Changing and Measuring Attitudes in the Science Classroom

Changing and Measuring Attitudes in the Science Classroom


Teachers realize the importance of how students feel about science subjects and courses; nevertheless, they place little emphasis on affective objectives. The affective domain is often neglected because teachers have difficulty designing strategies to develop positive attitudes among students and documenting their development. The seemingly arbitrary use of terms associated with the affective domain has further contributed to this neglect. Recent research provides suitable guidelines to focus attention on this important domain.

The literature indicates that the affective domain related to science education is primarily concerned with attitudes related to science. The development of positive attitudes toward science has long been viewed as a legitimate goal of science education. Science curriculum developers have for some time sought to improve students' attitudes toward science and scientists. Concern for student attitudes toward science has also risen with regard to the possibility of increasing enrollment in elective science courses by improving attitudes toward science among adolescents.

Attitude and Related Concepts

The term attitude encompasses a wide range of affective behaviors (e.g., prefer, accept, appreciate, and commit) and is due too loosely and without basis by some writers. It is also applied in a number of contexts and with a variety of meanings, which has led to considerable confusion. Nevertheless, a distinct, yet complex definition of attitude is emerging within the literature.

The most prominent quality is evaluating directionality, our favorable or unfavorable feelings toward something. Some experts contend that evaluation is the only element of attitude; the element that our attitude instruments seem to measure. Attitudes are learned either actively or vicariously, thus they can be taught. Because attitudes are learned they are susceptible to change, but stable enough to be enduring. Each attitude has an object and the changeable mature of an attitude is tied to the specificity of the object. It is harder to change one's attitude towards science, for example, than an attitude toward dissecting a frog in biology class on Monday. Attitude is also a correlate of behavior with personal, social, and cognitive variables thought to influence their level of consistency.

Other terms such as value, belief, interest, and opinion are often confused with attitude. Values are rules that direct moral or ethical decisions that are considered with right or wrong. They are broader in scope than attitudes and unlike attitudes that range from positive to negative, values seem to be always positive in nature. Truth, beauty, goodness, liberty, equality, and justice are six values basic to Western civilization cited by Mortimer Adler (1982). Recognized by Shrigley, Koballa, and Simpson (1988) as values held by science teachers are academic achievement, a pollution free environment, and symmetry in nature. Values are considered more complex than attitudes and are less easily changed.

Beliefs are the cognitive basis for attitudes. They provide information for attitudes by linking objects and attributes. For example, "Cotton is fluffy," is a belief with "cotton" serving as an object and "fluffy" serving as an attribute. Information provided by beliefs may be factual (e.g. copper is "malleable") or nonfactual (e.g. the atomic bomb is the most important scientific breakthrough for the 20th century). Nonfactual or evaluative beliefs differ little from attitudes. A person has many more beliefs than attitudes and far fewer values than either attitudes or beliefs.

An interest is a learned response of liking or preferring. It involves the selection and ranking of responses along a like-dislike continuum. Interests are directed toward activities and objects and they are usually expressed by action verbs, such as reading a book or playing football. Some writers have attempted to make a distinction between interest and attitude with preferences from groups, institutions, or objects. However, this distinction seems artificial. In usage, the terms are essentially synonymous.

Usually manifested in the form of verbal expression, opinions are more cognitive than attitudes. Opinions over the years have competed for the position now firmly held by attitudes and have been used to represent cognition, evaluation, and behavior. The terms opinion and interest seem to serve no useful purpose as constructs for science education research and communication with the evaluation of rather distinct definitions for attitude, value, and belief. (A more comprehensive analysis of attitude and other related concepts can be found in the work of Shrigley, Kobella, and Simpson, 1988).

In addition to the terms just mentioned, science educators toil with scientific attitudes, a concept that further adds to the confusion. A cognitive concept, scientific attitudes are normally associated with the mental processes of scientists, (e.g., curiosity, rationality, and willingness to suspend judgement). Scientific attitudes possess attributes thought to be either true or false and do not express an evaluative quality. To lessen the semantic confusion, scientific attitudes may be better labeled as "scientific attributes".


For the most part, efforts to improve attitudes by science educators have taken the form of learning science content or comparing innovative forms of teaching with more traditional ones. These efforts are similar to ones abandoned by attitude researchers nearly fifty years ago. Recently, theoretical models derived from social psychology have been employed in science education. Although no options for improving science attitudes should be overlooked, basing the study of attitudes on theoretical models derived from social psychology seems to be a fruitful option. Suggesting that we look to the social psychological literature for theoretical rationales for attitude change are the key elements found in the definition of attitude and a wealth of theoretical development.

