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FutureSACE

Mathematics and Science Innovation Program

Research briefing:
Participation, engagement and achievement
in mathematics and science education

December 2007

Associate Professor Debra Panizzon


Professor Martin Westwell
Executive Summary
This research briefing summarises some of the key research findings regarding the features of
Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education which contribute to
enhance the teaching of the enabling subjects as well as student achievement, participation and
engagement.

The need to make science education meaningful (and not just superficially relevant) is well
recognised but the mechanisms through which this might be achieved are not always effectively
employed. The nature of senior school science will have an effect which is propagated through the
teaching of science and maths, junior science education, tertiary science education, and through to
the expectations and aspirations of young people.

Scope of the briefing


In preparing new educational agendas for the future it is critical that we review and consider
available research literature so that policy is informed and guided by evidence. This briefing paper
addresses this requirement by providing a synthesis of key research studies that explore effective
means of increasing student participation, engagement and achievement in mathematics and
science, particularly in the senior school. It is structured around two sections. Firstly, we identify
the features of quality teaching, assessment and school practices that support students in these
subject areas. Secondly, we outline the major findings emerging from research about school
programs and practices that enhance student achievement, participation, and engagement.

Contextual Background
There is much evidence available about the drop in the number of students selecting science from
Year 10 into Years 11 and 12 (DEST, 2006; Fullarton et al., 2003), with less research exploring
student transition between secondary and tertiary study. Importantly, the phenomenon that we are
experiencing in Australia is not unique with many OECD countries facing similar difficulties in terms
of student participation and engagement in the enabling sciences in the secondary years of
schooling (i.e., physics, chemistry and mathematics) (Osborne & Collins, 2001; OECD Global
Science Forum, 2006; Sjberg & Schreiner, 2005).

To address the science for all agenda (Fensham, 1985) we need to allow all students to develop a
designated level of scientific literacy (Goodrum et al., 2001; Osborne, 2006) by the time they
complete compulsory schooling. As defined by the OECD (2006: 12) scientific literacy refers to:

An individuals scientific knowledge and use of that knowledge to identify


questions, to acquire new knowledge, to explain scientific phenomena, and to
draw evidence-based conclusions about science-related issues, understanding
of the characteristics of science as a form of human knowledge and inquiry,
awareness of how science and technology shape our material, intellectual and
cultural environments, and willingness to engage in science-related issues, and
with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen.

However, in achieving this goal it is critical that we meet the needs of all students including high-
achieving students who are interested in pursuing careers in science. In catering for this diversity
of students we require a differentiated curriculum to ensure that a diverse range of students can
engage with meaningful content (Rennie & Goodrum, 2007) in science and mathematics for as
long as possible.

Mathematics and Science Innovation Program: Research Briefing 1


Features supporting student participation, engagement and
achievement
There is a plethora of educational research highlighting the impact that individual teachers have on
student engagement and achievement. In a meta-analysis of 500 studies of the effects of teachers
on student achievement Hattie (2003) identified that teachers account for 30% of variation, with the
school accounting for 5-10%, home 5-10%, and peers 5-10%. However, accounting for 50% of the
impact on student achievement are factors outside the school (e.g., socio-economic status, impact
of mother on subject choices). Unfortunately, these student-related impacts are often thought to be
beyond the brief an any educational system but indicate the importance of a broader educational
agenda as a means of addressing and influencing these critical factors.

In considering teachers more closely, Hatties research indicates that they usually have a positive
outcome on student achievement although some influences have a greater effect than others. For
example, the factor resulting in the highest impact on student achievement is feedback with an
effect size of 1.13 (Hattie, 2003: 5). Other teacher-influences gaining high to moderate effect sizes
included: instructional quality (1.00), direct instruction (.82), class environment (.56), challenge of
goals (.52), peer tutoring (.50), mastery learning (.50), homework (.43), teacher style (.42), and
questioning (.41). A number of these factors emerge in other educational literature although
different wording is used to explain essentially the same pedagogical practice.

Quality teaching
This pertains to the traits, characteristics and personality of the teacher and their ability to
create an engaging but challenging learning environment to stimulate students to achieve
their educational optimum. In schools where students achieve outstanding educational
outcomes, it is possible to identify a number of common features in regard to the teachers:

•• Qualifications: research suggests that teachers require a minimum qualification in a


discipline field to effectively teach students in the senior years regardless of the
subject. In Australia for science this is a Bachelor of Science (or university equivalent)
comprising a major (i.e., first, second and third-year units) in a particular field of
science (Ayres et al, 2004; Harris et al., 2005; Panizzon et al., 2007).

