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Examining science classroom environments in a cross-national study

Jill M. Aldridge and Barry J. Fraser
Science and Mathematics Education Centre
Curtin University of Technology
This study combined qualitative and quantitative research methods in examining the learning environments of science classrooms in Taiwan and Australia. To provide a parsimonious view of the learning environments in each country, the What Is Happening In This Classroom (WIHIC) questionnaire was administered to 50 lower secondary school science classes in Taiwan (1879 students) and Australia (1081 students). The questionnaire provided data regarding students' perceptions of the seven dimensions of Student Cohesiveness, Teacher Support, Involvement, Investigation, Task Orientation, Cooperation and Equity. The data from the questionnaires were used to guide the collection of qualitative data. Dimensions on which larger differences between Taiwan and Australia occurred were examined more closely using observations, interviews and stories. The findings contributed towards explaining differences in student perceptions and tentatively suggest: that students perceptions of their learning environment are influenced by socio-cultural factors; the need for caution when using a questionnaire framed in a Western context in a different culture; and implications for future research involving cross-national studies.


Different cultures perceive science and the nature of science differently and these differences partly reflect the culture and history of the country involved (Kawasaki, 1996). This study examined the learning environments in science classrooms in two countries with very different cultural, historical and educational backgrounds. To enable the researchers to interpret the quantitative data in a way that was meaningful to both cultures, it was considered important to consider the socio-cultural perspectives of teachers, students and researchers.

This study forms part of a larger, ongoing study that is examining the nature, determinants and effects of learning environments of science classrooms in Taiwan and Australia. This aspect of the study examines seven dimensions of the learning environment as assessed using the What Is Happening In This Classroom (WIHIC) questionnaire.


The importance of the classroom learning environment has been increasingly recognised over the past 20 years (Fraser, 1994). The classroom is a focal point for student interpersonal and educational development. The assumption that there exists a learning environment which mediates these aspects of development began as early as the 1930s when Lewin (1936) recognised that both the environment and the individual were powerful determinants of human behaviour. Lewin introduced the formula B=f (P, E) to describe human behaviour (B) as the result of two interdependent influences, the person (P) and the environment (E).

Building on the findings of Lewin, Murray (1938) identified a Needs-Press Model of interaction in which personal needs, or "motivational personality characteristics", represent the tendency for individuals to move in the direction of goals, whereas the environmental press is the external situational counterpart that either supports or frustrates the expression of these needs. Murray's Model suggests that situational variables found in the classroom environment can account for behavioural variance. Whilst his Needs-Press Model of interaction was more applicable to the study of personality than the teaching-learning process, researchers have sought ways to identify the situational variables recognised in the Needs-Press Model (Anderson & Walberg, 1974; Moos, 1974).

Based on Murray's Needs-Press Model, Stern (1970) formulated a Person-Environment Congruence Theory, which proposes that, when personal needs and environmental press are more congruent, student outcomes are enhanced. Also following the work of Murray's Needs-Press Model, Getzels and Thelen (1960) put forward a model that describes the class as a social system and suggests that group behaviour can be predicted from the interaction of personality needs, expectations and the classroom environment.

Walberg's theory of educational productivity (Walberg, Fraser & Welch, 1986) provides a more sophisticated multi-factor model of learning which extends the models of Lewin and Murray. Walberg identified nine productivity factors that need to be optimised to increase affective, behavioural and cognitive learning. These productivity factors fall into three groups: student age, ability and motivation; the amount and quality of instruction; and the psychosocial environments of the home, school and peer group outside the school (Walberg, Parscarella, Haertel, Junker & Boulanger, 1981).

Development of the What Is Happening In This Classroom (WIHIC)

To provide a parsimonious view of the learning environment in high school science classes in Australia and Taiwan, the What Is Happening In This Classroom (WIHIC) questionnaire was administered to students in junior high school science classes in government co-educational schools in each country. The questionnaires was responded to by 1879 students in 50 classes in Taiwan and 1081 students in 50 classes in Australia. Developed by Fraser, McRobbie and Fisher (1996), The WIHIC measures high school students' perceptions of their classroom environment.

