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Classroom environment research: Progress and possibilities

Jeffrey Dorman
This paper reviews the field of classroom environment research by exploring four areas: historical perspectives, methodological issues, previous research, and current and future directions for research. The modern era of classroom environment research began with independent research agendas of Moos and Walberg in the USA in the 1960s and 1970s. It has been extended by a host of researchers, the most notable being Fraser in Australia. While the study of learning environments is now a firmly established international research field with its own Special Interest Group in the American Educational Research Association and international journal (Learning Environments Research), researchers have not lost sight of the implications of their research for policy and practice, especially in classrooms.


Over the past 35 years, the study of classroom environments has received increased attention by researchers, teachers, school administrators and administrators of school systems. Vivid descriptions and images of schools through powerful movies (for example, To Sir With Love, Up the Down Staircase, Dead Poet's Society) and less powerful dramatisations (Glenview High, Class of 75, Beverly Hills 90210, Boston Public) all attest to the centrality of environment to the defining character of schools and classrooms. The concept of environment, as applied to educational settings, refers to the atmosphere, ambience, tone, or climate that pervades the particular setting. It is noteworthy from the outset to recognise that classroom environments are human environments. Accordingly, research in this field has focussed historically on the psychosocial dimensions of the environment - those aspects of the environment that focus on human behaviour in origin or outcome (Boy & Pine 1988).

To appreciate the concept of environment and its subtle effects, it is useful to consider a metaphor. In 1991, Walberg used Tolstoy's War and Peace to refer to the strength of an army as the product of its mass and that unknown X, or the spirit of the army. Observable inputs like the number of combatants, guns and so on are insufficient: the esprit de corps is critical in determining outcomes. So it is in human environments like classrooms. Without a consideration of the crucial role of the psychosocial environment of classrooms, educational productivity cannot be optimised.

In Queensland, recent research commissioned by Education Queensland - the Queensland School Reform Longitudinal Study (QSRLS 2001) - makes specific reference to supportive classroom environments as one of four general dimensions of its Productive Pedagogies framework. Table 1 shows the five elements of this key dimension. While not all learning environment researchers would accept that Explicit Quality Performance Criteria is a bona fide psychosocial construct, the QSRLS shows that learning environment is a focus of contemporary thinking on school reform. Clearly the concept of environment is important and powerful. Teachers relate to the concept - it is not an esoteric abstraction created by researchers for researchers.

This introductory article focuses on classroom environment research and sets the scene for the remaining articles in this issue by reviewing four main areas. First, historical perspectives which provide an understanding of the developments in this research field are discussed. Second, methodological issues pertaining to classroom environment research are presented. The third section presents lines of previous research in this field. Finally, current and future directions for classroom environment research are discussed.

Table 1: Elements of the supportive classroom environment within
the Productive Pedagogies framework (QSLRS 2001)

DimensionDescription
Student DirectionDo students determine specific activities or outcomes of the lesson?
Social SupportIs the classroom characterised by an atmosphere of mutual respect and support among teachers and students?
Academic EngagementAre students engaged and on-task during the lesson?
Explicit Quality Performance CriteriaAre the criteria for judging the range of student performance made explicit?
Self-regulationIs the direction of student behaviour implicit and self-regulatory?

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES

Learning environment research has its roots in the work of early social psychologists. The earliest recorded classroom climate research was conducted by Thomas in the 1920s in the United States (see Chavez 1984). In line with much early research in classrooms, Thomas's work focussed on the observation and recording of explicit classroom phenomena rather that the psychological meaning of events. This early work was improved by Lewin's (1936) field theory which defined behaviour as a function of person and environment (that is, B=f{P,E}). For Lewin, this meant that:
the field with which the scientist must deal is the "life space" of the individual. This life space consists of the person and the psychological environment as it exists for him. (Cartwright 1975, p. 11)
Murray (1938), Stern, Stein, and Bloom (1956) and Pace and Stern (1958) extended Lewin's work to develop a need-press theory in which persons are conceptualised in terms of their psychological needs and the environment in terms of its press. Needs are the important determinants of behaviour within the individual (Genn 1984). According to Murray (1938), 'the press of an object is what it can do to the subject - the power it has to affect the well-being of the subject in one way or another' (p. 121). Pace (1963) suggested that an environment's crucial aspects are 'its overall atmosphere or characteristics, the kinds of things that are rewarded, encouraged, emphasised, the style of life which is valued in the community and is most visibly expressed and felt' (p. 73). Within this theory, needs and press interact to produce and guide behaviour. In a school, an individual student or teacher has particular needs and the school's press either satisfies of frustrates these needs. Stern (1970) extended need-press theory to develop a theory in which the degree of person-environment congruence is related to student outcomes (Fraser 1986). This theory has been the basis for person-environment fit studies in which the congruence between actual and preferred environments is assessed and related to student outcomes (see Fraser 1994).