•• Pedagogical approaches: an important component that complements sound discipline


knowledge is access to a diverse range of teaching strategies capable of maximising
student engagement. For example, good questioning (ensuring open-ended and
challenging questions in contrast to closed content-based items) emerges frequently
in the literature as being a critical strategy for enhancing student achievement
(Goodrum, 2004; Hackling, 2004).

While there is much discussion in the literature about pedagogy, it is critical to


differentiate this from pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). In brief, PCK relates to
a teachers ““understanding of how topics, concepts, problems, or issues are
organised, represented, and adapted to the diverse interests and abilities of learners,
and presented for instruction”” (Shulman, 1987: 8). Teachers with sound PCK are able
to ensure that every learning opportunity is likely to enhance student understanding of
the discipline. It is this deep-seated content knowledge that allows teachers to
diagnose why students develop misunderstandings in a discipline area and provide
various pedagogical strategies supported to generate the cognitive conflict necessary
to induce conceptual changes (Loughran et al., 2006). Fundamentally, teachers with
high PCK require sound discipline knowledge.

•• Emphasis on teaching and learning: for teachers with high achieving students, a clear
focus for each lesson is around supporting student learning so that on task time is

Mathematics and Science Innovation Program: Research Briefing 2


maximised regardless of lesson length (Ayres, 2004; McPhan et al., in press;
Panizzon et al, 2007). Keeping students on task in a manner that is engaging and not
made routine requires a high level of organisation and an ability to think laterally and
critically.

•• Build personal relationships with students: highly accomplished teachers recognise


that teaching involves the development of individual relationships with students with
clear parameters delineated (Ayres, 2004; McPhan et al., in press; Patchen, 2004;
Tytler, 2006). While such teachers are focused on teaching and learning, they love
their subject and are motivational in the eyes of their students.

•• Engagement in professional development: teachers who nurture high achieving


students are usually engaged in both formal and informal (often within their own
faculties) professional development opportunities (Ayres et al., 2000; Panizzon et al.,
2007; Pegg et al., 2007). For example, many senior teachers recognise the
importance of their experiences as senior markers for Year 12 examinations as being
critical to supporting their students achieve high results. Part of this is that such
experiences allow them to benchmark their assessment criteria with their peers in the
same discipline area. It is this type of opportunity that many rural and regional senior
teachers request because access to these marking experiences often requires many
days away from the classroom and family (Lyons et al., 2006). Within the school,
teachers who achieve high outcomes for their students often mentor other staff and
are prepared to share their expertise and resources with new and less-experienced
members.

Assessment
It is a truism that what is assessed and how it is assessed provides the clearest indication of
what is valued about formal education (Cole, 1990; Hamilton, 2003). If we are to meet the
demands of an assessment for learning agenda it is ““constructive alignment”” (Biggs, 1996) of
the three arms of curriculum including assessment, curriculum content, and pedagogy that is
essential (Hackling, 2004, Panizzon & Pegg, in press). It must be noted that the available
literature pertaining to senior secondary students was limited although the following common
features were evident in schools with high student achievement in the senior years of
schooling.

•• Examination practice: teachers of successful students tend to teach for


understanding in contrast to expecting students to cram for examinations (Ayres,
2004). Supporting this approach is a history of practice towards examinations often
beginning with students in Year 7 (Panizzon et al., 2007). This practice allows
students to become familiar with the expectations and process involved with
examinations (Pegg et al., 2007).

•• Shared assessment tasks: teachers in high performing schools discuss assessment


tasks as a team and apply common tasks where possible as a benchmarking
process. Assessment rubrics are devised in a collaborative and critical manner within
the team (where possible) to ensure greater consistency of teacher judgement
(Ayres, 2004; Black & Harrison, 2000; Pegg et al., 2007).

•• Clear articulation of what and how assessment occurs: teachers of high achieving
students articulate the process of assessment to their students with clear guidelines
and expectations explained. Therefore, students are engaged in the assessment
process and are able to use the feedback provided by their teachers to guide their
learning (Black & Wiliam, 1998; Hackling, 2004).

