Research Summary

Beliefs about teaching science: The relationship between elementary teachers’ participation in professional development and student achievement

Teachers’ Beliefs Tied to Student Achievement

International Journal of Science Education

Teachers are gaining more and more attention in discussions about student achievement. The authors of this study explain, “It is becoming increasingly clear that teachers are critically important to the success of education reforms since they play such a key role in directly impacting student learning.” Accordingly, researchers have been working to better understand what makes an effective teacher, and research has particularly focused on professional development programs, hoping to understand what is most effective in teacher training.

That research has yielded important results that point to several key features of effective teacher training, including:
• Focusing on the content that students will learn
• Providing active learning experiences for the teachers
• Meeting the teachers’ professional needs
• Offering training over the long term
• Creating opportunities for teachers to work together

According to this model of teacher training, these approaches improve not just teachers’ knowledge and skills, but also their beliefs about teaching. And an improvement in teachers’ knowledge, skills, and beliefs should translate into higher achievement for students. The authors of this paper investigated whether a well-designed training program for elementary science teachers affected the teachers’ beliefs about teaching, and whether those beliefs in turn affected student achievement.

The training program focused on training K-6 teachers in science and involved collaboration between two Ohio universities, a large urban school district, and a smaller nearby suburban school district. Both of the school districts were struggling to improve their students’ performance in science.

The training program was extensive and included many of the key features past research identified as important for successful programs. Teachers participated in a two-week summer program for a total of about 80 hours, focusing on inquiry-based instruction and science content knowledge. During the school year, trained support teachers assisted the teachers in a variety of ways, including helping the Professional Development teachers execute their teaching plans, modeling science inquiry, supplying background information on science content, helping administer assessments, and more. Training programs during the academic year added about 24 hours of additional professional development. And the program went further still, also involving school principals in training programs and reaching out to the community through family science days, parent-teacher organization meetings, and other methods.

To gauge the impact of the program, the authors measured teachers’ beliefs before and after their participation in the one-year program. In particular, the researchers measured the teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs (whether teachers felt that they are effective teachers), outcome expectancy (whether teachers felt that if they teach well, their students will learn science), and context beliefs (whether teachers felt that their professional environment was supportive). They then compared the teachers’ beliefs with their students’ performance on the state achievement test for science (the Ohio Proficiency Test).

The researchers found that, after participating in more than 100 hours of the research-based professional development program, science teachers had more positive beliefs about their own teaching effectiveness (self-efficacy). The research did not uncover an increase in outcome expectancy among the teachers (the teachers were no more likely to believe that their teaching was responsible for student performance). Interestingly, the researchers detected a small, but significant, drop in context beliefs (in essence, the teachers were less likely to feel professionally supported). They suggested that one possible explanation for this drop in context beliefs was the increase in expectations for the teachers’ performance that this program brought. Before the program, most of the teachers were not required to teach science, but the program required many hours of new science instruction. The authors conjectured that “such added stress may only serve to decrease beliefs in the context.”

And perhaps most importantly, the researchers found that teachers’ beliefs about their effectiveness and the number of hours they spent in professional development predicted student achievement, though the effect was small. “Obviously, other factors are involved and should be investigated,” the authors concluded. They continued, “These [other] factors may include actual classroom practices, curriculum materials, support systems, and student background variables.” Although other factors may play a larger role in student achievement, nevertheless, this research demonstrates that teachers’ beliefs about their effectiveness and their participation in a high-quality, research-based training program nevertheless play a role in student success.

The Bottom Line

This study demonstrates that students of confident teachers who believe in their own effectiveness perform better in science. In this study, teachers’ self-efficacy beliefs increased after they participated in a long-term professional development program that included more than 100 hours of training, teacher support during the school year, and training for principals and community members. These findings emphasize the importance of designing teacher training programs that improve teacher knowledge, skills, and confidence by following proven principles of program development. Future research could help clarify just how much time in training is needed to achieve similar positive results.