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A learning environment study of tertiary classroomsChenicheri Sid. Nair and Darrell L. Fisher
National Key Centre for School Science and Mathematics
Curtin University of Technology
The purpose of this study was to modify and validate a new form of the Colleges and Universities Classroom Environment Inventory (CUCEI), and to then use it to compare students' and instructors' actual and preferred perceptions of their science classroom learning environments at the tertiary level of education. The modifications to the CUCEI included personalising the items before it was used to assess the perceptions of students and adding two new scales, namely, Cooperation and Equity. The reliabilities of the scales of the modified CUCEI ranged from 0.73 to 0.94. Students perceptions of their classrooms at the tertiary level indicated a preference for a more favourable learning environment in all areas measured by the seven scales in the CUCEI. Female and male students perceived their classroom environments similarly. Mature students in the classes perceived their classroom more positively on two scales, Task Orientation and Equity. Instructors in all the science classes generally perceived their environment more favourably than their students.
Fraser, Treagust, Williamson, and Tobin, (1987) reported that despite the existence of strong traditional classroom environment research at the primary and secondary level, surprisingly little work had been done at the higher education levels because of the shortage of suitable instruments (e.g., Pace & Stern, 1958; Halpin & Croft, 1963; Stern, 1970). However, there has been considerable work on trying to predict students' academic success at the university level (e.g., Killen, 1994; Larose & Roy, 1991). Killen's (1994) work suggested that instructors' perceptions of students failure in succeeding in university work was primarily due to irregular attendance at lectures, poor literacy skills, too much reliance on direction from lecturers, lack of self discipline, insufficient effort, lack of academic ability, failure to realise that the depth of understanding required at university is different from that required at school, lack of maturity and the lowering of entrance requirements. Whereas, students perceived their failure in university studies was caused by lecturers who are out of touch with students' needs, too many demands on students' time, boring presentations by lecturers, assignments for which expectations are not clear, inappropriate assessment procedures, heavy course workload and lecturers with unrealistically high expectations of students. Similar findings were also evident in a study by Booth (1997) when he investigated experiences and expectations of students in transition from high school to university studies.
The College and University Classroom Environment Inventory (CUCEI) was developed in 1986 to fill this void (Fraser, Treagust, & Dennis, 1986). The CUCEI was specifically designed for small class sizes of about 30 students for upper secondary and tertiary levels utilising either seminar or tutorials as the mode of delivery. The seven-scale, 49 item instrument was designed with both a student and instructor version for the actual and preferred classroom environment. The seven scales in the CUCEI are Personalisation, Involvement, Student Cohesiveness, Satisfaction, Task Orientation, Innovation and Individualism. The CUCEI is available in the actual and preferred versions. The actual version measures the participants actual perception of their classroom learning environment whereas the preferred form measures perception of the classroom learning environment preferred by the students in a study. The instrument was also adapted and validated in higher education institutes in the USA and Spain (Marcelo, 1988; Winston, Vahala, Nichols, Wintrow, & Rome, 1994). Recently, the instrument has been utilised by Yarrow, Millwater and Fraser (1997) to assess student perceptions of their actual and preferred environments to identify actual-preferred discrepancies and guide improvements in a second year university education program in Australia. In a similar study utilising the original CUCEI, though for the first time in an undergraduate nursing program, Fisher and Parkinson (1998) showed that the classroom environment could be improved with feedback from student perceptions thus changing the environment toward that preferred by the students. One interesting revelation in this study was of the students lack of satisfaction and the approaches related to the lecture overload they were exposed to each day.
Fraser, Treagust, and Dennis, (1986) utilised the CUCEI in evaluating alternative high schools which catered for adult learners. Fraser, Treagust, Williamson, and Tobin, (1987) had completed a similar study utilising a comparative approach with respect to adult learners in two alternative high schools with three control situations involving the following scenarios: technical colleges where adults can attend the evening classes out of interest; conventional grade 11 or 12 classes with adult learners enrolled and integrated in the conventional classes; conventional grade 11 or 12 classes with no adult learners; and senior colleges that cater for the adult learners. The study showed that the most favourable environment was evident in the evening technical college, followed by the senior colleges, high school catering for adolescents only and finally, the high school where the adults, were integrated with adolescents. The only exception to this trend was in student cohesiveness where it was most favourable in the high school environment.
