Factors Affecting Students Interest in Biology

Science Education International Vol. 17, No. 1, March 2006, pp. 31-48 Factors Affecting Junior High School Students’ Interest in Biology1 RICARDO TRUMPER ([email protected] haifa. ac. l), Faculty of Science and Science Education, Haifa University, Israel ABSTRACT Our study, conducted as part of the ROSE Project, on students’ interest in biology at the end of their compulsory schooling in Israel, and its relation to their views on science classes, out-of-school experiences in biology, and attitudes to science and technology, showed that their overall interest in learning biology was relatively positive but not high; girls showed greater interest in it than boys.

Students’ interest in learning biology correlated closely with their negative opinions of science classes. These findings raise critical questions about the implementation of changes in the Israeli science curriculum in primary and junior high school, if the goal is to prepare the rising generation for life in a scientific-technological era. From deeper analysis of the results curricular, behavioral, and organizational changes needed to reach this goal were formulated.

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KEY WORDS: Interest, junior high biology school students, biology. Introduction As stated by Osborne, Simon and Collins (2003), “the investigation of students’ attitudes towards studying science has been a substantive feature of the work of the science education research community for the past 30-40 years” (p. 1049). The importance of this investigation is stressed by a persistent decline in post-compulsory high school science enrolment over the last two decades.

Concern has been voiced in many countries, including the UK (Smithers & Robinson, 1988), Australia (Dekkers & DeLaetter, 2001), Canada (Bordt, DeBroucker, Read, Harris & Zhang, 2001), India (Garg & Gupta, 2003), Japan (Goto, 2001), the USA (National Science Foundation, 2002), and every country in the European Union (Commission of European Communities, 2001). Students’ increasing reluctance to choose science courses in their final years of secondary education has serious adverse implications for the health of scientific endeavour, but also for the scientific literacy of future generations.

The endorsement of positive attitudes to science, scientists, and learning science, which has always been a constituent of science education, is 1. ROSE (The Relevance of Science Education) is an international project with about 40 participating countries. ROSE is organized by Svein Sjoberg and Camilla Schreiner at the University of Oslo and is supported by the Research Council of Norway. Reports and details are available at http://www. ils. uio. no/english/rose/ 32 Ricardo Trumper increasingly a subject of concern.

Many science educators attribute great importance to the affective domain (Baker & Doran, 1975; Schibeci, 1984; Gardner, 1985, 1998; Sjoberg, 2002, Oh & Yager, 2004). Shulman and Tamir (1973) argued that the affective outcomes of science instruction are at least as important as their cognitive counterparts. The affective domain is characterized by a variety of constructs, such as attitudes, preferences, and interests. Researchers’ definitions of these constructs vary and consequently may be confusing.

As reported extensively in the literature, students’ early positive attitude to science subjects changes markedly in the upper grades, especially in chemistry and physics (Graber, 1993). Simpson, Koballa, Oliver and Crawley, (1994) published an extensive review on students’ attitudes towards different science subjects. Generally, a negative attitude to a subject leads to lack of interest, and when subjects can be selected, as in senior high school, to avoiding the subject or course.

Furthermore, a positive attitude to science “leads to a positive commitment to science that influences lifelong interest and learning in science” (Simpson & Oliver, 1990, p. 14). This is a reason why major science education reform efforts have emphasized the improvement of students’ attitudes. For instance, Project 2061, a multiple-year project in science education, suggests that “science education should contribute to … he development in young people of positive attitudes toward learning science” (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1990, p. 184). Several studies have identified a number of factors affecting students’ attitudes to science in general. These can be largely categorized as gender, personality, structural variables, and curriculum variables. Gardner (1975) stated that “sex is probably the most important variable related to pupils’ attitudes to science” (p. 22). Many studies (e. g. Menis, 1983; Sjoberg, 1983; Weinburgh, 1995; Francis &: Greer, 1999; Jones, Howe & Rua, 2000; Sjoberg, 2000) have reported that males have more positive attitudes to science than females, while others found no statistically significant gender differences (Selim & Shrigley, 1983). Kahle and Meece (1994) published a wide-ranging review on gender issues related to students’ attitudes to science subjects. Ormerod and Duckworth (1975) indicated the importance of distinguishing between the physical and biological sciences in respect of gender differences in attitudes to science.

