Low-achieving students’ attitudes towards learning chemistry and chemistry teaching methods

P. Kousa a, R. Kavonius b and M. Aksela c
aDepartment of Chemistry Education, University of Helsinki, Finland. E-mail: paivi.kousa@helsinki.fi
bA Secondary School of Oulunkylä, Helsinki, Finland. E-mail: rajka.kavonius@oulunkylanyhteiskoulu.fi
cDepartment of Chemistry Education, University of Helsinki, Finland. E-mail: maija.aksela@helsinki.fi

Received 21st November 2017 , Accepted 6th January 2018

First published on 6th January 2018


The aims of this study were to determine low-achieving students’ attitudes towards chemistry and how the attitudes differ within a low achieving group. The most preferred teaching methods were also defined. Empirical data (n = 2949) were collected by stratified sampling from fifteen-year-old Finnish lower-secondary school students as part of a Finnish National Board of Education assessment. The students were divided into five groups according to their achievement in the chemistry-exam. 159 of the students who had deficient exam results were defined as low-achieving (LA) students, and within that group non-native speakers, students with special needs and gender were selected as the background variables. Boys, non-native speakers and those who had special support had more positive attitudes towards chemistry within the LA group. The most preferred teaching methods in the low-achieving group were (i) visiting companies, institutes, museums and exhibitions; (ii) using the internet, videos, magazines and books for studying and (iii) small group working. According to the LA students their teachers should take more into account their wishes for teaching methods. This study suggests that more positive attitudes could lead to a better achievement when the teaching methods are preferred by most of the students. This paper proposes some ideas for both teachers and teacher training.


Introduction

Low achievement has been portrayed as a “malfunction in the educational system”. Approximately 20% of European children are not able to reach sufficient achievement levels in science, mathematics and reading (OECD, 2016). The low achievement in chemistry is more common amongst students with low socio-economic or immigrant backgrounds or amongst those who have learning difficulties (Rajakorpi, 1999; Kärnä et al., 2012). Low achievement can cause both economic and social consequences (OECD, 2016). For example, students don’t choose enough science and technology based careers because of their negative attitudes towards those subjects at school. People need science and technology based knowledge to make rational decisions and participate in society (e.g.Sjøberg and Schreiner, 2006).

Attitudes have an influence on academic achievement (Ozel et al., 2013). Positive attitudes towards chemistry have been shown to lead to a better achievement in chemistry (Brandriet et al., 2011; Xu et al., 2013; Kahveci, 2015a, 2015b). Both achievement and attitudes can be improved by providing more enjoyable science-lessons and learning environments (Ozel et al., 2013). It is important to accomplish positive attitudes in the classroom because attitudes tend to decline over time (George, 2000; Metsämuuronen and Tuohilampi, 2014; Potvin and Hasni, 2014; Simpson and Oliver, 1990). To increase the achievement of low achieving (LA) students in chemistry, more research is needed to understand the attitudes and suitable teaching methods for them.

Notwithstanding the fact that there have always been students with different achievement levels, one of the biggest challenges for teachers is to take needs of all students into consideration in mixed-ability classrooms (Konstantinou-Katzi et al., 2013). Teachers should be able to adapt and develop teaching methods according to students’ needs (Hall, 2002), but they do not have enough information or sufficient training, and are not able to take all students into account (Markic and Abels, 2014; Benny and Blonder, 2018). There is also a shortage of suitable teaching materials and methods (Markic and Abels, 2014). However, the achievement in mixed-ability classrooms can be enhanced by well-structured teacher training, which improves teachers’ skills and knowledge (Valiandes and Neophytou, 2017).

Low-achieving students in chemistry and purpose of the study

There are different ways to define a LA student. According to an EU-report (2016), low-achievement in science is often a temporary situation where a child does not reach the basic level of skills acquired at school. Research in the Programme for International Students Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) uses different achievement-levels. There are six proficiency levels in PISA, and four in TIMSS. PISA-level two (2) can be considered to be the level that all 15-year-olds should reach because on that level the student has the knowledge that is acquired to sufficiently participate and make decisions in society. At level one (1) the student is considered to have a limited scientific knowledge about very few familiar applications, and below that, very poor knowledge and skills with possible negative effects on life (OECD, 2016). In the lowest level of TIMSS, 14-yearold 8th graders are presumed to have a basic knowledge about familiar scientific phenomena and the ability to apply it to practical situations and interpret some simple data (Kupari et al., 2012). In this study, the LA students are defined by their exam results and they are non-native speakers, students with special needs and girls and boys within that group. In this study, non-native speakers are students who do not speak Finnish or Swedish as their mother tongue.

Low-achievement is not necessarily the same thing as a learning difficulty, although these categories can overlap each other (OECD, 2016). Learning difficulties can be a reason for low-achievement or the problem can be secondary, for example, poor adaptation to schoolwork (Brigham et al., 2011). In Finland, 8% of students have a status of special needs and 23% have infrequent special education (OECD, 2016). Students with special needs have less success with schoolwork than others and they also have negative attitudes towards science subjects (Kärnä et al., 2012).

