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You are reading: A novel approach to mapping changes in student attitudes towards science and mathematics in reaction to changes to their learning environment

JohnPaul Kennedy1, Kate Thompson2, Samuel Fowler1 and Simon N. Leonard1

Executive summary

This project set out with the intent of exploring the potential of an innovative research method for use in the evaluation of university outreach programs in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. The disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the suspension of the targeted programs early in the project changed the target application somewhat, but not the overall purpose of the project. Applied instead to an in-house STEM program at a partner school and the move to online learning due to the suspension of face-to-face teaching due to the pandemic, the central research question for the project remained: “Can novel research methods provide access to useful and usable evaluative data on student attitudes towards their school subjects particularly in response to changes in their learning program?”

This is an important question in the context of student equity in higher education. Many programs and interventions seeking to improve equitable participation in higher education — such as STEM outreach programs — do so by seeking to impact not only the skill development of young people, but also attitudes towards further study. Our capacity to understand changes in attitudinal factors, however, has been quite limited outside of large-scale research projects. The purpose of this project has been to address this data gap through the development of a “light touch” data collection tool and the demonstration of the kinds of knowledge that such tools can provide.

The initial answer to our research to this question is “yes” — although clearly more research is needed. The report that follows will elaborate on this answer and detail our use of a light-touch or micro-survey instrument to unobtrusively collect frequent information on changes to a number of attitude constructs among students in two large Australian schools. The report is presented as three case studies that will inform both potential end-users and those with aligned research interests of the approach.

The first case study sets the scene. Noting the importance of student attitudes towards STEM, this study shows how a picture can be developed on how students’ attitudes towards STEM subjects vary between students in different year groups at the same school. This was a pilot study carried out in one year, so the picture presented in this case study is not longitudinal. Never-the-less, the cross-sectional findings suggest a developmental trajectory that can be further explored. This is important to know when planning interventions seeking to affect student attitude and identity formation as a means of encouraging equitable participation in higher education.

The second case study was opportunistic and stepped away from our primary interest in STEM pathways to higher education. It considered the impact of an unexpected move to online-mediated distance learning caused by COVID-19 and compared students’ attitudes to learning for Science and Mathematics at two schools with very different experiences of the pandemic. In doing so, the study demonstrates a different potential use for the kinds of methods being used in the project — a use that is highly relevant to those interested in supporting participation in higher education by those who may have fewer resources to deal with disruption, be it at a global or personal level.

The final case study is essentially what we intended for this project before the onset of COVID-19. Due to the limitations of the pandemic, the school provided its own ‘outreach’ program in the form of incursions to a new dedicated facility known as ‘The Creativity and Innovation School’. In this case study we looked at how the data collection and evaluation methods we have been developing work to evaluate the impact of a week-long STEM experience for Year 7 students.

The three case studies have allowed us to make the following seven recommendations.

Recommendation 1: Programs that aim to develop awareness of specific career pathways should be designed to appeal towards students in the early years of secondary school, or possibly earlier.

Recommendation 2: Programs that aim to develop positive attitudes towards school subjects should attempt to demonstrate the usefulness of subject content knowledge across a wide range of potential careers and also non-vocational contexts.

In case study 1 we show that for many attitudinal factors the range of attitude ratings increases as the age of students increases until the end of the middle years of secondary school before becoming narrower again by Year 12. While longitudinal studies will be needed, this pattern was strongly evident in both schools in this study suggesting a common developmental pattern.

Of particular interest for programs aiming to develop specific career awareness is that students’ reported Intentions to continue to study their school subjects decreased across year groups as the students’ age increased. Considering data from all three case studies, we conclude that by mid to late secondary school students have formed ideas of which career pathways may or may not be suitable for them and they are expressing their Intentions towards their school subjects through this lens. Therefore, it appears to be important to develop programs that emphasise the applicability and transferability of subject specific skills and knowledge to many possible career paths and to other uses in life when designing and implementing programs aimed at younger students.

Recommendation 3: Programs that seek to impact students’ attitudes towards school subjects should be domain (discipline) specific in focus.

We show in case study 1 and 2 that students’ attitudes towards Mathematics and Science are quite different to each other. This finding, that students hold different attitudes towards the different domains of their curriculum, suggests that a one-size-fits-all approach to designing learning programs does not exist across the different domains, and that any potential outreach programs may need to be domain specific or focused in terms of their learning objectives. This finding may be particularly important when considering programs in cross-curricular areas such as “STEM”.

Recommendation 4: Outreach activities with the aim of increasing participation in Science might be most successful if they are implemented for students around 13 to 15-years-old and address both Usefulness and Enjoyability in their design.

Recommendation 5: Programs that target older students’ participation in Mathematics should focus on communicating the relevance and interesting applications of the subject.

The baseline data of case study 1 provides important guidance for programs seeking to improve participation and success in higher education. It tells us that in gateway subjects like Science, young people are making important decisions on their career pathway by around 15 years of age, and that these decisions do have an impact on their ongoing attitude to different areas of study. These students’ decisions are associated with a decline in Enjoyability, which is strongly associated with Self-efficacy. While it is difficult to construct causal models from the data at this stage, the associations can be considered in terms of identity. That is, we are seeing that there is a significant group of young people who, no later than Year 9, have decided that they are not good at Science, that they do not enjoy Science, and that Science has no use in their career future.

Notably, the data also indicate that Mathematics Anxiety steadily increased between cohorts as the students became older but that the perception of Difficulty followed a more variable pattern. The overall pattern seems to suggest that students have heard the popular message that Mathematics is important for many future careers and that they should continue to study the subject at school. Yet, as students become older, they find the subject increasingly less interesting, less relevant, and an increasing challenge to persevere with. It is therefore important that programs that target older students’ participation in Mathematics should place a special focus on communicating the relevance and interesting applications of the subject to the students.

Recommendation 6: Programs that aim to impact students’ attitudes of Enjoyability, Relevance and Self-efficacy should consider using Creativity as a driving principle during the educational design.

The triplet of attitudes Enjoyability, Relevance and Self-efficacy were seen to strongly correlate with each other across multiple subject areas, and across both schools. In each case, this triplet of attitudes was seen to also correlate strongly with Creativity, a factor we measured separately. This is particularly interesting because while the triplet of attitudes measures value-based or perceived attitudinal constructs, our Creativity construct was action based. That is, creativity as defined and described in the Introduction to this report is a teachable skill and a practical approach to learning. Therefore, Creativity may have some potential to be a mechanism to affect the positive changes in students’ attitudes towards their school subjects as discussed earlier and may, in turn, be able to assist in reducing subject Anxiety and students’ perceptions of relative Difficulty.

Recommendation 7: Short duration programs need to be highly focussed if they are to have a measurable effect on student attitudes.

In case study 3 we found no statistically significant change in underlying student attitudes towards Science or Mathematics after a one-week program in the technology enabled learning environment, TICS. The students engaged in four or five classes for just a few hours each, essentially sampling from the smorgasbord of activities available to them. The program as implemented by the teachers at Corroboree Frog College was not designed to focus on one specific skill, application or problem but was instead designed to expose students to a breadth of STEM skills. Future programs could benefit from this experience by remaining tightly focussed at the educational design stage if they are to have a specific and measurable impact on student attitudes.

Read the full report, A novel approach to mapping changes in student attitudes towards science and mathematics in reaction to changes in their learning environment.

This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

1University of South Australia
2Queensland University of Technology

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