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               IN GERMANY

Katharina Pollmeier¹, Kim Lange², Thilo Kleickmann³ and Kornelia Möller¹
¹ University of Muenster, Germany
² University of Augsburg, Germany
³ Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education, Kiel, Germany

Abstract: Students’ cognitive and motivational learning outcomes in school are not
only determined by the design of instruction but are also mediated by how students
perceive and interpret their instruction. Although the mediating students’ perceptions
theoretically take a key role in the effectiveness of instruction, up to now studies
assessing students’ perception of German science instruction in primary school and in
the subsequent primary-secondary interface are missing. Following up on this
research gap the PLUS-project investigates students’ perspective of their physics-
related instruction in the transition from German primary to secondary school1.
Therefore 348 students were questioned once a year in a longitudinal design from
fourth to seventh grade. The investigation focuses on aspects of teaching for
understanding of physics-related instruction. In accordance with conceptual-change
and social constructivist theories regarding teaching and learning in science a
questionnaire was designed. The results showed a significant decline with high effect
sizes in students’ perception of the defined aspects from fourth to seventh grade. They
also indicate that students perceive a rupture between their instruction in primary and
secondary school. So far the question remains open, to what extent students make a
correlation between the educational features that promote understanding and their real
understanding of the teaching content. To identify educational features which promote
the physical understanding from students’ perspective, qualitative interviews with 20
members of the quantitative sample were conducted additionally. The results of the
qualitative study identify experiments, teachers’ explanations and the clarity of speech
as characteristics promoting students’ understanding in primary and secondary physic
instruction. The results provide hints for the improvement of physics-related
instruction in the transition from primary to secondary school in order to promote
students’ understanding of physics.
Keywords: students’ perception, physics-related instruction, primary-secondary
transition, teaching for understanding, qualitative and quantitative methods