There are some students who are more likely at a risk to be low-achievers such as students from immigrant backgrounds (non-native speakers), and students with low socio-economic status or special needs in education (Gilleece et al., 2010). Despite these risk factors low-achievement can be found in all families (OECD, 2016). The present study tries not to specify, diagnose or find all the causes that can lead to low-achieving in chemistry. The main foci of this study will be non-native speakers (i.e. not Finnish or Swedish speaking), students with special needs and gender. The reason for the selection of these three background variables was the composition of the LA group which had a higher number of students who did not speak Finnish or Swedish, students with special needs and boys. The aims of this study are to determine the LA students’ attitudes towards chemistry and how the attitudes differ within a low achieving group. The relation between achievement levels and the most preferred teaching methods is also investigated. The research questions are:

(1) How do the attitudes differ among the students in the low-achieving group?

(2) What are the most preferred teaching methods of the LA students in chemistry?

Theoretical background

Attitudes towards chemistry

According to Koballa and Crawley (1985) attitudes can be considered as positive or negative feelings such as liking or disliking an item. Reid (2007) defines feelings as affective factors. According to Alsop and Watts (2003) affective factors in science education include interest, motivation, attitudes, beliefs, self-confidence and self-efficacy. Osborne et al. (2003) have characterized attitudes as follows: “feelings, beliefs and values held about an object that may be the enterprise of science, school science, the impact of science on society or scientists themselves”. Nevertheless, attitude cannot be considered as one simple construct rather one with many subconstructs (Potvin and Hasni, 2014). One reason for the multilateral interpretations might be the weakness and variation of methods that measure attitudes (Kind et al., 2007; Xu et al., 2013). Other reasons could be that the attitude test does not fit to the culture of the students or their achievement levels (Metsämuuronen, 2012). In this study attitudes are discussed as positive or negative feelings towards chemistry (Koballa and Crawley, 1985). A modified Fennema–Sherman attitude test that is widely used also in other subjects than chemistry and in other grade-levels is used here (Metsämuuronen, 2012).

There are several studies about attitudes towards science (Potvin and Hasni, 2014) but there are not so many studies about attitudes towards chemistry (Kahveci, 2015a, 2015b). However, there is some evidence that positive attitudes towards chemistry correlate with academic achievement (Kan and Akbas, 2006; Brandriet et al., 2011; Xu et al., 2013; Kahveci, 2015a, 2015b). In this study, attitudes of LA students, i.e. non-native speakers, students with special support and gender as background variables, are the main foci.

Non-native speakers are two times more likely to be low-achievers (Gilleece et al., 2010; OECD, 2016). Despite their success in PISA, the achievement gap between 15-year-old non-native speakers and native students, for example, in Finland, is one of the highest in OECD countries (OECD, 2016). Non-native speakers also have more school burnouts compared to native students in Finland (Salmela-Aro et al., 2017). They also have difficulties in reaching the educational pathway after comprehensive school, and the risk of dropping out is higher than amongst native students (Järvinen and Jahnukainen, 2008). Although non-native speakers think that they do not have enough knowledge about chemistry and physics they have more positive attitudes towards those subjects than native speakers (Kärnä et al., 2012).

The relationship between gender and attitudes towards chemistry or science subjects is ambivalent (Kahveci, 2015b). According to some studies (Simpson and Oliver, 1990; Desy, Peterson and Brockman, 2011) male students show more positive attitudes towards natural sciences than female students. Brandriet et al. (2011) have similar results concerning only the LA group in chemistry. On the other hand, some studies state that girls have more positive attitudes towards science (Narmadha and Chamundeswari, 2013). There are also results that show that there are no gender differences concerning attitudes towards scientific subjects (Kan and Akbas, 2006) or there are differences only in some attitudes (Salta and Tzougraki, 2004). In addition, the attitudes can also change towards more positive or negative over time (Cheung, 2009; Chan and Bauer, 2014).

The relations between teaching methods, attitudes and achievement

The teaching methods can be divided into three groups like in the present and Kärnä's (2012) study: [1] individual teaching methods, [2] interactive teaching methods and [3] different learning environments and approaches to teaching. Individual teaching methods which can also be considered as traditional are teacher-based and include mostly independent work like reading, writing and listening (Kärnä et al., 2012). Students find that most of the teaching methods are traditional (Juuti et al., 2010; Kärnä et al., 2012) and those methods are less preferred in science (Juuti et al., 2010; Fowler, 2012; Kärnä et al., 2012; Fan et al., 2015). More positive attitudes and better achievement have been accomplished using a science, technology and society (STS) approach to teaching in several studies instead of using the traditional teaching methods (Bennett et al., 2007; Lee and Erdogan, 2007; Yager, 2007; Yager and Ackay, 2008). For example, compared to the traditional teaching methods the STS approach has reduced the gender gap and created more positive attitudes and better conceptual understanding amongst LA students (Bennett et al., 2007).