Mathematics and Science Innovation Program: Research Briefing 3


•• Varied assessment tasks: in high achieving schools, students are given a range of
experiences with different types of items and tasks so that they are able to apply their
knowledge in alternative contexts. An important component is the opportunity for
them to develop skills of problem-solving and critical thinking (McPhan, 2007;
Panizzon & Pegg, in press; Wilson & Sloane, 2000).

•• Feedback: Hattie (2003) identified feedback with an effect size of 1.13 as the most
significant teacher factor that influences student achievement regardless of their year
level. He conceptualised this as being ““information provided by an agent (e.g.,
teacher, parent or peer) regarding aspects of ones performance or understanding
(Hattie, 2003:81). Feedback has a dual role in giving the student an idea about their
progress in the learning process while informing the teacher about where teaching
might best be directed.

School practices
Teachers and faculties cannot work in isolation but utilise the foundational support provided
with the broader school context (Patchen, 2004). However, what is interesting is that recent
research suggests that not all faculties tap into the support structures offered by the school
resulting in differential student success (Busher & Harris, 2000) that is quantifiable using
value-added scores (Panizzon et al., 2007; Pegg et al., 2007). In schools where students
achieve highly, a number of common features about school practices emerge with a
particular focus on the interaction between the faculty (i.e., team of teachers in a discipline
area) and the school structures.

•• Faculty focus with collaboration on teams of teachers: teachers with high achieving
secondary students often exist in discipline-specific units forming teams of teachers.
These teams work collaboratively sharing expertise, resources and expectations.
Subsequently, there is a high degree of mentorship within the faculty that is evident
by members outside of the team (Ayres et al., 2004; Panizzon et al., 2007; Pegg et
al., 2007). This faculty structure is supported by the senior executive by allowing the
team to do their job recognising that they are the content specialists.

•• High expectations shared across the faculty and school: students achieving highly
expect to do so and this is a shared expectation with their teachers. Within such
schools there is evidence that students, teachers, the executive and parents are
working towards the same shared goals and expectations (Ayres et al., 2004; Hattie,
2003; Panizzon et al., 2007; Pegg et al., 2007).

•• Setting up student success in junior years: in general, schools with high achieving
students in senior years establish positive and effective practices with students in the
junior years of schooling (Ayres et al., 2004). Hence, an enculturation process is
evident in the schools for both students and staff (Dinham, 2007).

•• Leadership by executive: principals do not appear to play a direct role in the high
achievement of students in the senior years (Hattie, 2003). Their impact is in allowing
faculties of teachers to set up their own structures that are discipline-specific while
still meeting the general ethos of the school. It is often the leadership of the executive
as a group (i.e., principal, deputy principals, head teachers or equivalents) that has a
more direct impact on classroom practice than individual principals (Dinham, 2007;
Pegg et al., 2007)

Mathematics and Science Innovation Program: Research Briefing 4


In reflecting upon these features many seem to be related to good teaching practice with an
expectation that they are evident in all schools. However, the research by Goodrum et al (2001)
and more recently Rennie and Goodrum (2007) suggests that this is not the case with many
secondary (and primary) schools floundering to provide the sound practices captured in the
research studies cited in this section of the briefing.

Furthermore, evidence emerging from the PISA 2003 (Thomson et al., 2004) and 2006 (OECD,
2006) demonstrates that student achievement in relation to mathematics and science varies
depending on geographical location with students in rural areas achieving significantly lower
scores than their metropolitan peers. A study by Lyons et al (2006) indicates that the features
discussed in this section are either missing or severely limited in schools located in rural and
regional areas. Consequently, there appears to be a lack of equity of educational opportunity for
many students in Australia based on geographical location.

Effective programs to extend students participation, engagement and


achievement
The Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth studies indicate that 75% of the majority of students
enrolled in advanced mathematics courses are derived from the top two quartiles of achievement
(Lamb & Ball, 1999; Fullarton & Ainley, 2000; Fullarton et al., 2003). This same pattern of choice
based on student achievement in earlier years of schooling emerged for the enabling sciences in
the ACERs Study of Subject Choice (Ainley et al., 1990). Interestingly, it is numeracy achievement
that has the strongest link with tertiary entrance performance (Marks et al, 2001).

The most recent synthesis of educational research in science education by Tytler (2006) highlights
a number of issues around student participation and engagement in the enabling sciences.
However, the majority of this work relates to the junior years and primary science with few
strategies regarding how change could be implemented on the scale needed to make an impact in
a short space of time. Similarly, the mapping exercise undertaken by Rennie and Goodrum (2007)
provides a sound overview of research and programs relevant to student engagement in the
enabling sciences. While they outline a national action plan for change, their recommendations are
at a macro-scale and require very clear articulation in order to inform implementation at a State
level.