Recognized by social psychologists are seven major approaches to attitude change, with each approach subsuming numerous related theoretical models (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). Conditioning and modeling, message-learning, judgmental, motivational, attributional, combinatory, and self-persuasion are the seven approaches. Petty and Cacioppo contend that the vehicle responsible for attitude change in all of the approaches is persuasion, even though the approaches differ in the outcomes that they specialize in explaining.

Persuasion refers to "any change in attitudes that results from exposure to a communication" (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986, p. 5) and embodies many aspects of teaching. Particularly when operationalized by means of Hovland's (Hovland, Janis, & Kelley, 1953) theoretical model, persuasion resembles classroom instruction. Persuasion and instruction both involve communication which includes giving arguments and evidence for the purpose of getting someone to believe something or to do something. Nevertheless, the use of persuasion as a vehicle for attitude change is suspected to have prompted much trepidation among educators. Bloom, Hastings, and Madaus (1971) contend that neglect of the affective domain is in part due to the fear of indoctrinating or brainwashing students when teaching to achieve affective outcomes.

Persuasion is easily distinguished from indoctrination and brainwashing. Persuasion depicts a situation which is marked by the conscious intent of the source to persuade and in which both the source and receiver function as active agents in the persuasion process. The aim of persuasion, like that of instruction, is to establish certain beliefs (and attitudes) so that they are held in conjunction with their foundation in argument and evidence. The recipient of a persuasive appeal is always free to accept or reject it; the same is not true for indoctrination and brainwashing. Like persuasion, indoctrination is concerned with the change and formation of beliefs; they differ, however, in that in persuasion the emphasis is placed on the reasons for the belief as opposed to the content of the belief. Much of what young children learn in school, public or private, is implanted by indoctrination.

Brainwashing, as coined by journalist Edward hunter in the 1950s, refers to the coercive techniques applied by the North Korean military to obtain the cooperation and compliance of Allied Prisoners of War. Unlike persuasion, brainwashing involves physical brutality, psychological pressure, and intensive interrogation. Nevertheless, brainwashing was found to be quite ineffective as a means of ideological conversion. Of the several thousand Americans captured during the Korean war and "brainwashed", fewer than 50 collaborated with the enemy and fewer than 25 refused repatriation (Striker, 1984). Most of the men who originally refused repatriation later returned home.

Numerous studies based on the persuasion paradigm have been conducted over the last ten years primarily by a group of science educators led by Robert L. Shrigley (see Shrigley & Koballa, 1987). Their studies were organized around the question, "Who says what to whom how with what effect?" Using this question, they investigated how attitude change (the effect, or the dependent variable) is influenced by four stimuli (1) the source of the message (who), (2) the message (what), (3) the channel through which the message is delivered (how), and (4) the audience (whom). The persistence (retention) of changed attitudes who also a part of many of the studies. These research efforts led to the following conclusions.

  • Carefully designed belief-laden messages built on Hovland's model can be used to change attitudes.
  • Over the short-term, highly credible (expert and trustworthy) sources enhance the effectiveness of persuasive messages.
  • Longer treatment periods are not better. In fact, messages of less than 30 minutes in length can change attitudes.
  • Changes in attitudes are unrelated to gains in factual information.
  • Messages that present both sides of an issue are more persuasive than those that present only one side.
  • Anecdotal messages (containing vivid, concrete sensory information) appear to be superior to data-summary messages (containing aggregated, statistical data) in changing attitudes.
  • The channel by which a message is presented does not seem to affect its persuasiveness. Videotape, audiotape, and printed messages have been tried, without a clear advantage for one over the others.
  • The attitudes of males are more positive than those of females.
  • The effectiveness of persuasive message is not affective by the recipient's self-esteem, intelligence, or level of cognitive complexity.
  • Attitude change and the persistence of attitude change are related to recipient's self-generated thoughts to a persuasive message, but not to his ability to recall message arguments.

Attitude Measurement

Inadequacies in the design of closed item questionnaires are often blamed for the lack of consistent research findings regarding science-related attitude. Since attitude is a construct that must be measured indirectly, usually through self-report, it is imperative that instruments used to assess attitudes be both reliable (i.e., produce consistent result) and valid (i.e. measure what you want to measure). Mathematical computations to determine instrument reliability are routine but the absence of a systematic plan for establishing validity is a flaw common to most attitude instruments. Establishing validity is a process that involves human judgement in addition to statistical procedures according to Abdel-Gaid, Trueblood, and Shrigley (1986). Heeding this warning, a number of closed item attitude scales were developed. Likert scales and semantic differential scales made up the majority of the instruments.