The modern era of learning environment resea rch commenced in the late 1960s when Rudolf Moos and Herbert Walberg began independent lines of research on the conceptualisation and assessment of psychosocial environments. Moos's (1987) suite of social climate scales provided the impetus for studies in a diverse range of human environments including hospitals, prisons, workplaces (including schools), university residences, groups and classrooms.

The main theoretical legacy of Moos's work at Stanford University has been the enduring acceptance of his three dimensions of human environments: Relationship (the nature and intensity of personal relationships within the environment), Personal Development (basic directions along which personal growth and self-enhancement tend to occur) and System Maintenance and System Change (the extent to which the environment is orderly, clear in expectations, maintains control and is responsive to change). Few genuine learning environment researchers of the past 30 years have departed from this general framework for conceptualising environments.

Walberg's involvement in Harvard Project Physics (HPP) required the evaluation of the learning environment (see Walberg & Anderson 1968). HPP was an experimentally-based physics course for secondary school students in the United States in the 1960s. Did this new approach to the teaching and learning of physics in American classrooms make a difference to classroom climate? In contrast to the 1960's behaviourism and the use of observers in classrooms (see Dunkin & Biddle 1974), Walberg's research employed students' perceptual data collected by questionnaire. Additionally, these perceptions focussed on summary judgments based on months of immersion in classrooms taught by HPP or conventional knowledge-transmission methods.

Walberg's work showed that students could make valid summary judgments about their classrooms and that these perceptions should be used in learning environment research. From the 1970s research on the conceptualisation and assessment of classroom environments has developed rapidly. Much of this work has been due to the academic leadership of the Australian Barry Fraser. His substantive research agenda in this field has led to Australia being recognised as a leading country for classroom environment research. Methodological issues have been the subject of lengthy consideration by classroom environment researchers and the following section discusses important developments in this area.

METHODOLOGICAL ISSUES IN LEARNING ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH

Various literature reviews (for example, Chavez 1984, Fraser 1991, 1994, Genn 1984) suggest that there are three general approaches to the assessment of learning environments: (1) the use of trained observers to code events, usually in terms of explicit phenomena; (2) the use of student and teacher perceptions obtained through questionnaire administration; and (3) the use of ethnographic data collection methods. In general, the first two approaches have relied on quantitative data collection methods and statistical analyses. Indeed, classroom environment research has a history of psychometric approaches employing cross sectional ex post facto research designs. As discussed later in this paper, much classroom environment of the past 30 years has focussed on the development and validation of instruments to assess specific dimensions of the classroom environment.

Alpha and beta press

The concepts of alpha press and beta press are important methodological terms in learning environment research. Murray (1938, p. 122) used these terms to distinguish between 'the press that actually exists as far as scientific discovery can determine it' (alpha press), and 'the subject's own interpretation of the phenomena that is perceived' (beta press). In operational terms, alpha press is assessed by a detached observer and beta press is assessed by the milieu inhabitants.

Alpha press in the classroom usually requires the observer to code specific events according to some scheme. Because it involves direct observation, alpha press is considered highly objective. By contrast, beta press represents the environment as perceived and experienced by the individual and, in a classroom setting, is dependent on the subjective assessment of students and teachers. According to Murray, beta press exerts the greater influence on behaviour because that is what is felt, interpreted and responded to by the person (Hjelle & Ziegler 1981).

Low and high inference measures

The distinction between low-inference and high-inference measures for assessing learning environments has been recognised in recent learning environment literature (see Fraser 1994). Rosenshine (1970) defined a low-inference measure as a rating system that classifies specific, denotable, relatively objective classroom behaviour and is recorded as frequency counts. Perhaps the best known low-inference classroom research tool of the 1960s and early 1970s was the Flanders Interaction Analysis System which recorded the sequencing of behaviour ( namely, teacher and student talk) during a class (see Dunkin & Biddle 1974, Flanders 1970).