Interactive teaching methods consist mostly of discussion and group work where teachers and students work more together (Kärnä et al., 2012). Students who are new or have limited previous knowledge of chemistry have more positive attitudes towards chemistry when they work in small groups after a student-centred and an active chemistry course in a mixed-ability classroom (Vishnumolakala et al., 2017). The achievement results for LA students are better when they explain the language-based science activity to their peer instead of writing (Rivard, 2004).

Different learning environments and approaches to teaching in the previous and Kärnä's study (2012) include two types of activities: visiting companies, institutes, museums and exhibitions (i.e. scientific field trips) and using non-traditional instruments for teaching and learning (computers, videos, magazines and books). Experimental inquiries, observations and applying skills and knowledge to everyday life belong to this category. Students prefer scientific field trips and using the internet, but are not so fond of traditional teaching (Juuti et al., 2010; Kärnä et al., 2012).

Scientific field trips can enhance positive feelings towards science and in that way help students to learn (Eshach, 2007) but their positive effect can disappear over time (Jarvis and Pell, 2004). Students seldom have industrial visits and they almost never visit museums (Juuti et al., 2010). It has been observed that scientific field trips have a better impact on low-achieving non-natives’ achievement in science compared to the other students (Whitesell, 2016). Also, an inquiry-based after-school intervention in science has been effective towards LA students’ attitudes (Chen et al., 2014).

There is evidence that positive attitudes towards chemistry correlate with academic achievement (e.g.Kahveci, 2015a, 2015b). It can be reasoned that using methods that students prefer could play an important role in attitudes and achievement. The preferred teaching methods in science from the perspective of interest have been studied and applied to physics by Juuti et al. (2010) and more extensively to science subjects in Finland by Kärnä et al. (2012). However, there are almost no studies on the teaching methods that especially low-achievers prefer in chemistry.

Methodology

This study is a survey based on the Finnish curriculum and it uses the quantitative methods in the collection and analysis of data. Data that the Finnish National Board of Education (FNBE) collected in the spring of 2011 for a follow-up assessment on the skills on natural sciences were used. The original material that was in Finnish or Swedish depending on the students’ mother tongue consisted of the results of the exams and questionnaires on attitudes and the most preferred teaching methods. The results were analysed in the FNBE. The survey is based on the Finnish curriculum Kärnä et al. (2012). This study only uses chemistry-material and focuses especially on LA students. The data that have been used in this study are consistent with the original purposes. All experiments were approved and performed in compliance with regulations and guidelines. Informed consent was obtained from all the participants. The whole exam with the results and the exercises is not presented in this study. The material of this study was back translated by an independent translator.

There were 15 questions about students' attitudes towards chemistry in the exam that were based on the modified Fennema–Sherman test. The attitudes were measured in a 5-point Likert scale: 1 = totally disagree, 2 = rather disagree, 3 = neither agree nor disagree, 4 = rather agree and 5 = totally agree (Metsämuuronen, 2012). There were 27 questions about the teaching methods. In order to find the most preferred teaching method, students answered how often they liked to have a certain method: 1 = more seldom, 2 = just like now or 3 = more often (Kärnä et al., 2012). In this study, only ‘more often’ answers were used.

In the exam that defined the achievement-levels for this study, the procedural knowledge was divided into three classes: using data, explaining phenomena and carrying out scientific research. 83% of all the exercises on chemistry belonged to the factual and conceptual knowledge and 56% to the procedural knowledge. Evaluative exercises were productive exercises and selective exercises. The main part of the chemistry exercises were selective exercises, which required the lowest levels of cognitive thinking.

The exercises in the follow-up assessment on the knowledge of natural sciences of 9th graders were classified according to the skills and levels of thinking by Anderson and Krathwohl's (2001) two-dimensional taxonomy. The first dimension (knowledge) was divided into factual, conceptual, procedural and metacognitive knowledge. The second dimension (cognitive process) consisted of the following levels of thinking: remembering, understanding, applying, analysing, evaluating and creating. The three lowest levels of cognitive thinking and the contents of factual and conceptual knowledge were of the same type as they are in the Finnish National Core Curriculum. In chemistry, these were air and water, the structure of a substance and the notation, raw materials, organic nature and society (Kärnä et al., 2012).

As an example of an exercise that requires a good memory there is a chemistry exercise on the Elements part divided into three parts. In part (c) students had to pick the correct chemical symbol for zinc among the chemical symbols C, Mg, Cr, Fe, H, S, and Zn. In order for the student to be able to solve this exercise, they need to remember the chemical symbols and what they stand for 89% of the students solved this exercise successfully. Another chemistry exercise (Reaction) is an example of an exercise that requires the ability to apply. In this exercise, the student had to think, with which two chemicals they could produce hydrogen. The choices were zinc and hydrochloric acid, sulphuric acid and silver or sodium chloride and magnesium. This exercise also had three parts; 42% of this exercise (all parts) was solved correctly. The solving percentage for this part of the exercise was 37%.