Over the past 20 years, a number of instruments have been developed to measure classroom environments (Fraser, 1991; Fraser, 1994). Each of these instruments is valuable in its own right, has been used extensively in research and has demonstrated reliability in comprehensive field trials. Collectively, however, there is some overlap in the dimensions which they measure.

Also some instruments developed in the past exclude dimensions and items that are most pertinent in today's school settings. According to Fraser, McRobbie and Fisher (1996), earlier instruments, including the Learning Environment Instrument (LEI; Anderson & Walberg, 1974; Fraser, Anderson & Walberg, 1982) and Classroom Environment Scale (CES; Moos & Trickett, 1974), contain items that are more relevant to teacher-centred classrooms than to the student-centred settings that are more common today.

The WIHIC measures a wide range of dimensions which are important to the present situation in classrooms. It includes relevant dimensions from past questionnaires and combines these with dimensions that measure aspects of constructivism and other emphases relevant to the environment of contemporary classrooms (Fraser, McRobbie & Fisher, 1996). A description for each scale in the WIHIC is presented in Table 1.

The present study involved the use of a 'personal' form of the WIHIC. This form uses the same scales and items as the 'class' form, but is worded to elicit the student's perception of his or her individual role within the class room, as opposed to the student's perception of the class as a whole (Fraser, 1994; Fraser, McRobbie & Fisher, 1996; Fraser, Giddings & McRobbie, 1995; Fraser & McRobbie, 1995).

The need for a 'personal' form of classroom environment questionnaires was identified by Fraser and Tobin (1991) and Tobin and Fraser (1997) when they remarked on the inability of existing questionnaires to identify subgroups (e.g. based on sex or culture) within a class. The use of a 'personal' form, as opposed to a 'class' form, provides a useful tool for research involving case studies of individual students (Fraser & McRobbie, 1995). The personal form was used in this study to provide information about particular subgroups and individual students whom were interviewed.

Table 1: Scale description for each scale in the
What Is Happening In This Classroom (WIHIC) Questionnaire

WIHIC Scale Description: The extent to which...

Student cohesiveness...students are friendly and supportive of each other.
Teacher support... the teacher helps, befriends, and is interested in students.
Involvement... students have attentive interest, participate in class and are involved with other students in assessing the viability of new ideas.
Investigation... there is emphasis on the skills and of inquiry and their use in problem-solving and investigation.
Task orientation... it is important to complete planned activities and stay on the subject matter.
Cooperation... students cooperate with each other during activities.
Equity... the teacher treats students equally, including distributing praise, question distribution and opportunities to be included in discussions.

The WIHIC uses a five-point Likert-type response scale and requires students to signify how often they perceive a classroom practice is occurring. The responses of 'Almost Never', 'Seldom', 'Sometimes', 'Often' and 'Almost are scored on a five-point scale.


Quantitative data collection

The first step in this study was the development of a Mandarin version of the WIHIC. The questionnaire was translated into Mandarin, then translated back into English by an individual who was not involved in the initial translation. At this stage, modifications were made to the English and Mandarin versions of the questionnaire to ensure consistency in meanings. Both versions of the questionnaire were trialled in their respective countries in three classes with students being interviewed to ensure that they understood the items.

The questionnaire was then administered to 1879 students in 50 junior high school science classes in Taiwan and 1081 students in 50 junior high school science classes in Australia. The data were analysed to check the internal consistency and a priori factor structure. The data were also used to determine the means and standard deviations of the seven scales in each of the countries.

Qualitative data collection

The questionnaire data were used to guide the collection of qualitative data. The selection of focus dimensions were made on the basis of the largest differences between mean scale scores between the two countries. Qualitative data were then collected using a variety of methods, including observations of classrooms and interviews with students and teachers and descriptive stories written by the researchers. The collection of qualitative data was an important step that enabled researchers to interpret the questionnaire data more meaningfully and provide richer insights into the results from each country. Two dimensions that were found to have a particularly large differences between countries were Involvement and Equity.