High inference measures require the respondent to make an inference based on a series of classroom events using specific constructs (for example, classroom competition). Much early learning environment research employed low-inference measures and it was only in the 1950s that high inference measures were conceptualised. Studies which focus on the meaning of school and classroom events have tended to utilise high-inference measures.

As mentioned earlier in this paper, Walberg strongly advocated the use of high inference beta press measures of classroom environments. That is, students should be asked to make summary judgments about their classrooms. He claimed that:

Students seem quite able to perceive and weigh stimuli and to render predictively valid judgments of the cohesiveness, democracy, goal direction, friction, and other psychological characteristics of the social environment of their classes. These molar judgments may mediate the multiplicity of molecular events of instruction and other classroom activities and properties. (Walberg 1976, p. 160)
Consideration of press type and whether low or high inference measures are employed in a particular study suggests four possible approaches to the measurement of environment perceptions (namely, low inference alpha, high inference alpha, low inference beta, and high inference beta). While some historical research involved low inference measures using a detached observer, the overwhelming methodological tradition is high inference beta press. In fact, few genuine learning environment studies of the past 20 years have departed from the use of inhabitants' summary judgments of the environment. Indeed, the use of student perceptual data is considered essential to contemporary classroom environment research.

Private beta press and consensual beta press: unit of analysis

Another important methodological issue in learning environment research is the distinction between private and consensual beta press. Private beta press refers to the individual's perceptions of the environment whereas consensual beta press is the shared view that members of a group hold about the environment (Stern, Stein & Bloom 1956). In classroom environment studies, consensual beta press often has been measured by using the class as the unit of analysis with the class mean as the measuring statistic. Usually, matters of convenience with the school setting dictate that whole classes (as intact groups) respond to environment questionnaires. Therefore, it has been common to average student scores to form a class mean for each classroom environment scale.

Similarly, in school-level environment research, consensual beta press has been measured by averaging the perceptions of the teachers in the sample to form school means. These means and not the individual scores are then used in subsequent statistical testing. One characteristic of much learning research is that data are often nested (e.g. s tudents are within classes which, in turn, are within schools). The use of multilevel analysis or hierarchical linear modelling (Bock 1989, Bryk & Raudenbush 1992, Goldstein 1987) in which the nested nature of data can be preserved during analysis has become more accepted in learning environment studies. Computer packages are readily available to conduct such hierarchical liner modelling (for example, HLM: Bryk, Raudenbush, Seltzer & Congdon 1989; MlwiN: Goldstein et al. 1998).

PREVIOUS LEARNING ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH

The classroom environment research field has developed rapidly with an extensive set of validated instruments and research in at least ten domains: associations between classroom environment and outcomes, evaluation of educational innovations, differences between students' and teachers' perceptions of classrooms, comparisons of actual and preferred environments, effect on classroom environment of antecedent variables (for example, gender, year level, school type, subject), transition from primary to secondary school, school psychology, teacher education, educational productivity research, and using environment instruments to facilitate changes in classroom life (see Fraser 1998a, 1998b). This section briefly reviews the development and validation of instruments and illustrates past learning environment research in three of these domains: associations between classroom environment and outcomes, effect on classroom environment of antecedent variables (for example, gender, year level, school type, subject), and the use of environment assessments in teacher education.

Development and validation of instruments

Typical empirical studies of classroom environment have employed established instruments or contextually modified derivatives to assess the particular environment under investigation. Table 2 provides an overview of nine instruments that have been used in numerous classroom environment studies throughout the world. As shown in Table 2, instruments usually have several internally consistent scales each of which is assessed by a set of 6 to 10 items. A five-point Likert format is usually employed for each scale item. Ideally these scales have minimal overlap. Indices of internal consistency (Cronbach coefficient alpha) for classroom environment scales are usually above .70. For example, Fraser (1998b) reported the following Cronbach coefficient alphas for the What is Happening in This Classroom (WIHIC) (Aldridge & Fraser 2000): Student Cohesiveness, 0.81; Teacher Support, 0.88; Involvement, 0.84; Investigation, 0.88; Task Orientation, 0.88, Cooperation 0.89; Equity, 0.93.

