Pupil Interest in Physics: A Survey in Finland

A report by the University of Helsinki (Jari Lavonen, Reijo Byman, Kalle Juuti, Veijo Maisalo, Anna Uitto), NorDiNa 2/05

This report analyses the results of a survey consisting of 3,626 pupils (median age 15, 1,772 of whom were girls) in 61 schools, respondents from an original sample of 4,954 pupils from 75 schools (about 65 pupils per school). The survey was carried out in 2003 and the number of responses came to 7% of the whole age cohort, representing the Finnish population “quite well”.

The report maps preceding research in pupil interest in physics, making use of the distinction between catching interest: “variables that initially stimulated pupils to become interested in a specific topic” and “holding interest [which] refers to variables that empower pupils with a clear goal or purpose”. Once interest is triggered, “the critical phase is how to hold it long enough so that it leads to an intrinsic motivation to study physics”. Making the shift from “situational” interest to “personal interest” can occur by providing “learning conditions that make the content of learning meaningful and personally relevant to pupils”. This approach is further emphasised by consensus from existing research that “the context in which the science ideas are taught, rather than the ideas themselves, is an important influence on interest.”

The survey finds that boys “indicate an interest towards the understanding and use of electrical and mechanical equipment” whereas the less interesting things for girls “were connected in some way to artefacts and technological processes” and were instead “connected in some way to being a human being” (boys found this interesting also, though not quite as much as girls). This focus on the human being as opposed to technical contexts applies to socially oriented ones as well: “pupils were not so interested in understanding about skills where they might need to think and act scientifically as a member of the local, national and global communities (How electricity has affected the development of our society; Electricity, how it is produced and used in the home).” Environmental attitudes were an exception to this, however, and researchers suggest that “girls could be interested in physics education in the context of environment or sustainable development such as the production of renewable energy sources.” Noting the relatively low interest levels in technically-oriented learning, especially among girls, the researchers advise that “It is important to find more versatile approaches to show technical application’s interestingness and importance for all pupils. Everyone uses technical applications; therefore, usability testing and user-centred design could be interesting study contexts”. They also highlight the importance of learning materials, stating that materials “should show that science is useful both in everyday life and in further studies and occupations”, reiterating that “It is valuable if phenomena can be connected to real contexts pupils are interested about or what concerns directly themselves”.

Pupil Interest in Physics: A Survey in Finland – full report