Students’ perception of instructional practice
In the research of teaching and learning, students’ perception of instructional practices
has become increasingly important since the 1980s: Students’ cognitive and
motivational learning outcomes in school are not only determined by the design of
instruction but mediated by how students perceive and interpret their instruction as
well as the students’ individual coping processes (Helmke, 2009; Gruehn, 2000).
Meanwhile, the validity of students’ perspective in regard to the assessment of their
instruction could be confirmed by research studies (Kämpfe, 2009).Recent research in
education identifies students’ perceptions of teaching as predicting significantly
students’ achievement (Gates Foundation MET Project, 2010; Gruehn, 2000; Helmke,
2003; Clausen, 2002; Ditton, 2002). Furthermore Gruehn (2000) and Kunter (2005)
found that aggregated class means are reliable indicators of the teaching quality and
that the validity of students’ perception could be compared with objective
observational data. For the assessment of the instruction and the instructional design
students were referred to as experts because they gather various experiences with
teaching and instruction in different subjects and with different teachers in the course
of their schooling (Clausen, 2002; Kämpfe, 2009).
Teaching for understanding in science instruction
According to the concept of Scientific Literacy as well as international and national
curricula, one of the most important goals of school-based learning in primary and
secondary school is the acquisition of scientific understanding (Bybee & Ben-Zvi,
1998; Van den Akker, 1998; Kunter et al., 2005). However, international comparative
studies assessed German secondary school students as having a negative performance
in conceptual understanding and in applying their knowledge (Prenzel, Geiser,
Langeheine, & Lobemeier, 2003; Prenzel et al., 2007). In contrast, German primary
school students reached, in relative terms, a better understanding of science, as well as
better motivational conditions for the application of science. Although the latter
ranked third, they came very far behind the frontrunner (Wittwer, Saß, & Prenzel,
2008; Kleickmann, Brehl, Saß, & Prenzel, 2012). Thus there are more positive
findings in the primary school opposite to a problematic situation in the secondary
To promote the development of scientific understanding, instruction – in primary and
secondary school – should support an active knowledge construction. In the research
of science education especially three theories are discussed which currently have a
significant importance for the improvement of teaching: Theories of situated
cognition, social-constructivist approaches and conceptual change theories (Treagust,
Duit, & Fraser, 1996; Treagust & Duit, 2008). According to these theories, learning is
an active, social and situated process (Gerstenmaier & Mandl, 1995; Reinmann-
Rothmeier & Mandl, 1998). Therefore, scientific learning which aims to understand
and to apply knowledge requires opportunities to reconstruct existing knowledge
(Vosniadou, 1994; Treagust & Duit, 2008), the acquisition and application of
concepts in everyday-life situations and meaningful contexts (Stark, 2003), a joint
exchange and checking of assumptions and explanations through cooperative learning
methods and discourses within the learning group (Mietzel, 2007), as well as a clear
and understandable communication (Wagenschein, 1992; Sumfleth & Pitton, 1998).
With regard to the different performances in the international comparative studies
between primary and secondary school students and the importance of students’
perception for the development of their learning gains, the question arises whether
and to what extent students perceive changes in the design of their instruction with
regard to the constructivist educational features during the transition from primary to
secondary school.
Current state of research and research question
Australian and American (interview-)studies performed in primary school provide
evidence that students describe their science instruction as a student-orientated
instruction with practical experiments, ‘hands-on’ activities and almost no copying
from the blackboard (Rennie, Goodrum, & Hackling, 2001; Logan & Skamp, 2008).
Furthermore a study conducted by Ferguson and Fraser (1998) indicates that students
perceive their primary school classroom environments more favorably than their high
school ones, which is at least partly attributable to a fundamental shift in the design of
science instruction from the primary to secondary school.
In contrast, students from German secondary school describe their instruction as
consisting of almost no conversations and discussions in class and as mostly having to
explain one’s own ideas or having to give one’s opinion. In addition, students
perceive a lack of transfer of science concepts to everyday-life phenomena, as well as
a domination of demonstration experiments, where they have to draw conclusions
from (Seidel, Prenzel, Wittwer, & Schwindt, 2007). Regarding the everyday-life
reference, a study conducted by Labudde and Pfluger (1999) shows significant gender
differences whereby the boys perceive more correlations to their everyday-life than
the girls. The same applies to students’ perception of ‘teaching for understanding’ in
the instruction (Reyer, Trendel, & Fischer, 2004).
The listed studies refer to differences in the design of science instruction between
primary and secondary school perceived by the students. Although the mediating
students’ perceptions play a key role in the effectiveness of instruction, up to now
surveys observing students’ perception of teaching for understanding in physics-
related instruction in German primary schools and in the subsequent primary-
secondary interface are missing. Therefore, this research project focuses on the
following first research question:
How do students perceive changes in their physics-related instruction during the
transition from German primary to secondary school (4th to 7th grade)?
Next to differences in the design of the instruction the question remains open, to what
extent students make a correlation between the theoretically assumed educational
features promoting students’ understanding and their real understanding of the
teaching content. In order to determine whether and to what extent science instruction
changes concerning teaching practices which promote conceptual understanding in
the primary and secondary interface the following second research question is
additionally pursued:
Which of the perceived characteristics of physics-related instruction are described as
being conducive to the individual understanding process in the transition phase?

Regarding the two different research questions formulated in the previous paragraph,
quantitative and qualitative research methods are combined in this research project.
For that, data from the DFG²-founded research project ‘longitudinal study PLUS’
were used. The PLUS-Project focusses on the German primary-secondary interface in
physics-related instruction. To gather students’ perception of their physics-related
instruction in the school transition (research question 1), 348 students were traced in a
longitudinal design from fourth to seventh grade (cf. figure 1). All surveys in primary
and secondary school took place once a year after the physics instruction in the entire
classes of the 348 students. At the secondary school level, the PLUS-project focused
on two different types of schools: The Hauptschule (basic general education) and the
Gymnasium (intensified general education).

Figure 1. Research design including qualitative and quantitative data collections.