Table 2: Overview of nine classroom environment instruments

InstrumentLevelItemsScales assessed by instrumentReference
Learning Environment Inventory (LEI)Secondary7Cohesiveness, Friction, Favouritism, Cliqueness, Satisfaction, Apathy, Speed, Difficulty, Competitiveness, Diversity, Diversity, Formality, Material EnvironmentFraser, Anderson, & Walberg (1982)
Classroom Environment Scale (CES)Secondary10Involvement, Affiliation, Teacher Support, Task Orientation, Competition, Order & Organisation, Rule Clarity, Teacher ControlMoos & Trickett (1987)
Individualised Classroom Environment Questionnaire (ICEQ)Secondary10Personalisation, Participation, Independence, Investigation, DifferentiationFraser (1990)
My Class Inventory (MCI)Primary6-9Student Cohesiveness, Friction, Satisfaction, Difficulty, CompetitivenessFraser, Anderson, & Walberg (1982)
College and University Classroom Environment Inventory (CUCEI)Tertiary7Personalisation, Involvement, Student Cohesiveness, Satisfaction, Task Orientation, Innovation, IndividualisationFraser & Treagust (1986)
Science Laboratory Environment Inventory (SLEI)Secondary,
Tertiary
7Student Cohesiveness, Open-Endedness, Rule Clarity, Material EnvironmentFraser, Giddings, & McRobbie (1995)
Constructivist Learning Environment Survey (CLES)Secondary7Personal Relevance, Uncertainty, Critical Voice, Shared Control, Student NegotiationTaylor, Fraser, & Fisher (1997)
Questionnaire on Teacher Interaction (QTI)Primary,
Secondary
7-9Leadership, Helpful/Friendly, Understanding, Student Responsibility/Freedom, Uncertain, Dissatisfied, Admonishing, StrictWubbels & Levy (1993)
What is Happening in this Class (WIHIC)Secondary8Student Cohesiveness, Teacher Support, Involvement, Investigation, Task Orientation, Cooperation, EquityAldridge & Fraser (2000)

In addition to the instruments of Table 2, questionnaires have been developed for particular settings. For example, the Catholic School Classroom Environment Questionnaire was developed specifically to assess the environment in Australian Catholic school classrooms (Dorman 1999). Classroom environment researchers have also focussed on the particular characteristics of constructivist classroom environments. In a constructivist environment, meaningful learning is a cognitive process in which students make sense of the world in relation to the knowledge which they have constructed. The Constructivist Learning Environment Survey (CLES: Taylor, Fraser & Fisher 1997) was developed to assess the constructivist dimensions of classrooms.

Another instrument design issue has been the development of personal forms as opposed to class forms of existing instruments. While traditional class forms of instruments have elicited an individual student's judgments of the class as a whole, the personal form asks students about his/her role in the classroom. Whereas a class form might ask students to respond to the item: Students find out answers by doing investigations, an analogous personal form item would be I find out answers by doing investigations. Research by McRobbie, Fisher and Wong (1998) using the Science Laboratory Environment Questionnaire (SLEI) showed that personal and class forms of this instrument accounted for unique variance in attitudinal outcomes of students that could not be explained by the other form. That is, class and personal forms seem to assess different components of classroom environment.

Associations between classroom environment and outcomes

The most prolific form of classroom environment research of the modern era has involved researching the link between environment in particular classrooms and the outcomes of students in those classrooms. Because of the ethical dilemma of deliberately manipulating environments in a true experimental design, almost all of this research has used ex post facto designs and correlational data techniques. Results of studies conducted over the past 30 years have provided convincing evidence that the quality of the classroom environment in schools is a significant determinant of student learning (Fraser 1994, 1998a). That is, students learn better when they perceive the classroom environment more positively. Importantly, many of these studies have controlled for background variables.

Student perceptions of the classroom environment account for appreciable amounts of variance in learning outcomes, often beyond that attributable to background student characteristics. For example, Goh and Fraser (1998) used the Questionnaire on Teacher Interaction (QTI) and a modified version of the My Class Inventory (MCI) to establish associations between student cognitive and affective outcomes and perceived patterns of teacher-student interaction in 39 primary school mathematics classes in Singapore. In particular, higher cognitive outcomes were associated with better classroom teacher leadership, more helping/friendly classroom environments and teacher behaviours that demonstrate understanding and empathy towards students. Additionally, the affective outcome measure, student liking and interest in mathematics, was related positively with improved levels of student cohesion and reduced levels of classroom friction.

