It isn’t just what you know: ways to measure beliefs and attitudes

Perspectives TEACHER COMMUNITY

Researchers in America reported a case of a successful engineering student who became alienated from his course because he felt his view of learning clashed with the culture of his programme. Whilst he was strongly committed to making sense of the material, he felt that the course unfairly rewarded those who rotelearned procedures more than those who wanted to question and think deeply. This and other similar studies highlight the importance of investigating not just students’ knowledge of physics but their attitudes to learning.

Although it may be easier to ‘measure’ if someone understands Newton’s second law than how they feel about physics, in recent years researchers have developed, refined and tested ways to give an insight into students’ beliefs and attitudes. One of the most widely used tools to explore learning attitudes is the CLASS survey (Colorado Learning Attitudes about Science Survey). Developed at the University of Colorado in the US, it uses a Likert scale (usually 5 points from strongly agree to strongly disagree) to ask students to respond to statements such as:

  • Knowledge in physics consists of many disconnected topics.
  • Learning physics changes my ideas about how the world works.

These types of questionnaires are often used before and after a particular intervention or change in teaching approach to help give an insight into what effect it may have had.

One of the interesting aspects of these types of survey is that they often try to separate out a complex idea such as ‘attitude about science’ into subcategories, each with its own questions to allow a more nuanced look at the students’ views and the impact of various changes.

Some of the categories that are used in CLASS are:

  • Conceptual understanding
  • Connections between maths and physics
  • Sense making / effort
  • Personal interest
  • Real-world connections

There is some excellent work in this field from the University of York Education Group, in particular Judith Bennett and Sylvia Hogarth’s wonderfully titled research paper Would You Want to Talk to a Scientist at a Party? High school students’ attitudes to school science and to science.

Submitted by James de Winter and Richard Brock

CLASS is available in science, physics, biology and chemistry variants. Full details including online versions, data analysis tools and research papers on its development and use are available from the University of Colorado Boulder. 

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