Research project The project focuses on how students' prior knowledge, epistemological beliefs and factors in the learning environment contributes to affective experiences during learning and learning outcomes.
The investigation is performed in lower secondary and university level. Interviews and observations of learning situations, and quantitative instruments are used measure and describe students' epistemological beliefs, situational characteristics, and affective and cognitive outcomes from learning. A survey provides data for multivariate modelling to discern environmental variables that are important for affective experiences and learning outcomes. To validate results, new learning situations are designed and the effects on student experiences and learning outcomes are examined in the light of the characteristics of the student
This is a boiled down version of the original research proposal. The plan has been modified with respect to the number of situational and personal characteristics that have been investigated. The new set of characteristics under study are: achievement goals, epistemological beliefs, utility value, attributions, motivation type, motivation level, self-efficacy, social context, perceived autonomy support, degree of communication with friends about the subject, degree of communication with teacher about the subject, social climate in class, perceived degree of autonomy, cognitive load and focus, character of teacher feed-back, teacher support (demands), task difficulty, task curiosity, and perceived lesson goals. Outcomes (measures of motivation) that have been used so far are: behaviour (concentration persistence and choice), cognition, and emotional experiences.
Although the text below gives a fairly good picture of the project, descriptions of these new characteristics and how they fit into the study are missing.
Person-situation interactions: Effects on affective and cognitive outcomes.
For a long period, Universities in Sweden has experienced a pronounced decrease in the number of students that apply for studies in the natural sciences. The national evaluation of the compulsory school reveals that many students think that chemistry and physics are the most difficult, uninteresting and unimportant subjects in school (Skolverket, 2004). Lindahl (2003) showed that students in grade 7-9 do regard science as interesting and important, but the content and the way science is taught in school is not perceived as relevant or personally involving. As a consequence, even students that perform very well in these subjects avoid further studies in natural sciences.
An individual’s attitude toward an object consists of a cognitive and an affective component that together result in a tendency of that individual to behave in a certain way in relation to a specific object (Arnold, Cooper, & Robertson, 1998). The affective experiences during learning, even though they are reactions to an immediate situation, have been shown to influence the future attitudes that a student develops toward the specific subject or activity (Osborne, Simon, & Collins, 2003). In the end, this is likely to influence the future choices regarding further studies and profession of this individual. Keeping in mind the low number of students that apply for higher studies in the natural sciences, it seems important to investigate how different learning situations in school affect the emotions of our students.
Resent research points out that affective experiences during learning indicate how well the situation matches the individuals prior knowledge (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), epistemological beliefs (Bråten & Strömsö, 2006) and type of motivation or achievement goals (Harackiewicz, Barron, Tauer, & Elliot, 2002; Pekrun, Elliot, & Maier, 2006; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Seifert, 2004).
Furthermore appraisals of the own capacity to instigate and sustain and action, and its relation to the outcomes, in a certain situation are intimately related to both prospective and retrospective emotions (Pekrun, 2006; Weiner, 1985). Hence, the learners epistemological beliefs and other personal, cognitive and psychological, factors are important components in the evaluative system that, via mechanisms that regulate emotions, influences the learners engagement in the task (Hannula, 2006), e.g., reflected by the amount of invested mental effort (Paas, Tuovinen, van Merriënboer, & Darabi, 2005) or the learning outcomes (Goetz, Hall, Frenzel, & Pekrun, 2006). We need to know more about how students with, for example, different epistemological beliefs, achievement goals, or attribution patterns are influenced by different characteristics of the learning situation, and what situational, and personal characteristics that are most important in forming different affective experiences during learning.
For reasons mentioned above, we intend to investigate a) how students’ psychological characteristics interact with the learning environment in forming affective experiences b) what situational characteristics, or combinations, are most important in this interaction and c) how affective experiences during learning influence learning outcomes.
