March 30th, 2010

Attitude Affects Learning


We know that what students believe about themselves as learners makes a difference, but sometimes a specific example really makes the point. Here’s a study that does just that. It involved beginning students taking a general chemistry course. At the beginning of the course they took a Self-Concept Inventory designed for chemistry students. Its five scales measure, among other things, a chemistry self-concept, a mathematics self-concept, and an academic self-concept.

Of the more than 600 students (from multiple sections of the same course) who participated in the study, 18.7 percent had a low chemistry self-concept, compared with the 22.8 percent who had a high chemistry self-concept. All students took the same comprehensive final, a standardized test developed by the American Chemical Society. Scores on this test can be predicted by using a number of other measures. Students with the high self-concept scored 5 percent higher than their predicted scores, and students with the low self-concept scored 1.76 percent lower than their predicted scores. Even after the researchers controlled for SAT scores, “self-concept continued to play a role in student performance on the outcome measure [the exam], indicating the affective domain does play a role that is separate from conventional cognitive measures.” (p. 748)

Space prevents more explanation of how they conducted the study and analyzed the data, but both the design and analysis are robust. Check out the details for yourself, if the study and findings are of interest.

Is that more or less students than you’d expect to have low or high self-concepts in chemistry? The researchers describe the low group as “sizeable” but not an “overwhelming proportion” of general chem students. How many beginning students come to your academic area with low self-concepts about their ability to learn it? This study cites other research documenting that students’ perceptions of their abilities are content specific—students don’t believe they can do well in math, writing, drawing, or chemistry. But the most compelling question relates to what teachers can do to change these powerful perceptions of the ability to learn.

Reference: Lewis, S. E., Shaw, J. L., and Heitz, J. O. (2009). Attitude counts: Self-concept and success in general chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education, 86 (2), 744-749.