Sample and data collection

The main official languages of Finland are Finnish and Swedish. The language of the majority (over 90%) is Finnish. There are both Finnish- and Swedish-speaking schools in Finland. The evaluative exercises were pre-tested in 13 Finnish- or Swedish-speaking schools by approximately 900 students. The exercises chosen to the actual exam were chosen according to their contents and so that half of the points in the exam would come from objective exercises (multiple choice, connecting exercises and true–false exercises) and half of the points from open-ended questions. Part of the achievement-exam exercises had to be easy (30%), some intermediate (40%) and some difficult (30%), so that the aim was that 50–60% of the students would be able to solve 50% of the exercises correctly.

133 Finnish- or Swedish-speaking schools took part in the survey and 2949 students studying in 9th grade and 15 years of age answered the chemistry-related questions. 52% of the participants were boys and 48% were girls. 88% of all the answers were in Finnish and 12% in Swedish. This survey was organized as a stratified sampling.

Based on the modified Fennema–Sherman test 15 questions about students’ attitudes towards chemistry as a subject in general were answered on a 5-point Likert scale: 1 = totally disagree, 2 = rather disagree, 3 = neither agree nor disagree, 4 = rather agree and 5 = totally agree. Most of the LA students (71%) thought that chemistry was not an easy subject. In addition, over a half of the students (53%) in that group agreed with the claim that they won't need the skills and knowledge of chemistry in their working life.

Table 1 presents the correlation between some of the students’ attitude claims and the results that students got from the previous achievement-exam. The results were interpreted using Spearman's two-item scale correlation test which had all points at a significant level. If a student agreed with the positive claim, it showed positivity towards chemistry, i.e. the question would correlate positively with the number of points. If, on the other hand, a question was formed so that agreeing about something would mean that a person had a negative view towards chemistry, then the question would correlate negatively with the number of points in the exam. It can be concluded that the LA students find chemistry more boring, difficult and not as useful in the future than those students who have a higher achievement in chemistry.

Table 1 Spearman's two-item scale correlation on a student's attitudes towards chemistry and on the exam-points
Claim Correlation coefficient
** Correlation is at a significant level of 0.01 (p = 0)
Chemistry is a boring subject (N = 2938) −0.212**
I like chemistry lessons (N = 2937) 0.295**
In the future, I will not be needing almost anything that we have learned so far in chemistry (N = 2937) −0.154**
I believe that I will need the skills and knowledge of chemistry in the working life (N = 2939) 0.280**


Although the result that indicates the correlation between attitudes and achievement is not new there is a possibility that the gap between different achievement levels would have been smaller if some other country had accomplished the same achievement and attitude test than in the previous study. It is possible that the cultural differences affect the way that students understand the positive and negative claims. The differences might also occur in the way that different countries define LA students. However, if it's in some studies generalized that students have negative attitudes towards science or chemistry these results give more profound knowledge about the difference between low and higher achieving students’ attitudes towards chemistry.

Data-analysis and reliability

Students were divided into groups based on the percentage they had received from the exam that defined the achievement-levels for the study. The achievement-levels were insufficient (0–20% answers correct), deficient (20–35%), sufficient (35–50%), satisfactory (50–65%), good (65–80%) and very good (80–100%) (Kärnä et al., 2012). The same division into groups is used in this study. However, because only 14 students belonged to the group “insufficient”, in this study they were added to the “deficient” group. After this addition, there were 159 students in the “deficient” group, which was the smallest of all the groups and is called the low-achieving (LA) group in this study. There were 564 students in the “sufficient” group. The biggest group was the “satisfactory” group with 1099 students. The “good” group had 860 students and 267 students belonged to the “very good” group.

In this study, there were more boys in the LA group (68%) and the “very good” group (58%). By percentage, there were most girls (52%) in the “sufficient” group. Most of the students who spoke a foreign language as their mother tongue were in the LA group (8%). In the other groups their proportion was small, under 3%. In terms of percentages, the “satisfactory” group had the most students who needed special education (18%). In terms of the number of these students, most of them (43 meaning 8%) were in the “sufficient” group. In the other groups, about 2–0.1% of the students needed special support.

The survey was pre-tested with 900 students and changes and improvements were carefully made after that. The standardized, actual survey was held at the same time and length everywhere in Finland in the beginning of May when every 15-year-old 9th grader had studied the same content by the Finnish National Core Curriculum for basic education. The survey was based on stratified sampling and it gave information from all over Finland. The number of those schools that did not take part in the questionnaire survey or those students who did not answer all the questions was relatively small and comparable to other studies that the National Board of Education has done before (e.g.Kärnä et al., 2012). It can be considered that there were no such systematic factors in the process that could harm or change the results of this study.

The shortened version of the Fennema–Sherman attitude test is used in several international tests like TIMMS and PISA. The validity and reliability of the test have been confirmed comprehensively by many reports (Kahveci, 2015a, 2015b). In the Finnish national achievement testing, the modified version of the test is used in many school-subjects and grade-levels. The modifications that are made for the Finnish version have less negative items, simpler wordings and more concrete claims. The aim has been to make the test more understandable and less ambiguous for all achievement-levels of students. Because of the similarities to PISA and TIMMS there might be some cultural differences between different countries concerning how the students understand positive and negative attitudes (Metsämuuronen, 2012). It can be reasoned that the modified version of the Fennema–Sherman test that has been used in this study has been understood in a similar way by the students despite the differences in their achievement levels. The limitations due to the language differences among the students who accomplished the test are minor in this study because of the small percentage of non-native speakers (i.e. students who do not speak Finnish or Swedish as their mother tongue).

