Darrell L. Fisher
Curtin University of Technology
Classroom or school environments in terms of the shared perceptions of the students and teachers in that environment, has the dual advantage of characterising the setting through the eyes of the actual participants and capturing data that the observer could miss or consider unimportant. Students have a good vantage point to make judgements about classrooms because they have encountered many different learning environments and have enough time in a class to form accurate impressions. (p.494)Similarly, Walberg in his theory on educational productivity includes classroom environment as one of nine factors that contribute to the variance in students' cognitive and affective outcomes. The other eight factors are ability, maturity, motivation, the quality of instruction, the quantity of instruction, the psychological environment at home, the peer group outside the classroom, and the time involved with video/television media (Walberg, 1981, 1984). The model was successfully tested as part of a national study showing that student achievement and attitudes were influenced jointly by these factors (Walberg, Fraser, & Welch, 1986). A relevant outcome was the finding that classroom and school environments were important influences on student outcomes.
However, despite the existence of strong traditional classroom environment research at the primary and secondary level, Fraser, Treagust, Williamson, and Tobin, (1987) reported that surprisingly little work had been done at the higher education levels because of the shortage of suitable instruments (Dorman, 2000a, 2000b; Margianti & Fraser, 2001; Nair & Fisher, 1999). The College and University Classroom Environment Inventory (CUCEI) was developed in 1986 to fill this void (Fraser, Treagust, & Dennis, 1986). The CUCEI was specifically designed for small class sizes of about 30 students for upper secondary and tertiary levels utilising either seminar or tutorials as the mode of delivery. The seven-scale, 49 item instrument was designed with both a student and instructor version for the actual and preferred classroom environment. The seven scales in the original CUCEI were Personalisation, Involvement, Student Cohesiveness, Satisfaction, Task Orientation, Innovation and Individualism. It was decided in this study to consider the use of some new scales at the tertiary and senior secondary levels.
In the very early days of the study of human environments, Murray (1938) introduced the term alpha press to describe the environment as assessed by a detached observer and beta press to describe the environment as observed by those within that environment. These ideas were extended further by Stern, Stein and Bloom (1956) to include perceptions of the environment unique to the individual (called private beta press) and perceptions of the environment shared among the group (called consensual beta press). Hence, it was recognised that the perceptions of persons from different perspectives could lead to different interpretations of that environment.
The assumption of a common learning environment experienced by all students within a classroom was challenged again in the latter half of the 1980s. For example, in interpretive studies employing classroom learning environment instruments, classroom observations and interviews involving teachers and students suggested that there were students (termed "target" students) who were found to have more favourable perceptions of the learning environment than those students less involved, suggesting that there could be discrete and differently-perceived learning environments within the one classroom (Tobin & Gallagher, 1987). Other studies (Tobin & Fraser, 1987; Tobin, Kahle, & Fraser, 1990) also suggested the desirability of having a new form of an instrument available which is better suited than is the conventional class form for assessing differences in perceptions that might be held by different students within the same class.
These studies and influences led Fraser, Giddings, and McRobbie (1995) and Fraser, Fisher, and McRobbie (1996) to propose a different form of learning environment instruments which asks students for their personal perception of their role in the environment of the classroom rather than their perception of the learning environment in the class as a whole. This form was termed a personal form. Therefore, it was decided to modify the CUCEI into a personal form.
|Scale Name||Description||Example Items|
|Satisfaction||Extent of enjoyment of classes.||I look forward to coming to this class.|
|Difficulty||Extent to which students find difficulty with the work in the class.||I find the work in this class difficult.|
|Speed||Extent to which class work is covered quickly.||The pace in this class is rushed.|
A total of 504 students and their 24 instructors participated in the study which covered a variety of science subjects; Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Computer Science and Geography. 205 participants were from Canadian institutions and 299 students were from Australian institutions. Both students and instructors completed both forms of the instrument, the preferred and actual. The students also completed the attitudinal questionnaire. One hundred and thirty Canadian students were followed from senior secondary to tertiary studies where they completed the questionnaires for a second time. Data were analysed using the individual and class as the basis to investigate the reliabilities of the seven modified scales. For the sub-sample of 130, differences in perceptions were explored using a paired t-test analysis for each scale of the CUCEI and the attitude scales. Correlation and regression analyses on all data on a student-by student basis were performed to investigate various associations with student attitudes.
