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 Abstract 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. 342 CHOI AND SONG 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. CONTEXTS FOR LEA_R_NING SCIENCE 343 (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. 344 CHOI AND SONG "-L~spb~176 Selection -Everyday Life -of orts Context ~Mi l i tary Weapons ~ -Living Things t-Natural Phenomena Frequencies Most Least Preferred Preferred 49 215 91 60 69 6 52 27 74 29 41 35 Reasons for Selecting-- Contexts -Relevance _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 Novelty Curiosity Enjoyment -Missing and Uncertain 101 16 44 6 2 0 11 12 60 22 14 31 79 165 52 0 16 2 175 3 28 151 Figure 2. Network for analysing students' responses. CONTEXTS FOR LEARNING SCIENCE 345 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 Psychological Effects. Results and Discussion The frequencies of students' responses in the major categories of Selection of Contexts and Reasons for Selecting Contexts are discussed fn'st. The relationships among the categories and the sub-categories and interpretations of these relationships are then given. In the following discussion, the terms "preferred" and "not preferred" are used to represent the cases in which students selected certain contexts as favourable and unfavourable respectively. Table 1 Frequency (and Percentage) of Students' Ranking of Preferences for Contexts Context Laboratory Everyday Sports Military Living Natural life weapons things phenomena Total Most preferred 49 91 69 52 74 41 376 (13.0) (24.2) (18.4) (13.8) (19.7) (10.9) (100) Least 215 60 6 27 29 35 372 preferred (57.8) (16.1) (1.6) (7.3) (7.8) (9.4) (100) The Selection of Contexts The order of preferred context selection from most preferred to least preferred was: Everyday Life (24.2%) > Living Things (19.7%) > Sports (18.4%) > Military Weapons (13.8%) > Laboratory (13.0%) > Natural Phenomena (10.9%). For contexts "least preferred," the order of selection from the context with the highest frequency to that with the lowest frequency was: Laboratory (57.8%) > Everyday Life (16.1%) > Natural Phenomena (9.4%) > Living Things (7.8%) > Military Weapons (7.3%) > Sports (1.6%). That is, students selected Everyday Life, Living Things and Sports contexts as the most preferred ones and the Laboratory context as very clearly the least preferred one (see Table 1). Despite some minor differences, this result is quite similar to the result from our previous research (Song & Choi, 1994). Reasons for Selection of Contexts Reasons in terms of "Relevance" Reasons given by students for their preferred contexts were in the following order: relevance to Out-of-School Activities (40.2%) > Nature of Task (19.4%) > relevance to School Activities (10.1%). For fl3eir "not preferred" contexts: relevance to School Activities (52.6%) > Nature of Task (27.9%) > relevance to Out-of-School Activities (5.8%). In other words, students tended to prefer the contexts which were related to their everyday experiences (see Table 2). 346 CHOI AND SONG Table 2 Frequency (and Percentage) of Students' Stated Reasons for Preference of Contexts in Terms of Relevance Reasons Most preferred Least preferred Relevance to nature of task Relevance to school activities Suitability of example 2 (0.5) 16 (4.2) Applicability 6 (1.6) 1 (0.5) Scientific nature 3 (0.8) 0 (0.0) Complexity 11 (3.0) 8 (4.7) Naturalness 1 (0.3) 3 (0.8) Danger 0 (0.0) 41 (10.8) Charm 20 (5.5) 14 (3.7) Others 28 (7.7) 13 (3.4) Sub-total 71 (19.4) 106 (27.9) Similarity to textbooks 7 (1.9) 173 (45.5) Easiness of practical activities 18 (4.9) 20 (5.3) Relevance to school evaluation 2 (0.6) 2 (0.5) Others 10 (2.7) 5 (1.3) Sub-total 37 (10.1) 200 (52.6) Relevance to out- Relevance to real life 101 (27.6) 16 (4.2) of-school activities Direct experience 44 (12.0) 6 (1.6) Others 2 (0.6) 0 (0.0) Sub-total 147 (40.2) 22 (5.8) Missing and 111 (30.3) 52 (13.7) uncertain Total 366 (100) 380* (100) * Due to multiple classification of responses for a few students, the total number of responses exceeded the total number of students. A more free grained analysis showed that prominent reasons for students preferring certain contexts were that they believe the contexts: are relevant to real-life activities (27.6%); can be directly exI~rienced by themselves (12.0%); look charming (5.5%); are easy to do in laboratories (4.9%) and so on. On the other hand, they prefer certain contexts less because they thought that the contexts: are similar to textbooks (45.5%); look dangerous (10.8%); are difficult to do in laboratories (5.3%); are complex (4.7%) and so on. In summary, the most important factors affecting students' selections of