Because of the multilateral nature of attitude tests (e.g.Xu et al., 2013) the interpretations of the results in this study are not fully comparable to others except for those which are made in Finland and mentioned in this study (Juuti et al., 2010; Kärnä et al., 2012; Metsämuuronen, 2012). However, the correlation between attitudes and achievement was clear like in several previous studies (Kan and Akbas, 2006; Brandriet et al. 2011; Xu et al., 2013; Kahveci, 2015a, 2015b). A correlation of students' attitudes towards chemistry with results they got from the exam was calculated using SPSS and interpreted using Spearman's two-item scale correlation which had all results at a significant level of 0.01 (p = 0). The nonparametric Mann–Whitney U test that is used to compare medians with two data sets when the variables are in an ordinal scale (Cohen et al., 2007) was used in this study. 159 of the students who were in the LA group (i.e. non-native and native speakers, students with and without special needs and girls and boys) were used as background variables. The differences between attitudes and background variables were calculated. Both Spearman's two-item scale correlation and the Mann–Whitney U test are suitable for studying variables in an ordinal scale (Cohen et al., 2007), and in this study, the attitude-scale can be considered similar to the ordinal scale.

Finally, there were 27 questions about the teaching methods which were categorised into three groups: [1] individual teaching methods, [2] interactive teaching methods and [3] different learning environments and approaches to teaching (Kärnä et al., 2012). In order to find the most preferred teaching method students answered to a multiple-choice question of which teaching method they would like to have more often. More comprehensive knowledge about the popularity of the teaching methods was achieved after the methods were sorted according to the percentages of increased preferences. The comparability and reliability of the results (n = 2949) can be reasoned similarly to the actual survey.

Results and discussion

The attitudes of different students within the low-achieving group

There was a little difference between attitudes towards chemistry among the studied students (see Table 2). Non-native speakers liked chemistry more and studied it more willingly than native Finnish or Swedish speaking students in the LA group. Non-native speakers also found knowledge of chemistry more important. The Mann–Whitney U test was used to compare the medians with two data sets where the background variables were native (i.e. Finnish and Swedish spoken at home as their mother tongue) and non-native speakers.
Table 2 The differences in attitudes between non-native and native speakers
Claim Significance Median difference-native speakers Median difference-non-native speakers Value of U
Mann–Whitney U test: distribution of the differences between students speaking Finnish and Swedish at home – *differ significantly.
Chemistry is an easy subject 0.178 2 2 1079
On my future studies, I will need knowledge and skills of chemistry 0.141 2 3 1099
It is impossible for me to be successful in chemistry 0.323 3 2.5 734.5
Chemistry is a boring subject 0.055 3 2 596
I like chemistry lessons 0.032* 2 3 1193
Chemistry is one of my favorite subjects 0.546 1 1.5 952.5
The knowledge and skills in chemistry are useful in daily life 0.086 2 3 1042.5
Usually we have interesting exercises in chemistry 0.106 2 3 1031
In the future, I will not be needing almost anything that we have learned so far in chemistry 0.952 3 3 885
I think I am successful in chemistry 0.573 2 2 887
Many things are difficult in chemistry 0.089 4 5 1127.5
I am able to do more difficult exercises on chemistry 0.340 2 2.5 1008.5
I believe that I will need the skills and knowledge of chemistry in the working life 0.318 2 3 1014.5
I study chemistry willingly 0.005* 2 3 1282.5
I think that it is important to know chemistry 0.002* 2 3 1335


There were only a small number of non-native speakers in the LA group. On the other hand, there were only a small number of non-native speakers in the whole study. Despite the limitations due to the small sample-size, it can be presumed that non-native speakers can have more positive attitudes towards chemistry and its usability in the future because they value the education and careers within chemistry. It can also be presumed from the results that the language could have been the problem why there were more non-native speakers in the LA group than in the other groups. However, non-native speakers liked chemistry more than native speakers despite the possible language or cultural barrier which they might face in the classroom.

The differences in attitudes between students needing special support and students not needing special support

