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Improving instruction in multicultural classes by using classroom learning environment.

The purpose of this study was to examine the impact of assisting science classroom teachers in multicultural classes in obtaining information about student perception of the learning environment and guiding systematic improvement in science classroom environments by using the practical program proposed by Fraser (1981) and Fraser & O'Brien (1985). The instrument used in this study to assess the differences in student perception of ideal and preferred classroom environment was the short form of the My Class Inventory (MCI). The study sampled 1216 science students, grades 6-8, from six urban multicultural public schools. Although this study resulted in only four successful attempts out of ten at improving classroom environments, Fraser (1986) reports over 70 successful studies suggesting the potential usefulness of science teachers employing classroom environment instruments to provide meaningful information about their classroom and be guided to improvements in classroom environment. Further study is necessary to determine how effective improvement strategies are in reducing discrepancies between students' actual and preferred environments and the impact of these reductions on achievement of school goals.

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The purpose of this study was to examine the impact of assisting science classroom teachers in multicultural classes in obtaining information about student perception of the learning environment and guiding systematic improvement in science classroom environments by using the practical program proposed by Fraser (1981) and Fraser & O'Brien (1985). Early classroom environment research has investigated the association between students' cognitive and affective learning outcomes and their perceptions of psychosocial characteristics of their classrooms. More recently, person-environment research has appeared in the fields of business, vocational education and those studying teacher stress (Meir & Tzadok, 2000; Goodman & Svyantek, 1999; and Pithers, 1999).

Hadi-Tabassum (1999) assessed the nature and quality of student attitudes toward their environment and changed the classroom in order to gain increase academic improvement; "we expanded the notion of a science classroom by making every effort to go beyond the ordinary shape and form of a science classroom in order to nurture a proliferation of ideas." Fouts & Myers (1992) performed a replication study indicating that their significant results added to a growing empirical base indicating that student views are determined, in part, by the classroom environment. The same researchers, in another study, conducted a cluster analysis of 27 science classes and concluded that the dimensions of the classroom environment which make a difference are those that teachers may develop and change. (Myers & Fouts, 1992).

Fraser (1989) reviewed over sixty studies in which the effects of classroom environment on science student outcomes were investigated. The findings of the studies suggest that student outcomes can be improved by creating classroom environments which are conducive to learning. All sixty classroom environment studies reviewed by Fraser (1989) used student perceptual data. None relied on outside observers. This approach is limited by the assumption that the students can render valid judgments about the classroom. Additionally, it has the shortcomings of questionnaires in general. Questionnaires contain predetermined categories and the assumption is made that the students can read and comprehend the statements.

Method

The instrument used in this study to assess the differences in student perception of ideal and preferred classroom environment was the short form of the My Class Inventory (MCI). It contains only five scales (Cohesiveness, Friction, Difficulty, Satisfaction and Competitiveness).

The study sampled 1216 science students, grades 6-8, from six urban multicultural public schools. The sample students were diverse in terms of racial and ethnic backgrounds and all were considered academically at-risk by the school district based on low standardized test scores, English proficiency (one of the six schools in the study housed the English as a Second Language Unit that was host school for non-English speaking refugee children,) and socio-economic-status (based on the number of students on free and reduced meals.) Twelve teachers were involved in the study; six experimental and six control groups completed pretest and posttest My Class Inventories. Pre-testing was conducted in October followed by post-testing in April of the same academic year. The experimental treatment lasted for approximately two months and consisted of teacher-generated strategies based on feedback developed from student discrepancies on ideal-real versions of the MCI. Person-Environment Fit scores were computed by subtracting real (actual) environment scores from ideal (preferred) scores. The Climate Vector was computed by subtracting the posttest PEF scores from pretest PEF scores.

The treatment given to the experimental group consisted of the feedback from the My Class Inventory (MCI). Profiles derived from the student responses were provided permitting ready identification of the changes needed to reduce major differences between the nature of the actual and preferred environment perceived by the students.

The following steps were suggested by Fraser (1981b) and Fraser & O'Brien (1985) to improve environments by providing profiles: assessment, feedback, reflection and discussion, intervention, and reassessment.

Assessment:

Teachers received identical administration instructions directing them to distribute the actual version of the MCI and see that student completed it. After collecting the actual version, they were to administer the preferred version in a like manner. This was to be done during the same class period. Teachers were instructed to read the questionnaire to the students. This was done to prevent reading difficulties from confounding the study. Some of the teachers indicated that they had not read all of the items to all of their students. The preferred and actual forms were administered during the same class period.

Feedback:

Data were summarized and given to the experimental teachers in profiles representing class means of students' actual and preferred environment scores.

Reflection and Discussion:

Teachers from the experimental classes received feedback based on discrepancies between student ideal-real pretest scores. The profiles they received consisted of bar graphs comparing the two test scores. Teachers were to reflect upon and discuss the profile with colleagues and the researcher. If a sizable pretest difference occurred and the teacher was concerned about the discrepancy, then improvement strategies were to be planned.

