Correlates of Performance in Biological Psychology: How Can We Help?

Article excerpt

Undergraduate students routinely rated science-related courses such as biopsychology as intimidating and very difficult. Identification of factors that may contribute to success in these types of courses is important in order to help increase performance and interest in these topics. To examine what variables are related to performance, we studied undergraduate students enrolled in biopsychology courses. We found grade point average and students' attitudes about science are the best predictors of performance. Level of perceived preparedness, science efficacy, test anxiety, and previous exposure to the course material were also associated. Contrary to previous data, we did not find a significant relationship between gender and race. It appears that to assist students in biopsychology, we need to focus on preparing them better for the course and stimulating a more positive attitude toward the material.

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For over 30 years, comparative studies have chronicled the decline of performance in math and science test scores of American children. Internationally, high school seniors in the United States rank among the lowest in both mathematics and science general knowledge (Business Coalition for Education Reform, 2002). For example, an American high school senior's score in the 95th percentile would be equivalent to a score in the 30th percentile in Japan and the 50th percentile in England (Geary, 1996). During the years 1999-2000, of all bachelor's degrees conferred by United States degree-granting institutions, less than 6% were biological and life science degrees (National Center for Education Statistics, 2001a). From 1979 to 1999 the number of people receiving doctoral degrees in the life sciences increased more than 52%; however, the number awarded to American citizens had dropped by over 17% (NCES, 2001b). The proportion of freshmen intending to major in science and engineering fields fell more than 20% over the last 29 years, and the percentage of freshman intending to major in biological sciences has dropped more than 20 points (Higher Education Research Institute, 2002). This performance deficit progressively widens with successive years of schooling, and recent data revealed science majors average a 40% attrition rate, contributing to the United States ranking lower than several other industrialized countries in university degrees in science (Brand, 1995).

Identifying science performance predictors is essential to the exploration of possible reasons and justifications for this issue. Previous research has demonstrated strong correlations between levels of test anxiety and measures of performance (Everson, Tobias, Hartman, & Gourgey, 1993; Paulman & Kennelly, 1984; Tobias, 1979, 1985; Wigfield & Eccles, 1989; Wittmaier, 1972; Wolf & Smith, 1995). Students with higher test anxiety measures were found to be related to lower performance in the course. For instance, one study found relationships between test anxiety in college students, detriments in grade point average, and poor study skills (Culler & Holahan, 1980). This study showed that students with higher grade point averages had better study skills and lower test anxiety scores. Further, research has consistently shown correlations linking achievement to students' self-efficacy and attitude (Germann, 1994). Papanastasiou and Zembylas (2004) reviewed decades of research pertaining to attitudes, finding the attitudes of science students to be positively correlated with academic achievement and participation in advanced science courses. Zohar (1998), for example, found expected success measured with self-efficacy for grade attainment, three days before a test, predicted anxiety levels during an exam.

Quantitative and demographic variables reveal additional correlates of academic performance. Thomas and Schwenz (1998), in an undergraduate biochemistry class, showed that grade point averages and exams revealed the level of understanding of course material. …

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