Likert scales. A Likert scale consists of a series of attitude statements that are clearly either positive or negative. A wide range of scores is achieved by having respondents report the intensity of an attitude. This is accomplished by having them indicate their agreement with each statement on a 5-point scale.

The development and testing of Likert scales evolved alongside the adaptation of Hovland's approach to the needs unique to science education. The goal was to see how well scales with only 20 to 25 items could withstand the rigor of both quantitative and qualitative analysis. Over the years a number of scales were developed as part of research endeavors in this area. Unfortunately few of the scales are appropriate for use by teachers with their classes, since, the subjects of the research were primarily preservice and inservice teachers.

Measuring the attitude objects on each of the scales developed are positive and negative items similar to the one presented below that appears on the Revised Science Attitude Scale (Thompson & Shrigley, 1986):

I enjoy manipulating science equipment. (positive statement)


(a) strongly agree

(b) agree

(c) undecided

(d) disagree

(e) strongly disagree







Semantic differential scales. A scale of this type consists of a series of bipolar adjective pairs (e.g., good-bad, beneficial-harmful) listed on opposite sides of a page with seven spaces in between. The attitude object is identified at the top of the scale and may be a word, statement, or picture. The respondent is instructed to evaluate the attitude object by placing a mark in one of the seven spaces between each adjective pair.

Development of semantic differential scales stems from the use of Fishbein and Ajzen's theory of reasoned action to investigate science-related attitudes. The theory is Fishbein and Ajzen's attempt to deal with the weak link often observed between attitudes and behaviors. Studies conducted within the framework of this theory have had a substantial impact on the field of attitude research sine the mid-1970s.

In their theory, Fishbein and Ajzen suggest that attitude measures should focus on a person's attitude toward a behavior rather than on the person's attitude toward particular objects. That is, instead of asking about students' attitudes toward science, or computers, teachers should assess their attitudes toward learning science or writing Logo computer programs. The role of specificity in the model is operationalized by the deliberate inclusion of four elements:

  • action - reading
  • target - my biology textbook
  • context - during study hall, and
  • time - for 15 minutes every day throughout the school year.

Fishbein and Ajzen also identify another variable, operationalized in a similar manner, which should be measured along with attitude toward the behavior to facilitate behavioral prediction. The variable is called subjective norm. It reflects the person's perception that significant others think the behavior should or should not be performed. Derived from a combination of the attitude and subjective norm scores is a behavioral intention score, considered the best predictor of actual behavior.

Measuring intention, attitude, and subjective norm with respect to the behavior would require the use of semantic differential items similar to the one modeled below:

I intend to read my biology textbook during study hall for 15 minutes every day throughout the school year.
























Few semantic differential scales have been developed that measure the antecedents of science-related behaviors. Nevertheless, scales based on the theory of reasoned action offer several advantages over Likert scales. Their development and use us based on a systematic theory of human behavior, the goal of which is to predict and understand behavior. Clear distinctions are made between belief, attitude, intention and behavior. Attitude is assumed to be a function of all salient beliefs about the attitude object. As a result, the refinement of measures by means of item analysis or to assure unidimensionality by means of confirmatory factor analysis are not required according to Ajzen and Fishbein (1980). Furthermore, scales based on the theory of reasoned action are closely linked to the development of belief-based, persuasive messages. Efforts to develop and test Likert and semantic differential attitude scales led to the following conclusions.

  • Attitude instruments provide us with a convenient means of assessing behavior. The only true reason for studying attitude is its relationship to behavior.
  • Without reliable and valid measures of attitude, assessing attitude change is impossible.
  • The phrase "monitor and modify" should be synonymous with the use of any attitude scale. instrument reliability and valid data are not static, but change from sample to sample and from one administration to the next.
  • Attitudes toward science cannot adequately predict nor provide a satisfactory explanation of science-related behaviors. (Yet investigators persist in measuring students' feelings about field trips, working with science equipment, and six-week units on electricity or ecology using scales that measure toward science!)
  • The prediction of behavioral intention, and hence behavior, is improved when the elements of the attitudinal and behavioral intention variables are calibrated at the same level of specificity as the behavioral criterion.
  • The use of semantic differential scales based on the theory of reasoned action are preferred over Likert scales to predict and understand behavior and to assess the effects of persuasion.

Teaching for Attitude Change

Affective objectives should be clearly identified and strategies designed to achieve these objectives must be employed. Changing attitudes using Hovland's model does not require treatments lasting weeks or months; attitudes can be changed in as short a time as one class period, provided that attention is paid to the variables harbored within the question: Who says what to whom how with what effect?

