Paper 2: Understanding student participation in science and mathematics: Towards a domain-specific measure of STEM anxiety

Year: 2018

Author: Mackenzie, Erin, Berger, Nathan, Holmes, Kathryn

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Student participation has been shifting from subjects such as calculus-based mathematics towards non-calculus-based mathematics, with similar shifts in the sciences and technologies. Research attention has turned towards identifying factors that can abate these shifts. Declining participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects is of concern given the projected importance of STEM knowledge and skills for the future workforce. While a range of factors are implicated in students’ choices to continue with STEM subjects in the senior years of secondary schooling, students’ affective responses to these subjects is an important factor. There is evidence to suggest that student enjoyment or fear of a subject will influence their subject choices and for some students, fear of a subject can develop into subject-specific anxiety. There has been substantial research attention on anxiety towards mathematics, involving both cognitive and affective reactions to learning and performance in mathematics. Comparatively fewer studies have examined anxiety in other STEM subjects, notably science and technology. In an era of increasing curriculum integration across these subjects, we argue that a more nuanced understanding of students’ underlying concerns about their abilities in one or more STEM subjects is required.
In this study we aimed to design a measure of domain-specific anxiety elicited by science (biology, chemistry, and physics), technology, and mathematics for use with secondary school students. To develop a pool of potential items for the STEM anxiety scale, we first examined the literature and existing scales that measure mathematics and science anxiety. We then consulted an expert group of academics and teachers in STEM disciplines to reduce the pool of potential items into a scale of manageable length. The scale was then piloted with NSW secondary school students in Years 7-10. Confirmatory factor analyses were used to investigate factor structures. Comparisons were also made with existing measures of subject-specific and general measures of anxiety. In this paper we report on the development and validation of this domain-specific measure of STEM anxiety. An understanding of STEM anxiety has the capacity to guide intervention efforts in improving participation in senior STEM subjects and improving student wellbeing more generally.