PublicationsSystematic reviewsSTS approach effectsSTS approach effects - summary
The effects of context-based and Science-Technology-Society (STS) approaches in the teaching of secondary science on boys and girls, and on lower-ability pupils. Summary

Background

This review focuses on context-based approaches which promote links between science, technology and society (STS) in the teaching of science in secondary schools. The reasons for selecting these teaching approaches for this review are as follows:

  • Courses adopting context-based and STS approaches have attracted national and international attention as they are seen to have an important role to play in developing pupils' scientific literacy.
  • Context-based and STS approaches are strongly advocated in the National Curriculum for Science in England and in Wales, and in the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) Scheme of Work for Key Stage 3.
  • Context-based and STS approaches have been advocated for a number of years on initial teacher training (ITT) courses as a means by which teachers might motivate their pupils.
  • The current move towards developing school science courses which emphasise scientific literacy will have significant implications for science ITT courses. The overlap between the aims of context-based/STS courses and scientific literacy courses, together with the approaches they advocate, makes it highly desirable to establish the strength and nature of the evidence base for the claims made for such approaches.

This review builds on work undertaken for an earlier systematic review on the effects on pupils of teaching approaches which emphasise placing science in context and promote links between science, technology and society (STS). This earlier 'base' review included studies which had explored effects on both understanding of science ideas and attitude to science. The review reported here looks in detail at two groups of pupils traditionally alienated by conventional approaches to science teaching: (i) girls and (ii) low-ability pupils.

Aims

The review has two principal aims:

  • to explore the effects of context-based and STS teaching approaches on boys and girls, and on lower-ability pupils
  • to inform the evidence base on which initial teacher training (ITT) courses draw in relation to the above teaching approaches.

Review questions

The overall review question is identical to that of the earlier 'base' review:

What evidence is there that context-based and STS teaching approaches improve the understanding of science ideas and the attitudes to science of 11- to 18-year-old pupils, and what are the implications of the evidence for initial teacher training courses?

The focus on understanding encompasses science concepts, ideas about the nature of science, and scientific method. The focus on attitude encompasses attitude towards science, attitude towards school science, motivation to learn, interest in science activities, and career intentions.

From the earlier review, it became apparent that a number of studies made reference to other science-related abilities, such as the development of investigative skills, manipulative skills, communication skills, problem-solving skills and decision-making skills. While this area was not the main focus of the review, such effects were noted when studies were categorised (keyworded) to produce an overview (the systematic map). It is recognised that, although some of these skills are not science-specific, there is an expectation that they will be applied in science contexts. It is further recognised that there are areas of debate over the interpretation of some of these terms (e.g. attitude, problem-solving skills) and how they might be measured.

In producing the systematic map of the area, it became apparent that the number of studies involved required a narrower focus to create a subset for the in-depth review. It was therefore decided to focus the in-depth review on studies of effects on understanding and attitudes of pupils who followed whole courses using context-based approaches.

The review questions for the two in-depth review areas are as follows:

What is the evidence from evaluative studies of the effect of context-based or STS courses on the attitude to science and/or the understanding of science ideas of boys and girls in the 11 to 16 age range?
What is the evidence from evaluative studies of the effect of context-based or STS courses on the attitude to science and/or the understanding of science ideas of lower-ability pupils in the 11 to 16 age range?

Methods

The review methods are those developed by the EPPI-Centre for systematic reviews of educational research literature. Such a review has four main phases:

  • Searching and screening: developing criteria by which studies are to be included or excluded in the review, searching (through electronic databases and by hand) for studies which appear to meet these criteria, and then screening the studies to see if they meet the inclusion criteria
  • Keywording and generating the systematic map: coding each of the included studies against a pre-agreed list of characteristics which is then used to generate a systematic map of the area where studies are grouped according to their chief characteristics
  • In-depth review and data extraction: summarising and evaluating the contents of studies according to pre-agreed categories
  • Synthesis: providing an overview of the quality and relevance across the studies in the in-depth review and compiling the weighted findings of the collective studies.

The review presented in this report makes use of the results of the searching and screening phase completed as part of the 'base' review. No new studies have been added to the systematic map providing an overview of the characteristics of the studies identified, but an additional paper that reported on one of the included studies was obtained and the map has been modified to reflect findings of 61 studies, rather than 67 papers; six pairs of papers reported on one study each.

The remaining two phases - data extraction and synthesis - are specific to the new in-depth review questions.

Results

The systematic map of 61 studies reveals a number of characteristics of research on the effect of context-based and STS approaches to teaching science, as summarised below:

  • One in three of the studies reported work that has taken place in the USA, and one in four report work in the UK.
  • Past and currently active research groups in this area are based at the Universities of British Columbia (Canada), Cambridge (UK), Iowa (USA), Utrecht (the Netherlands) and York (UK).
  • Two in three studies were undertaken with pupils aged 11-16, the remainder with pupils between the ages of 17 and 20.
  • More than half the studies reported on context-based/STS interventions in science, the remainder being equally split between chemistry and physics. Very little research has been done on context-based/STS approaches in the teaching of biology.
  • Almost two out of three studies evaluated interventions using context-based approaches, the majority of which concern full courses. The remaining third of the studies evaluated interventions using STS approaches, equally divided between STS-enrichment activities and full STS courses.
  • About 60% of the studies were naturally occurring evaluations, and the remaining 40% were researcher-manipulated.
  • The most popular techniques for gathering data were test results, questionnaires, (dis)agreement scales and interviews. The first was over-represented amongst researcher-manipulated evaluations, the last among naturally occurring evaluations.