Gardner (1974), in a review of gender differences in achievement, attitudes, and personality of science students, stated that there were “clear differences in the nature of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ scientific interests, boys expressing relatively greater interest in physical science activities, while girls are more interested in biological and social science topics” (p. 243). More recently, Osborne et al. (2003) showed that there was “still a bias against physical sciences held by girls, suggesting that at an individual level the overwhelming majority of girls still choose not to do physical science as soon as they can” (p. 064). Their comprehensive literature survey shows that one of the main motivators of genderrelated research in science education is the fact that there are few girls in technical and science-related occupations, while more qualified personnel are needed. Israel took part in the Second International Science Study (SISS) in 1983-1984. In this study, 82% of the ten-year-olds and 66% of the 14-year-olds said that science was interesting. Among the 17-year-old students who elected to study science for their matriculation examination, 72% found the study of biology interesting, while only 48% Students’ Interest in Biology 33 ound the study of physics interesting (Tamir, Levine, Lewy, Chen, & Zuzovsky, 1988). Shemesh (1990) found that Israeli junior high school girls tended to be more interested in languages, social studies, and humanities, while boys were more interested in science and technology. Furthermore, boys’ interest in science and technology increased with age, while older girls became less interested. Likewise, the USA Department of Education (1997) reported that, while male and female seventh and tenth graders had similar positive attitudes toward science, high school seniors demonstrated a greater difference in these attitudes.

Unfortunately, these less favourable attitudes of females often translate into less interest in science careers. Ironically, “young women begin to lose interest in science even when they perform as well, or even better in this subject as their male classmates” (Catsambis, 1995, p. 252). According to Gardner and Tamir (1989a): The term “interest” usually refers to preference to engage in some types of activities rather than others. An interest may be regarded as a highly specific type of attitude: When we are interested in a particular phenomenon or activity, we are favorably inclined to attend to it and give time to it (p. 10). Osborne et al. (2003) distinguished between “scientific attitudes”, a multifaceted combination of the desire to know and understand, an inquiring approach to all statements, a search for data and their meaning, a demand for verification, a respect for logic, a consideration of premises and of consequences (Education Policies Commission, 1962), and “attitudes to science” as a school subject, that is, a set of affective behaviours towards science education, including interest in science.

In this study, we deal with students’ interest in biology as a school subject, that is, a combination of individual interest in biology, a short-term interest in certain biology topics produced by the interestingness of biology instruction in the sense of situational interest (Hidi & Andersen, 1992), and the social climate in biology classes. The combination of factors determining interest in biology as a school subject varies from one student to another.

Learning Biology in Israel The study of preferences and interests in sciences is of vital importance in Israel, because the Ministry of Education has promoted major changes in the study of science in primary and secondary schools. New science curricula were introduced five years ago in order to “strengthen, deepen and improve the learning of mathematics, science and technology throughout the educational system, as a means of preparing the new generation for life in a scientific-technological era” (Tomorrow 98, 1992, p. ). The recommendations of the Tomorrow 98 Report are in line with the worldwide trend towards the introduction of science, technology and society (STS) interrelations in science education. As a consequence, in Israel, all students follow a common interdisciplinary curriculum until the end of grade nine, which is the last year of junior high school.

The main science subjects taught in the three years of junior high schools are: (a) biology and chemistry, including topics, such as the properties of water and its importance for plants, animals and human beings, mixtures and compounds, reproduction systems in plants, animals and human beings, the cell, nutrition, food types, photosynthesis, the human digestive system, processes in ecological systems and the human’s dependence on the 34 Ricardo Trumper nvironment; heredity, genetics, DNA, chromosomes, meiosis and mitosis, and (b) physics topics, such as the structure, the properties, and the states of matter, mass and volume, interactions and forces, electrical current and voltage, forces between charged particles, the atom and the periodic table, energy, its transformation and conservation, forces and energy, Newton’s laws. More than half the teachers are biology teachers, about a third are physics teachers, and very few are chemistry teachers.

In senior high school, Israeli students select a major field of study (biology, physics, and chemistry are the science subjects that can be chosen) either in grade ten or eleven, on which they are evaluated by a matriculation examination at the end of grade twelve. Tamir (1988) found that substantially more Israeli boys planned to study science-oriented subjects and to choose science-oriented careers than girls. Tamir, Arzi and Zloto (1974) already stated that: Low enrollments in … sciences (are) a professional concern… rimarily because of their adverse effect on the general education of high school students, but also because of their possible impact on vocational choice, notably that of potential teachers (p. 75). Despite these reforms, over the last ten years only about 10% of the students chose biology as a major field of study. During these years, 60% to 66% of the biology students were girls and only 34% to 40% were boys. In parallel, almost the same number of students chose to major in physics, but with an inverse ratio of 70% boys and 30% girls. This is not the case all over the world.

Spall, Barrett, Stanisstreet, Dickson and Boyes (2003) report that in England and Wales biology is much more popular than physics. For example, in 2002 some 52,100 students sat Advanced (A) level biology as against 31,500 who sat physics at A level (Publishers’ Association/Education Publishers Council, 2003). This distribution is reflected in the numbers of students going on to take biology at university level. In 2001, there were 16,000 applications for university places in England and Wales in the biological sciences, compared with 10,700 applications for physics (Universities and Colleges Admission Service, 2003).

