Classroom Practices and Students’ Attitudes Toward Science

Introduction

The aim of this article is to review major scholarly literature concerning the attitudes of students towards science subjects. The literature are from the last two decades and the studies have been conducted in different parts of the world such as the United States, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Africa. This topic has attracted the attention of many scholars due to the increasing importance of science in this technology era yet many students have negative attitudes towards the subject. It is hoped that the review will reveal the major factors that influence some students to develop positive attitudes towards science and others to develop negative attitudes towards the same. The findings can be used by school administrators to develop appropriate programs that would enhance students’ attitudes towards science.

Literatures reviewed

A total of twelve peer-reviewed journal articles will be reviewed. The first study was conducted by Adesoji (2008) to determine whether the attitudes of students towards Chemistry would improve when teachers use problem-solving techniques in the classroom. The study utilized 360 Senior Secondary school students who were categorized into three groups: teacher administered and self-administered problem solving techniques as well as a control group. The second study to be reviewed was conducted by Ye, Wells, Talkmitt and Ren (1998) whose aim was to compare the attitudes of American and Chinese secondary students towards science. The science performance, attitudes and influencing factors of 495 Chinese students and 469 American students were studied through a survey. The students used in the study belonged to grades 7 to 12. Lucas and Dooley (1982) carried out a study to determine the attitudes of science teachers towards these subjects. The authors recognized the fact that the attitudes that sciences teachers have a significant impact on how the subjects are taught and ultimately how students perceive the subjects to be. This study made use of sixty seven first year and second year student teachers enrolled at Kelvin Grove College of Advanced Education. Foley and McPhee (2008) investigated the attitudes of students towards science by comparing students of classes which used hands-on curriculum with students of classes which used textbook curriculum. The popularity of hands-on science curricula has increased in the past two decades and avail students with opportunities to be involved in real world scenarios. The study used a total of 955 students from 41 fifth-grade classrooms which used either hands-on or textbook curriculum.

Ong and Ruthven (2009) conducted a study to determine the success of Smart Schooling in improving the attitudes of students towards the science subjects. The study used 755 form 3 students from two Smart schools and two mainstream schools in Malaysia to determine if there was a difference in students’ attitudes between these two schools programs. More specifically, the scholars wanted to find out if the Smart Schooling program had a positive impact on students’ attitudes towards science. There are many theories that suggest that the environment in a classroom affects the attitudes that students develop towards science subjects. Myers and Fouts (1992) conducted a study to test whether or not the theories hold. The study used 27 high school science classes which were categorized into three groups according to the level of involvement, relationships between students and teachers, characteristics of teachers, order and organization, and teaching techniques. Linked to the Myers and Fouts’ study is another study conducted by Crawford, Krajick and Marx (1998) who also emphasize the effect of the classroom environment on students’ attitudes towards science. Crawford et al.’s study however aimed to determine the effect of a learning community on students’ attitudes by examining the interaction between teacher and students, among students and between students and outsiders. Ethnography was used as the study design in which the researcher took on the role of the teacher and interacted with the students while at the same time observed what was going on in the classroom. The effect of teacher-student interaction on students’ attitudes towards science was the major objective of the study carried out by Flavio, Santos and Mortimer (2003). The scholars particularly wanted to find out how emotions, affects and feelings between teachers and students can lead to or hinder positive attitudes by the students towards science. The researchers used two different classes, one in which there was a positive and supportive interaction between the teacher and students, and the other in which the interaction was negative.

Matthews (2004) conducted a study to find out the effect of gender composition in classrooms on the attitudes of students towards science. In addition, the students’ social cohesion, pace of individual learning, teamwork learning, conflict management and social facilitation were examined. The study used the experimental method in which eighty-two students were grouped in a mixed-gender class and eighty-three were grouped in a single-gender class. In most schools, the performance of students in science subjects normally begins on a high note but gradually declines as students proceed to higher educational levels. Piburn and Baker (1993) wanted to find out the reasons behind this common yet disturbing trend. They based their study on a district school in Rocky Mountain State. A total of 149 students were selected from elementary, junior high school and high school grades and included both male and female students. Interviews were then conducted to reveal their feelings towards science. Yung and Tao (2004) conducted an ethnographic study of the teaching practice of science subjects in Hong Kong secondary schools. The data for the study were collected over a one year period in which the goings-on in Mr. L’s Secondary Science class were observed. Mr. L is well known in Hong Kong for assisting the poor performers to improve their academic performance – mainly in the science subjects. A different study was conducted in Hong Kong by Lam (2002) who used dropouts and at-risk students to determine the reasons for their disengagement with academic work as well as the characteristics of teachers in schools.

