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Gender differences in the perceptions of chemistry laboratory classroom environments

Choon Lang Quek, Angela FL Wong and Barry J Fraser
This study investigated differences in boys' and girls' perceptions of their chemistry laboratory classroom environment using the Chemistry Laboratory Environment Inventory (CLEI). The CLEI has five scales for assessing Student Cohesiveness, Open-Endedness, Integration, Rule Clarity and Material Environment. The sample comprised 312 boys and 185 girls in 18 secondary 4 (year 10) chemistry classes from 3 independent schools in Singapore. Overall, the CLEI was found to be a reliable and valid instrument for use in the Singapore context. When students' responses to actual and preferred versions of the CLEI were compared, statistically significant differences were found between the boys' and girls' perceptions of their chemistry laboratory classroom environment. This study showed that girls perceived their learning environment more favourably than boys. These differences in perceptions are presented and some implications for chemistry laboratory teaching are discussed.


Beginning from the initial use of classroom environment assessments in an evaluation of Harvard Project Physics (Walberg & Anderson 1968a, 1968b), the field of learning environment has undergone remarkable development and growth in the last 30 years. Past research (Fraser 1986, 1994, 1998a, 1998b, Fraser & Walberg 1991) shows that the learning environment has been used as a source of dependent and independent variables in a rich variety of research applications spanning many countries. Qualitative and quantitative research methods have been used in the assessment of learning environments and in research applications (Tobin & Fraser 1998). The field of learning environment research has made available a variety of economical, valid and widely-applicable questionnaires and instruments for assessing students' perceptions of their classroom. Among the major instruments developed, the Science Learning Environment Inventory (SLEI) is the only discipline-specific instrument in that it focuses on the science laboratory classroom. A preliminary version of the SLEI was cross-nationally validated with a sample of 3727 senior high school students in 198 science laboratory classes in six countries: Australia, United States, Canada, England, Israel and Nigeria (Fraser, McRobbie & Giddings 1993).

The strongest tradition in past classroom environment research has involved investigation of associations between students' cognitive and affective learning outcomes and their perceptions of psychosocial characteristics of their classrooms. Approximately 40 studies tabulated by Fraser (1994) show that associations between outcome measures and classroom environment perceptions have been replicated for a variety of cognitive and affective outcome measures, a variety of classroom environment instruments, and a variety of samples across year levels and countries. Using the SLEI, associations between environment and students' cognitive and affective learning outcomes were found for a sample of approximately 80 senior high school chemistry classes in Australia (Fraser & McRobbie 1995, McRobbie & Fraser 1993), 489 senior high school biology students in Australia (Fisher, Henderson & Fraser, 1995), 1592 year 10 chemistry students in Singapore (Wong & Fraser 1995) and 439 high school students in Korea (Lee & Fraser 2002).

Research on gender differences in classroom environment perceptions was also conducted in various countries (Fisher, Fraser & Rickards, 1997; Fisher, Rickards, Goh, & Wong, 1997; Fraser, Giddings & McRobbie, 1995; Henderson, Fisher & Fraser, 2000; Wong & Fraser, 1997). Owens and Straton (1980) found that girls preferred cooperation more than boys but boys preferred competition and individualisation more than girls. Overall, these studies have shown that girls generally hold more favourable perceptions of their classroom learning environments than boys in the same classes. These studies serve to inform teachers about the different learning needs of boys and girls. With this knowledge, teachers are likely to be guided in creating a more supportive environment for teaching and learning for both boys and girls.

THE PRESENT STUDY

Objectives

The objectives for this study were:

Sample

The sample consisted of 497 final-year (that is, Year 10) secondary school chemistry students (average age of 15-16 years) from 18 classes in three independent single-sex schools in Singapore. Gifted stream students formed nine of these classes with the remaining nine classes consisting of non-gifted but nonetheless high-ability students. Details of the sample are as follows: School A, 95 boys from 4 classes; School B: 185 girls from 6 classes; School C, 217 boys from 8 classes.