Due to the fact that physics is a minor subject in secondary school, it has to be
considered, that students are not taught physics in each grade. Finally, it is up to the
school to decide when and how often the students are taught in physics. Therefore
there are seven different patterns to consider in the analysis of the data, as illustrated
in table 1.

Table 1
Different patterns of physics instruction (x = with physics-instruction; - = without
     Pattern           Grade 4            Grade 5           Grade 6            Grade 7
          1                x                 x                  x                 x
          2                x                 -                  x                 x
          3                x                 x                  -                 x
          4                x                 x                  x                 -
          5                x                 x                  -                 -
          6                x                 -                  x                 -
          7                x                 -                  -                 x

In order to survey students’ perception in a longitudinal design, a questionnaire had to
be constructed, which considers the specific needs of the target group (A. Ewerhardy
and T. Kleickmann had the leading part in the development of the questionnaire). The
questionnaire was designed in accordance with the above mentioned moderate-
constructivist theories and consists of five scales (cf. table 2): cognitive activating
student’ experiments, practical activity, daily reference, student generated
explanations and lack of clarity. Regarding Cronbachs’ alpha coefficients of the four
measurement points all five scales measure the constructs reliable (cf. table 2).
Moreover the factorial structure of the students’ questionnaire could be confirmed by
confirmatory factor analyses.
Table 2
Scales of the Student Questionnaire

                                                             Cronbach’s α
 Scale                                   Items
 Item Examples                                    4th       5th      6th        7th
                                                 Grade     Grade    Grade      Grade
 Cognitive activating students’
                                           5       .65       .83        .84       .83
 We could often observe something
 that did surprise us.
 Students’ activity
 We could run many experiences by          3       .66       .83        .81       .87
 Daily reference
 Our teacher asks us again and again
                                           5       .77       .83        .81       .79
 to give examples of our everyday-life
 Student generated explanations
 Our teacher is interested in our          5       .64       .85        .82       .82
 Lack of clarity
 Our teacher often explains with           5       .64       .70        .76       .71
 foreign words, we do not understand.