There was only a little difference between attitudes towards chemistry. Those who had special support liked chemistry more than the others within the group (see Table 3). The Mann–Whitney U test was used to compare the medians with two data sets where the background variables were students who needed and did not need special support.
Table 3 The differences in attitudes between students who do and don’t need special support
Claim Significance Median difference-those who don't need special support Median difference-those who need special support Value of U
Mann–Whitney U test: the distribution of the differences in attitudes between students needing special support and students not needing special support – *significantly different.
Chemistry is an easy subject 0.238 2 2 2083
On my future studies, I will need knowledge and skills of chemistry 0.428 2 3 2002.5
It is impossible for me to be successful in chemistry 0.383 3 2.5 1646
Chemistry is a boring subject 0.045* 3 3 1403.5
I like chemistry lessons 0.011* 2 3.5 2361.5
Chemistry is one of my favorite subjects 0.947 1 1 1793
The knowledge and skills in chemistry are useful in daily life 0.950 2 3 1793
Usually we have interesting exercises in chemistry 0.162 2 3 2047
In the future, I will not be needing almost anything that we have learned so far in chemistry 0.925 3 3 1840
I think I am successful in chemistry 0.208 2 2 2083.5
Many things are difficult in chemistry 0.993 4 4 1822
I am able to do more difficult exercises on chemistry 0.120 2 2.5 2130.5
I believe that I will need the skills and knowledge of chemistry in the working life 0.331 3 2 1603.5
I study chemistry willingly 0.227 2 2 2071.5
I think that it is important to know chemistry 0.385 2 3 2004.5


In fact, there were a few more students who needed special support in the “sufficient” group so it would have been reasonable to compare that group. Nevertheless, the total number of students who needed special support was low. One reason for that was that there were only students who had an individual educational special support plan in this study. The results of those students who occasionally had special support or learning difficulties, for example, in mathematics, languages or some other subjects were not known or categorized in this study. As stated before, low achievement is usually temporary but that may not always be the case with those students who have severe learning difficulties. It can be assumed that those students who had an individual support plan had more severe learning difficulties than those who did not and therefore the positive attitudes did not correlate with an achievement-level in the same way as in the other groups. It can be concluded that if the student is not performing in the same level as others in the classroom it does not automatically mean that he or she does not like the subject or does not want to learn.

The differences in attitudes between girls and boys

Generally, the girls had more negative attitudes towards chemistry than boys (see Table 4). They found chemistry more boring, difficult and not a favourite subject. They also would not need the chemistry skills in the future. Boys thought that they were more successful in chemistry and found both chemistry and its tasks easier than girls. They also studied it more willingly.
Table 4 The differences in attitudes between girls and boys
Claim Significance Median difference-girls Median difference-boys Value of U
Mann–Whitney U test: the differences between opinions between girls and boys – *girls significantly agree more and **boys significantly agree more.
Chemistry is easy for me to learn 0.007** 1 2 2039
On my future studies, I will need knowledge and skills of chemistry 0.589 3 2 2868
It is impossible for me to be successful in chemistry 0.081 3 3 3184
Chemistry is a boring subject 0.004* 4 3 3485
I like chemistry lessons 0.190 2 2 2387
Chemistry is one of my favorite subjects 0.000** 1 2 1609
The things that I learn in chemistry at school will be helpful in my everyday life 0.272 3 2 2927
Usually we have interesting exercises in chemistry 0.075 2 2 2169.5
In the future, I will not be needing almost anything that we have learned so far in chemistry 0.038* 3 3 3209
I think I am successful in chemistry 0.001** 1 2 1869.5
Many things are difficult in chemistry 0.001* 4 3 3527
I am able to do more difficult exercises on chemistry 0.000** 1 2 1766.5
I believe that I will need the skills and knowledge of chemistry in the working life 0.669 3 2 2569.5
I study chemistry willingly 0.004** 1 2 1985
I think that it is important to know chemistry 0.763 3 2 2752.5


The Mann–Whitney U test was used to compare the medians with two data sets where the background variables were girls and boys.

There are several studies about gender differences and attitudes with multilateral results and these results did not change that setting. It has been proved that more positive attitudes lead to better achievement in chemistry. However, there were more boys in the LA group despite their more positive attitudes towards chemistry. One reason might be that the better achievement could cause more positive attitudes among girls and not the other way around if they think that they do not want to study because the tasks are too difficult for them. If the chemistry lessons are more boring according to girls, could the cause be that the lessons do not have enough issues that girls are interested in? If the girls do not see themselves needing chemistry skills in their future it may be a reason why they don’t choose careers within chemistry. Nevertheless, the present result gives the idea that 15-year-old girls have comprehensively more negative attitudes towards chemistry in Finland than boys. Maybe more information about the gender differences could be obtained if there were more background variables like socio-economic status or cultural issues which are also known facts to be risk factors of low-achievement in some cases.

