for “Learning genetics with multiple representations: Cross - case analyses of students' conceptual status” (2005) – manuscript with greatest significance and potential in the field of science education.

NARST Distinguished Contributions through Research in Science Education (2006) - premier award for significant and continuing contributions to research productivity over more than 20 years.

From the American Chemical Society – Chemistry Education Research:

American Chemical Society Award for Achievement in Research for the Teaching and Learning of Chemistry (2011) – premier award for research in teaching and learning chemistry

1. Treagust, D, Duit, R & Chu, H-E 2019, Conceptual change teaching and learning. In V. Dawson, G. Venville and J Donovan (Eds.), The art of science teaching: A comprehensive guide to the teaching of secondary school science. (3rd edn.). Sydney, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

2. Won, M, Mocerino, M, Tang, K, Treagust, DF, & Tasker, R 2019, Interactive immersive virtual reality to enhance students’ visualisation of complex molecules. In M. Schultz, S. Schmid, & G. A. Lawrie (Eds.), Research and practice in chemistry education (pp.51-64). Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-981-13-6998-8_4

3. Novak, AM. & Treagust, DF 2018, Adjusting claims as new evidence emerges: Do students incorporate new evidence into their scientific explanations? Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 55, 526-549.

4. Wei, J, Mocerino, M, Treagust, DF, Lucey, AD, Zadnik, MG, Lindsay, ED, & Carter, DJ, 2018, Developing an understanding of undergraduate student interactions in chemistry laboratories. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 19, 1186-1198.

5. Treagust, DF, Duit, R & Fischer, HE (Eds.), 2017, Multiple representation in physics education. Springer.