Epistemological beliefs are beliefs about the nature of knowledge and the process of learning. Several studies have shown that these beliefs influence what, and how, a student learns (DeBacker & Crowson, 2006; Hofer & Pintrich, 1997; Muis, 2004).These results corroborate our own studies on simulations in university-level chemistry education. Given that the students’ have the prior knowledge necessary to perform the simulations and discuss results, epistemological beliefs influence the quality of the chemistry knowledge they display after the simulation exercises (Winberg & Berg, 2007).
The observed moderating effect of prior knowledge on the influence of epistemological beliefs is not surprising since the learners ability to process information, and to learn, in a successful way to a large extent depends on the extent, complexity, and degree of automation of the cognitive schemas the student has in the domain (Carlsson, Chandler, & Sweller, 2003; Paas, Renkl, & Sweller, 2003).
Thus, both epistemological beliefs and prior knowledge seem to be important personal characteristics to consider when studying learning. Specially, the brief review that follows will illustrate the significance of considering these factors when studying students’ affective and cognitive experiences during learning.
As it comes to learning, the curriculum for the Swedish compulsory school system emphasizes that it is not obvious what types of knowledge that are most important in a rapidly changing world. Therefore, the same document stresses the responsibility of the school system to “…promote learning where the individual is stimulated to acquire knowledge… promote students ability to make personal standpoints” and “… to stimulate the [students’] will to educate [themselves] and grow with their tasks.” From an educational psychology perspective, it is obvious that the behaviour that is described in these sentences requires a motivation to learn, paired with epistemological beliefs that acknowledge the individuals own role in the learning as well as the relative (and changeable) nature of knowledge.
Within motivation research, there are several lines of research that tries to explain learners’ behaviour in learning situations and the resulting outcomes. Seifert (2004) claimed that, even though these different lines of research differ in terms of terminology and models, the unifying core is a pattern where affective experiences and beliefs about knowledge and the own person influence behaviour in academic situations – and thereby the quality of the knowledge that is constructed (Covington, 2000). This argument is supported by studies that indicate that the learner’s beliefs about knowledge and learning influence the motivation to learn (Bråten & Strömsö, 2006; DeBacker & Crowson, 2006) which in turn is related to affective experiences during learning (Harackiewicz et al., 2002; Pekrun et al., 2006).
A study by Windschitl and Andre (1998) indicated that the influence of students epistemological beliefs on learning is moderated by the characteristics of the learning situation. Although acknowledging the need for further studies, Windschitl and Andre suggested that the match, or mismatch, between the characteristics of the situation and students’ epistemological beliefs resulted in motivation-related affective experiences that influenced the students’ learning behaviour. This is in accord with other researchers that claim that learning situations that do not match learners’ epistemological beliefs, e.g., in terms of demand of autonomy or the character of the intellectual task, might appear as overwhelming or, alternatively, not challenging enough for students to engage in learning (Finster, 1989; Moore, 1994).
Therefore, Hofer and Pintrich (1997) stressed the need for research on how different epistemological beliefs interact with different types of learning situations and how this interaction in turn influences affective and cognitive aspects of learning.
The role of emotions in education has not received much attention in the past (Schutz & Lanehart, 2002) Nevertheless, recent studies indicate that the affective experiences during learning might function as an indicator of what type of achievement goals (Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Seifert, 2004) and epistemological beliefs (Bråten & Olaussen, 2005; Windschitl & Andre, 1998) that drive/direct the student in his learning. Several researchers argue that an individual’s affective experiences in a learning situation might give important information on the efficiency of that situation, i.e., its capacity to bring about a motivation for learning on short and long term (Meyer & Turner, 2002; Pekrun, Goetz, Titz, & Perry, 2002).
The need to create learning situations that match the learner’s abilities has, deservedly, received a lot of attention in the pedagogical and science education research literature (e.g., Limon, 2001; Luckin, 1999). The notions “cognitive Load” and “mental effort” has been devoted an increasing interest within research on how the design of a learning situation influence the learners possibilities to process information successfully (Sweller, van Merrienboer, & Paas, 1998; van Merrienboer, Kirschner, & Kester, 2003). While cognitive load is the proportion of an individuals working memory processing capacity that is required to solve a task, mental effort also takes into account the learners motivation to do so, i.e., a measure of the cognitive capacity that is actually invested in the task. Hence, mental effort results from an individual’s interaction with a learning situation and reflects the learner’s knowledge in the domain, his/her motivation to engage in the task and, at least in the case of more ill defined tasks, how the task is interpreted.