Fraser, Treagust, Williamson, and Tobin, (1987) also revealed that the classroom perceptions of students and teachers yielded results which were similar to prior research completed in secondary and primary levels, both in the USA (Moos, 1979) and Australia (Fisher & Fraser 1983; Fraser 1984). Both students and instructors preferred a more positive environment. However, instructors tended to perceive their classes more favourably on several of the environment scales than did their students. Such a trend was also evident in a study by Villar (1994) which focused on tertiary student teachers in a college of education in Spain. Villar (1994) found that a cooperative teacher-centred model was what students preferred in all classes and students also wanted to have a greater say in the evaluation process.
Walberg's theory on educational productivity indicates nine factors which contribute to the variance in students' cognitive and affective outcomes. The nine factors being student ability, maturity, motivation, the quality of and quantity of instruction, the psychological environment at home, the classroom social group, the peer group outside the classroom and the time involved with the video/television media (Walberg, 1981, 1984). The model was successfully tested as part of a national study showing that student achievement and attitudes were influenced jointly by these factors (Walberg, Fraser, & Welch, 1986). An interesting outcome from these studies was the finding that classroom and school environments were important influences on student outcomes. These findings lend support to Getzels and Thelen's (1960) theoretical model which describes the class as a social system in which group behaviour can be predicated from the personality needs, role expectations and classroom environment. Studies have also shown that learning environments are accurate predictors of the quality of learning that students receive (Fraser, 1991; Ramsden, 1991; Templeton & Jensen, 1993).
Recent studies now indicate that a personalised measurement, that is the student's personal perception in his or her role in the classroom yields greater feedback from participants in the study whereas the former approach makes the student provide perceptions of the class as a whole (Fraser, Fisher, & McRobbie, 1996).
Studies have shown consistently that female students perceive their teachers in a more positive way than do the male students (Henderson, Fisher, & Fraser, 1998; Fraser & Walberg, 1991; Fraser, Giddings, & McRobbie, 1992, 1993; Lim, 1995; Riah & Fraser, 1999; Rickards, Fisher & Fraser, 1997; Suarez, Pias, Membiela, & Dupia, 1998; Wong & Fraser, 1994). Wong and Fraser (1994) also found that male students learning in a science laboratory had more favourable perceptions of open ended activities which point towards a more constructivist approach to learning. Research in general has suggested that boys and girls do react differently to science laboratory activities (Burkam, Lee, & Smerdon, 1997; Tobin & Garnet, 1987). Lim (1995) in his study of secondary school students found that male students perceived their classrooms as allowing greater opportunities for working at their own pace and time while female students viewed their classrooms as opportunities to participate and have control of their own learning. Parker, Rennie, and Harding (1995) reinforced research done by Johnson and Johnson (1991) showing that learning in science classrooms takes on a competitive nature and, boys prefer competitive and individualised learning, whereas, girls prefer learning which involves cooperative models and mutual assistance. Similar findings were reported by Owens and Straton (1980) and Byrne, Hattie, and Fraser (1986). Johnson and Johnson (1991), however, showed that as students progressed to higher grades both male and female students seemed to gain more interest in competitive learning. Ferguson and Fraser (1996), as well reported a similar finding in their study involving transition of students from elementary schools to high schools in that the perceptions of both sexes moved closer together as they moved into higher level studies. This study, however, also revealed that boys were generally negative with their perceptions of the environment at the elementary level in comparison to females. Female students' perceptions of the classroom generally deteriorated as they entered high school science classes.
In a study in The Netherlands involving the perceptions of students in a reality centred environment involving both Mathematics and Physics, some interesting findings were reported (Terwel, Brekelmans, Wubbels, & Eeden, 1994). In the mathematics environment, it was noted that the more girls there were in a class the lower the mean perception of cooperation. In other words, there was less cooperation and more distraction in classes with more girls than in classes with fewer girls. Girls perceived both the mathematics and physics classes as less reality-centered than the boys. Girls also perceived less participation of students in general in the lessons. This was explained in terms that girls hold a higher standard in judging classroom participation in comparison to their male counterparts. Interestingly, data from the physics project revealed that girls perceived less cooperation and closeness between teachers and students than do boys. These data add support to the different behaviour that has been reported of teachers with the different sexes (Goddard & Spear, 1987; Kahle, 1996). The work by Midgley, Eccles, and Feldlaufer (1991) however, show that both boys and girls seem to be equally affected by the perceived warmth, friendliness and fairness of their teachers.
Better achievement in classrooms have been relates to classrooms with greater cohesiveness, satisfaction and less disorganisation and friction, (Fraser, 1989). Tamir and Caridnin (1993) using the findings of Fraser (1989) reported in their investigation of Arab schools that there were no significant differences between males and females in their perceptions of their learning environments. Forgasz (1995) also reported that teacher quality including support to individual students, especially in females to be important variables that relate to students achievement and learning in the science course, mathematics. The study also revealed that the teacher's personal interest in the students encouraged active participation and installed investigative skills.