The study by Dorman, McRobbie and Foster (2002) involving 1,317 secondary students in 17 Sydney Catholic secondary schools found statistically significant positive associations between the environment in religious education classes as assessed by the 7-scale Catholic School Classroom Environment Questionnaire (CSCEQ) and four dimensions of students' attitudes to Christianity. A total of 21 of the 28 simple Pearson correlation coefficients were statistically significant (p<.05), a result which is about fifteen times that which could be expected by chance alone. Recently, Dorman, Adams and Ferguson ( in press) conducted a cross-national investigation of links among ten classroom environment dimensions, student self-handicapping and student academic efficacy. A sample of 3,602 students from 29 schools in Canada, England and Australia was surveyed. Simple and multiple correlation analyses between 10 classroom environment scales from the What Is Happening In This Class (WIHIC) and the Constructivist Learning Environment Survey (CLES) and self-handicapping were conducted with and without control for academic efficacy. Results showed that classroom environment scales accounted for appreciable proportions of variance in self-handicapping beyond that attributable to academic efficacy. Enhanced affective dimensions of the classroom environment were associated with reduced levels of self-handicapping. Commonality analyses revealed that the WIHIC scales accounted for a much greater proportion of variance in self-handicapping that did the CLES scales.

Dimensions of environment as criterion variables

Another tradition of classroom environment research has used classroom environment scales as dependent variables. Studies reviewed by Fraser (1998b) have shown that classroom environment varies according to school type (that is, coeducational, boys' and girls'), year level and subject area. One significant, uniform finding from research is that teachers perceive classrooms much more positively than do students. Most studies of this rose-coloured syndrome have compared the student class means for each scale with the teacher's scale score. Repeated measures analysis of variance or a series of t-tests for dependent samples have revealed statistically significant differences between teacher and student scores. Effect sizes for these comparisons is usually very large with teacher scores higher than student class means. For example, Dorman's (1997) study of 104 Queensland secondary school classes and their teachers found statistically significant differences between the classroom environment perceptions of students and teachers on all seven scales of the Catholic School Classroom Environment Questionnaire: student affiliation, interactions, cooperation, task orientation, order and organisation, individualisation, and teacher control. Large to very large effect sizes were evident with the teachers having more positive perceptions of classes than did their students. Similar result patterns are evident for studies conducted in the United States, Israel, The Netherlands and Australia (see Fraser 1998b).

Other classroom environment studies have investigated the effect of a curriculum innovation by employing an approach similar to that used in Walberg's evaluation of Harvard Project Physics discussed earlier in this paper. For example, Maor (2000) used a specially developed instrument the Constructivist Multimedia Learning Environment Survey to assess the environment under an innovative multimedia approach to classroom teaching.

A final use of classroom environment perceptions as criterion variables involves the use of actual and preferred forms of an instrument and studying whether students perform better when there is a close alignment of actual and preferred environment. This person-environment fit research was pioneered by Fisher and Fraser (1983). Findings suggest that actual-preferred environment congruence is important in predicting outcomes and that outcomes can be enhanced by making the actual environment more like the preferred environment.

Use of environment assessments in teacher education

From a theoretical perspective there are plausible reasons for employing assessments of classroom environments as part of teacher education programs. Fraser (1993) reported that classroom environment research can be used in pre-service and in-service programs to sensitise teachers to classrooms and how students perceive classroom events. Assessments of classroom environments can also form part of the formative and summative assessment of student teachers. To illustrate research in this area, three programs of research that broaden the classroom environment domain to the learning environment of student teachers are discussed below.

Research conducted by Duschl and Waxman (1991) in the United States investigated the criterion-related validity of two instruments used to assess the classrooms of student teachers. Data were collected from classes taught by student teachers. The purpose of this research was to establish whether generic teaching strategies and behaviours were related to the psychosocial learning environment. In this way aspects of the psychosocial environment can be explained in greater detail for the beginning teacher by direct reference to teaching behaviours. For example, Duschl and Waxman (1991) found that personalisation in the classroom (the classroom environment dimension) was positively related to teachers who respond, give feedback and use overviews and appropriate comments in helping students understand what is taught (the teacher behaviour dimension). This translation from classroom environment to teacher behaviour is very important for beginning teachers because it concretises perceptions and provides clear directions for the modification of teaching practices.