Findings

Adesoji (2008) found out that there was a significant difference in the attitudes of the three groups of students after the treatment. The students administered with the problem-solving technique showed the greatest positive improvement in their attitudes towards science. The self-administered group showed a slight improvement but the difference between this group and the control group was not significant.

Ye, Wells, Talkmitt and Ren (1998) found that nationality plays a more important role in developing attitudes towards science than gender or grade level. The study revealed that Chinese students are encouraged by their families and school administrators to pursue science subjects. They also view science subjects in the long-term, that is, science will help them in life and careers. American students on the other hand take science subjects for short-term reasons such as a liking to laboratory activities but not for long-term purposes.

Lucas and Dooley (1982) found that there were no significant changes in the attitudes of student teachers after taking the content-based science unit and the curriculum-based science unit. However, there was a positive change in the student teachers’ attitudes towards the teaching of science after completing the curriculum-based unit.

Foley and McPhee (2008) found that students in both the textbook curriculum classroom and the hands-on curriculum classroom rated science more highly than other subjects. However, the ratings among the hands-on curriculum classroom were significantly higher than the ratings in the textbook curriculum classroom.

Ong and Ruthven (2009) discovered that the attitudes towards science were significantly more positive among students enrolled in the Smart schools than students enrolled in the Mainstream schools.

Myers and Fouts (1992) found that high involvement levels, high student-to-student relations, frequent teacher support, high order and organization levels, increased utilization of innovative teaching techniques and low levels of control significantly contributed to positive attitudes towards science by students.

Crawford, Krajick and Marx (1998) identified several major themes associated with a learning community. These include: the use of real life scenarios creates mutual interactions from the students; student-initiated tasks increase collaborative interactions; group decision making was enhanced by instructional support offered to students; involvement of students in discussions increases group productivity; the use of personal experiences increases students’ levels of engagement in the task; working as a group increased students’ responsibility for learning; and contacts between students and external resource persons enhanced students’ engagements in tasks.

Yung and Tao (2004) found that students’ attitudes towards science can be improved through a true dialogue between the teacher and students as well as through motivational scaffolding feedback and by involving the students in a progressive discussion.

Flavio, Santos and Mortimer (2003) used two classes, one in which the interaction between the teacher and students was positive (class B) and the other in which the teacher-student interaction was negative (class A). The scholars found that in class B, the students took a liking to their teacher because he inspired and motivated them through praise and encouraging words. Subsequently, the students enjoyed the Chemistry lessons. On the other hand, students in class A disliked their teacher because the teacher was full of criticism and failed to encourage the students. As a result, the students disliked Chemistry.

Piburn and Baker (1993) state that three themes emerged from their study: instructional strategies; cognitive demands; and students’ opinions concerning the techniques that should be used to teach science. The scholars found that as students moved from elementary school through to junior high and high school, the positive attitudes that students initially had became replaced with negative attitudes. The reason behind this is that opportunities for interactions among the students and between the students and their teacher decline steadily over the years. The science activities become more individualized and more complex as students move up the grade levels (Piburn and Baker, 1993, p.403).

The study by Matthews (2004) was unique compared to the others in this literature review because it is the only study that investigated the role of gender in the development of attitudes towards science. Matthews (2004) found that attitudes towards science were more positive among the students who worked in the mixed-gender group than among those who were in the single-gender group. He found that students who worked in mixed-gender groups were more likely than the single-gender group to develop better social and emotional skills through interaction with opposite sex. They were also more likely to help each other in the assigned tasks thereby making the learning process easier and more fun.