Three classrooms were observed on at least two separate occasions. The focus of the observations were guided by specific scales in the questionnaire. Video tapes, field notes and audio recordings were made of each observation for later reference. The observations were made by a researcher from Taiwan and Australia and used to help explain differences in means of particular scales.

Student responses to individual questionnaire items were used to form an interview schedule. The interviews were used, firstly, to determine whether items had been interpreted in similar ways to the researchers, as it is well documented that students may interpret the same items differently, according to past experiences (Lemke, 1985). Secondly the interviews were used to help to explain differences in questionnaire scale means between countries. Interviews were conducted with three students from two of the classes observed in each of Australia and Taiwan. During the interviews, students were asked questions related to observations made in the class and questions related directly to the students' responses to the questionnaire. Students were asked to explain the reasons for their responses and, wherever possible, back their statement with an example. The responses were later analysed to clarify whether students interpretations of the questionnaire items differed from those of the researchers.

Interviews were conducted with the teachers of those classes that were observed. The teacher interviews were based on observations and attempted to explain particular actions of the teachers during the lesson. Interviews with teachers and students were conducted in Mandarin and translated into English, for the benefit of the Australian researcher.

Finally, stories were used in an attempt to determine the cultural differences that the researchers brought to the project. The use of anecdotes (or stories) has become an increasingly popular source of insight into human nature (Carter, 1993; Casey, 1995; Shulman, 1992). Anecdotes have the ability to convey meaningful insights into the perceptions of the writers and can be used to determine factors that could influence the learning environment (Wallace, 1997). After each observation (made by two of the researchers, one from Taiwan and one from Australia), each researchers wrote a story about a specific incident. Stories were written in the native language of the respective researchers, to capture the essence of the observation and preserve as much detail as possible. Stories written in Mandarin were later translated onto an audio tape and transcribed by the Australian researcher.

The stories provided commentaries regarding the similarities and differences between interpretations of the incident which were analysed to: determine cultural influences on the researchers' perspectives of what they observed; provide a more complete picture of what occurred during the incident; and help to explain the differences in means between the two countries.


Quantitative data collection

Item and factor analysis were used to identify two items in each scale whose removal enhanced the internal consistency and factorial validity of the instrument. For the resulting 56-item version, the reliability of the seven scales in each country was calculated for two units of analysis (the individual students and the class mean). In terms of Cronbach alpha reliability coefficients, factor analysis results and ANOVA results for the ability to differentiate between classrooms, the questionnaire data support the reliability and validity of the WIHIC.

The resulting 56-item version had eight items in each of the seven scales. The results confirmed strongly the a priori factor structure in both Taiwan and Australia (see Table 2). The alpha reliability (Cronbach alpha reliability), using the class mean as the unit of analysis, ranged from 0.87 to 0.97 in A ustralia and from 0.90 to 0.96 in Taiwan (reported in Table 3). The eta2 statistic was calculated to provide an indication of the degree to which each scale could differentiate between the perceptions of students in different classes. The eta2 statistic (representing the amount of variance accounted for by class membership), reported in Table 3, ranged from 0.09 to 0.15 for Australian classes and between 0.07 and 0.36 for Taiwanese classes. For both Australia and Taiwan, every scale, was capable of differentiating significantly between classes (p<0.05).

