Research Summary

Students' Interest in Science across the World: Findings from the PISA study

Results of an International Test of Scientific Literacy and Attitudes

International Journal of Science Education

The International Journal of Science Education devoted its first issue of 2011 to reporting on the results of the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The test is sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and is administered every three years to students in OECD countries and other participating countries. The exam measures competence among 15-year-olds in the areas of reading, mathematics, and science. Each time the test is administered, the primary subject area changes. The test was introduced in 2000, and 2006 was the first time that it focused on science.

The PISA survey is unlike other assessments of scientific literacy in two key ways. First, the test is forward-looking. Rather than looking back at what students should have learned up until a certain point, the survey looks forward and gauges the extent to which students can apply what they’ve learned in science in novel settings. In this way, organizers hope that the test better examines how students actually use science in their lives.

Another way in which the PISA survey is different from traditional standardized tests is that it includes measures of students’ attitudes toward science. The test’s organizers recognized that the ways that students apply science in their lives depends not only on what they know, but also on emotional elements such as their interests, attitudes, values, and so on. To better understand both cognitive and affective aspects of scientific literacy, the test includes questions addressing student attitudes.

The test examined the following areas: scientific literacy; science content; scientific competencies; personal, social, and global contexts; and attitudes toward science. The attitudinal dimension included questions related to students’ interest in science, support of the process of scientific inquiry, and responsibility toward resources and environments.

Interestingly, the results indicate that students in countries with lower mean scores on the science knowledge scale show high levels of interest in science, while students in countries with higher scores show lower levels of interest, a finding that confirms results of other international studies. On average across OECD countries, males show significantly more interest than females in learning science. Males also are more confident in their science skills, but their confidence does not seem to be related to their actual level of competence.

In looking forward toward future careers, few students in OECD countries (21%) reported an interest in spending their lives doing science, although a majority enjoy science and find it important for future studies. In thinking about possible future careers in science, girls tend to favor “soft science” jobs such as health-related careers, while boys favor “hard science” jobs such as engineering.

All students showed a preference for topics related to their own lives, such as health and safety, and less interest in topics with little personal relevance. But, interestingly, students’ patterns of interest in science varied by large groups of countries that researchers categorized as European and non-European. The non-European students (broadly, from Arab, Asian, and Latin American countries, among others) showed a distinct interest in life and health issues, while the European students (broadly from Europe, North America, Australia, and other countries) preferred physical/technological systems. Researchers Olsen and Lie speculate that “this suggests that students in the non-European supercluster tend to favour items relating to basic needs for survival, such as learning about fertilizers and the ways plants spread their seeds, while students in the European countries seem to take issues like these for granted and instead express relatively stronger interest for issues relating to technology and the frontiers of science.”

The Bottom Line

Researchers Ainley and Ainley found similar results in analyzing students’ patterns of interest in science and their cultural backgrounds. The students’ background influenced how students’ knowledge and attitudes affected their interest in science. The researchers conclude that “programmes of science education that are perceived by students to be personally important and that they enjoy doing will be associated with stronger interest in learning about science.”