CONTEXTS FOR LF_akRN~G SCIENCE 347 contexts were their relevance to their real-life activities (positive effect) and their similarity to school textbooks (negative effect). Reasons in terms of "Psychological Effects" Students selected contexts as preferred ones for affective reasons (38.1%) such as being enjoyable (20.6%), rather than cognitive reasons (18.8%) such as being easy to understand (15.7%). Students also considered contexts to be not preferred because of affective reasons (55.5%) such as lacking novelty (46.7%), rather than the cognitive reason of being difficult to understand (4.3%) (see Table 3). Thus it can be said that the affective factors play more important roles than cognitive ones in encouraging students to select contexts. Table 3 Frequency (and Percentage) of Students' Stated Reasons for Preference of Contexts in Terms of Cognitive and Affective Factors Reasons Most preferred Least preferred Cognitive Affecfive Memory 2 (3.1) 0 (0.0) Understanding 60 (15.7) 16 (4.3) Sub-total 72 (18.8) 16 (4.3) Adventurousness 22 (5.7) 2 (0.5) Novelty 14 (3.7) 175 (46.2) Curiosity 31 (8.1) 3 (0.8) Enjoyment 79 (20.6) 28 (7.5) Sub-total 146 (38.1) 208 (55.5) Missing and Uncertain 165 (43.1) 151 (40.3) Total 383 (100) 375 (100) Reasons in terms of the teIationships between "'Relevance" and "Psychological Effects" In the case of preferred contexts, those that were frequently selected were associated with the following pairs of reasons in terms of "Relevance" and '~Psychological Effects": Nature of Task- Enjoyment (5.6%), School Activities-Understanding (2.0%), Out-of-School Activities-Understanding (6.6%) and Out-of-School Activities-Enjoyment (5.1%). In the case of contexts not preferred, those that were frequently selected involved the following pairs of reasons: Nature of Task-Lacking Novelty (1.5 %), School Activities-Lacking Novelty (43.1%) and Out-of-School Activities-Lacking Novelty (2.3%). Thus, it is fair to claim that "Lacking Novelty" was" the most important factor in not preferring certain contexts (see Table 4). 348 CHOI AND SONG Table 4 Frequency (and Percentage) of Relationships Between "Relevance" and "Psychological Effects" in Students' Reasons for Preference of Contexts Relevance Psychological effects Most preferred Least preferred Nature of task Memory 2 (0.5) 0 (0.0) Understanding 8 (2.0) 2 (0.5) Adventurousness 4 (1.0) 0 (0.0) Novelty 7 (1.8) 6 (1.5) Cufosity 6 (1.5) 0 (0.0) Enjoyment 22 (5.6) 5 (1.3) Others 27 (6.9) 96 (24.1) School activities Out-of-school activities Missing and uncertain Memory 0 (0.0) 0 (0.0) Understanding 8 (2.0) 4 (1.0) Adventurousness 1 (0.3) 0 (0.0) Novelty 1 (0.3) 172 (43.1) Curiosity 0 (0.0) 1 (0.3) Enjoyment 5 (1.3) 18 (4.5) Others 23 (5.9) 20 (5.0) Memory 7 (1.8) 0 (0.0) Understanding 26 (6.6) 2 (0.5) Adventurousness 3 (0.8) 0 (0.0) Novelty 5 (1.3) 9 (2.3) Curiosity 5 (1.3) 0 (0.0) Enjoyment 20 (5.1) 1 (0.3) Others 89 (22.6) 11 (2.8) Memory 3 (0.8) 0 (0.0) Understanding 21 (5.3) 9 (2.3) Adventurousness 14 (3.6) 2 (0.5) Novelty 2 (0.5) 0 (0,0) Curiosity 20 (5.1) 2 (0.5) Enjoyment 33 (8.4) 7 (1.8) Others 31 (7.9) 32 (8.0) Total 393 (100) 399 (100) Relationships Between "Selection of Contexts" and "Reasons for Selecting Contexts" From the analysis so far, only overall distributions of students' "Selection of Contexts" and "Reasons for Selecting Contexts" have been shown. The relationships between the two, which could give more subtle and practical understandings of the reasons for selecting contexts have not been CONTEXTS FOR LEARNING SCIENCE 349 considered. Thus, the reasons for selecting contexts either as preferred or not preferred ones are now discussed according to different contexts. "Relevance" according to context In the case of preferred contexts, the reasons for selecting Everyday Life, Sports, Military Weapons and Natural Phenomena contexts were mainly related to "Relevance" to "Out-of-School Activities"; for selecting Laboratory context was related to "Relevance" to "School Activities"; and for selecting Living Things context was related to '~lature of Task." Table 5 Frequency of "Relevance" According to Context Relevance Context I.zbomtory Everyday Sports Military L iv ing Natural life weapons things phenomena Most Nature of task 6 8 17 10 23 7 preferred School activities 20 6 5 3 3 0 Out-of-school 9 49 27 22 20 20 activities Missing and 13 24 23 14 25 12 uncertain Least Nature of task 10 45 3 13 19 16 preferred School activities 179 7 0 4 3 7 Out-of-school 15 1 0 2 2 2 activities Nature of task 23 5 3 8 4 9 On the other hand, in the case of contexts not preferred, the reasons for selecting all the contexts, except Laboratory, were largely related to the "Nature of Task." Nearly all the