Table 2: Factor structure for the
What Is Happening In This Classroom (WIHIC) questionnaire

Factor loadings
Involvement Investigation Task
Cooperation Equity
Item No. AustTaiw AustTaiw AustTaiw AustTaiw AustTaiw AustTaiw AustTaiw

1 .62.59
2 .47.56
3 .53.68
4 .68.60
7 .60.71
8 --
9 .64.63
10 -.59
11 .64.67
12 .68.65
13 .65.75
14 .56.55
15 .63.62
16 .68.70
17 .62.59
19 .43-
21 .65.53
22 .77.65
23 .46-
24 .58.50
25 .47.41
26 .49.45
27 --
29 --
32 .65.61
33 .58.64
34 .71.70
35 .63.61
36 .64.68
37 .63.66
39 .66.66
40 .61.64
42 .65.49
44 .58.49
45 .55.59
46 .62.51
47 .71.54
48 .65.58
49 .67.62
50 .63.58
51 .55.44
52 .59.40
53 .58.53
54 .63.47
55 .65.47
56 .67.54
57 .62.58
58 .52.56
61 .68.56
63 .70.60
64 .69.67
65 .71.66
66 .72.71
67 .74.58
69 .63.60
70 .68.64

Note: Loadings smaller than .4 omitted

Table 3: Internal consistency reliability (Cronbach alpha coefficient) and discriminant validity (mean correlation with other scales) for two units of analysis and ability to differentiate between classrooms for the WIHIC

Alpha reliability
Mean correlation with other scales
Class meanIndivid Class meanIndivid IndividIndivid Class meanIndivid Class meanIndivid
Scale N=50N=1081 N=50N=1879 N=1081N=1879 N=50N=1081 N=50N=1879

Student cohesiveness 0.870.81 0.910.86 0.11**0.07** 0.440.33 0.450.41
Teacher support 0.950.88 0.950.87 0.14**0.34** 0.570.43 0.530.47
Involvement 0.880.84 0.900.85 0.09*0.11** 0.540.45 0.690.49
Investigation 0.950.88 0.960.90 0.15**0.22** 0.510.41 0.720.55
Task orientation 0.520.43 0.960.88 0.940.86 0.14**0.36** 0.690.55
Cooperation 0.930.89 0.920.87 0.15**0.28** 0.550.45 0.660.58
Equity 0.970.93 0.950.90 0.15**0.24** 0.590.46 0.640.53

Note: N=1081 students in 50 classes in Australia and 1879 students in 50 classes in Taiwan
*p<.05  ** p<.01

Table 4: Means and standard deviations of the WIHIC Scales and student satisfaction

Standard deviation
Scale No of items IndividClass mean IndividClass mean IndividClass mean IndividClass mean
N=1081N=50 N=1879N=50 N=1081N=50 N=1879N=50

Student cohesiveness8 31.6831.61 31.4131.29 4.641.54 5.331.39
Teacher support8 24.6924.68 24.1523.99 6.532.79 6.932.96
Involvement8 24.5824.76 22.2722.88 5.591.89 6.482.13
Investigation8 23.6723.56 22.6922.61 6.352.54 7.332.42
Task orientation8 31.7431.75 30.8730.70 6.142.50 5.581.88
Cooperation8 30.3930.43 29.4729.42 6.292.24 6.311.81
Equity8 31.7731.68 30.0229.72 7.242.82 7.272.32
Attitude8 23.5323.59 26.3426.43 7.913.67 8.184.41

The means for each scale, reported in Table 4, were calculated for Taiwan and Australia and these were used as a basis for comparing the nature of the classroom environment in each country. Whilst the magnitudes of the differences were small, Australian students consistently perceived all scales more favourably than did Taiwan students. The scales with the largest mean difference for each country were Involvement and Equity. In contrast, however, students in Taiwan were more satisfied with science classes than were students in Australia (see Table 4). Qualitative examinations of learning environments in each country were made to identify possible reasons for student perceptions and cultural differences.

Qualitative data collection

Classroom observations were made by both a researcher each from Taiwan and Australia. The Australian was disadvantaged through a lack of knowledge of Mandarin, however, the stories later revealed in some respects this was an advantage. Observations tended to focus less on dialogue and more on classroom interactions. The observations revealed tentative findings regarding the differences between the countries and explained some similarities. At the same time, questions were raised regarding the reliability of the questionnaire, as observations appeared to differ from student perceptions. These queries provided researchers with questions that would be asked during student and teacher interviews.