Instrumentation: The CLEI

Student's perceptions of actual and preferred chemistry laboratory environments were obtained using two versions of the 35-item Chemistry Laboratory Environment Inventory (CLEI), both of which were administered at the same time. The CLEI evolved from the Science Learning Environment Inventory (SLEI: Fraser 1998b; Fraser, Giddings & McRobbie 1995), an instrument developed to assess the laboratory learning environment - an environment that is unique to the teaching and learning of science. Because the SLEI's development, validation and use are important to an understanding of the CLEI, the following section briefly discusses background information on the SLEI.

The SLEI was first used at the senior high school and higher education levels (Fraser & McRobbie 1995; Fraser, McRobbie & Giddings 1993). It has five scales (each with seven items) with the five response alternatives of almost never, seldom, sometimes, often and very often. Field testing and validation of the SLEI was conducted with a sample of 5,447 students in 269 classes across six different countries (USA, Canada, England, Israel, Australia, and Nigeria). It was also cross-validated with 1,594 Australian students in 92 classes (Fraser & McRobbie 1995), 489 senior high-school biology students in Australia (Fisher, Henderson & Fraser 1995) and 1,592 year 10 chemistry students in Singapore (Wong & Fraser 1995). Another SLEI study conducted in Brunei by Riah and Fraser (1998), showed that each scale of the SLEI displayed satisfactory internal consistency reliability when either the stud ent or the class mean is used as the unit of analysis. The SLEI also differentiated between the perceptions of students in different classrooms and exhibited sound factorial validity. The results of this study (Riah & Fraser 1998) confirmed the reliability and validity of SLEI in a different cultural setting.

Wong and Fraser (1995) modified the SLEI to form the Chemistry Learning Environment Inventory (CLEI) in a study in Singapore. It was found that the CLEI was a reliable and valid instrument for assessing secondary school students' perceptions of their chemistry laboratory environment. In the present study, actual and preferred forms of the CLEI were employed (see below). The CLEI consists of five scales: Student Cohesiveness, Open-Endedness, Integration, Rule Clarity and Material Environment. Descriptive information for the CLEI scales is given in Table 1.

Table 1: Descriptive Information for the Chemistry Laboratory Environment Inventory

Scale NameDescription
of Scale
Sample Item of
Actual Form(a)
Moos's
Categ.(b)
Student Cohesiveness (SC)Degree to which students know, help and are supportive of one another.I get on well with students in this chemistry laboratory class. (+)R
Open-Endedness (OE)Degree to which the laboratory activities emphasise on open-ended, divergent approach to experimentation.There is opportunity for me to pursue my own chemistry interests in this chemistry laboratory class. (+)P
Integration (IN)Degree to which the laboratory activities are integrated with non-laboratory and theory classes.What I do in our regular chemistry class is unrelated to my chemistry laboratory work. (-)P
Rule Clarity (RC)Degree to which behaviour in the laboratory is guided by formal rules.My chemistry laboratory class has clear rules to guide my activities. (+)S
Material Environment (ME)Degree to which the laboratory equipment and materials are adequate.I find that the chemistry laboratory is crowded when I am doing experiments. (-)S
a Items designated (+) are scored 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 respectively, for the responses never, seldom, sometimes, often, very often. Items designated (-) are reverse scored. Missing or invalid responses are scored 3.
b R: Relationship, P: Personal Growth, S: System Maintenance and Change.

Table 1 has a common sense description of each CLEI scale and the classification of the CLEI scales according to Moos' schema for conceptualising psychosocial learning environments. Moos (1974a, 1974b, 1979) suggested three basic categories for describing and assessing human environments: relationship, personal development or growth, and system maintenance and system change. Instruments assessing classroom environments should cover these three general categories. Relationship dimension refers to the extent to which people are involved in the environment and support and help each other (refer to Student Cohesiveness scale). The personal development dimension refers to the direction along which personal growth and self-enhancement tend to take place (refer to the Open-Endedness and Integration scales). The third dimension of system maintenance and system change refers to the extent to which the environment is orderly, is in control and has clear expectations (refer to Rule Clarity and Material Environment scales).