In order to obtain some qualitative data to enhance the quantitative results, volunteers were sought to take part in an interview regarding their perceptions of the classroom environment. Three students at the tertiary level were picked from the volunteers and interviewed. Three instructors at the tertiary level from the different science disciplines were also interviewed. These interviews were taped and later transcribed. In addition to the interviews, the collection of quantitative data via the questionnaires, the researcher (one of the authors) was involved in classroom observations at the tertiary level.
|Scale||Original CUCEI||Modified and Personalised CUCEI|
|Task Orientation||Class assignments are clear so everyone knows what to do.||Class assignments are clear and I know what to do.|
|Personalisation||The instructor goes out of his/her way to help students.||The instructor goes out of his/her way to help me.|
|Innovation||Students seem to do the same type of activities in every class.||I seem to do the same type of activities in every class.|
Secondly, only five of the seven original scales were used and two new scales included; the Cooperation and Equity scales (Fraser, Fisher & McRobbie, 1996). This scale measured the extent to which students are treated equally by their instructors. In particular, this scale was included in order to allow investigations of students' perceptions of the environment with respect to gender (see Nair & Fisher, 1999). This scale was considered an important addition as considerable work that has been carried out with respect to gender and science education shows that male and female students perceive their environment differently (e.g., Ferguson & Fraser, 1996; Rickards, Fisher & Fraser, 1997; Suarez, Pias, Membiela, & Dupia, 1998). The Cooperation scale, was included as one of the seven scales because the levels of cooperation seem to change as students proceed to higher levels of education. For example, Midgley, Eccles, & Feldlaufer (1991) and fellow researchers showed that there was a decrease in opportunities for cooperation and interaction among students after transition. Furthermore, the researchers viewed this scale as being particularly relevant to higher level studies as it measures the extent to which students cooperate rather than compete with one another on learning tasks. The structure of the modified CUCEI was designed to maintained the same number of scales, seven, with each scale having seven items.
Finally, the existing four response alternatives were replaced with a five-point Likert Scale. In keeping with recent developments in the design of learning environment questionnaires, the modified form of the instrument used in this study employed a five-point Likert response scale where each item is responded to with the alternatives of Almost Never, Seldom, Sometimes, Often and Almost Always instead of the four-point Likert response system utilised in the original CUCEI. The use of the five-point Likert scale was thought to give participants a greater choice in their responses. In addition, the five-point response is also considered to better represent the personalised nature of the questionnaire (Fraser, Fisher, & McRobbie, 1996). Table 3 provides the seven scales in the final version of the modified CUCEI along with sample items.
|Scale Name||Description||Sample Items|
|Personalisation||Extent of opportunities for individual students to interact with the instructor and on concern for students' personal welfare.||The instructor goes out of his/her way to help me.|
|Innovation||Extent to which the instructor plans new, unusual activities, teaching techniques and assignments.||The instructor often thinks of unusual activities.|
|Student Cohesiveness||Extent to which students know, help and are friendly towards each other.||I make friends easily in this class.|
|Task Orientation||Extent to which class activities are clear and well organised.||Class assignments are clear and I know what I am doing.|
|Individualisation||Extent to which students are allowed to make decisions and are treated differently according to ability, interests and rate of working.||I am allowed to choose activities and how I will work.|
|Cooperation||Extent to which students cooperate rather than compete with one another on learning tasks.||I work with other students in this class.|
|Equity||Extent to which students are treated equally by the teacher.||I am treated the same as other students in this class.|
Learning environment instruments are typically produced in two forms: actual and preferred. Whereas the actual form asks students to describe their actual classroom learning environment, in the preferred form students are asked to describe their preferred or ideal learning environment. Previous studies at the secondary or elementary school levels have found that there are often differences between students' perceptions of their preferred and actual learning environments. Differences have also been observed between students' and teachers' perceptions of the same learning environment (Fraser, 1994, 1998). The wealth of information obtained from secondary school studies suggests that it could be of value for tertiary educators to gain a fuller understanding of students' perceptions of their learning environments. If tertiary educators have a clear understanding of students' preferred learning environments, they can implement changes to achieve more positive environments and thus foster better learning. Thus, it was decided to use both the actual and preferred versions of the questionnaires in this study.
|CUCEI Scales||Unit of Analysis||Reliability|
The sample consisted of 504 students in 26 classes and 24 instructors
The discriminant validity is described as the extent to which a scale measures a unique dimension not covered by the other scales in the instrument. Table 5 indicates that the mean correlations of the scales using the individual student as the unit of analysis in the CUCEI ranged from 0.15 to 0.34 for the actual version and from 0.25 to 0.47 for the preferred form.
|CUCEI Scales||Unit of|
|Mean Correlation with other scales||ANOVA|
** p< 0.001 *p< 0.01
The sample consisted of 504 students in 26 classes and 24 instructors.