Intervention:

The teachers introduced the intervention for approximately two months in an attempt to change the environment. The intervention consisted of a variety of strategies, some from discussions with the researcher and others from examination of the ideas contained in the MCI items.

Reassessment:

The actual student form of the MCI was re-administered at the end of the intervention to both control and experimental classes.

Results

The study was composed of a control and experimental group of six classes each. t-tests were used to test group mean differences between student actual and preferred inventories on both experimental and control groups. Group mean differences were compared in the following manner: experimental AND control groups on pretest results only or on posttest only; experimental OR control groups on a retest results only or posttest only; and finally on experimental and control groups on pretest-posttest results. Analysis of variance also tested group mean differences accounting for the effects of group membership (experimental or control) and over time (pretest versus posttest). PEF, Person-Environment Fit Score, as defined in this study, is a numerical score indicating the amount of discrepancy between actual and preferred scores on the MCI. The closer that the PEF score is to zero the better, since this would indicate little variance between what a student would prefer and what the student feels exists in their classroom. This score is determined by subtracting the actual minus the preferred score on both pretest and posttest for both groups. When the posttest PEF score is subtracted from pretest scores, another sum, called the Classroom Climate Vector is determined. The following will illustrate how to arrive at this score. Whenever the MCI is administered:

Ideal Score minus Real Score = Person Environment Fit Score (PEF) (first difference)

PEF Score minus PEF Score = Climate Vector Score (second difference)

A Person-Environment Fit score (PEF) was computed for each student by finding the difference between the scores on the My Class Inventory when students described the "preferred environment" and when they described the "actual environment" for their classes. In the "ideal" classroom, PEF scores would be zero; that is, there would be no difference between the preferred and actual classroom climate.

The summary of treatment activities shows that when teachers chose areas for improvement, four directed efforts into two areas while the remaining two teachers chose only one climate dimension for improvement. The classroom environmental improvement strategies included:

a. Varying classroom grouping practices (to raise cohesiveness.)

b. Redirecting competition from individual to between science groups only (to lower competitiveness.)

c. Formation of discussion groups to foster improved social skills and conflict resolution (to raise cohesiveness.)

d. Small group meetings to identify learning activities and projects that would raise levels of cooperation and understanding (to lower friction.)

e. Implementation of homework grading program and changes of grouping practices (to raise satisfaction.)

f. No implementation of any other than normal teacher activity (target climate area was to raise satisfaction.)

Teachers received feedback and used it to address a discrepancy on a variable of the MCI. The variable to be addressed should have shown a discrepancy between real and ideal perception in the pretest.

Summary

The proper interpretation of PEF scores is critical. Teachers should examine and discuss the climate dimensions with corresponding questionnaire items, one by one. A support and assistance program within the process is advised. This would insure that teachers choose only statistically significant target areas to begin with and that they understood the climate dimension itself.

The MCI seems to be a valuable instrument to measure student perception of person-environment fit in classrooms. It can identify discrepancies in classroom person-environment fit and teachers can be given feedback to devise an improvement program, but what activities should the teacher use to reduce PEF scores? This study examined change strategies used by six teachers. Until further research can spell out what strategies are best to improve different climate dimensions the following is proposed for consideration.

Teachers seeking to improve the climate in their classroom should be aware of the environmental structures and possible influences on the person-environment fit. In the present study student grouping was attempted in several improvement attempts but was effective in only the Satisfaction dimension. More research is needed to identify effective approaches for addressing other climate dimensions. Principals and supervisors may be able to help teachers improve their classroom environments. The change agent should be the teacher desiring to cause the change. However, environmental improvement is not likely to be improved through administrative mandates. Teachers must feel an ownership in the plan, value it and want to use it in their classes. One support researcher for every teacher change agent would be ideal. Significant pretest profiles should be analyzed and target dimensions identified together. Other supportive steps outlined earlier would improve the likelihood of success. Fraser (1989) views the process as a cycle. The five steps, assessment, feedback, reflection/discussion, intervention and reassessment can be repeated one or more times until changes in the classroom environment reach the desired level.

Although this study resulted in only four successful attempts out of ten at improving classroom environments, Fraser (1986) reports over 70 successful studies suggesting the potential usefulness of science teachers employing classroom environment instruments to provide meaningful information about their classroom and be guided to improvements in classroom environment.

Teachers will feel less pressured if they are aware of the cyclical nature of the process. If they do not succeed in reducing PEF score during the first attempt, they can try again later. Theories of environmental structure and target students (Tobin and Gallagher, 1986) should be offered as in-service training to the teachers.