The learners epistemological beliefs influences how the task is interpreted – thus, affecting its complexity (Winberg & Berg, 2007). If the complexity of the task is too high in relation to the learner’s prior knowledge, effective processing of the information is hampered, ultimately affecting the learner’s ability to solve the task - and the affective experiences during learning (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Goldin, 2000; Hannula, 2006). Obviously, the relation between the learner’s prior knowledge, epistemological beliefs, mental effort and affective experiences during learning and the situational characteristics is complex. One of the purposes of the proposed project is to investigate how this complex pattern of relations looks like.
This approach, to observe the learner’s affective reactions and learning outcomes in the light of the “balance” between the characteristics of the learner and the situation, is recommended by Covington (2000), who argues that the learner’s behaviour and performance in academic situations is best understood and described in terms of complex, context-dependent, “clustering of interrelated causal factors.”. Affective experiences as well as cognitive and motivational factors are mentioned as strong candidates to such a network to describe learners’ performances. As Covington (op.cit.) puts it, documenting how the dynamics between these ´clusters´ of factors change as a function of the characteristics of the learning situation and individual learner differences. “… holds enormous practical importance.” (p.187)
As the literature review indicates, the cognitive and affective factors that are in focus of the proposed project are all related to the quality of learning. To our knowledge, no attempt has been made to describe the complex relations between the characteristics of the individual, affective experiences, situational characteristics, the affective experiences during learning and the learning outcomes. Results from this study will be of interest for researchers within educational research as well as for teachers on any level in the educational system. The project has also potential to contribute with knowledge central to the work to develop the teaching practices within the science education that the National Agency for School Development (2005) has suggested as a way to change students attitudes toward science studies.
Organisation and time-plan
To get access to a wide range of different learning situations, and to be able to test the reliability and validity of methods and models in different contexts, studies will be performed in the compulsory school (year 7-9) as well as at the university level. At the university level, special interest will be devoted to learning situations that involve simulations. Comparisons between simulations exercises and “ordinary” learning situations within physics and chemistry will be made. (A study involving comparisons of situations between different disciplines in the university is on the sketch-board but economical and temporal restraints have to be considered more thoroughly before this study is launched.) In the compulsory school, a study of several different learning situations within physics, chemistry and mathematics will be performed.
In step one, a series of pilot- and validation- studies involving interviews and observations of different learning situations on compulsory school and level university is made. Data from the pilot studies is the basis of the development of instruments to describe the characteristics of the learning situations and students/pupils, affective experiences during learning and motivated behaviour, e.g., invested mental effort. Theories about motivation and epistemological beliefs are also central at this stage. The pilot studies will be performed in schools/universities in Umeå, Kristianstad and Skellefteå. Pilot studies, in the context of computer simulations in mechanics (physics) as well as in chemistry and mathematics in compulsory school, have already been performed. Results have been presented at the ESERA-conference in Malmö, August 2007 and GIREP, Cyprus August 2008.
In step two, a nation-wide, questionnaire-based survey on a stratified selection of classes in the compulsory school is made. At the university level, groups from several faculties and programmes at Umeå University are investigated. Multivariate methods are used to examine the relation between students’ prior knowledge, epistemological beliefs, affective experiences during learning, and situational characteristics. For practical reasons, learning outcomes are not measured at this point, unless assessed by the teachers themselves at this occasion. Situational and personal characteristics that are especially good candidates to explain differences in students’ affective experiences are identified by using PCA and PLS.
In step three, results from step two are used to design learning situations in collaboration with a selection of interested teachers at the compulsory- and university level. The same measurements as in step two are made. In addition, learning processes and students’ affective experiences in these situations are studied by observations/interviews and learning outcomes are measured.