The CLEI has a total of 35 items, with seven items in each scale. The response format of the CLEI is a five-point frequency rating scale consisting of Very Often, Often, Sometimes, Seldom and Never, which are scored 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1, respectively. There were no major changes made to the 35 items of the SLEI for the actual and preferred versions of the instrument except for the replacement of the word 'science' with 'chemistry'. The 35 items are arranged in cyclic order in groups each comprising one item from each of the five dimensions: Student Cohesiveness, Open-Endedness, Integration, Rule Clarity, and Material Environment.

The wording of each item varies slightly between the actual and preferred forms. For example, in the actual version of CLEI, one item is "I get on well with students in this chemistry class". In the preferred version, the statement is modified to be "I prefer to get on well with students in this chemistry laboratory class". Based on the students' responses, scale scores are computed though the aggregation of scores for items belonging to that scale. The higher the scale score, the more of that particular dimension is perceived by a particular student to be present (or preferred) in the laboratory classroom environment.

Data analysis

To validate actual and preferred versions of the Chemistry Laboratory Environment Inventory (CLEI) for use in Singapore, statistical analyses in terms of factor structure, internal consistency reliability (Cronbach coefficient alpha) and discriminant validity (mean correlation of a scale with the other four scales as a convenient index) were calculated. For both actual and preferred forms of CLEI, principal components factor analysis was used to find out whether the a priori allocation of CLEI items to the five scales was justified. For the purpose of this study, only factor loadings greater than 0.4 were accepted.

A series of analyses of variance (ANOVA) was performed on the student data obtained for the CLEI (Actual) to investigate the sensitivity of each scale to different laboratory environments. Students within the same class should perceive it relatively similarly, but the mean within-class perceptions should vary from class to class. This characteristic was examined for each scale of the CLEI (Actual) using a one-way analysis of variance, with class membership as the main effect and using the individual as a unit of analysis. The eta2 statistic provides an estimate of the proportion of the variance in CLEI scores explained by class membership.

Gender differences in classroom environment perceptions on the CLEI were analysed using analysis of variance (ANOVA). Additionally, scale means scores for boys' and girls' perceptions of the laboratory environment were graphed to illustrate differences.

VALIDATION OF THE CLEI

Internal consistency

Internal consistency (Cronbach alpha) statistics were generated for the sample in the present study. A series of item analyses led to the removal of three items in order to enhance the internal consistency of some scales. Some of these items had a low or negative correlation with its own scale's total score (see below). Internal consistency reliability for the actual and preferred versions of the CLEI, with the individual score as the unit of analysis and after the removal of the 'faulty' items, are provided in Table 2. As shown in Table 2, the overall statistics obtained were acceptable. Internal consistency reliability indices were lower than those obtained previously for the original cross-validation sample (Fraser, Giddings & McRobbie 1992a) in most instances. This was probably due to the fact that a larger and more heterogeneous sample was used in the original study.

Table 2: Internal consistency (alpha reliability coefficient), discriminant validity (mean correlation
with other scales) and ability to differentiate between classroom (eta2 from ANOVA) for CLEI

CLEI ScaleN of
Items
FormalphaDiscr.
Valid.
Eta2
Student Cohesiveness (SC)6Actual
Preferred
.68
.77
.20
.43

.12**
Open-Endedness (OE)5Actual
Preferred
.53
.76
.11
.28

.06*
Integration (IN)7Actual
Preferred
.74
.76
.24
.34

.10**
Rule Clarity (RC)7Actual
Preferred
.61
.69
.21
.22

.16**
Material Environment (ME)7Actual
Preferred
.76
.86
.22
.45

.21**
Note. The student sample consisted of 497 upper secondary chemistry students (year 10) in 18 classes. The eta2 statistic (which is the ratio of 'between' to 'total' sum of squares) represents the proportion of variance explained by class membership. * p<0.05 ** p<0.01

For the actual version of CLEI, the Cronbach alpha coefficient for different scales ranged from 0.53 to 0.76 for the actual version, and from 0.69 to 0.86 for the preferred version in this study (refer to Table 2). In the original cross-validation study (Fraser, Giddings & McRobbie 1992a), all scales in the actual version of the Science Learning Environment Inventory (SLEI) had higher alpha reliability coefficients than their counterparts in the CLEI, except for the Material Environment scale which had the same reliability value as the SLEI (0.76).