The most preferred teaching methods of the LA students in chemistry

The study shows that the LA students as the other groups in the study have the same views of the teaching methods (Table 5). All students (n = 2949) took part in this survey. 27 different methods are divided into three categories: [1] individual teaching methods, [2] interactive teaching methods and [3] different learning environments and approaches to teaching. The number of the category has been added to the claim. The most preferred methods in the LA group were all in group [3], which included two types of activities: visiting companies, institutes, museums and exhibitions (i.e. scientific field trips) and using non-traditional instruments for teaching and learning (computers, videos, magazines and books). Experimental inquiries, observations and applying skills and knowledge to everyday life belonged also to this category. The second preferred methods belonged to group [2], which consisted mostly of interactive teaching methods such as discussion and group work where teachers and students work together. The least preferred methods were all in group [1] – individual teaching methods (i.e. traditional) are teacher-based and include mostly independent work like reading, writing and listening.
Table 5 The most preferred teaching methods
Claim Deficient Sufficient Satisfactory Good Very good
N 159 N 564 N 1099 N 860 N 267
The categories of the methods are marked by a number after the claim: [1] individual learning methods, [2] interactive learning methods and [3] different learning environments and approaches to teaching.
We visit companies or institutes [3] 44 (30%) 243 (43%) 628 (57%) 505 (59%) 161 (60%)
We use internet to find information during the lessons [3] 56 (39%) 253 (45%) 587 (53%) 438 (51%) 130 (49%)
We study by watching videos and animations [3] 51 (35%) 247 (44%) 611 (56%) 461 (54%) 129 (48%)
We visit museums or exhibitions [3] 45 (31%) 225 (40%) 559 (51%) 454 (53%) 121 (45%)
The teaching is planned and put into practice together with students [2] 40 (27%) 174 (31%) 450 (41%) 355 (41%) 90 (34%)
We use computer-based study tools [3] 27 (19%) 123 (22%) 327 (30%) 293 (34%) 87 (33%)
We have experimental inquires [3] 31 (21%) 144 (26%) 320 (29%) 270 (31%) 71 (27%)
We study by using books and magazines [3] 27 (19%) 118 (21%) 315 (29%) 267 (31%) 84 (32%)
I can choose the tasks that are suitably difficult for me [1] 28 (19%) 100 (18%) 280 (26%) 212 (25%) 77 (29%)
We have project or groupwork [2] 28 (19%) 161 (29%) 404 (37%) 284 (33%) 67 (25%)
We solve tasks in small groups [2] 26 (18%) 121 (22%) 293 (27%) 201 (23%) 54 (20%)
The teacher illustrates the taught phenomena by doing demonstrations [1] 22 (15%) 91 (16%) 234 (21%) 207 (24%) 77 (29%)
We discuss difficult concepts and problems in small groups [2] 22 (15%) 103 (18%) 252 (23%) 192 (22%) 59 (22%)
We have a debate during the lesson [2] 13 (9%) 81 (14%) 247 (23%) 214 (25%) 85 (32%)
Students set themselves goals and evaluate their progress [1] 19 (13%) 80 (14%) 185 (17%) 196 (23%) 68 (26%)
I have necessary knowledge about the development and function of the earth [3] 15 (10%) 83 (15%) 196 (18%) 156 (18%) 61 (23%)
We apply knowledge and skills learned in school to my everyday life [3] 16 (11%) 66 (12%) 151 (14%) 155 (18%) 58 (22%)
We discuss difficult concepts and problems with the teacher's guidance [2] 13 (19%) 66 (12%) 126 (12%) 115 (13%) 50 (19%)
The phenomena are represented with multiple aspects [3] 13 (9%) 52 (9%) 129 (12%) 122 (14%) 48 (18%)
We make observations of natural phenomena [3] 13 (9%) 53 (9%) 133 (12%) 93 (11%) 35 (13%)
We discuss causes and effects of natural phenomena [3] 8 (6%) 58 (10%) 128 (12%) 99 (12%) 42 (16%)
We discuss the reasonability of the answers received from tasks and inquiries [2] 15 (10%) 47 (8%) 87 (8%) 94 (11%) 36 (14%)
I write down notes and use them for studying [1] 14 (10%) 57 (10%) 85 (8%) 53 (6%) 13 (5%)
We use the coursebook during the lessons [1] 17 (12%) 58 (10%) 137 (13%) 115 (13%) 21 (8%)
We study by writing essays and summaries [1] 8 (6%) 42 (7%) 109 (10%) 85 (10%) 26 (10%)
Teacher teaches new content by writing notes on board [1] 10 (7%) 36 (6%) 79 (7%) 49 (6%) 15 (6%)
We work independently [1] 7 (5%) 31 (6%) 50 (5%) 48 (6%) 14 (5%)


One might ask, are the traditional methods not popular because of they are used mostly every day? If there were more scientific field trips would they still be popular without the novelty phenomenon? Is the computer still popular when it is used all the time both at home and at school? If only LA students would have preferred the teaching methods in group [3], one might think that those who have, for example, learning difficulties would prefer out-of-school visits and watching videos instead of reading and writing. However, the most and the least preferred teaching methods were similar despite their achievement levels. In fact, the percentage was the highest amongst the good and very good groups compared to the LA group, for example, in the case of visiting companies and industries. According to this study, the students are almost unanimous about the most and the least preferred teaching methods despite their achievement levels. If the positive attitudes improve academic achievement, maybe the teaching methods should be chosen more carefully by asking students’ opinions despite the possible novelty phenomenon.

Conclusions and implications

The LA students’ attitudes towards chemistry and how the attitudes differ within a low achieving group were discussed in this study. The most preferred teaching methods were also defined. The study was based on data obtained from the Finnish National Board of Education. The main foci in this study were non-native speakers, students with special needs and gender in the LA group. Negative attitudes have been indicated to correlate with low achievement in these groups (Gilleece et al., 2010; Brigham et al., 2011) although the relationship between gender and the attitudes towards chemistry or science subjects is ambivalent (Kahveci, 2015a, 2015b).

