Factors affecting the transfer of science concepts by primary school students

Author: Anne Pillman

Pillman, Anne, 2022 Factors affecting the transfer of science concepts by primary school students, Flinders University, College of Science and Engineering

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The purpose of this research into the factors affecting transfer of learning was to identify for educators strategies that might optimise their students’ capacity to transfer what they have been taught. The context chosen was the transfer of science concepts by students in Years 5 to 7, the final years of primary school in South Australia. The initial research question was: What factors affect transfer of science concepts by South Australian primary school students?

A review of cognitive science research literature on transfer of learning revealed a diverse range of perspectives and inconclusive research findings that were considered for their relevance to the context involving science concepts and upper primary level students. There is also a large body of research literature related to the affective domain was not included in the literature review. While some studies used primary aged students (5 to 12 years old), very few investigated these factors in primary school classroom settings and virtually none in South Australia. This study set out to address this gap by investigating transfer of science concepts in regular classroom settings. Informed by the research findings, frameworks were developed to describe the components of the transfer process and the variability within the factors affecting this process. These frameworks allow teachers and researchers to distinguish two different kinds of transfer, outline the targeted concept, describe the degree of challenge in a task and assess evidence of transfer in student work samples. All of these have been used in classrooms in addition to those involved in the study.

Five separate investigations were carried out. Initial qualitative studies sought evidence of transfer of science concepts from existing artefacts, including standardised test responses (Chapter 4.2) and classroom tasks (Chapters 4.3 and 4.4). These investigations identified a range of factors relating to the targeted concept, the transfer task and how transfer was measured as potentially affecting what students transferred. The investigation described in Chapter 4.4 broadened the group of students to consider how transfer of science curriculum concepts changed throughout the eight years of primary school.

The three studies above yielded no information about factors related to the learning experience or the students themselves. To address this gap, two experiments were carried out. These required the development of classroom materials that met the students’ normal science program requirements, incorporated different learning conditions or pedagogy, and controlled for other variables such as time on task and task context. Two key differences in the pedagogy experienced by each class were productive struggle versus tell and practice methodology and expansive framing versus bounded framing. With productive struggle, Richland, Stigler and Holyoak (2012, p. 2) students engaged with a task before being shown how the science concept could be used, whereas tell and practice students had the concept explained before they practised applying it in the same task. Expansive framing (Engle, Lam, Meyer, & Nix, 2012) refers to the way the concept is linked to students experience of the world outside of the classroom, as distinct from bounded framing which makes no reference to the learning of the concept outside the current classroom unit of work. The research question addressed in these studies moved beyond the description of factors in response to the initial question to describing the impact these factors on the transfer of science concepts. The question describing these studies was: How do factors relating to the students themselves, the concepts, the way these concepts were taught, the way transfer is measured together affect transfer of learning. The pilot study (Chapter 5.2) tested these materials using three classes (n=76) taught science by the same teacher. At the end of the unit, there was no difference in students’ transfer of chemical science concepts related to gases between the three pedagogy conditions, but after four weeks, there was a small but non-significant difference in favour of the class who had productive struggle pedagogy. After a further ten weeks, the difference between the classes with and without productive struggle class was significant (p<0.05), suggesting that productive struggle pays dividends in far transfer. Near and far transfer in this study are distinguished by their distance from the time of learning, along the dimensions described by Barnett and Ceci (2002).

The field study (Chapter 5.3) involved a larger student cohort (n=244). In addition to measuring transfer of the targeted concepts about tectonic plates and electrical energy flow, several additional factors relating to students themselves such as prior knowledge, learning dispositions and preferences and absences from class, were measured. These included a measure of student learning dispositions using the Crick Learning for Resilient Agency (CLARA) tool (Deakin Crick, Huang, Ahmed Shafi, & Goldspink, 2015). CLARA uses an online survey tool to provide a score for each of 8 student learning dispositions: mindful agency, sense-making, creativity, curiosity, belonging, collaboration, hope and optimism and orientation to learning. For the classes with high challenge pedagogy (incorporating productive struggle and expansive framing), there was a small but non-significant difference in the number of students transferring the science concepts in challenging tasks. However, when student learning dispositions were taken into account, this increase in transfer of learning found within the high challenge pedagogy group was highest in those students with average CLARA scores in Belonging, Collaboration, Hope and Optimism and Curiosity. For students with high CLARA scores, the pedagogy made little difference in their transfer of the targeted concept. Small sample sizes precluded statistical analysis of the differences found. The impact on transfer of a range of other factors was described, both individually and in combination with pedagogy.

As with other studies in the long history of transfer research, this study did not produce conclusive evidence of either a single factor or even a combination of factors that can be exploited to deliver transfer of learning. Instead, it described a complex web of interacting factors that together, and undoubtedly in combination with others not included in this study, affect when, where, and what students transfer. The implications for members of the education community at different levels are discussed. For teachers, these include the need for clarity around the targeted concept and the kind of transfer required to enable them to select appropriate pedagogy and give feedback addressing the needs of different learners. For students, the emphasis is on being actively involved in their own learning and making the most of feedback - self, peer, and teacher provided. For education policymakers, curriculum writers, and assessment item developers, ensuring consistency between the curriculum descriptions and the kind of transfer assessed supports teachers to make decisions about the most efficient and effective pedagogy. Finally, for transfer researchers, future research informed by a two-way exchange of information and expertise between the researchers collecting and interpreting data sets and the teachers and students providing that data might mean that the findings are potentially better placed to improve student learning outcomes.

Keywords: transfer of learning, pedagogy, high challenge pedagogy, learner dispositions, primary school science, classroom research

Subject: Education thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2022
School: College of Science and Engineering
Supervisor: Karen Burke Da Silva