These studies provide clear evidence about particular aspects of student participation and
engagement without necessarily providing proven strategies for turning the tide. A review of the
literature in science and mathematics education identifies that there are in fact few programs
based on research evidence that highlight specific strategies for increasing student achievement,
participation and engagement in the enabling sciences in senior secondary schools. Studies
directly relevant to the scope of this research paper are synthesised in this section of the briefing.

1. High achievement of students for the Higher School Certificate (HSC) in NSW
The research by Paul Ayres, Wayne Sawyer and Steve Dinham (2000, 2004) explored the
practices and characteristics of HSC teachers achieving outstanding educational outcomes
for their Year 12 students. During their interviews and lesson observations of nineteen HSC
teachers, the researchers were able to identify a series of factors demonstrated by these
teachers across a range of disciplines. The study is extremely pertinent to the scope of this
paper with the majority of findings emerging from the study discussed in the earlier section of
this paper.
Overall the researchers identify eight categories or themes in the data. These categories
along with examples of the items coded into each is summarised in Table 1.

Mathematics and Science Innovation Program: Research Briefing 5


Table 1: Examples of common factors contributing towards successful teaching of the HSC

Frequency
Category Item description
in data (%)

Students seen as having positive attitudes 60


School background and students
Good atmosphere in the school 32

Share ideas and resources 80


Subject faculty Our faculty is the dominant school culture 56
Success starts in Years 7-10 48

Strong content knowledge 60


Personal qualities Hardworking and committed 60
Love of subject 44

Student relationships seen as important 88


Relationship with students Sees raising student confidence as important 40
Relationship built upon mutual respect 36

Learnt through experience 56


Professional development Main source of inservice within the faculty 40
Determines own PD needs and priorities 20

Planning important 80
Resources and planning
Develops own workbooks and resources 28

Non-threatening environment 100


Classroom climate
High level of student involvement 42

Building understanding 63
Teaching strategies Questioning (whole class) 100
Frequent use of questions 58
(Source: Ayres et al., 2000; 2003)

2. An exceptional schoolings outcomes project (AESOP)


This study complements the work of Ayres, Sawyer and Dinham through an investigation of
science, mathematics and English faculties (Panizzon et al., 2007; Pegg et al., 2007; Sawyer
et al., 2007) achieving high value-added results for students in Years 7-10 in NSW
Department of Education and Training schools. The calculation of value-added includes
baseline data from Year 5 students compared with their achievement in the School
Certificate examinations conducted at the end of Year 10. Plots are derived for faculties so
that it is possible to identify faculties in schools that appear to be adding value to the
learning of experiences of their students. In addition to this criteria, faculty inclusion in the
AESOP study required that they had demonstrated outstanding student success in the HSC.
The research involved intensive case studies in schools over the period of one-week
including interviews with teachers, principals, students, parents, lesson observation, and
documentary analysis.

Results from the study for science faculties identified seven broad themes (Panizzon et al.,
2007) with five demonstrated for mathematics (Pegg et al., 2007). The categories for science
along with descriptions of each are provided in Table 2 while those for mathematics are
summarised in Table 3.

Mathematics and Science Innovation Program: Research Briefing 6


Table 2: Major AESOP themes for science along with item descriptions

Major categories Item descriptions

•• Senior executive provided direction through policy and procedures


Distributed leadership that faculties built upon
•• Recognition of the important role of the head teacher of science

Commitment to the •• Staff worked cohesively and were committed to a shared view of the
faculty group and the faculty goals
school •• Focus around working as a team

•• Qualified teachers who reflected on their practice at an individual and


Experienced thoughtful team scale
and reflective teachers •• Teachers created and engaged in their own informal professional
development

High standards and •• Teachers were demanding of themselves, one another and their
expectations of self and students
students •• Students, staff and parents shared these high expectations

Interest in and •• Teachers loved science and enjoyed teaching it and this was
enthusiasm for science recognised by their students

•• Range of sound teaching practices evident in classroom practice and


Quality pedagogy
in the way teachers related to their students

Commitment to •• Clear focus to teach for understanding and engage students in the
maximising learning learning process
outcomes for all students •• Education perceived as a life long quest