From the values, the CUCEI appears to measure distinct although somewhat overlapping aspects of classroom environment, but maintaining distinctions between each scale in each of the seven dimensions in the instrument. In keeping with past learning environment research, the ability of the scales to differentiate between the perceptions of students in different classrooms was investigated using a one-way ANOVA with class membership as the main effect. The eta2 statistic, representing the proportion of variance in scale scores accounted for by class membership, ranged from 0.09 to 0.28, indicating that each scale of the CUCEI is capable of differentiating significantly between classes (p<0.01) (Table 5).
Table 6 shows the factor loadings obtained when the individual was used as the unit of analysis for the actual version with the total sample from the senior secondary schools and the post secondary institute. A principal components factor analysis, followed by varimax rotation, shows an instrument in which 44 of the 49 items had a factor loading greater than .30. The conventional cut-off value of .30 was chosen for the factor loadings (Stevens, 1992). This pattern was also found to be very similar for the preferred version. On completion of the factor analysis with the 49 item seven scale instrument 5 items which had a factor loading of less than .30 were deleted. The factor loading values of the remaining 44 items in the instrument confirm the seven factor structure of the CUCEI. For subsequent analysis the 5 unsatisfactory items were deleted.
Note: Factor loadings less than .30 not shown
|Tertiary (T)||Senior (S)||Tertiary (T)||Senior (S)|
**p<0.05 n = 130
Figure 1: Comparison of actual classroom environment scales for
students at the tertiary and senior secondary level of studies
Like previous work carried out by Midgley, Eccles, and Feldlaufer (1991), Power and Cotterell, (1981), and Trebilco, Atkinson, and Atkinson (1977), students experienced less favourable interpersonal relationships with the instructors after transition. This is seen in the lower mean values in the Personalisation scale at the higher level of study, 3.56 compared with 3.98. Further supporting this less favourable interpersonal experience is the comment from a tertiary student.
I found the caring aspect in high school where the teachers' job was to make you learn (was missing) as opposed to just delivery of the lesson at the college. I find it different.Both levels reported unfavourably on items within the Individualisation scale, with students at the tertiary level perceiving this scale less favourably. This suggests that students perceive that there is less choice at the higher level of studies. Similar findings were also reported by researchers in their study of transition environments from the elementary to junior high school (Midgley, Eccles, & Feldlaufer, 1991). This dissatisfaction was expressed as follows.
To be frank it is overwhelming (workloads). I was swamped when I first got here. I did not believe how much work they (instructors) expected. In high school they don't have this stuff. I spend 18 hours on a report. It is unreal.Further, this less favourable perception could be possibly due to students relying on their instructors for what they should know before they move on to their next year of university work, and as such do not want too much decision making authority at this level. This reasoning seems to be supported by comments of the Biology and Physics instructors.
We have no control. We have to cover X amount of material before they move on to their second year.Students at the tertiary level also perceived less Student Cohesiveness. Although, this finding is similar to previous research (e.g., Brendt & Hawkins, 1985), this is at odds to what was expected as enunciated by classroom instructors:
If they work on their own pace they would have nothing done. It is a university lecture and there is a certain amount of material to cover and you cover it.
Student Cohesiveness in the class is high because most students know each other before commencing at the college because they come from the region, the local high schools. They know each other. Most come from the same high school. Everyone is friendly in class. I can't take credit for this.Although students at the senior secondary level generally perceived their environment more favourably before transition to the higher level of studies, students at the tertiary level gauged their classroom more favourably in the innovative teaching methods employed by their instructors in their classes. This seems to be supported by the comments of the instructors. For example, the Biology instructor stated
I have never used a formal lecture system. I use a fair amount of handouts, so if you take the standard set of materials, I will give them a handout with the bottom line in terms of vocabulary and concept that they have to know. Depending on the course level, I will also put my lecture notes on reserve. They have this as a fall back. I find straight lecturing - the retention rates with students is not great, they have to get involved with the material, whether you have to make it outrageous at times or whether to peak their interest. I try to teach them more about concepts and get them thinking, not to memorise but understand it. I will actually adjust the sequence of what I am doing and how I am doing it based on the profile of the class. I have certain standards I have to work to and I will achieve this either in a couple of months or in two semesters. I will get to that either sooner or later depending on the class. The results (from the use of this technique) not only come out in the examinations and tests but I have students coming back from subsequent years attending other institutions and they have done quite well.When the preferred environments were compared only three scales were statistically significant; Task Orientation, Individualisation and Equity. Tertiary students would prefer greater equity, and task orientation whereas senior secondary students would prefer more individualisation. The result seems to complement the actual data as tertiary students generally perceive their classroom environment less favourably and prefer a more positive environment.
