Educational Psychology Review

, Volume 29, Issue 1, pp 11–25 | Cite as

Using Relational Reasoning to Learn About Scientific Phenomena at Unfamiliar Scales

  • Ilyse ResnickEmail author
  • Alexandra Davatzes
  • Nora S. Newcombe
  • Thomas F. Shipley
Review Article


Many scientific theories and discoveries involve reasoning about extreme scales, removed from human experience, such as time in geology and size in nanoscience. Thus, understanding scale is central to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Unfortunately, novices have trouble understanding and comparing sizes of unfamiliar large and small magnitudes. Relational reasoning is a promising tool to bridge the gap between direct experience and phenomena at extreme scales. However, instruction does not always improve understanding, and analogies can fail to bring about conceptual change, and even mislead students. Here, we review how people reason about phenomena across scales, in three sections: (a) we develop a framework for how relational reasoning supports understanding extreme scales; (b) we identify cognitive barriers to aligning human and extreme scales; and (c) we outline a theory-based approach to teaching scale information using relational reasoning, present two successful learning activities, and consider the role of a unified scale instruction across STEM education.


Size and scale Relational reasoning Analogy Progressive alignment Corrective feedback 



This research was supported by the National Science Foundation Grants SBE-0541957 and SBE-1041707 which support the NSF funded Spatial Intelligence Learning Center and the Institute of Education Sciences Grant R305B130012 as part of the Postdoctoral Research Training Program in the Education Sciences.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ilyse Resnick
    • 1
    Email author
  • Alexandra Davatzes
    • 2
  • Nora S. Newcombe
    • 3
  • Thomas F. Shipley
    • 3
  1. 1.School of EducationUniversity of DelawareNewarkUSA
  2. 2.Department of Earth and Environmental SciencesTemple UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyTemple UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA

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