Who: the communicator. Cues discharged by the communicator provide the message recipient with information beyond the arguments and evidence presented in a message. A teacher can enhance his credibility by the way he introduces himself to his students. At the outset of an attempt to persuade students to handle non-venomous snakes, for example, a teacher should describe past activities in which he has handled non-venomous snakes (to appear more qualified). In addition, he may wish to tell the students that their failure to handle the snakes will not affect their class grades or chances to participate in future class activities.

Because most persuasive communication situations are unlikely to occur under conditions in which the speaker is suddenly made known to his audience, people make judgments about the source before they begin to process the message. As Bettinghaus (1968) points out, "it is not the momentary exposure to the source at the time of message transmission which is important, but the total set of impressions from the time the receiver first becomes aware of the source" (p. 118). The teacher who wishes to become persuasive must act according during his daily activities, not merely at the time the message is delivered. Indeed, a communicator can impede attitude change when his perceived credibility is low and help to facilitate attitude change when credibility is high.

What: the message. An appropriate message variable would be a brief, belief-laden communication describing for adolescents reasons for not taking drugs. Teaching strategies identified as innovative (e.g., museum tours, process skills, self-paced and computer assisted instruction) when compared with traditional teaching lack the necessary precision and would not qualify as message variables in Hovland's model.

Achieving desired affective outcomes can be accomplished without being indoctrinary by constructing messages that emphasize the reasons for belief as opposed to the content of belief. If the beliefs (and attitudes) for reasons that are good and sufficient, messages that present both sides of a debatable issue (e.g., evolution, abortion, aluminum recycling) are essential.

Most people, scientists included, are more easily persuaded by anecdotal, case histories than by aggregated, statistical data (like that found in Consumer Reports). Explanations for the finding range from the greater potency of concrete, vivid information over abstract, pallid evidence to a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of statistical inference. Teachers can take advantage of the power of anecdotes by using personal testimonies to aid in the learning of science principles. Also, teachers can use their understanding of the power of anecdotes to curb reckless thinking such as when students insist on generalizing in tubful proportions from a thimble of facts.

How: the channel. Common sense might suggest that the order of channel persuasiveness would be: live, videotape, audiotape, and printed. But this does not always seem to hold true. The effectiveness of the channel seems to be affected by the complexity of the message (Chaiken & Eagley, 1976). An easily comprehended message should engender the most attitude change when it is live or videotaped and the least attitude change when it is printed. However, printed media is likely to be the most effective when the message is complex, because the reader can process it at his own pace. Over all, printed messages are preferred because they are easy to construct and can be reproduced with little chance of being unintentionally altered.

Whom: the recipient. Unlike the "hypodermic needle" approach to attitude change that guided research and seemed to mold public opinion in the 1950s, current persuasion theory suggests that humans are not passive and defenseless message recipients who can be injected with a persuasive message that will change their attitudes. As currently conceived, attitude change and persistence are linked to the active participation of the recipient as he elaborates upon the message's arguments and evidence. From this constructivist framework, teachers should not expect unwavering acceptance of the position advocated by a message because students will respond to persuasion in terms of their preexisting perspectives regarding the topic of the message.

With what effect: measurement. Because affective objectives are important, they should be the focus of formal evaluation. Formal evaluation may be carried out most easily with the aid of closed item questionnaires, whether obtained or constructed. Using instruments developed by others can save much time and can provide the user an existing scale, one should check to see if it has been tried and if the audience for which it has been designed matches the intended audience. An existing instrument should also carry some reliability and validity data. Depending on what data are available, pilot testing and modifying the scale may be necessary before it can be used.

If an existing scale cannot be found to meet a particular need then one must be built. Abdel-Gaid and her colleagues (1986) provide a fairly comprehensive report of the step-by-step Likert scale building process. Explicit directions for building scales based upon the theory of reasoned action are presented in Ajzen and Fishbein's (1980) book, Understanding Attitudes and Predicting Social Behavior. The development of an attitude scale is no easy task; time and computer access are a must. However, the final product, a reliable and valid attitude scale, will be worth the time and effort invested.

by Thomas R. Kobella, Jr., Professor of Science Education, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 


Members of the research group whose findings and conclusions are summarized in this report include: Lawrence Calhoun, Susan Demers, Barbara Grabowski, Abdel Hassan, Thomas Kobella, Suzanne Miller, Robert Shrigley, and Dennis Showers.


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Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). Communication and Persuasion. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Shrigley, R. L., & Koballa, T. R., Jr. (1987). Applying a theoretical framework: A decade of attitude research in science education. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University, Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

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Thompson, C. L., & Shrigley, R. L. (1986). What research says: Revising the Science Attitude Scale. School Science and Mathematics, 86(4), 331-334.