Overall, less than 25% of Israeli high school students major in science, including chemistry, in which there is an almost even gender distribution. This marks a dramatic decline from the situation in the 1980s, when only about half of the senior high school students took no science subject as a specialized field of study (Friedler & Tamir, 1990). This ‘swing away from science’ has been observed in several countries. In England and Wales, for instance, the percentage of students older than 16 studying science, or science and mathematics declined by more than one-half from the 1980s to the early 2000s (Osborne et al. , 2003).

Since only those students who take science, or science and mathematics, are able (without further remedial courses) to pursue further scientific education and scientific careers, the decline in the number of science-based students as a proportion of all students eligible for higher education in the US and several European countries has raised concerns about their economic future and the scientific literacy of their population (Dearing 1996; National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century, 2000). The Present Study ROSE (The Relevance of Science Education) is an international comparative project that

Students’ Interest in Biology 35 applies a questionnaire with items that may shed light on the questions raised above. Sjoberg, Schreiner and Stefansson (2004) stated: The lack of relevance of the S&T curriculum is probably one of the greatest barriers for good learning as well as for interest in the subject. The ROSE project has the ambition to provide theoretical insight into factors that relate to the relevance of the contents as well as the contexts of S&T curricula, ROSE intends to provide a base for informed discussions on how to improve curricula and enhance the interest in S&T (p. 3). The ROSE survey was conducted in Israel in January-March 2003. International data collection was finalized by June 2004. To the relevant questions students gave their responses on four-point Likert scales with categories of ‘Not interested’-‘Very interested,’ ‘Disagree’-‘Agree,’ ‘Not important-Very important,’ and ‘NeverOften. ‘ For each item, students were requested to indicate their response by marking the appropriate box, while the data entry was done on a scale from 1 to 4.

The ROSE questionnaire, which was developed by an international advisory group of researchers in science education, comprises about 250 items. To handle this amount of material and to elevate the discussion from responses to single items to a more general level, questionnaire items were merged into composite variables or clusters and each cluster constituted one index. The indexes are latent variables not directly observed, but developed from a set of observed variables (the questionnaire items).

The indexes are simply average item scores; each index contains a different number of items. Combinations of theoretical perspectives, the initial ideas of the questionnaire developers, exploratory factor analysis, and reliability analyses using Cronbach’s alpha led to the structure of the current indexes: “What I want to learn about,” “My future job,” “Me and the environmental challenges,” “My science classes,” “My opinion about science and technology,” “My out-of-school experiences,” and “Me as a scientist” (the only open item).

More details about the ROSE instrument, its theoretical background and development can be found in Schreiner and Sjoberg (2004), especially in Chapters 3 and 6, which include piloting of the Norwegian version of the questionnaire, three different international trials, and measures of validity, reliability and credibility of the English version, including factor analyses. Relying on it, we calculated the Cronbach’s alpha coefficients as a measure of the internal consistency of the variables included in the present study (see next section).

This study randomly sampled 635 Israeli students (338 females and 297 males) in clusters (25 schools, one class at each school). The sample represents the population of all Israeli ninth-grade secular Jew students. Results We report here the results of a study, as part of the ROSE project, dealing with students’ interest in learning biology at the end of their compulsory studies in Israel, their opinions about their science classes, their out-of-school experiences in biology, and their attitudes to science and technology. How interested were students in learning about biology topics?

The “Students’ interest in biology” variable is a sub-index of the more comprehensive one: “What I want to learn about”, comprising 31 items with Cronbach’s alpha coefficient of 0. 90. The “Students’ opinions about their science classes” variable is also a sub-index of a more 36 Ricardo Trumper comprehensive one, “My science classes”, comprising 14 items with Cronbach’s a coefficient of 0. 89. The “Students’ attitudes toward science and technology” variable was defined by the questionnaire developers and comprises 16 items with Cronbach’s alpha coefficient of 0. 9. The “Students’ out-of-school experience in biology” variable is a sub-index of a more comprehensive one, “My out-ofschool experiences”, comprising 13 items with Cronbach’s alpha coefficient of 0. 79. (See Appendix to characterize the different variables used in this study). Students’ overall interest in learning biology was relatively positive but not high (Mean = 2. 71, S. D. = 0. 50); their attitude to science and technology was somewhat lower than their interest in biology (Mean = 2. 65, S. D. = 0. 3); their opinions about their science classes (Mean = 2. 19, S. D. = 0. 69) and their out-of-school experience in biology (Mean = 2. 15, S. D. = 0. 49) were generally low. Table 1 shows the difference between boys and girls for these variables. Table 1 Comparison Between Boys and Girls Girls Students’ interest in biology Students’ attitudes to S&T Students’ opinions about science classes Students’ out-of-school experiences in biology Mean = 2. 82 S. D. = 0. 48 Mean = 2. 60 S. D. = 0. 44 Mean = 2. 09 S. D. = 0. 70 Mean = 2. 8 S. D. = 0. 50 Boys Mean = 2. 58 S. D. = 0. 49 Mean = 2. 70 S. D. = 0. 43 Mean = 2. 30 S. D. = 0. 66 Mean = 2. 12 S. D. = 0. 48 t-test t = 6. 01 p-value < . 01 t = 2. 97 p-value = . 03 t = 3. 84 p-value < . 01 t = 1. 57 p-value= . 12 Cohen’s size effect d = . 495 d = . 236 d = . 306 d = . 122 Statistically significant differences are evident in students’ interest in biology, their attitudes to science and technology, and their opinions about science classes, but not in their out-of-school experiences in biology.