The study by Lam (2002) revealed that the characteristics of teachers as well as the teaching techniques play a significant role in motivating students to complete their studies or otherwise drop out of school.

Discussion

A number of factors emerged from the literature review that influence (either positively or negatively) the students’ attitudes towards science. These factors include: teacher characteristics, teaching techniques, interactions among students and between students and teachers, gender and culture.

Teaching techniques

The techniques used in teaching the science subjects have a significant impact on students’ attitudes. Science subjects, unlike humanities, are practical in nature. However, some classes use the textbook technique to teach science in which the teacher gives a theoretical lecture on science topics and the students are expected to memorize them. Other teachers use hands-on technique which involves not only theories but also application of the theories in real life. This often entails laboratory experiments whereby the students practice what they have learned in class. A number of studies reviewed above shows that classes which use hands-on technique often have a majority of students with positive attitudes towards the science subjects (Foley and McPhee, 2008); (Adesoji, 2008). On the other hand, classes which use textbook technique have a majority of students with negative attitudes towards the science subjects. The reasons behind this trend are many. First, hands-on technique increases the opportunities of students to interact with each other and with their teacher. This makes the learning process more fun. This is different from the textbook technique in which the interaction is passive; the teacher talks while the students listen. Many students consider this technique to be boring and de-motivating. Second, hands-on technique increases the cognitive skills of students. It is very easy for a student to switch his mind off and forget what the teacher has taught when the textbook technique is used. On the other hand, it is very difficult for students to forget what they have learned if they learn it practically (Crawford, Krajick and Marx, 1998). Hands-on technique gives students a sense of achievement which can in turn inspire them to learn more.

Teacher characteristics

The characteristics of teachers also play an important role in students’ attitudes towards science. Teachers can influence students in many ways. A teacher who uses encouraging words while teaching students is more likely to have students with positive attitudes towards science. Encouraging words not only entails motivating the slow students to perform better but it also entails giving praise to students with exemplary performance (Yung and Tao, 2004). Teachers who treat their students as individuals and solve their problems on an individual basis are also more likely to have students with positive attitudes towards science than teachers who treat their students on generalized basis. Individualization often enables teachers to get to the root of students’ problems bearing in mind that each student is unique with unique social and cultural backgrounds. Another factor to be considered under this theme is teachers’ attitude towards science. While some science teachers are passionate about what they teach, others are not. Passion (or lack thereof) often reflects on the way the teachers conduct their classes. A passionate teacher is more likely to be motivating and encouraging to his teachers because he enjoys what he does. As a result, the students of a passionate teacher are likely to develop positive attitudes towards the subject. On the other hand, a teacher who does not like what he teaches and only does it to earn bread at the end of the month is likely to be boring, uncaring and discouraging to his students (Lam, 2002). As a result, such students are likely to develop negative attitudes towards science.

Social Interactions

The literatures reviewed above point out the importance of interactions in classrooms. Teachers who allow students to interact freely and appropriately among themselves during classes make the learning process fun. Interaction can take the form of a discussion of a concept that is not well understood. This helps the students to think deeply about what they have learned and to apply it in real life (Myers and Fouts, 1992). The interactions should not just be between the students and their teacher but also among the students themselves. The teacher should allow each student to speak their thoughts and opinions and argue with each other in a healthy manner. The interactions should be respectful and corrective in that a positive criticism should be provided if incorrect opinions are offered. Interactions not only make the learning process fun but also increase the level of involvement of students in the learning process (Flavio, Santos and Mortimer, 2003). Students feel that they are not just mere receivers of facts and figures but that they are part and parcel of the process and that their opinions are highly valued (Piburn and Baker, 1993). Such students are likely to develop positive attitudes towards science and look forward to their science lessons.

Gender and culture

Mixed-gender science classes are more likely than single-gender classes to have students with positive attitudes towards science. This is because mixed-gender classes encourage students to interact with member of the opposite sex which in turn promote understanding and social skills. In such classes, students are more likely to assist each other and in the process make the learning process enjoyable (Matthews, 2004).