Studies that have been carried to date, have shown that different sexes perceive their classroom environments whether actual or preferred differently. However, there is a dilemma faced by teachers with the different perceptions when the classes are coeducational. This being, to make the learning environment to be more in line with the preferred environment when both sexes are present could in fact not be equally advantageous for male and female students as both sexes have different perceptions of a preferred classroom (Fraser, Giddings, & McRobbie, 1993; Fraser & Tobin, 1991).
|Table 1: Descriptive information for the modified CUCEI|
|Scale Name||Description||Sample Items|
|Personalisation||Extent of opportunities for individual students to interact with the instructor and of concern for students personal welfare.||The instructor goes out of his/her way to help me.|
|Innovation||Extent to which the instructor plans new, unusual activities, teaching techniques and assignments.||The instructor often thinks o f unusual activities.|
|Extent to which students know, help and are friendly towards each other.||I make friends easily in this class.|
|Extent to which class activities are clear and well organised.||Class assignments are clear and I know what I am doing.|
|Individualisation||Extent to which students are allowed to make decisions and are treated differently according to ability, interests and rate of working.||I am allowed to choose activities and how I will work.|
|Cooperation||Extent to which students cooperate rather than compete with one another on learning tasks.||I work with other students in this class.|
|Equity||Extent to which students are treated equally by the teacher.||I am treated the same as other students in this class.|
Table 2: Internal Consistency Reliability (Cronbach Alpha Coefficient) for Two Units of Analysis for the CUCEI and Discriminant Validity (Mean Correlation with Other Scales) and the Ability to Differentiate between Classrooms (ANOVA) for Two Units of Analysis
|CUCEI Scales||Unit of Analysis||Reliability||Mean Correlation with other scales||ANOVA|
|** p< 0.001 * p< 0.01||The sample consisted of 504 students in 26 classes and 24 instructors|
|Table 3: Means and Standard Deviations for the Preferred and Actual|
Forms of the CUCEI for Students in their Tertiary Level of Studies
|Actual (A)||Preferred (P)||(P-A)||Actual||Preferred|
Figure 1: Mean profile for the seven scales in the Actual and Preferred
forms of the CUCEI for students in their tertiary level of study
|Table 4: Means and Standard Deviations for the Actual and Preferred|
Forms of the CUCEI for Female Students
|Actual (A)||Preferred (P)||(P-A)||Actual||Preferred|
|Table 5: Means and Standard Deviations for the Actual and Preferred|
Forms of the CUCEI for Male Students
|Actual (A)||Preferred (P)||(P-A)||Actual||Preferred|
**p<0.05 n=106 Note: Statistically non significant differences are represented on the respective Figures as the average of the means (actual and preferred) and appears as the same point on the figure.
As indicated in Table 6, both males and females perceived their environment almost identically, Table 6. This similarity in perceptions replicates findings in other studies, that both male and female students perceptions moved closer together as they moved into higher level studies (Fraser 1989; Ferguson & Fraser, 1996; Johnson & Johnson, 1991). One other possible reason for the closeness of the perceptions could be attributed to the same students from the high schools going to the local community college. This observation could therefore lend further support to the observations of the instructors at the local community college who have found students in their cliques from their local high schools and take college life as an extension of their high schools. However, the findings here also contrast against findings that show that there are significant difference in the perceptions between male and female students (e.g., Burkam, Lee, & Smerdon, 1997; Henderson, Fisher, & Fraser, 1998; Rickards, Fisher, & Fraser, 1997; Ferguson & Fraser, 1996; Suarez, Pias, Membiela, & Dupia, 1998; Waldrip & Fisher, 1999). Though female and male students did not perceive any difference in the level of cooperation in their actual classroom environment, female students indicated that they preferred greater cooperation in their preferred classroom environment. This was the only scale that showed a significant difference in the preferred form.
|Table 6: Comparison of Means and Differences for the Actual and Preferred|
Forms of the CUCEI for Male and Female students
|Male (M)||Female (F)||(M-F)||Male (M)||Female (F)||(M-F)|
|Personalisation||3.43||3.64||- 0.21||4.10||4.26||- 0.16|
|Student cohesiveness||3.33||3.38||- 0.05||3.90||3.78||+ 0.12|
|Task orientation||3.94||3.93||+ 0.01||4.25||4.34||- 0.09|
|Individualisation||2.14||2.04||+ 0.10||3.10||2.94||+ 0.08|
|Equity||4.45||4.34||+ 0.11||4.59||4.67||- 0.08|
|Innovation||3.37||3.23||+ 0.14||3.41||3.56||- 0.15|
**p<0.05 *p<0.1 n=99
An interesting feature of the results depicted in Table 6 below was that both male and female students were in agreement that there was hardly any difference in the way they were treated by their instructors as measured by the Equity scale. This was clearly echoed by the students when they stated without reservations the following:
Our work is pretty much judged equally.