For the preferred version of CLEI with the present sample, similar or higher reliability coefficients (ranging between 0.69 to 0.86) were found relative to the SLEI (Fraser, Giddings & McRobbie 1992a), except for the Integration scale which had a lower reliability value (0.76) than for the SLEI (0.84). In an earlier Singaporean study (Wong & Fraser 1995) involving 1,592 upper secondary chemistry students, lower alpha coefficients (between 0.41 to 0.72) were obtained for all the scales than in the present study, except for Rule Clarity which has a reliability comparable to the present study. However, for the preferred version of CLEI in the present study, all five scales have higher alpha coefficients than did the earlier study by Wong and Fraser (1995).

In this study, the actual form of the Open-Endedness scale had a particularly low Cronbach alpha reliability of 0.53 when the individual was used as the unit of analysis (see Table 2). In the final year of secondary education, teachers in Singapore typically drill students in how to conduct experiments prescribed for the examination by the University of Cambridge Local Examination Board. This renders chemistry laboratory experiments to be extremely closed-ended. Hence, when students were asked to rate the level of open-endedness of the chemistry-related activities conducted in their chemistry laboratory classroom environments, they seemed to have indicated that they had not understood fully the meaning of the term 'open-ended' used in the five statements.

Discriminant validity

For the discriminant validity results, the values of the correlation of a scale with the other scales at the individual student level ranged from 0.11 to 0.22 for the actual version, and from 0.22 to 0.45 for the preferred version of the CLEI (Table 2). In this study, analyses were not conducted using the class as the unit of analysis due to the small class sizes and the small number of classes used in the study. The discriminant validity indices of all the scales in the actual version of the CLEI in the present study were lower than those reported for the actual version of the SLEI in the original cross-validation study (Fraser, Giddings & McRobbie 1992a). However, all scales in the preferred version of the CLEI had better discriminant validity than their counterparts in the SLEI (Fraser, Giddings & McRobbie 1992a). The results in Table 2 indicate that the discriminant validity of the CLEI scales was satisfactory. This seemed to suggest that the CLEI measured distinct but overlapping aspects of laboratory classroom environments. On the other hand, relative to the original cross-validation study, the discriminant validity indices obtained for the present study were lower in value (that is, better discriminant validity) for the actual version and higher in value (that is, lower discriminant validity) for the preferred version of the CLEI.

Ability to differentiate between classrooms

A series of analyses of variance was performed on the student data obtained from the CLEI (Actual) to investigate if each scale had the ability to differentiate significantly between perceptions of students from different classes. Students within the same class should perceive it relatively similarly, but the mean within-class perceptions should vary from class to class. This characteristic was examined for each scale of the CLEI (Actual) using a one-way analysis of variance, with class membership as the main effect and using the individual as the unit of analysis. From the results shown in the last column of Table 2, it was confirmed that the actual version of each scale differentiated significantly between the perceptions of students in different classrooms (p<0.01). The eta2 statistic, which represents the proportion of variance in environment scores accounted for by class membership, ranged from 0.06 to 0.21 for different scales. These results are similar to those of earlier studies using the SLEI in other countries (Fraser, Giddings & McRobbie 1992a, 1992b).

Factor analysis

In this study, only 32 CLEI items were involved in the factor analysis based on the sample size of 497 upper secondary (Year 10) chemistry students. A principal components factor analysis with varimax rotation was carried out separately for the actual and preferred forms. Table 3 shows the factor loadings obtained. Only loadings of 0.40 or larger are included in Table 3.