Fourteen studies were included in the in-depth review, which focused on the effects of context-based or STS courses on the attitude to science and/or the understanding of science ideas of boys and girls, and lower-ability pupils, in the 11 to 16 age range.

The consolidated evidence from this in-depth review draws primarily on the findings from studies weighted as high, medium-high and, to a lesser extent, as medium. Findings from studies weighted as medium-low are only considered if these corroborate findings of studies with a higher weight of evidence.

The small number of studies considered for the in-depth review are of variable quality. Therefore many of the findings have, on purpose, been cast in tentative terms because of their narrow evidence base. For that reason the findings below have been reported under two headings: that is, those supported by reasonable evidence, and those supported by some evidence. No findings are claimed to be based on strong evidence.

The review suggests that there is reasonable evidence of the following:

  • Girls in classes using a context-based/STS approach held significantly more positive attitudes to science than their female peers in classes using a traditional approach (based on mutually supportive evidence from one study rated high, one rated medium-high, and one study rated medium).
  • Similarly, boys in classes using a context-based/STS approach held significantly more positive attitudes to science than their male peers in classes using a traditional approach (based on mutually supportive evidence from the same set of studies as above).
  • A context-based/STS approach to teaching science narrowed the gap between boys and girls in their attitude to science (based on mutually supportive evidence from one study rated high, two rated medium-high and two studies rated medium; supplementary support from two other studies).
  • In cases when boys enjoyed the materials significantly more than girls, this was due to the nature of the practical work in the unit; in cases when girls enjoyed context-based materials significantly more than boys, this was because of the non-practical activities in the unit (based on mutually supportive evidence from two studies rated medium-high and one study rated medium).

The review suggests there is some evidence of the following:

  • Boys and girls in classes using a context-based approach significantly more often perceived a close link between science, technology and society than their gender peers in traditional classes; there were slight gender-related differences in the way science was linked to technology and society (based on evidence from one study rated medium).
  • Boys and girls in classes using a context-based/STS approach showed significantly better conceptual understanding of science than their gender peers in classes using a traditional approach (based on evidence from one study rated high).
  • Girls in classes using a context-based/STS approach developed a significantly more positive attitude towards taking a science career compared with boys in these classes (based on contradicting evidence from one study rated high, supporting this conclusion, and one study rated medium-high, concluding that girls and boys have the same, both very positive, attitude to pursuing a science career).
  • Girls in classes using a context-based/STS approach showed equal conceptual understanding of science as male peers in the same classes (based on contradictory evidence from one study rated high, supporting the conclusion, and one study rated medium, concluding the boys using a context-based/STS approach significantly outperformed girls using the same approach).
  • Lower-ability pupils in classes using a context-based/STS approach held significantly more positive attitudes to science than lower-ability pupils in classes using a traditional approach (based on evidence from one study rated high; supplementary support from one other study).
  • Lower-ability pupils in classes using a context-based/STS approach developed significantly more positive attitudes towards science than high-ability peers in the same classes (based on evidence from one study rated high; supplementary support from one other study).
  • Lower-ability pupils in classes using a context-based/STS approach showed significantly better conceptual understanding of science than their lower ability peers in classes using a traditional approach (based on mutually supportive evidence from one study rated high and one study rated medium).
  • Lower-ability pupils in classes using a context-based/STS approach showed higher gain in conceptual understanding of science than high-ability peers in the same classes (based on evidence from one study rated high).

Conclusions

Strengths and limitations

The review has a number of strengths as follows:

  • The review focus is highly topical. The current concern about low uptake of science studies and careers by girls, and about under-achievement of boys has reignited interest in gender issues. Further evidence of the topicality comes from the range of countries in which studies have been undertaken.
  • The review has established that there is consistency in the research approaches adopted by those researching the effect of context-based or STS approaches to science teaching on pupils' understanding of science ideas or on their attitude to science. Such approaches make use of a pre/post quasi- experimental research design and generate quantitative data. For measuring understanding of science ideas, standardised achievement tests are used to compare the effects of different curricula. For measuring attitude to science, a large variety of instruments are used, using Likert- or Osgood-type scales.
  • Quality-assurance results were high for all stages of the review.

The review has two main limitations:

  • There was a scarcity of studies that focused on the effects of context-based or STS approaches for boys and girls, or for lower-ability pupils, as an independent variable. Only seven studies were judged to be of reasonable quality with respect to the review question (that is, an overall weight of evidence of medium or higher).
  • Although the studies in the in-depth review shared a number of similar characteristics at the broad level, there were considerable differences at the detailed level. Thus, the synthesis could only claim reasonable or some evidence (as opposed to strong evidence) for any of the conclusions drawn.