reasons for selecting the Laboratory context as not preferred were related to "Relevance" to "School Activities" (see Table 5). "Psychological Effects" according to context In the case of preferred contexts, students' selections were usually influenced more by affective reasons than by cognitive reasons, except for the Laboratory context. In the case of not preferred, most reasons, particularly for Laboratory and Everyday Life contexts, were related to the affective effects (see Table 6). "Reasons for Selecting Contexts" according to context The above discussions can be summarised by integrating the findings presented so far into the following comprehensive descriptions. In the case of preferred contexts, students select these contexts because they think that: 1. the Laboratory context can be easily done in schools and is enjoyable and easy to understand 2. the Everyday Life context is relevant to real-life, out-of-school experience and is adventurous and easy to understand 350 CHOI AND SONG Table 6 Frequency of "Psychological Effects" According to Context Psychological Effects Context Laboratory Everyday Sports Military Living Natural life weapons th ings phenomena Most Cognitive 12 17 20 4 13 6 preferred Affective 5 26 28 20 45 22 Missing and 29 47 28 26 20 15 uncertain Least Cognitive 9 1 0 2 0 4 preferred Affecfive 191 14 0 2 0 1 Missing and 29 41 6 22 26 27 Uncertain 3. the Sports context is relevant to real-life, out-of-school experience and is enjoyable and easy to understand 4. the Military Weapons context is enjoyable and easy to understand and students also want to experience this context in out-of-school situations 5. the Living Things context is relevant to real-life, out-of-school experience and is enjoyable and easy to understand 6. the Natural Phenomena context is relevant to real-life, out-of-school experience and is curious and enjoyable. That is, students in general preferred certain contexts because they think that these contexts are relevant to out-of-school activities and are enjoyable and easy to understand. In the case of contexts not preferred, students select these contexts because they think that: 1. the Laboratory context is relevant to textbooks. Thus it lacks novelty and is not enjoyable. 2. the Everyday Life context is dangerous, lacks novelty and is not enjoyable. 3. the Sports context is usually preferred by students, thus there are no particular reasons for not preferring this. 4. the Military Weapons context is not suitable and difficult to understand. 5. the Living Things context is not charming and there was no particular psychological reason. 6. the Natural Phenomena context is not suitable and is difficult to understand. That is, students in general did not prefer certain contexts because they think that these contexts are relevant to school activities and thus are lacking novelty. Discussion This study invesfigmed the reasons underlying students' preferences for different contexts. It was suggested that important factors affecting students' selection of contexts seemed to be the relevance (i.e., nature of task, relevance to school activities and relevance to out-of-school activities) and the psychological effects (i.e., cognitive effects and affective effects) which the contexts would have. The data from this study showed that students prefer contexts because they think that the contexts are related to out-of-school, especially real-life, activities and are easy to understand and enjoyable. Students do not prefer contexts because they think that the contexts are related to school activities, especially those similar to school textbooks, and lacking novelty. In addition, it was shown that CONTEXTS FOR LEARNING SCIENCE 351 students' preferences towards contexts are mainly inttuenced by affective reasons rather than cognitive ones. However, it is dangerous to conclude from the timings of this study that all school science textbooks need to be full of out-of-school contexts. The reasons for this are as follows: once science textbooks only cover a lot of out-of-school examples, students will think textbooks lacking novelty and boring; individual students in fact have different preferences towards contexts so that many of them still will not be motivated; and, it is not recommended for educational purposes that students learn scientific concepts only with concrete examples of out-of-school activities. Students should be given some opportunity to practise their formal thinking in abstract situations. It is also important to note that the results of this study would be culturally bound and that similar studies in other countries might show different results. As White (1985) pointed out, there are several different