Table 3: Factor loadings for actual (A) and preferred (P) forms of the CLEI

Factor Loading
ItemsStudent
Cohesiveness
Open-
Endedness
IntegrationRule
Clarity
Material
Environment
APAPAPAPAP
1
6
11
16
21
31
.63
.42
.72
.58
.65
.52
.65
-
.72
.64
.59
.54








2
7
17
22
32


.69
.43
.71
.54
-
.60
.66
.70
.72
.44







3
8
13
18
23
33




.59
.66
.55
.45
.72
.44
.74
.77
.78
.47
-
.56
-
.65




4
9
14
19
24
29
34






.58
.47
.52
.60
-
.61
.42
.68
.47
.63
.61
-
.64
.59


5
10
15
20
25
30
35


.41






.44
.40




.64
.44
.65
.57
.67
.59
.67
.69
.59
.73
.68
.70
.52
.47
%Variance6.45.75.310.87.94.15.84.515.625.1
Eigen value2.11.81.73.42.51.31.81.45.08.0
Note (for Table 3). The sample size was 497 upper secondary (Year 10) chemistry students in 18 classes from three independent schools. Only 32 items were involved in the factor analysis. Items 12, 26 and 27 were omitted because of low factor loadings with their a priori scale. Factor loadings less than 0.40 have been omitted in the table.

For the preferred form, there are four items (Items 6, 13, 23 and 24) whose loadings with their a priori scale is less than 0.40. Additionally, Items 10, 30 and 35 have a loading of 0.40 or greater with another scale on the preferred form (see Table 3). For the actual form of CLEI, no item had a factor loading greater than 0.40 on another scale. The bottom of Table 3 shows that the proportion of variance explained is 41.0% for the actual form of the CLEI and 50.2 % for the preferred form. Overall, data reported in Tables 2 and 3 suggested that the CLEI was a reliable and valid instrument for assessing students' perceptions of their chemistry laboratory classroom environment. Because of its close relationship the SLEI, these validation data provide sound cross-validation support for the SLEI for use specifically in Singapore, in either the actual or a preferred version.

RESULTS

Table 4 reports average item means (that is, average scale scores divided by the number of items in the scale) for the actual and preferred forms of the CLEI. Average item means provide a meaningful basis for comparisons between scales containing different numbers of items. Table 4 also shows the differences between boys' and girls' scores on each scale expressed in standard deviation units (that is, effect sizes). Finally, the last column of Table 4 reports the results (F-ratios) from the ANOVAs investigating gender differences.

Table 4: Average item mean and average item standard deviation for boys and girls, and gender
differences (mean differences, effect sizes and F-ratio) for actual and preferred forms of CLEI (N = 497)

ScaleFormMeanStd. Dev.Gender Differences
BGBGMeanEffect Size(a)F
Student CohesivenessAct.4.03.90.60.60.10.29.5**
Pref.4.24.40.7 0.60.20.21.0
Open-EndednessAct.2.32.30.60.60.00.02.7
Pref.3.13.50.80.8-0.4-0.529.7**
IntegrationAct.3.7 3.70.60.6-0.0-0.00.2
Pref.3.83.90.60.7-0.1-0.20.1
Rule ClarityAct.3.53.80.50.6-0.3-0.530.0**
Pref.3.43.50.60.7-0.1-0.23.9*
Material EnvironmentAct.3.33.80.70.6-0.5-0.76.0**
Pref.4.14.50.80.7-0.4-0.530.9**
a The effect size is the difference in boys and girls mean divided by the pooled standard deviation.
* p<0.05 ** p<0.01

Using the students' average item mean scores on the five scales of actual and preferred forms of the CLEI, a graph of gender differences was plotted (Figure 1). For scales with significant differences, two separate points are plotted for the mean scores of the actual and preferred forms. On the other hand, one point is plotted for scales with no significant differences. Figure 1 illustrates that boys perceived their actual chemistry laboratory classroom environment significantly less favourably than the girls in the areas of Rule Clarity and Material Environment, while the girls perceived the level of actual Student Cohesiveness less favourably than the boys. These two groups of students felt similarly about their actual chemistry laboratory classroom for the two other scales of Open-Endedness and Integration. Statistically significant gender differences occurred for 5 of the 10 scales. Although boys' scores were higher for actual Student Cohesiveness, girls' scores were higher for preferred Open-Endedness, actual and preferred Rule Clarity, and actual and preferred Material Environment.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Gender means for actual and preferred forms of the CLEI