Implications

The following are some implications of the study for teachers. They need to be aware of classroom climate and the need for responsiveness to student perception of that environment. This can be accomplished by the use of the MCI and Fraser's (1981b) improvement plan. With support, during the improvement plan to address implementation concerns covered earlier, teachers can become change agents in their own classrooms. The body of research in this field clearly ties student achievement to classroom climate (Fraser, 1989).

What is needed in future research is better descriptions of teachers' uses of the MCI and resulting feedback for practical, school-based purposes. Effective classroom environment improvement strategies are needed as well as confirmation of the usefulness of cooperative learning situations in science classrooms. Fraser's (1989) proposal for deliberate change in classroom environment to establish clearer relationships to student outcome is repeated here. Also, linkage is needed between classroom climate and important aspects of schooling. Climate and its relationship to pupil outcome is a needed area for study as well as classroom climate and its relationship to social goals. Also, studies are needed to determine how problem solving and critical thinking are affected by classroom environment. Is there a relationship between higher order thinking skills and aspects of classroom climate? Current thought encourages mainstreaming of special education students. Special education classroom environment studies are needed to see if there are climate relationships between special education and mainstreamed classes.

Further study is necessary to determine how effective improvement strategies are in reducing discrepancies between students' actual and preferred environments and the impact of these reductions on achievement of school goals.

References

Fisher, D. L., & Fraser, B. J. (1981). Validity and use of the my class inventory (MCI). Science Education, 65, 145-156.

Chavez, R. C. (1984). The use of high-inference measures to study classroom climates: A Review. Review of Educational Research, 54, 237-261.

Forlenza, V. A. & Willower, D. J. (1980). Students' perceptions of ideal and actual teacher pupil control behavior and reading achievement. Child Study Journal, 10, 49-57.

Fouts, J. & Myers, R. (1992). Classroom environments and middle school students' views of science. Journal of Educational Research, 85, 356-361.

Fraser, B. J. (1981a). Learning environment in curriculum evaluation: A Review. Evaluation in Education Series, Oxford: Pergamon.

Fraser, B. J. (1981b). Using environmental assessments to make better classrooms. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 13, 131-144.

Fraser, B. J. (1986). Two decades of research on perceptions of classroom environment. In B. Fraser (Ed.), The Study of Learning Environments Volume One. Perth: Curtin University of Technology.

Fraser, B. J. (1989). Learning environment research in science classrooms: Past progress and future prospects. NARST Monograph, Number Two. Western Australia: Curtin University of Technology.

Fraser, B. J., Anderson, G. J., & Walberg, H. J. (1982). Assessment of learning environments: Manual for learning environment inventory (LEI) and my class inventor3, (MCI). Western Australia: Curtin Institute of Technology.

Fraser, B. J., & Fisher, D. L. (1986). Using short forms of classroom climate instruments to access and improve classroom psychosocial environment. Journal of Research in Teaching, 23, 387-413.

Fraser, B. J., & Walberg, H. J. (1981). Psychosocial learning environment in science classrooms: A review of research. Studies in Science Education, 8, 67-92.

Fraser, B. J., Walberg, H. J., Welch, W. W. & Hattie, J. A. (1987). Synthesis of educational productivity research. International Journal of Educational Research, 11, 145-252.

Goodman, S.A. & Svyantek, D.J. (1999). Person-organizational fit and Contextual performance: Do shared values matter? Journal of Vocational Behavior, 55, 254-275.

Guzzetti, B. & Williams, W. (1996). Gender, text, and discussion: Examining intellectual safety in the science classroom. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 33, 5-20.

Hadi-Tabassum, S. (1999) Assessing students' attitudes & achievement in a multicultural and multilingual science classroom. Multicultural Education, 7, 15-20.

Haertel, G. D., Walberg, H. J., & Haertel, E. H. (1981). Socio-psychological environments and learning: A quantitative synthesis. British Educational Research Journal, 7, 27-36.

Krugly-Smolska, E. (1996). Science culture, multiculturalism and the science classroom. Science & Education, 5, 21-29.

Meir, E.I. & Tzadok, N. (2000). The didactic measures of environmental congruence. Journal of Career Assessment, 8, 147-158.

Myers, R. & Fours, J. (1992) A cluster analysis of high school science classroom environments and attitudes toward science. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 29, 929-937.

Pithers, R.T. (1999) Person-environment fit and teacher stress. Educational Research, 41, 51-61.

Surrey, C. & Roth, W. (1999). Student self-evaluations of open-ended projects in a grade 9 science classroom. Research in Science Education, 29, 431-443.

Walberg, H. J. (1987). Learning environments reconsidered: Educational productivity and talent development. In B. Fraser (Ed.), The Study of Learning Environments Volume Three. Perth: Curtin University of Technology.

Dr. Thomas Diamantes, Faculty, Wright State University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Thomas Diamantes, Wright State University, Dayton, OH 45435.
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Author:Diamantes, Thomas
Publication:Journal of Instructional Psychology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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