Students' preferences for different contexts for learning science

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  • Research in Science Education, 1996, 26(3), 34!-352

    Students' Preferences for Different Contexts for Learning Science

    Jung-Suk Choi and Jinwoong Song Taegu University


    The reasons for students' preferences for different contexts were investigated by surveying 379 high school students t'Year 1 I) in Taegu, Korea. Students were asked to select the most preferred and the least preferred context out of six presented contexts and to write reasons for their selections. The method of systemic network analysis was used to analyse students' written responses. It was shown that students' preferences were largely influenced by their perceptions of the relevance and the psychological effects which such contexts would have. In particular, the similarity to textbooks, the relevance to real life and the novelty of the contexts were shown to be the most important factors affecting students' preferences.

    The introduction of the APU (Assessment Performance Unit) Science assessment framework (Department of Education and Science (DES), 1979) recognised that three dimensions (concepts, process skills and contexts) are fundamental in the teaching and learning of school science. The attention of science educators, however, has been largely concentrated on the ftrst two dimensions. For example, research on inquiry learning and Piagetian studies during the 1960s and 1970s was mainly concerned with the dimension of process skills, whilst research on students' misconceptions during the 1980s put emphasis on the concept dimension.

    Althougla the dimension of contexts has been less studied by science educators, some interesting studies on the role of the context in science education have been conducted. For instance: Dreyfus and Jungwirth (1980) studied the effects of contexts on logical thinking; Reif and Larkin (1991) compared the roles of different contexts in cognition; Song and Black (1991, 1992) investigated the effects of contexts on the performance of process skills; Millar and Kragh (1994) gave some examples of children's context-specific reasoning; Gomez, Pozo and Sanz (1995) showed the contextual effect on conceptual performance; and Stinner (1989, 1990, 1994) illustrated a new way of teaching physics by suggesting the large context problem (LCP) approach. In addition, research by cogTfitive psycholo~sts has explored the role of context in general human reasoning (e.g., Kahneman, Slovic, & Tversky, 1982; Evans, 1989; Stelmach & Vroon, 1990; Light & Butterworth, 1992; Sternberg & Wagner, 1994).

    A previous study by the authors (Song & Choi, 1994) investigated students' preferences for different contexts in learning basic concepts of mechanics and the way in which contexts were used in secondary school textbooks. It was shown that students' preferences were considerably different according to contexts and that the trend of students' preferences was very consistent across gender, academic stream and achievement level of students. In addition, the textbooks used in secondary schools were found to use contexts that are the opposite to the students' preferences.

    The subsequent questions raised were then,

    Why do students like or not like certain contexts in learning science? ...Why do some contexts attract students' attention so much and others fail to do so?

    Which aspects of the contexts contribute to these different preferences?

    Thus, in this study, we tried to understand why students perceived certain contexts more favourably then others for the learning of science concepts.


    Methods and Data Analysis

    In this study, a survey method was used. For developing survey questionnaires, two concepts in mechanics (free-faU motion and frictional force) and six different contexts (Laboratory, Everyday Life, Sports, Military Weapons, Living Things, and Natural Phenomena) were identified.

    The two concepts investigated in this study were those which showed typical results in our previous study. For each concept, six concrete examples, representing the six contexts, were given as possible starting points for learning activities relating to that particular concept. Special attention was given to ensuring that these contexts were familiar to ordinary high-school students.

    A total of 379 high school students (17-18 years old, Year 11) with nearly equal numbers of each sex were involved in the survey. The students were selected from four different single-sex high schools, two classrooms from each school. These schools were considered to be typical of ordinary high schools in Tae~ma City.

    One half of the students responded to the question on free-fall motion while the rest responded to the question on frictional force. Students were asked to select the most preferred as well as the least preferred context out of the six contexts presented for learning the respective concepts and to give written reasons for their preferences. For each context in the questionnaire a short written explanation and a picture (Figlare 1) was given in order to help students understand the kind and features of the context and to recog-nise it clearly.

    The method of systemic network analysis was used to analyse the data from the survey. The interpretations and discussions of the survey results were based on the network developed from analysing these data. Network analysis was initially developed by Bliss, Monk and Ogbom (1983), is widely used and is known to be particularly valuable analysing qualitative data. The network used for this study is composed of two main categories, Selection of Contexts and Reasons for Selecting Contexts as shown in Figure 2. The former represents the contexts which students chose as the most and least preferred contexts and is in the form of quantitative data. The sub-categories of this category are mutually exclusive.

    The latter category indicates the kinds of reasons students gave for their selected contexts and these data are qualitative. This category was further divided into two main sub-categories, Relevance and Psychological Effects. These two terms are highlighted in the network because many students explained their reasons for selecting certain contexts in terms of what kind of relevance the contexts would have for them and what kind of psychological effects the contexts would give. Students' responses often mentioned both these factors at the same time. For example:

    (because) ... if we study through interesting examples relevant to our everyday-life, it could be understood more easily.

    (because) ... this picture is charming and attracts my attention, so it will remain in my memory for a long time.

    In addition, these two sub-categories are divided further into several subsequent sub-categories as indicated in Figure 2. The relevance category reflects the relevance which the contexts would have, from no relevance to a wider relevance.

    Reasons given by students which could not be classified into sub-categories were assigned to the subcategory Others. Figure 2 also shows the frequencies students selected a certain context as a preferred one or a not-preferred one.

    One of the problems of the network developed for this study was that there was a geat deal of information which had to be assigned to the sub-category of Missing and Uncertain. This was mainly due to the fact that students' responses did not always contain the information related to both the sub-categories, Relevance and Psychological Effects.


    (1) In the laboratory, a girl is pulling a piece of wood on a lab-table by using a spring balance.

    (2) A fast running motor is stopping quickly after finding a child crossing the road.

    ttl/r 7/11 / I11111 I ! f / / / t . . . .

    (3) After sliding to tackle an op~nent, an ice-hockey player is about to tumble down.

    (4) During military training, a military tank is climbing a hillside.

    (5) A baby penguin in the South Pole is sliding down an ice plate.

    (6) In the Arctic region, a piece of glacier is sliding down along a valley.

    Figure 1. Six contexts given for frictional force in the questionnaire.


    "-L~spb~176 Selection -Everyday Life

    -of orts Context ~Mi l i tary Weapons

    ~ -Living Things t-Natural Phenomena


    Most Least Preferred Preferred

    49 215

    91 60

    69 6

    52 27

    74 29

    41 35

    Reasons for Selecting-- Contexts


    _Physiological Effects

    Nature of T~k

    - Suitability of Example 2 16

    - Applicability 6 1

    - Scientific Nature 3 0

    - Complexity i 1 18

    - Naturalness 1 3

    - Danger 0 41

    - Charm 20 14

    - Others 28 13

    Relevance F Similarity of Textbooks 7 173 -to School -]-Easiness of Practical Activities 18 20 Activities ~ Relevance to School Evaluation 2 2

    t _ Others 10 5

    Relevance to [ - Relevance to Real Life -Out-of-School =1-- Direct Experience

    Activities t . _ Others

    -Missing and Uncertain

    --Cognitive T Memory Understanding

    Affective ~ Adventurousness




    -Missing and Uncertain

    101 16

    44 6

    2 0

















    Figure 2. Network for analysing students' responses.


    Many students in fact made mention of only one of these two subcategories. For example, if someone said "(because) it is easy to understand," this response was assigned to the Missing and Uncertain subcategories of Relevance and P


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