To analyze the individual perceived changes in physics-related instruction from the
fourth to seventh grade, repeated measurement ANOVAs have been conducted.
Students with missing data were excluded from the analyses by listwise deletion.
Moreover each pattern provides a minimum sample size of 40 students.
The qualitative data of this project was assessed by material based semi-structured
interviews at the end of grade six (see figure 1). To understand the effectiveness of
the different educational features the students first have to be asked which educational
features they perceive in their instruction. On that basis it secondly can be identified
which educational features are perceived to be conducive for the understanding
process. For the interviews 20 members (9 girls, 11 boys) of the quantitative sample
were selected. Each interview consisted of a time frame of 45 minutes. To analyze the
first aspect of the interview data, a qualitative content analysis according to Mayring
(2010) was performed by using the computer software MAXQDA. Both inter-coder-
(85%) and intra-coder-consistency (93%) indicate a satisfying reliability of the coding
process. Subsequently, the analysis of the second interview question was made:
Therefore the perceived educational features were coded by a zero-one-coding as
being conducive or not conducive for the understanding process from students’
perspective. The quality of the analysis with the interrater-reliability was again
satisfying (κ(min) = .792, κ(max) = .955, κ(mean) = 0.899).
The results of the quantitative study show that on average all students, who have been
consistently taught in physics from grade four to grade seven perceive a significant
decline in the defined educational features, which is associated with strong effects. An
equally significant decline with strong effects is also perceived by students, who were
taught physics in grade four, six and seven, as well as by students who were taught in
grade four, five and seven. The strongest decline is perceived by the students after the
transition to secondary school (from grade four to grade five). In contrast, on average
the students do not perceive a significant decline between grade five and six.
Besides the analysis of the general development of science instruction from grade
four to grade seven, the data was also analyzed for the different types of secondary
school (Gymnasium and Hauptschule). Due to the different patterns of physics
instruction (see table 1) and a confounding of the school form with the patterns,
differences on school level can only be analyzed for a particular group of students.
This particular group consists of a summary of all students from Pattern 1 to Patten 3.
In this summarized pattern, there are approximately the same number of students from
the Hauptschule and the Gymnasium. For this group of students a decrease of all
constructs’ means from fourth to seventh grade can also be observed. Both, the
students who attend the Gymnasium as well as those students, who visit the
Hauptschule perceive significant differences with a high effect size (the scale ‘daily
reference’ only has a small effect) between primary and their secondary school on
behalf of the primary school. The scale ‘lack of clarity’ also differs significantly with
regard to the level of the school form. On this scale students from the Gymnasium
perceive more clarity than students from the Hauptschule. Interactions between the
type of school and the time can be proved for the scales ‘students generated
explanations’, ‘daily reference’ and ‘lack of clarity’. In these three scales the strongest
effect between students from the Hauptschule and the Gymnasium is in grade seven in
favor to the Gymnasium.
Furthermore, the data of the summarized pattern were also be analyzed on gender
differences. For all constructs means significant gender differences could not be
confirmed from grade four to grade seven.
The results of the qualitative interview study show that students’ experiments hold a
prominent position in students’ understanding process. According to the findings, the
clarity of the speech and the explanations by the teacher are also important features in
physics-related instruction in primary and secondary school voted by more than 50%
of the students. Features that promote students understanding only in secondary
physic instruction are the references to everyday-life experiences as well as
explaining one’s own ideas. In primary instruction it was important for the students,
that they were able to ask questions on their own.
Comparing the physics-related instruction in primary school with the physics
instruction in secondary school, students describe instruction as more understandable,
when they perceive more of the above described educational features that promote
their understanding.
The described results give first answers regarding the development in physics-related
instruction throughout the transition from primary to secondary school from students’
perspective. In this context, decreases in all five indicators of teaching for
understanding are perceived by the students. These findings confirm the current
results of the primary and secondary school surveys (e.g. Rennie et al., 2001; Seidel et
al., 2007; Ferguson & Fraser, 1996). The decline in the five educational features
following the transition to secondary school (grade four to grade five) indicates a
perceived rupture between physics instruction in primary and secondary school by the
students. The non-significant differences between grade five and grade six indicate a
stable design of physics instruction in the first two years of secondary school
(orientation stage³). After the orientation stage a significant decrease of all defined
educational features is following, which is associated with middle and strong effects.
With regard to the scales ‘students’ generated explanations’, ‘daily reference’ and
‘lack of clarity’‚ the most significant differences between physics instruction in the
Hauptschule and the Gymnasium exist from students’ perspective in grade seven in
behalf of the Gymnasium.
In contrast to the current state of research where differences in the perception of
instruction between boys and girls were found, the data of the present longitudinal
study do not show significant differences between the genders in the perception of
physics instruction. These findings indicate that boys and girls perceive their
instruction similarly.
The results of the student interviews confirm that the theoretically derived features are
indeed key in promoting students’ understanding of physics instruction. A decisive
factor for understanding physics is the students’ experiment.
The knowledge about how students perceive their instruction and about features that
promote the understanding of physics from the students’ perspective can be used to
attenuate the perceived rupture in the transition phase from primary to secondary
school. Therefore, the results of the study could be interesting for teacher training
programs as well as considered within curriculum development.

1. In Germany, students usually attend primary school for four years. After finishing
fourth grade, they transfer – according to their prior achievement – to one of several
different tracks of secondary school. Students with the lowest achievement usually
transfer to the ‘Hauptschule’, a kind of basic general education. Students with the
highest achievement usually transfer to the ‘Gymnasium’ which provides an
intensified general education.
2. DFG = Deutsche Forschungsgesellschaft (German Research Fundation)
3. Irrespective of the type of secondary school the students attend after the transition
from primary school, grade five and six constitute a phase of special encouragement,
observation and orientation designed to facilitate choices concerning the student’s
further education. In most of the German states like in North Rhine-Westphalia this
‘orientation stage’ is structured within the framework of the different types of
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