Implications

The Review Group is cautious about commenting on implications of the review for policy and practice for the reasons given in the preceding section on 'Limitations'.

Implications for policy

The review has yielded reasonable evidence that both girls and boys in secondary school science classes using a context-based or STS approach develop more positive attitudes than peers following more traditional courses. Even more strongly, the review supports the conclusion that the differences between the attitudes to science of boys and girls can be decreased by learning through context-based or STS approaches.

The review therefore indicates that a policy which embraces the teaching of science through linking it to the everyday experiences of pupils is likely to have a beneficial effect on their attitudes to science. However, it should also be noted that there is a scarcity of high quality research evidence of the positive effects of such an approach for different subsets of pupils, such as those of lower ability (as indicated by this review), those from cultural minorities, second-language speakers, or those using different learning styles or sense-making strategies.

The review provides some evidence that context-based/STS approaches may foster more positive attitudes to science careers in girls in particular, although the data gathered relate only to indications of intent, not actual choices. However, there is no evidence to suggest that a policy of using context-based/STS approaches has a detrimental effect on attitudes to science careers of girls (or boys).

Implications for initial teacher training

It is highly desirable that students and tutors on initial teacher training courses should be made aware of the evidence on the effects on context-based and STS approaches on pupils' attitudes, as should those who produce resources for use on such courses. This includes the DfES (which is responsible for introducing the Key Stage 3 Strategy), QCA (which has produced an extensive and detailed Scheme of Work for Key Stage 3), and the TTA (which specifies standards for newly qualified teachers).

It is clear from this review that context-based/STS approaches stimulate pupils' interest in science. However, there is a possible tension between using contexts as starting points and the current emphasis in many of the materials produced for science teaching which indicate that lessons should start by making learning outcomes explicit to pupils. The two notions are not incompatible, but require a more sophisticated approach to lesson planning. A strategy of explicitly stating the intended lesson outcomes after a context-based lesson introduction may well avoid one of the main risks of context-based learning: that is, pupils' idea that the learning outcome is about the understanding of the context rather than the science concepts underlying the context.

Implications for practice

In order to improve attitudes to science of boys and girls, especially their interest in science lessons, teachers should use everyday interests as starting points. Several of the studies in the map provide ideas for possible contexts and teaching strategies.

In order to gain maximum benefit from the use of a context-based/STS approach for both girls and boys, teachers should make use of a variety of activities in their lessons, though should they adopt context-based or STS programmes this is going to happen as a matter of course.

Implications for secondary research

One particular area of the systematic map would benefit from further exploration. This relates to studies which report on the effects on understanding of science ideas. Present knowledge in this area, synthesised through previous systematic reviews, is seriously limited. Currently, only those studies which have explored understanding and attitude, or understanding in relation to gender or ability, have formed the basis of in-depth reviews. A broadening of the evidence-base using the existing map represents an efficient use of resources.

In the light of the effectiveness of context-based/STS approaches in improving pupils' attitudes to science, and the strong recommendation for adoption of such approaches in classrooms and ITT programmes, a consolidation of knowledge is required about teacher professional development strategies used for supporting a change of practice: what characteristics of professional development strategies lead to adoption (or adaptation) of the use of context-based approaches?

What are crucial steps in the development of teacher ownership of context-based/STS approaches?

Implications for primary research

This review points to three specific areas which would benefit from primary research. Firstly, the review indicates a need for further work on the effects of context-based/STS approaches on lower-ability pupils, with much of the evidence emerging from one study. Secondly, the review also suggests that little research has been done into effects on more able pupils, again pointing to an area of further work. Thirdly, given the current concerns about boys' perceived underachievement and the indication in this review (based on limited evidence from the USA only) that context-based/STS approaches enhanced boys' understanding of science, it would be desirable to explore aspects of gender and achievement for context-based and STS courses in more detail.

More generally, both this review and the attitude and understanding review have tended to treat quite sophisticated concepts as fairly simple ideas. Some of these would benefit from further unpicking. For example, the term 'context' can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways, and it would be useful to look at some of these ways, with a view to establishing how particular groups of pupils respond to different contexts. Such work would be particularly useful for those developing courses on public understanding of science.

By focusing on evaluations involving an experimental design, both reviews have also tended to yield evidence which relates to what effects context-based/STS approaches have had, rather than why these effects have occurred. Thus some empirical work is needed involving interviews with pupils to explore their views on particular contexts and their particular effects. Such work could also be fruitful in exploring, for example, aspects such as why more positive attitudes to science do not appear to be translated to any significant extent into a desire to pursue careers in science.

This report should be cited as: Lubben F, Bennett J, Hogarth S, Robinson A (2005) A systematic review of the effects of context based and Science-Technology-Society (STS) approaches in the teaching of secondary science on boys and girls, and on lower ability pupils. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

  
Copyright 2019 Social Science Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education :: Privacy Statement :: Terms Of Use :: Site Map :: Login
About::Projects::Publications::Research Use::Courses & seminars::Resources::Databases::Blog