In another study conducted in the early 1990s, Kremer-Hayon and Wubbels (1993) used a modified version of the Questionnaire on Teacher Interaction (QTI) to study the supervisory environment of students in pre-service teacher education courses in The Netherlands. The instrument developed from this research - the Questionnaire on Supervisor Interaction (QSI) - has a similar theoretical framework to the QTI, that is, Leary's (1957) model for interactional behaviour. Table 3 shows descriptive information for the QSI. Most scales of the QSI have sound internal consistency with Cronbach coefficient alphas ranging from 0.57 to 0.83. To enhance its structural properties the QSI needs further field testing and refinement.

The third program of research which is currently underway is focussing on the environment that student teachers experience when undertaking field experience (that is, practice teaching). Progress to date has yielded a very promising instrument to assess the extended practicum learning environment of fourth year pre-service primary students in one Queensland university (Kennedy & Dorman 2002). The Extended Practicum Learning Environment Inventory (EPLEI) has 72 items allocated to 12 internally consistent scales. It has been developed using an intuitive rational approach to scale development (Fraser 1986, Hase & Goldberg 1967). Within this approach the structure and validity of the instrument rests heavily on subj ective judgments made by the researcher and key stakeholders. As shown in Table 4, all scales of the EPLEI have very sound internal consistency reliability. In addition to its student teacher form, the EPLEI has a supervising teacher form that assesses the perceptions of teachers in primary schools who supervise student-teachers. The EPLEI is an important advancement in the study of the professional life of student teachers and its use should enhance the validity of student teacher assessments through the triangulation of information collected directly from university visitors and supervising teachers.

Table 3: Descriptive information for the QSI from the Kremer-Hayon and Wubbels (1993) study

ScaleItemsTypical itemalpha
Leadership8He or she give a lot of advice..83
Helpful/Friendly6He or she is some one we can rely on..79
Understanding8If I have something to say s/he will listen..82
Student Teacher Responsibility/ Freedom10He or she lets me make my own decisions..78
Uncertain6He or she seems uncertain..57
Dissatisfied7He or she is suspicious..66
Objecting7He or she can get angry..75
Strict9He or she is strict..69

Table 4: Descriptive information for 12 EPLEI scales

ScaleDescriptionSample Itemalpha
Supervising
Teacher Support
The extent to which the supervising teacher supports the student teacherThe supervising teacher encourages you when you have difficulties with lessons.93
Administration
Support
The extent to which the administration of the school support the student teacherMembers of the administration team create a welcoming environment for student teachers..78
Fellow Teacher
Support
The extent to which the other teachers in the school support the student teacherThe other teachers in the school support you.85
Fellow Student
Teacher Support
The extent to which the other student teachers in the school support the student teacherStudent teachers at this school give each other constructive criticism.79
Student Teacher
Involvement
The extent to which the student teacher, is concerned and committed to the jobs/tasksYou feel willing to be involved as a staff member at this school.94
Pupil-Pupil
Cohesiveness
The extent to which the pupils in the class where the student teacher is placed help each other and bond togetherThe pupils in this class encourage each other.82
ClarityRelates to whether the student teacher knows what is expected and how explicitly rules, policies and expectations are communicated to the student teacher in the school settingThe supervising teacher communicates clear guidelines for student teachers.76
ControlRelates to how much control of the members of the school community is maintainedSupervising teachers keep a close watch on student teachers.75
Physical
Comfort
The extent to which the physical surroundings of the school and classroom where the student teacher is completing the practicum are a pleasant environment to work inThe classroom provides an attractive learning setting.81
Work PressureThe extent to which the pressure of work dominates the school community where the student teacher is completing the practicumThere is a lot of work pressure in this school.74
AutonomyThe extent to which the student teacher is encouraged to be self-sufficient & make decisionsThe teacher allows you to make decisions about lessons.78
Task OrientationThe extent to which there is emphasis on good planning, efficiency and getting the job done in the practicumTask completion is important in this classroom.69

CURRENT AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS FOR CLASSROOM ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH

This final section discusses current research in the classroom environment field and suggests possible directions for future research. Following a consideration of the latest research presented in sessions of the 2002 annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) that are sponsored by the Special Interest Group for the Study of Learning Environments (SIG/SLE), possible future directions for classroom environment research are discussed.

Current Classroom Environment Research

A review of recent papers presented at the 2002 AERA annual meeting indicates three general themes to contemporary classroom environment research: multimedia learning environments, instrument development, and introducing the study of learning environments in other countries.

