Thursday, March 3, 2016

Using Surveys as Part of the Evaluation of School Science Programs

Surveys of students, teachers, and community members will provide critical information in the process of determining whether changes made to your science education program improve desired outcomes. Many important questions cannot be answered through typical science assessments. While it’s clearly essential that students understand and can do science, do they sincerely believe that someone like themselves could be a scientist? Further, are you changing not just knowledge of, but beliefs about, science? Do students see how science relates to their lives? Is it meaningful for them? Or, do they see a need to question “scientific evidence” within popular media?

A recent article in National Geographic noted that solid, research-based science often faces organized and angry opposition. We don’t want students leaving school doubting the consensus of the scientific community (unless they somehow have sufficient, valid evidence to doubt a claim). They can understand how vaccines work and still decide not to have their children vaccinated. It’s unfortunate that our society believes in science, but not its findings.

Furthermore, do students understand who scientists are and what they do? While it was created as a tool for K-5, the “Draw-a-Scientist” test (DAST) could be done at secondary levels as well. My 8th graders certainly held onto stereotypes of scientists. We want students to see science as including a wide-range of tasks by a wide-range of people, particularly people who look like them and have interests similar to their own.

Here are a few sample surveys of student attitudes: 

These surveys can provide teachers with data to evaluate their individual courses and the science program more generally.

While surveys of student outcomes are critical within a system of assessments, it’s also important to understand the views of parents/community members and teachers during the change process. Surveying parents and other community members can help ensure they’re aware of and meaningfully connecting to the school science vision and students’ science learning. Teacher surveys can ensure they’re comfortable teaching their content and the practices of science in accordance with the vision for science learning. Within results, you can look at trends by demographics, such as race and ethnicity, or differences between new and veteran teachers.

In a survey of parents and community members, you probably don’t want to get into the content being taught. Hearing about personal views of evolution and climate change isn’t necessary for these purposes. Questions could have a Likert-scale format, with selections from strongly agree to strongly disagree. Some examples include:
  • Through the science courses, I believe my student is becoming a better scientific thinker (for the broader community that would be rephrased as “students are becoming”).  
  • I am familiar with the district vision for science education. 
  • I believe my student is receiving a quality foundation in his/her science classes to pursue science careers in the future. 
  • I believe my student is being well-prepared for science classes at the college or university level.

There should also be an open-ended text box, asking survey takers to please share any comments or questions about the science education program at their school. Of course, even with community input, you’re not going to resort to poor instructional practice that isn’t research based, like lecture. Educators are the professionals in this setting. You may, however, decide to make more career linkages in your courses or bring in more guest scientists.

It’s also important to know where teachers are at in the change process. Are they getting the support they need in teaching science? Tools like the Survey of Enacted Curriculum (SEC) can also let educators and administrators know whether what they’re doing actually lines up with the intentions of the instructional program. It’s not a “gotcha” system, but an approach like Lesson Study that can lead to tremendous, collaborative professional learning.

A brief endnote… While it is true that for statistically-validated studies surveys need to undergo extensive testing, everyday school surveys can provide a useful piece of information for guiding instructional programs. Surveys linked above have largely undergone testing and include multiple item constructs, so using them or learning from them is a good step.

Some other tips for creating quality surveys include: 
  • Use multiple questions to measure each idea or topic. Looking at several questions together provides a more valid picture of what people really think.  
  • Have a student, parent, etc. verbally talk through their thoughts on the survey with you. They think aloud as they read and answer the questions. Are they understanding the questions in the way that was intended? Is there some confusing wording? Having people of different backgrounds do so helps ensure the questions are similarly interpreted by people. 
  • A focus group, with a neutral facilitator (i.e., not your boss), can provide a different perspective and bring out ideas that a survey cannot. It can also inform survey development.  
  • Pilot the survey before sending it out broadly. 
  • Here are a few further tips for online surveys.

And, yes, it takes extra time and effort to know whether you’re actually making a long-term difference for your students and whether the large-scale changes improve classroom practice, but it’s worth it. 

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