Research round-up: exploring the attainment gap in science
Literacy is one of the most influential factors in students' attainment in science, according to a recent report from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). This is just one of the interesting findings that researchers from Oxford University and the Department for Education discovered in their large-scale data analysis of science education.
The project, commissioned by the EEF and Royal Society, explores how best to support disadvantaged students in science, with a focus on three key areas:
- The link between disadvantage and participation and attainment in science
- The causes of the achievement and participation gap in science
- What effective interventions and pedagogies can close the gap.
It makes for interesting, but lengthy, reading (at 163 pages long you could be forgiven for feeling daunted). You can read the full report here, but here are our key take-aways:
The science gap
"The evidence of a link between pupils' socio-economic background and their attainment and participation in science is robust," according to researchers.
The analysis found that disadvantaged students – defined as those who have been entitled to free school meals at least once in the past six years – do not achieve as highly in science as their wealthier peers. Nor do they make as much progress: even when previous attainment was accounted for, disadvantaged students made less progress at every point in their schooling.
The gap was particularly noticeable at the ages of 5-7, and 11-16 – key moments of cognitive development. This is significant because early intervention is often seen as key in closing the gap, but this may not be the case in science. The report suggests future researchers should focus on interventions tailored to these specific ages.
Participation in the subject also has a socio-economic gap. The analysis confirmed that disadvantaged students are less likely to continue studying science after the age of 16.
The causes of the science gap
The report highlights four of possible causes for the difference in attainment and participation in science. These include:
Researchers state that "the strongest and most consistent predictor of pupils' scientific attainment has undoubtedly been how literate they are". This makes sense – students need to be able to read and understand scientific material, write up their reports and use complex vocabulary.
Scientific reasoning skills
The analysis found that the ability to reason scientifically – specifically, testing hypotheses, understanding variables and conducting well-considered experiments – indicates how well a student will perform in the subject in the long-term. It also reduces the achievement gap caused by disadvantage.
Opportunities to learn
The data shed some light on the "opportunity gap". Researchers found that disadvantaged students perform better in science if they attend a school where the average level of disadvantage is low. It works in the reverse too: wealthier students do less well in science if they attend a school with a higher average level of disadvantage.
This stands to reason; if you attend a school in a deprived area, your science education might be affected by factors such as resources shortages and difficulty with teacher recruitment. What's more, if your family struggles financially, you may have less access to enrichment activities and resources to support your learning, compared with wealthier peers.
Like reading comprehension and scientific reasoning, metacognitive training does improve students' science attainment. The report notes that this is particularly helpful for lower attainers.
What this means for teaching practice
Researchers used the findings to propose interventions and teaching approaches that had the greatest effect on science education – and top among them were those associated with developing students' literacy and scientific reasoning. Although research has only really taken place in upper primary and lower secondary schools so far, programmes that focus on developing these skills are said to be "generally successful".
Metacognition interventions are slightly trickier to assess because there aren't many studies looking at effective ways to teach metacognitive skills to disadvantaged students. That said, research suggests that developing children's group work skills, and their ability to "evaluate and make use of their own assessment data" does make a difference to attainment in science.
The report strikes a cautious tone when it comes to the "fun" approach of museum trips and working with real-life scientists. The researchers highlight that residentials and trips to scientific institutions can support science learning, but only when they are "carefully structured". After-school clubs, peer mentoring and ensuring science lessons are relevant to students' lives were also found to be beneficial.