|Tertiary (T)||Senior (S)||Tertiary (T)||Senior (S)|
**p<0.05 *p<0.1 n=24
Figure 2: Comparison of instructors' actual classroom environment
scales for the two levels of studies, tertiary and senior secondary
Only three scales were found to be statistically significant in the preferred version with the greatest statistical difference in the Individualisation scale. Tertiary instructors prefer greater decision making by their students in their classes. This is opposite to what students would prefer in their classrooms at the tertiary level. A possible reason for this difference could be that students have recognised that there is a huge amount of work to be covered at the tertiary level and that the instructors are in the best position to make the decisions on this. For example, supporting this possible explanation are the comments from instructors.
We have no control. We have to cover X amount of material before they move on to their second year.Instructors at both levels of education were more in agreement of their preferred environment, however, in the Innovation scale the tertiary instructors seem to want greater innovation in their teaching suggesting that instructors at this level are trying to accommodate changes as students move from one level to the next.
It is university lecture and there is a certain amount of material to cover and you cover it.
A little more increased [difficulty] since there is more thought to the questions [tests, assignments, etc].
|Scales||Tertiary (T)||Senior Secondary (S)||Mean Difference (T-S)|
** p<0.05 n=130
However, students attitudes about the speed of the courses did not change. This sentiment was enunciated by students in the interviews:
It is pretty fast. It is not a bad thing, it is just fast. I don't have a problem with it.
I find the courses are covered quickly, but I find it okay.
There is a lot more work, but it how you spread it out.
|Multiple R Correlation||0.37**||0.24**||0.51**|
*p<0.05 **p<0.001 n = 504
The simple correlation (r) reported in Table 10 indicates that Personalisation, Individualisation and Innovation were significantly related to the attitudinal measure of Speed, only the Individualisation scale with Difficulty and that all seven scales were significantly related to the student Satisfaction outcome (p<0.001). The beta (beta) weights show that all three attitude scales retained their significance with the Individualisation scale in a more conservative multivariate test. The multiple regression R correlation indicates a significant association between the classroom environment, as measured by all the CUCEI scales and the three attitudinal outcomes; the speed at which the courses are taught, the degree of difficulty of the courses taken and, students satisfaction with the course they are taking.
Generally, students perceived their classroom more negatively when they moved from the lower level of studies to a higher level. As well, tertiary students were more dissatisfied in their attitude towards their science courses. An interesting result was that there was no significant difference in students' perceptions of the speed of the courses, although students often found the workload overwhelming they generally satisfied with the rate at which the work was delivered.
Finally, there are many desirable ongoing and new directions for classroom environment research at the tertiary and senior secondary levels that could prove worthwhile for science educators to pursue. For example: person-environment fit research to investigate whether students achieve better, cognitively and affectively, when there is a better match between their actual and preferred classroom environment. An example of such a study was reported by Fraser and Fisher (1983); cross validating the modified instrument in various countries to reinforce the validity of the questionnaire; incorporating classroom environment study in instructor professional development programs both at the senior secondary and tertiary levels; and examining the relationship between instructors' and students' perceived classroom environment both actual and preferred, and their interpersonal behaviour.
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Note: The final version of the questionnaire can be obtained from Dr Sid Nair, Sid.email@example.com
|Authors: Dr Sid Nair is Quality Adviser with the Centre of Higher Education Quality at Monash University, Australia. He has extensive experience lecturing and teaching in the applied sciences in Canada, Singapore and Australia. His research work lies in the area of classroom and school environments and is presently in the area of quality in the Australian Higher Education system. Email: Sid.Nair@adm.monash.edu.au
Darrell Fisher is an Associate Professor in the National Key Centre for School Science and Mathematics at Curtin University of Technology. He is the author or co-author of over 200 articles in state, national and international journals and other publications. His research interests involve studies of classroom and school environments, teacher-student interpersonal behaviour and curriculum evaluation. Email: D.Fisher@smec.curtin.edu.au
Please cite as: Nair, C. S. and Fisher, D. L. (2001). Learning environments and student attitudes to science at the senior secondary and tertiary levels. Issues In Educational Research, 11(2), 12-31. http://www.iier.org.au/iier11/nair.html