Student interviews provided anecdotes based on questionnaire items. These anecdotes conveyed socio-cultural aspects of the learning environment that could not be gleaned through observations, including: the degree of respect for teachers and the level of student motivation to learn the content of the subject:

Students' anecdotes also helped to explain differences and similarities in scale means between the two countries and highlighted difficulties associated with using a questionnaire framed in a Western context in a different culture. Despite the accuracy of the back-translations, the Chinese version of the questionnaire did not always capture the full or literal meaning of the original questionnaire. In addition, some of the questionnaire items were interpreted differently from the way intended by the Western researcher, for example, many students in Taiwan responded 'often' to the item "I discuss ideas in class". Observations revealed that a discussion of ideas, as Westerners are likely to interpret it, did not occur very often in Taiwan classes. Students, however, explained that the 'discussion of ideas' included answering questions asked by the teacher.

Based largely on observations of lessons, the interviews with Taiwanese teachers sought explanations for their actions. The anecdotes from the interviews provided information regarding the following range of socio-cultural influences on the types of classroom environments which the teachers' created:

These influences helped to explain the classroom environment in context in this country.

The anecdotes written by the researchers from Taiwan and Australia provided commentaries that helped to highlight the different lenses which are bought to the study by researchers from different cultures. Slight differences in the interpretations of the same incidents revealed that the researchers had different views which reflected past experiences and cultural differences. The main differences included: These anecdotes also provided insights into feelings that the Westerner experienced in a foreign classroom. They were written without the insights provided by students, teachers and fellow researchers, whose stories put the social and cultural aspects of the learning environment into perspective and provided some explanations as to why teachers used the methods which they did and why students reacted to these methods as they did.

Discussion and conclusion

This study provides insights into socio-cultural influences on classroom learning environments in Taiwan and Australia. Although observations suggested that the learning environments in Taiwan and Australia were very different, the differences between scale means, however, were found to have more modest differences. It was found that, by weaving data from the questionnaire with data from observations and anecdotes of the participants, it was possible to provide a more complete picture of the learning environment and better explain differences and similarities in the mean scale scores of the two countries on the questionnaire.

The anecdotes brought to light that the researchers from two different countries held perceptions of the qualities of good teaching, active participation and a positive learning environment that had as many differences as similarities. These perceptions appeared to be linked to the backgrounds of the researchers, including their culture and society.

Finally, the findings provide a precautionary note regarding the use of questionnaires framed in a Western context. The interpretation of data which measures a Western idea of what constitutes a positive learning environment could be limited without consideration of socio-cultural factors that influence the classrooms from which the data were taken.

Commentaries provided by the researchers' stories revealed further explanations for the differences in scale means between countries. They also exposed that there are underlying assumptions that researchers bring with them, depending on their backgrounds and cultures (such as the notion of what constitutes a good teacher), which will effect not only what they read into the data but also what they observe.

Interviews were conducted with eight students to provided insights into how students from an Eastern culture interpreted individual items and the reasons for their responses. The interviews provided explanations for some of the discrepancies between observations and student responses. The Western notion, to "discuss ideas in class" brings images of students challenging ideas in the class, possibly led or guided by the teacher. There was no evidence of classroom discussions in the Taiwan classes that I observed, yet students had indicated, on the questionnaire, that it often happens in class. Interviews revealed that students discussed ideas with classmates (not involving the teacher) after lessons or one-on-one during the lesson.

The interviews highlighted precautions that need to be taken when applying Western ideas directly to another culture. In some cases, students' interpretations and the reasons for their responses demonstrated the need for caution when comparing the scale means of two different cultures.


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Please cite as: Aldridge, J. M. and Fraser, B. J. (1997). Examining science classroom environments in a cross-national study. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1997. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1997/aldridge.html

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