The study of multimedia learning environments is highly topical with recent North American and Australian research by Zandvliet and Buker (2002), Aldridge, Fraser, Fisher and Wood (2002) and Raaflaub and Fraser (2002) focusing on this issue. Zandvliet and Buker (2002) used an instrument called the Computerised Classroom Environment Checklist and a modified version of the What is Happening in This Class? to assess both physical and psychosocial environment in 22 classrooms in British Columbia, Canada. All classrooms were using the internet as an essential learning medium. The noteworthy aspect of this study is that it is one of the first classroom environment studies to recognise the importance of the physical attributes of classrooms to technologically-based learning environments.

In Perth, Western Australia, Aldridge, Fraser, Fisher and Wood (2002) evaluated the teaching and learning environment in an innovative new school and its impact on student achievement and attitudes towards learning and computer usage. In this school, ICT was integrated into all facets of teacher work. This study is innovative because it focuses on outcomes-based education in a school that has a technological basis. In fact a major contribution of this study was the development of a widely-applicable instrument for monitoring outcomes-based and ICT-rich classroom learning environments. Complementary qualitative data provided rich insights into the perceptions of students about the classroom environment created in an outcomes-based classroom with a strong ICT infrastructure. Given the clear moves towards outcomes-based education in Queensland, the replication and extension of this research in a sample of Queensland schools would be particularly timely.

Raaflaub and Fraser's (2002) paper reported Canadia n research on the environment in mathematics and science classrooms when laptop computers are used. This study also illuminated how to make the use of laptop computers more equitable for male and female students. While male and female students perceived the actual learning environment in similar ways, females preferred greater involvement, investigation and task orientation and less computer usage than boys. While at least one Queensland school has a substantive history of teaching with laptops, their usage is not widespread. No studies of the psychosocial environment of classrooms using laptops in Queensland schools are evident in the psychosocial environment literature.

Scale development and validation remains a strong focus of contemporary classroom environment research. Probably the most significant development in this area over the past year has been the work of Thomas (2002) in Hong Kong who conceptualised, developed and validated the Metacognitive Orientation Learning Environment Scale - Science (MOLES-S). Drawing on extensive literature and research on metacognition across subject areas (for example, Baird & Mitchell 1987) including science education (Thomas & McRobbie 2001), a seven scale instrument was developed to assess metacognitive demands, student-student discourse, student-teacher discourse, student voice, distributed control, encouragement and support, and emotional support. The successful development of MOLES-S provides researchers and teachers with an effective means for assessing the metacognitive orientation of science classrooms. Thomas suggests that MOLES-S be used as a template for the development of similar instruments in other subject areas of the school curriculum.

As indicated earlier in this paper, most classroom environment research of the past 20 years has been conducted in the United States and Australia. While this trend has continued, the field of classroom environment research has become more international with papers at the 2002 AERA annual meeting reporting research conducted in China (Song & Hunt 2002), Hong Kong (Thomas 2002), Canada (Nair & Fisher 2002; Raaflaub & Fraser 2002; Zandvliet & Buker 2002), Brunei (Khine & Fisher 2002), Singapore (Goh & Khine 2002), Taiwan (Huang 2002), and Korea (Lee & Fraser 2002). These studies complement work conducted previously in England (Burden & Fraser 1993), The Netherlands (Wubbels & Levy 1993), Indonesia, (Soerjaningsih, Fraser, & Aldridge 2001) and Nigeria (Idiris & Fraser 1997). Studies have led to cross-national investigations that enhance the generalisability of findings.

FUTURE DIRECTIONS FOR CLASSROOM ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH

The research discussed above suggests four possible future directions for research in this field. First, there is a need to provide more comprehensive evaluations of classrooms and school learning environments. The above studies of technologically-driven environments raises the issue of the physical environments of classrooms and schools. Are schools physically conducive to the work of students and teachers? Do the physical work conditions of teachers reflect the level of professionalism demanded by employers and wider society? Have these conditions kept pace with changes in the work environments of similar professionals in the work force? While physical work environments and school architecture have been researched (see Weinstein, 1979), a more comprehensive approach that relates physical environment, psychosocial environment and outcomes is needed. If the political rhetoric of smart state and knowledge nation are to become reality, the physical and psychosocial environments of schools and classrooms must be first class. As suggested earlier in this paper, strong evidence exists that positive psychosocial environments enhance student outcomes. It could be hypothesised that positive psychosocial environments are necessary but not sufficient to ensure optimal student learning in the current technological world. That is, student productivity could well be stifled if the physical environment is substandard. Some contemporary issues of the physical environment include: technological hardware, technological software, and services to support teaching and learning with technology. Research on the influence of these issues on student outcomes is needed.

