Academic journal article Science Educator

A Study of the Association of Autonomy and Achievement on Performance

Academic journal article Science Educator

A Study of the Association of Autonomy and Achievement on Performance

Article excerpt

The authors find that autonomous learning activities in high school science interact with high school mathematics grades to produce a significant association with college science grades.

Inquiry-based instructional practices are a mainstay of the National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996). The National Research Council (NRC) teachers' guide asks the critical question, "How does a teacher decide how much guidance to provide in an inquiry?" (NRC, 2000, p. 30). Another primary concern is the quality of student work produced in these activities. For many teachers who assign inquiry activities, the reality is that while some students may produce good work, others languish (O'Neill & Polman, 2004; Polman, 2000).

A major finding of prior interaction research was that higher achievers responded better in less-structured learning environments, such as student designed projects and labs, while lower achievers responded better to more-structured environments, as in labs using worksheets and detailed directions (Cronbach & Snow, 1977; Tobias, 1981). Based on this finding, optimal levels of academic performance would be expected if instructional methods were chosen to more closely match students' backgrounds. Will matching a student's academic achievement with particular teaching practices have a long-range impact on their academic performance? Areview of existing literature shows that these types of studies are not common (e.g. Cronbach & Snow, 1977). With more students going to college (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005) than during the past few years, and most high school science teachers naturally emphasizing college preparation (Hoffer, Quinn, & Suter, 1996), one option for a long-range measure of performance is introductory college science. Research linking high school preparation to college performance may provide some insight into best practice.

This study investigated the interaction between students' academic background (high school grades, standardized exams, and enrollment in advanced high school courses) and how much autonomy they reported having in high school science through labs and projects. Our objective was to see if students who reported experiencing more or less self-directed projects and labs performed differently in college science when we took into account their prior academic background. To provide a more solid foundation for our conclusions, we performed the same analysis on three different data sets in biology, chemistry, and physics.


The data used in this study is a subsample taken from a national survey entitled Factors Influencing College Science Success (Project FICSS, NSF-REC 0115649). A sample of 67 four-year colleges and universities was selected from a comprehensive list of nearly 1,700, using stratified random sampling based on size to insure that the sample spanned the range from small colleges to large universities. Of the selected schools, 55 schools from 31 states participated.

Faculty in 29 biology departments, 31 chemistry departments, and 37 physics departments participated and data was collected from college science students in 128 different first semester introductory college science courses all taught exclusively in the Fall Semesters of 2002 and 2003. Institutional data is displayed in Table 1. To check for institutional "self-selection" bias, we compared participating and non-participating schools across measures such as school size, admissions selectivity, and geographic location and found no indications of bias.

For continuity in comparison across courses, we chose to include only courses with the ubiquitous large lecture format, by far the most likely to be experienced by high school students who take introductory college science. All courses in this survey filled program requirements for majors within their respective disciplines. All 67 schools originally selected for the survey used this class format. …

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