Table 3: Major AESOP themes for mathematics along with item descriptions

Major categories Item descriptions

••Established policies and procedures


About the school ••Leadership of the executive
••Shared expectations of high achievement

••Strong sense of team


About the faculty ••High degree of professionalism
••Assessment as catalyst for teacher cohesion

••Passionate and enthusiastic about their subject


About teachers
••Well qualified in the subject

••Solid teaching evident


About teachers and
••Effective classroom management
teaching
••Care for students and their learning

••Strong parental support and involvement


About parents and ••Parental encouragement of learning thereby supporting teachers
students ••Students related well to the mathematics teachers
••Students enjoyed teacher appreciation of their efforts

Mathematics and Science Innovation Program: Research Briefing 7


3. Maths? Why not?
The focus of this survey of mathematics teachers and career professionals was to explore
the question: Why is it that capable students are not choosing to take higher-level
mathematics in the senior years of schooling? Of four major groupings of questions about the
perceived influences contained in surveys, the Individual Influences group was considered as
having the greatest impact on students decision making. Specific areas contributing to this
were students:
•• Self-perception of ability
•• Interest and liking for higher-level mathematics
•• Perception of the difficulty of higher-level mathematics subjects
•• Previous achievement in mathematics, and
•• Perception of the usefulness of higher-level mathematics (McPhan et al., in press).

Further analyses of these data to identify significant item effects and interactions produced
the following items:
•• Students experience of junior secondary mathematics
•• A greater appeal of less demanding subjects
•• Advice of mathematics teachers
•• Students perception of how good they are at mathematics
•• Parental expectations and aspirations, and
•• Students understanding of career paths associated with higher-level mathematics
(McPhan et at., in press).

Unfortunately, further details about these findings are not possible at this stage given that the
Draft Report has not been approved by the Department of Science, Education and Training.
Once it has approval it will be available from the DEST (or equivalent) website.

4. Queensland Government: Development of Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting


Framework
Queensland are currently involved in a review of their senior schooling credentials. In light of
this agenda, the Smart State Council on Education and Skills in Queensland developed a
discussion paper to explore issues around ensuring a future generation with the necessary
skills in science, engineering and technology. Termed Education and Skills for the Smart
State (2006), the document focuses on teachers, curriculum, and career awareness and
engagement. While it outlines some of the key ideas about what might comprise a curriculum
that provides both the depth and breadth of study for all students (i.e., greater flexibility,
increased pathways in the senior school), little research evidence is incorporated to
substantiate the suggestions.

Supplementing this paper is the Towards a 10-year plan for science, technology, engineering
and mathematics (STEM) education and skills in Queensland (DETA, 2007) document.
Again, although the paper attempts to provide an overview of the issues likely to be
confronted in the near future in STEM in Queensland, it overlooks a number of established
inadequacies already identified in the research literature. According to Emeritus Prof. Peter
Fensham (pers. comm. 9th November 2007) some of these oversights include: the lack of
relevance of secondary science to many students; the negative experiences students have of
secondary science classes; issues associated with STEM in rural and remote areas; the
failure of many previous government programs to initiate reforms in science teaching in
secondary schools; and the likelihood of losing high achieving science students at Year 12
during the transition into universities as they enrol in non-STEM courses. Given that these
oversights are already evident in the literature (Goodrum et al., 2001; Lyons et al., 2006;
Rennie & Goodrum, 2007; Tytler, 2006) they are worthy of a more careful consideration in
any review of Year 12 accredition.

Mathematics and Science Innovation Program: Research Briefing 8


Conclusions
This review of research literature demonstrates that there are a number of features of quality
teaching, assessment, and school practices that impact student achievement, and engagement in
science and mathematics. Importantly, these commonalities emerge from a number of different
data sources and studies suggesting a degree of validity. More evidence to substantiate structured
programs that increase student engagement and participation in the enabling sciences is required
internationally.

The commonalities that do exist generally point to the development of a culture of value of both the
STEM enabling subjects and teaching and learning. This cultural value and meaning of STEM is
exhibited in a number of ways across a range of constituents including students, teachers, leaders
in education and parents.

When considering the future nature of secondary school science, the research findings
summarised in this briefing point to features of the system which can ensure that learning science
and mathematics and developing a sophisticated understanding means something to students of
all abilities.

Mathematics and Science Innovation Program: Research Briefing 9


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Mathematics and Science Innovation Program: Research Briefing 10


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