Everyone is very much treated the same.
No, I have not seen any discrepancies.
Statistically significant differences were however only found in four of the seven scales. The four scales were Personalisation, Task Orientation, Individualisation and Innovation. Mature students seemed also to generally greater innovation in the teaching approaches at the tertiary level. This is indicated by the mean values, 3.13 for the actual and 3.44 for the preferred form respectively. Mature students also indicated that they were treated equally and that they did not perceive any difference in equity. The standard deviations also indicate that mature students were in general agreement in their perceptions of their actual classroom environment, and of their preferred classroom environment.
|Table 7: Means and Differences for the Actual and Preferred Forms of|
the CUCEI Mature Age Students at the Tertiary Level
|Actual (A)||Preferred (P)||(P-A)||Actual||Preferred|
**p<0.05 n=45 Note: Statistically non significant differences are represented on the respective figures as the average of the means (actual and preferred) and appears as the same point on the figure.
Figure 2: Scale mean profiles for mature students for the CUCEI.
|Table 8: Comparison of Means and Differences for the Preferred and Actual Forms|
of the CUCEI between Mature and First Time Students at the College
|Student cohesiveness||Actual||3.40||3.30||- 0.10||3.56||3.96||0.40**|
|Task orientation||Actual||3.93||2.57||- 1.36**||4.22||4.35||0.13|
**p< 0.05 ***p< 0.0001 n=45 pairs Note: Statistically non significant differences are represented on the respective figures as the average of the means (actual and preferred) and appears as the same point on the figure.
Younger students also perceived their classes to be less equitable than did the mature students and the difference in the actual perceptions can be gauged from the mean scores which are 4.51 for the mature students and 3.83 for the younger students. The findings here contrast with the findings of Fraser, Treagust, Williamson, and Tobin (1987) in which the least favoured classroom environment were those where adults were integrated with adolescents. However, the findings by Fraser, Treagust, Williamson, and Tobin (1987) were replicated in this study with respect to the low mean scores by mature students in the Individualisation and Personalisation scales. When the preferred environments were compared, younger students had a greater preference for changes in the four scales that were observed to have statistically significant differences in the mean values. These four scales were namely Personalisation, Student Cohes iveness, Cooperation and Equity.
|Table 9: Means and Standard Deviations for the Actual and Preferred|
versions of the CUCEI for Tertiary Instructors
|Actual (A)||Preferred (P)||(P-A)||Actual||Preferred|
|Student cohesiveness||3.95||3.81||- 0.14||0.44||0.70|
|Task orientation||4.61||4.22||- 0.39**||0.33||0.46|
**p<0.05 *p<0.01 n=9 Note: Statistically non significant differences are represented on the respective figures as the average of the means (actual and preferred) and appears as the same point on the figure.
Table 9 also indicates that of the seven scales, only four had statistically significant differences in the mean values. These scales are Personalisation, Task Orientation, Cooperation and Equity scales. The standard deviation figures also reveal that the instructors at the tertiary level were in greater agreement as to their actual classroom environment but had somewhat differing perceptions of what their preferred classroom should be like.
Figure 3: Scale mean profile for tertiary instructors in
the Actual and Preferred Form of the CUCEI.
When a comparison of perceptions were made between instructors and students, the following were observed. The same pattern observed in previous research that is, instructors always perceiving their classroom more positively, was less apparent at the tertiary level, (see Figure 4). Tertiary instructors clearly perceived their environment more favourably in only three of the seven scales; Personalisation, Student Cohesiveness and Task Orientation. A possible explanation could be that at the tertiary level, instructors are more in tune with student preferences and the instructors seem to be accommodating to the changes that students undergo in their environment after transition.
Figure 4: Comparison of Actual classroom environment scales
between instructors and students at the tertiary level.
Generally, the same pattern observed in previous research that is, instructors always perceiving their classroom more positively, was less apparent at the tertiary level. Both male and female students however, perceived their classroom environment similarly when they moved from one level to the next. This is in step with findings in other studies, where both male and female students perceptions moved closer together as they moved into higher level studies (Fraser 1989; Ferguson & Fraser, 1996; Johnson & Johnson, 1991).
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|Please cite as: Nair, C. S. and Fisher, D. L. (1999). A learning environment study of tertiary classrooms. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1999. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1999/nair.html|