Culture affects students’ attitudes towards science. In collectivist societies such as Chinese, the family members and friends are usually involved in the academic affairs of their children. Such students are therefore likely to make their career choices with the help and assistance from their loved ones. With such great support students are likely to view science in the long-term, that is, as able to help them in their future lives and careers. In individualistic societies such as the United States, students make career choices on their own and hardly receive any academic support from their loved ones. Students from such societies are therefore likely to view science in the short term with no significance in their future lives or careers (Ye, Wells, Talkmitt and Ren, 1998)).

Conclusion

This paper has reviewed twelve literature about the attitudes of students towards science subjects. While science is important in this technology era, the majority of students find it either too boring or too difficult to understand. Factors such as teacher characteristics, teaching technique, social interactions, gender and culture are cited as the major driving force behind students’ attitudes towards science.

Further research

The issue of students’ negative attitudes towards science has been studied by numerous scholars particularly in the last two decades. However, much of the focus of the issue has been on the personality and socio-cultural factors that influence such attitudes. A little has been done to investigate the curriculum of science subjects. Issues such as the relevance of the science subjects’ curricula to the contemporary world should be studied. The importance of this issue lies in the fact that the majority of students develop negatively towards science because they fail to see the need for the subjects and how science can help them in the future both in their personal and professional lives. In particular, the issue of “task value” should be further investigated. Task value, according to Eccles and Wigfield (1995) refers to ‘the degree to which an individual believes that a particular task is able to fulfill personal needs and goals,” (p.218). Task value is composed of three crucial elements; interest in the task at hand; importance of the task; and the usefulness of the task. Further research on the relevance of science curriculum would reveal those activities that students believe are important to them not just in the present but also in future. It would therefore enable school administrators and education policy makers to develop the most appropriate contents for students.

References

  1. Adesoji, F.A. (2008). Managing students’ attitude towards Science through problem-solving instructional strategy. Anthropologist, 10(1), 21-24.
  2. Crawford, B.A., Krajcik, J.S., and Marx, R.W. (1998). Elements of a community of learners in a middle school Science classroom. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
  3. Eccles, J.S. and Wigfield, A. (1995). In the mind of the actor: the structure of adolescents’ achievement task values and expectancy-related beliefs. Personality and Psychology Bulletin, 21, 215-225.
  4. Flavia, M., Santos, T. and Mortimer, E.F. (2003). How emotions shape the relationship between a Chemistry teacher and her high school students. International Journal of Science Education, 25(9), 1095-1110.
  5. Foley, B.J. and McPhee, C. (2008). Students’ attitudes towards Science in classes using hands-on or textbook based curriculum. AERA, 1-12.
  6. Lam, J.T.S. (2002). Student disengagement and teacher characteristics. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education & Development, 5, 167-193.
  7. Lucas, K.B. and Dooley, J.H. (1982). Student teachers’ attitudes toward Science and Science teaching. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 19(9), 805-809.
  8. Matthews, B. (2004). Promoting emotional literacy, equity and interest in Science lessons for 11-14 year olds; the ‘Improving Science and Emotional Development’ project. International Journal of Science Education, 26(3), 281-308.
  9. Myers, R.E. and Fouts, J.T. (1992). A cluster analysis of high school Science classroom environments and attitude towards Science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 29(9), 929-937.
  10. Ong, E. and Ruthven, K. (2009). The effectiveness of Smart schooling on students’ attitudes towards Science. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, 5(1), 35-45.
  11. Piburn, M.D. and Baker, D.R. (1993). If I were the teacher … qualitative study of attitude toward Science. Science Education, 77(4), 393-406.
  12. Ye, R., Raymond, R., Wells, S.T. and Ren, H. (1998). Student attitudes toward Science learning: A cross-national study of American and Chinese Secondary school students. Paper presented at the National Science Teacher Association National Convention, Las Vegas, Nevada, April 16-19.
  13. Yung, B.H.W. and Tao, P.K. (2004). Advancing pupils within the motivational zone of proximal development: a case study in Science teaching. Research in Science Education, 34, 403-426.

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