The definition between the attitudes and achievement was determined by using Spearman's two-item scale correlation test (Cohen et al., 2007). The results were in line with previous studies (Kan and Akbas, 2006; Brandriet et al., 2011; Xu et al., 2013) although the studies have concerned earlier mostly science and less chemistry (Kahveci, 2015a, 2015b). Those students who did not perform well in the exam of the Finnish National Board of Education had significantly more negative attitudes towards chemistry in this study.

Furthermore, the difference between attitudes within the LA group was analyzed by the Mann–Whitney U test (Cohen et al., 2007). According to the results, non-native speakers liked chemistry more and studied it more willingly than native speakers in the LA group. Non-native speakers also found chemistry more important. The result is concordant with the study done in Finland about science (Kärnä et al., 2012). In addition, those who had special support liked chemistry more than the others within the LA group. It has been shown that students with special needs have less success with schoolwork and more negative attitudes towards science subjects (Kärnä et al., 2012) but there are no previous data about the positive attitudes towards chemistry amongst those low-achieving students who have special support at school. Finally, low-achieving girls had generally more negative attitudes towards chemistry than boys and they did not think that it was useful in their future. Brandriet et al. (2011) also obtained similar results. Boys had more positive attitudes and they found themselves that they were more successful in chemistry and found both chemistry and its tasks easier than girls. Desy et al. (2011) also found similar results concerning boys and their attitudes towards science.

The most preferred teaching methods were collected by a survey that included 27 different teaching methods. The methods that students preferred included two types of activities: making scientific field trips and using non-traditional methods such as computers and videos. Making inquiries, making observations and applying skills and knowledge to everyday life were also popular. The least preferred methods were all traditional teacher-based methods such as independent work, reading, writing and listening. The results are in line with some other studies concerning science and physics (Juuti et al., 2010; Fowler, 2012; Kärnä et al., 2012; Fan et al., 2015). Significantly in the previous studies, the most and the least preferred teaching methods were almost similar despite the achievement levels.

The study has revealed the importance of teaching when it comes to attitudes and achievement of students. Despite their performance-levels, most of the students tend to want similar student-centred methods that are connected to their everyday lives. In order to create more positive attitudes and better achievement in chemistry, even the traditional methods could be adjusted, for example, by the STS approach to teaching (Bennett et al., 2007; Lee and Erdogan, 2007; Yager, 2007; Yager and Ackay, 2008). Scientific field trips can be also advantageous and cause long-term positive attitudes and learning if they are designed carefully, for example, with the students and the representative of the industry, museum, etc. (Eshach, 2007; Whitesell, 2016). The suitable teaching methods and interventions can also help the teacher to diminish the gender-gap (Bennett et al., 2007), encourage non-native students not to fall behind or quit their studying (Gilleece et al., 2010) and relieve the problems of those who have difficulties with learning (Rivard, 2004).

In addition, it is important to know that the attitudes do not always correlate with the achievement. Despite their low performance in a classroom the students could have positive attitudes towards chemistry and find it useful in the future. It is possible for the teacher to know more about students’ attitudes, for example, by asking questions and discussing with them. For example, the teacher could use small questionnaires at the beginning (or at the end) of a lesson, course or semester in order to find more about the attitudes. If the attitudes are negative in the classroom or within a group the teacher can make further questions about the reasons and use a certain teaching methods that are preferred by the students. The teacher can use more differentiated instructions with or instead of the traditional ones specially in mixed-ability classrooms. If the teacher uses small questionnaires often the students get used to reflect their attitudes and pay more attention to them and learning. In addition, asking students’ attitudes and preferred teaching methods gives the teacher a lot of information about the students and the effectiveness of different teaching methods. It is also important to ask why something is or is not preferred by the students. Naturally, the focus should be on learning despite the questions and conversations about the preferred teaching methods and attitudes. If the teaching method and material is designed for one group, for example for those who have learning difficulties it is usually suitable for other students as well (Caseau and Norman, 1997; Brigham et al., 2011). Although the result that LA students have more negative attitudes towards science subjects is not new, the differences between students within that group are notable in the present study. The possible cultural aspects concerning attitudes were clearly demonstrated in this study. The alarming number of LA students in the world and the growing cultural diversity are the reasons for further actions both in teacher training and in the field. More knowledge is needed as to how to take the cultural differences into account in mixed-ability classrooms. More knowledge is also needed as to how to use certain teaching methods in practice in order to learn and feel more positive about the subject. How the teacher can support the low-achieving student in chemistry is also very important. It is well known that the teacher needs more knowledge, support and suitable materials for teaching (Markic and Abels, 2014; Benny and Blonder, 2018). Adequate teacher-training can be an essential tool to diminish the problems which are caused by learning difficulties, and cultural or gender issues that teachers may experience in a mixed-ability classroom. Low-achievement might not be totally suppressed in a classroom but having more knowledge about those students who are at risk to fall behind or have negative attitudes towards the subject could be an important starting point for both professional development and learning.

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts to declare.

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