A second desirable direction for future environment research is the linking of classroom environments with other learning environments. While the focus of the present paper has been classroom environments, it is important that future research consider learning environments in a broader context. Marjoribanks (1991) contends that families and classrooms are two of the most significant learning environments that influence students' school outcomes. Further research should bring these two field closer together. Additionally, it could be hypothesised that other environments (e.g. home, out-of-school peer group, part-time work) influences student attitudes towards school. The availability of computer software packages (e.g. LISREL) has revolutionalised and simplified the testing of hypothesised complex structural models (see below).

Third, classroom environment needs to be more embedded in large, comprehensive research projects. Earlier in this paper, supportive classroom environments was noted to be one of four general dimensions of the Productive Pedagogies framework (see QSRLS 2001). It is highly desirable that, in projects like Productive Pedagogies, the theory and methodology of classroom environment research be employed. Rather than simply using the generic language of classroom environment, it is recommended that researchers utilise the conceptual and methodological developments of classroom environment research that have occurred during the past 30 years. The assessment of classroom environment should have a cameo role in large comprehensive projects where the environment is not the sole focus of enquiry.

A final general direction for classroom environment research is the use of more robust methods of data analysis. With regard to instrument development, exploratory factory analysis had been employed widely. Researchers should give more attention to the use of confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) in which the researcher postulates a measurement model between observed variables and underlying constructs (or latent variables). Dorman (2000) demonstrated the use of CFA in Australian research that reported the development of the University-Level Environment Questionnaire. To investigate associations between environment dimensions and outcomes, simple, multiple and canonical correlational analyses have been conducted. Where more sophisticated modelling is required, researchers should consider the use of structural equation modelling. Earlier in this section it was suggested that a more comprehensive understanding of student outcomes could be obtained if several environments (namely classroom, home, out-of-school peer group, part-time work) were assessed. Structural equation modelling (SEM) using LISREL (Jöreskog & Sörbom 1993) could be used to establish significant paths between these variables. In one of the few classroom environment studies to employ SEM, Dorman and McRobbie (2000) developed and tested a structural model for attitude to Christianity of Australian Catholic secondary school students. Predictor variables included age, gender, classroom environment, church attendance of parents and student's religious behaviour.

Apart from the above four areas, opportunities for learning environment research that respond to the current context of Queensland education can be identified. Outcomes-based education is very topical and research on the effect of this approach on the classroom environment should be conducted. Educational reforms have a long history of effecting minimal change "at the coal face" (see Popkewitz 1983). Will outcomes-based education change the nature of classrooms or will the rhetoric of outcomes-based education be simply incorporated into existing patterns of behaviour? Other initiatives being pursued currently in Queensland a re the preparatory year for pre-school age children and the formation of middle schools and state colleges. Studies of classroom environment would yield valuable information on the implementation of these changes. Given that Productive Pedagogies has identified a supportive classroom environment as a critical predictor of student outcomes, one could reasonably expect these initiatives to have some impact on classroom environment and subsequent students' cognitive and affective outcomes.

CONCLUSION

This paper has reviewed four key areas relating to classroom environment research: historical perspectives, methodological issues, previous lines of research, and finally current and future research directions. The productivity of this field is evidenced through books (Fraser 1986; Fraser & Walberg 1991), literature reviews (for example,Fraser 1994, 1998), eight edited volumes of The Study of Learning Environments (for example Fisher, 1992), a Special Interest Group of the American Education Research Association, and in recent times the birth of the international journal Learning Environments Research. The field is truly international with research conducted in many countries. Close collaboration among researchers has lead to several cross national studies. Because the concept of psychosocial classroom environment resonates with classroom practitioners, this field has become an avenue for study by classroom teachers and school administrators who are interested in understanding the human dimensions to classrooms.

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Author details: Dr Jeffrey Dorman is a Senior Lecturer, School of Education Australian Catholic University. He specialises in the study of learning environments.

Address for correspondence: School of Education, Australian Catholic University, PO Box 456 Virginia 4014, Queensland, Australia. Email: j.dorman@mcauley.acu.edu.au

Please cite as: Dorman, J. (2002). Classroom environment research: Progress and possibilities. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 18(2), 112-140. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer18/dorman.html


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