By Jessy Abraham
In his blog Science education: Is Australia sabotaging its future? published in January 2013, Wanasinghe Chandrasena raised the major concern of the declining student participation in sciences in Australia. He observed that, although this trend is a global phenomenon, Australia needs to be proactive in protecting its scientific future. Chandrasena concluded by saying “Preparing now can save us from repairing in the future,” implying that we need to encourage students to study science.
There has been much research on the increasing reluctance of students to pursue the study of sciences nationally and internationally. Some of these studies identify strategies to attract more students, particularly more females, to the sciences. In Australia, some suggested actions include curricular reforms, gender inclusive practices, and contextualisation of science curriculum. However, student participation has not improved in recent decades, particularly in the ‘hard’ sciences such as physics. In Australia, senior secondary physics reports the lowest student participation and classes are still male dominated, with 75% of students being male.
While Chandrasena’s blog acknowledged issues with attracting more students to study the sciences, I think there is another crucial issue science educators should be concerned with: are we doing enough to retain those who have chosen to do sciences at senior secondary level? For example, of the traditional sciences (physics, chemistry and biology), physics has been generally perceived as the most difficult and demanding subject by students (e.g. Barmby & Defty, 2006). The data from the New South Wales (NSW) Board of Studies suggest that while physics reports the lowest student participation among the traditional science subjects at senior secondary level, every year since 2000 over 21% of males and 25% females discontinue physics during their transition from the first year of senior secondary schooling (Year 11) to the final year (Year 12). The rate of attrition is slowly but steadily increasing, reaching 24% and 31% respectively for males and females in 2009-2010. Student attrition is reported for all subjects during the transition from Year 11 to Year 12; however, attrition from Physics deserves special attention. In NSW as in other states of Australia, senior secondary physics is generally chosen by high academic achievers with high career aspirations. They report high self-efficacy in the subject and typically come from families with high socio educational status and high parental education (Fullarton & Ainley, 2000). This means that a quarter of this ‘elite’ group of students is leaving physics after one year of study of the subject. We need to shift our attention to this salient issue. Why do some students who expressed an initial motivation to study physics discontinue the subject after one year? What makes female students drop physics at a higher rate than males? What can we do to retain them in physics? I am certain that these questions are pertinent to other sciences as well.
It is a common belief that sciences at the senior secondary level are selected by students for their strategic value in getting entry to competitive courses that lead to prestigious jobs or have more employment opportunities. Research findings support this (e.g. Barnes, 1999; Eccles & Wigfield, 1995). In fact, the strongest influential factor on students’ physics enrolment intentions has been identified as its subjective ‘utility value’ that is, the usefulness of the subject in securing admission to highly regarded university courses and high status jobs (Barnes, 1999). A recent decline in the immediate utility value of traditional science subjects in relation to university entry has been linked to the declining enrolment in senior secondary physics in Australia (Lyons & Quinn, 2010). Therefore, are the students who continue studying physics merely motivated by its perceived utility value? Are those who discontinue physics doing so because the utility value has decreased for them? If that is not the case, what are the factors that influence student retention in physics?
My study among Year 11 physics students in NSW schools identified that, though students still attach high utility value to physics, it is not the most influential factor in sustaining their enrolment intentions to Year 12 as might be expected. The evidence suggested that it was the students’ expectancies of success that largely predicted their plans to continue with physics. That is, though the instrumental value of physics can be high for the students, they do not like to stay on in physics if they think that they are not good in the subject. This displays the competitive learning style promoted in Australian schools and the considerable importance students place on Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) which is calculated at the end of the final year of senior secondary school examinations. There is a trend among students to discontinue the subjects in which they are not achieving well enough to get high ATAR, even though they enjoy learning the subject.
What are some effective steps teachers could adopt in physics classrooms? Teachers need to be aware of the motivational significance of performance perceptions students develop in physics while learning the subject. The school and classroom environments are vital contexts that can enhance the performance perceptions of students. Teachers should employ strategies to ensure that students feel competent and achieve success. For example, teachers could conceptualise success in alternative ways rather than simply high achievement in summative assessment tasks. If students are in a classroom where success is defined in terms of self-improvement rather than getting high grades in tests then all students have the chance to feel successful. Cooperative and collaborative learning activities may encourage students to work together to solve tasks rather than to compete against each other. Social interactions can make everybody share the feeling of success and therefore increase enthusiasm for the subject.
Another interesting finding from my study was on the gender stereotyped attitudes towards physics. Physics just as any Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, is subjected to gender stereotypes such as; a female may perceive that she is not capable of success and the careers related to the subject are not suitable for her (e.g. Barmby & Defty, 2006). Females in my study indicated that their motivation and engagement with the subject were equal to or higher than those of male students. This suggests that once students have started studying physics, their motivation and engagement may not necessarily vary as expected through gender biases. This information may prevent physics teachers from making false evaluations that lead to gender differentiated expectations and classroom practices (Elwood & Comber, 1996). Teachers should be aware that sex stereotypes could significantly reduce student engagement and participation. Therefore, learning experiences and teaching practices that discourage the development of such attitudes should be incorporated into physics instruction.
My study focused on physics, a subject which is likely to report a shortage of qualified persons more obviously than the other STEM related careers in the near future in Australia. The retention of students in other STEM courses also needs attention. I would like to suggest that preparing and repairing now, can safeguard Australia’s scientific future.
Barmby, P., & Defty, N. (2006). Secondary School Pupils’ Perceptions of Physics. Research in Science & Technological Education, 24(2), 199–215.
Barnes, G. R. (1999). A Motivational Model of Enrolment Intentions in Senior Secondary Science Courses in New South Wales Schools. Doctoral dissertation, University of Western Sydney, Macarthur.
Eccles, J. S., & Wigfield, A. (1995). In the Mind of the Actor: The Structure of Adolescents’ Achievement Task Values and Expectancy-Related Beliefs. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21(3), 215–225. doi: 10.1177/0146167295213003.
Elwood, J., & Comber, C. (1996). Gender Differences in Examinations at 18+: final report. London: Institute of Education.
Fullarton, S., & Ainley, J. (2000). Subject Choice by Students in Year 12 in Australian Secondary Schools. LSAY Research Reports. Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth Research Report. Camberwell, Victoria: Australian Council for Educational Research.
Lyons, T., & Quinn, F. (2010). Choosing Science: Understanding the Declines in Senior High School Science Enrolments. Research Report to the Australian Science Teachers Association: UNE.
Jessy Abraham is a Lecturer in the School of Education, University of Western Sydney