The largest gender differences in actual perceptions were observed for the scale of Material Environment, with effect sizes exceeding half a standard deviation. Boys perceived the laboratory to be less equipped than did girls. Perhaps this is an area that schools need to investigate to provide the students with more up-to-date equipment (for example, data logger and IT tools, materials, resources and support). With regards to actual Rule Clarity, boys perceived that fewer rules and restrictions were being imposed in their actual chemistry laboratory environment. On the other hand, girls seemed to perceive a lower level of cohesiveness among their classmates in their existing chemistry laboratory environment than boys did.

For the preferred form of CLEI, girls indicated that they would prefer a significantly higher degree of Open-Endedness, Rule Clarity and Material Environment in their chemistry laboratory environment. In other words, they preferred their chemistry laboratory environment to be more organised and better equipped with resources and materials to allow open-ended learning activities to be conducted.

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION

The objectives of this study were to validate the CLEI and to investigate gender differences in the students' perceptions of their chemistry learning environments. It was found that CLEI was a reliable and valid instrument for assessing perceptions of their actual and preferred chemistry laboratory classroom environment. This study has provided cross-validation support for use of the SLEI specifically in Singapore, in either the actual or a preferred version.

Significant gender differences in classroom environment perceptions were found based on an ANOVA for each CLEI scale. The largest gender differences in actual perceptions were observed for the scale of Materia l Environment. Boys perceived the laboratory to be much less well equipped than did girls. With regards to actual Rule Clarity, boys perceived fewer rules and restrictions being imposed in their actual chemistry laboratory environment. This could imply that boys were usually more task orientated and therefore paid less attention to the physical environment compared to girls. On the other hand, girls seemed to perceive a lower level of cohesiveness among their classmates in their existing chemistry classroom laboratory environment than boys did. This could be because students were expected to handle their laboratory work individually in their final year of secondary education. As such, these students might not have experienced much collaborative learning in their chemistry laboratory environment during this period.

The findings also showed that girls preferred to have more Open-Endedness, Rule Clarity and Material Environment than did boys. Girls preferred to learn using more open-ended activities in a more organised and well-equipped chemistry laboratory environment. In order to make laboratory activities more open-ended, Colburn (1997) and McComas (1997) suggested that chemistry teachers could allow students to make decisions about the problems and investigations for laboratory activities. McComas (1997) also suggested that the degree of openness in laboratory activities could be classified according to levels (for example, 1 for teacher demonstrations, 2 for guided investigations, 3 for individually designed investigations).

In general, girls tended to perceive their learning environment just as favourably if not more favourably than boys. This finding further supports previous related research (Fraser, Giddings & McRobbie 1992a, Henderson, Fisher & Fraser 1995, Lawrenz 1987, Rickards & Fisher 1997, Wong & Fraser 1997) in science laboratory learning environments. The results of this study also indicated that the CLEI was a reliable instrument for chemistry teachers to use and to gain a better picture of the learning environment and the perceived learning needs of their boys and girls. It also provided support to the fact that teachers needed to take gender differences into consideration when planning and designing the chemistry curriculum for the students in the chemistry laboratory environment.

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Author details: Quek Choon Lang is an Assistant Professor in the Instructional Science Academic Group at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Her research interests include classroom learning environments, gifted education, information technology and interdisciplinary curriculum studies.

Angela F.L. Wong is an Associate Professor in the Instructional Science Academic Group, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Her research interests include learning environments, science education and practicum-related issues in teacher education.

Barry J. Fraser is Professor of Education and Director, Science and Mathematics Education Centre, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia. He specialises in science education and the study of learning environments.

Address for correspondence: Dr Quek Choon Lang, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Email: clgquek@nie.edu.sg

Please cite as: Quek C. L., Wong, A. F. L. and Fraser, B. J. (2002). Gender differences in the perceptions of chemistry laboratory classroom environments. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 18(2), 164-182. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer18/quek.html


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