Girls showed a higher interest in biology with a medium (d = 0. 5) effect size (Cohen, 1988). Boys held more positive attitudes to science and technology and more favourable opinions about science classes than girls, but with a smaller effect size. In out-of-school experiences in biology there was no statistical difference between boys and girls. Sjoberg et al. (2004), in their first review of the international data, reported that Some challenges in S&T education seem to be common for most countries.

Other challenges seem to be more pronounced in certain countries than others. For instance, the lack of interest in S&T studies, and the possible hostility or disenchantment with S&T seem to be more pronounced in many highly developed countries than other parts of the world. The ‘rich’ OECD countries (US, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, Japan) seem to have such challenges, while such trends are to a less extent found in economically less developed countries of Asia, Africa, Oceania, and Latin America (p. 44).

How is students’ interest in biology related to the other three variables? We calculated the Pearson correlation coefficients between them, as it is shown in Table 2. Students’ Interest in Biology Table 2 Pearson Correlation Coefficients Students’ Students’ Students’ interest in attitudes to opinions about biology S science classes Students’ interest in biology Students’ attitudes to S Students’ opinions about science classes Students’ out-of-school experiences in biology 1. 000 1. 000 0. 170 ; . 01 0. 327 ; . 01 0. 88 ; . 01 1. 000 – 37 Students’ out-ofschool experiences in biology 0. 283 < . 01 0. 016 = . 69 0. 174 < . 01 1. 000 ____________________________________________________________ ____________________________________ We found a relatively strong correlation between students’ interest in learning biology and negative opinions of science classes than between more positive attitudes to science and technology and limited out-of-school experiences in biology. We also performed a multiple regression, whose results appear in Table 3.

Table 3 Multiple Regression Model – Dependent Variable: Students’ Interest in Biology Model Students’ opinions about science classes Gender Students’ out-of-school experiences in biology Students attitudes to S&T R . 352 . 453 . 496 . 506 R Square . 124 . 205 . 246 . 256 Adjusted R Square . 122 . 203 . 243 . 251 p- value < . 01 < . 01 < . 01 < . 01 Students’ opinions of their science classes, their gender, their out-of-school experiences in biology, and their attitudes to science and technology proved significant factors, explaining about 25% of students’ interest in biology. Students’ opinions of their science classes contributed 12%, their gender 8%, their out-ofschool experiences in biology only 4%, and their attitudes to science and technology less than 1%. ) We also found that only 195 students (31% of the sample) were interested in biology, that is, they marked on average that they were “interested” or “very interested” in the different biology topics presented to them in the questionnaire. The gender distribution among them was 132 girls (68%) and 63 boys (32%), with no statistically significant difference in their interest in biology.

The variables that most correlated with it were their poor opinions about their science classes (Pearson correlation coefficient – r = 0. 232, p-value = . 001) and their very limited out-of-school experience in biology (r = 0. 212, p-value = . 003). In this group, boys also had statistically significant more favourable opinions of their science classes than girls (t = 3. 19, p-value = . 002), but there was almost no difference in their limited out-of-school experiences in biology (Boys’ mean = 2. 28, S. D. = . 51; Girls’ mean = 2. 31, S.

D. = . 50). 38 Ricardo Trumper Furthermore, we looked for the biology topics boys and girls were more interested and more uninterested in (see Tables 4 and 5). We concluded that the two groups shared five of the six most interesting topics, although boys were significantly less interested than girls in all of them, with considerable size effects (d ? 0. 8 – large size effect), as can be seen in Table 4. They also shared four of the five most uninteresting topics, without any statistical difference in the two most uninteresting ones.

Table 4 Girls’ and Boys’ Most Interesting Biology Topics ____________________________________________________________ __________________________ Girls’ interest Boys’ interest Subject t-test Cohen’s Mean S. D. Mean S. D. size effect Why we dream while we are t = 9. 70 sleeping, and what the dreams may mean Cancer, what we know and how we can treat it How different narcotics might affect the body What we know about HIV/ AIDS and how to control it Sexually transmitted diseases and how to be

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