levels of contexts. The context investigated in this study is of the level of task context which is different from those of physical and social contexts. This study also investigated the perceived and subjective aspects rather than the real and objective aspects of contexts. In addition, this study basically investigated a kind of hypothetical effect of contexts in the sense that students' responses were based on some proposed examples given in the questionnaire, examples not based on their learning experience of actual teaching materials. In fact, since the middle of 1980s, there have been several innovative attempts to produce science textbooks which have considered the dimension of context important (e.g., PLON, 1984; Jardine, 1989). Thus the findings of this study should be interpreted within these limits. Nevertheless, if we take seriously the fact that school science, especially physics, is one of the least preferred subjects in schools and that this situation is getting worse, it is important to investigate the various aspects of context more systematically. Specifically, it is useful to know which contexts are best used for teaching a particular scientific concept and which contexts are the most useful for a particular goup of students and to know the advantages and disadvantages of using a particular context. I. 2. Acknowledgements This study is supported in part by the Institute of Natural Sciences Taegu University. We would like to thank Professor Peter J. Fensham for his many helpful comments on this paper. Correspondence: Dr Jinwoong Song, Department of Physics Education, Taegu University, Kyungsan, 713-714, Korea. Internet email: physeduc@chol.com.kr References Bliss, J., Monk, M., & Ogborn, J. (1983). Qualitative data analysis for educational research: A guide to uses of systemic networks. London: Croom Helm. Department of Education and Science. (1979). Science progress report 1977- 78. London: Deparment of Education and Science. Dreyfus, A., & Jungwirth, E. (1980). A comparison of the "prompting effect" of out-of-school with that of in-school contexts on certain aspects of critical thinking. European Journal of Science Education, 2, 301-310. 352 CHOI AND SONG Evans, J. St. B. T. (1989). Bias in human reasoning: Causes and consequences. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Gomez, M-A., Pozo, J-I., & Sanz, A. (1995). Students' ideas on conservation of matter: Effects of expertise and context variables. Science Education, 79, 77-93. Jardine, J. (1989). Physics through applications. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kahneman, D., Slovic, P, & Tversky, A. (1982). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Light, P., & Butterworth, G. (1992). Context and cognition: Ways of learning and knowing. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf. Millar, R., & Kragh, W. (1994). Alternative frameworks or context-specific reasoning. School Science Review, 75, 27-34. PLON. (1984). Ionising radiation (translated by C. Perma in Monash University in 1988). Utrecht: University of Utrecht. Reif, F., & Larkin, J. H. (1991). Cognition in scientific and everyday domains: Comparison and learning implications. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 28, 733-760. Song, J., & Black, P. J. (1991). The effects of task contexts on pupils' performance on science process skills. International Journal of Science Education, 13, 49-58. Song, J., & Black, P. J. (1992). The effects of concept requirements and task contexts on pupils' performance in control of variables. International Journal of Science Education, 14, 83-93. Song, J., & Choi, J-S. (1994). Students' preferences on different contexts in learning basic concepts of mechanics. Physics Teaching (Journal of the Korean Physical Society), 12, 82-87. Stelmach, G. E., & Vroon, P. A. (1990). Advances in psychology: Cognitive biases. Amsterdam: Elsevier Science Publishers B. V. Sternberg, R. J., & Wagner, R. K. (1994). Mind in context: Interactionist perspectives on human intelligence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Stinner, A. (1989). The teaching of physics and the contexts of inquiry: From Aristotle to Einstein. Science Education, 73, 591-605. Stinner, A. (1990). Philosophy, though experiments and large contexts problems in the secondary school physics course. International Journal of Science Education, 12, 244-257. Stinner, A. (1994). Providing a contextual base and a theoretical structure to guide the teaching of high school physics. Physics Education, 29, 375-381. White, IL (1985). The importance of context in education research. Research in Science Education, 15, 92-102.

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