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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Preparing for the future by repairing now: retaining students in senior secondary physics

Jessy Abraham

Dr Jessy Abraham is a lecturer in the School of Education, University of Western Sydney. For further information please contact jessy.abraham@uws.edu.auThe author reports on her study of issues influencing the retention of senior secondary students in physics. The study involved Year 11 students at nine Catholic or government schools in western and northern Sydney.


Nationally and internationally, students are increasingly reluctant to pursue the study of science subjects at senior secondary level. There has been much research on this issue. Some studies identify strategies to attract more students, particularly more females, to the sciences. In Australia, suggested actions include curricular reforms, gender inclusive practices and contextualisation of science curriculum.

Despite this work, student participation has not improved in recent decades, particularly in the ‘hard’ sciences such as physics. In Australia, senior secondary physics has the lowest student participation rate, and classes are still male dominated, with 75% of students being male. Although these trends are a global phenomenon, Australia needs to be proactive in protecting its scientific future.

While much current research examines obstacles to attracting more students to study the sciences, we must also ask whether we are doing enough to retain those who have already chosen sciences at senior secondary level.

Of the traditional sciences (physics, chemistry and biology), physics has been generally perceived as the most difficult and demanding subject by students (eg Barmby & Defty, 2006). Data from the NSW Board of Studies shows that not only does physics have the lowest participation rate at senior secondary level, but also that it has a high attrition rate between year 11 and year 12. Every year since 2000, more than 21% of males and 25% of females have discontinued physics between years 11 and 12. And this rate is slowly but steadily increasing, reaching 24% and 31% respectively for males and females in 2009–2010.

In NSW, as in other states of Australia, senior secondary physics is generally chosen by high academic achievers with high career aspirations. These students report high self-efficacy in the subject and typically come from families with high socio-educational status and high parental education (Fullarton & Ainley, 2000). Yet a quarter of this ‘elite’ group of students leave physics after one year of study of the subject.

The current study

This article reports on research undertaken in 2009 to examine factors affecting the retention of students in senior secondary physics. The participants in this study were senior secondary school physics students in Year 11 from nine NSW schools (government and Catholic schools) located in Western and Northern Sydney.

One question the study examines is the extent to which students’ intentions to stay on in the subject are determined by their perceptions of its utility value, which mainly refers to its usefulness in securing admission to highly regarded university courses and high status jobs (Barnes, 1999). It is a common belief that sciences at the senior secondary level are selected by students for their strategic value in getting entry to competitive courses that lead to prestigious jobs or offer more employment opportunities. Many research findings support this explanation (eg Barnes, 1999; Eccles & Wigfield, 1995). However, the immediate utility value of traditional science subjects has in fact declined. Physics and chemistry were once considered prerequisites for entry to most undergraduate science courses, but now the entry criteria have been relaxed and physical sciences are increasingly regarded as ‘assumed knowledge’. Similarly, changes in employment fields have increased the relative utility value of other subjects over physical sciences (Lyons & Quinn, 2010). This decline in the utility value of physics has been linked to the declining enrolment in senior secondary physics in Australia (Lyons & Quinn, 2010).

Another issue is the extent to which students’ motivation to study physics varies by topic. Physics curricula at post-compulsory education levels cover several topics with varying characteristics. For example, some topics are descriptive, while others are more problem oriented; some are theory oriented, while others have more practical utility in everyday life. Previous studies have tended to measure motivational patterns in the school subject of physics as a whole. By contrast, the present study separately measured students’ motivations in relation to each of the four topics that are studied during year 11 in NSW: The World Communicates; Moving About; Electrical Energy at Home; and The Cosmic Engine.

A further issue examined in the study is the influence of gender stereotypes on student engagement and intentions for further study.

Research design

Student data was collected by administering topic-specific questionnaires on four occasions during the 2009 academic year. The four data collection points corresponded to the completion of each of the physics topics of the NSW year 11 curriculum. The total sample size across the nine schools varied across the topics (270, 280, 239 and 222) and was higher for males than females (males: 178, 180, 147 and 140; females: 92, 100, 92 and 82); this reflects the significantly lower female participation in Australian physics classrooms (Fullarton, Walker, Ainley & Hillman, 2003). Further information on the methodology of the study is available from the author.

Findings and discussion

The study found that while students do attach high utility value to physics, it is not the most influential factor in sustaining their enrolment intentions to year 12. The evidence suggests that it was the students’ expectations of success that largely predicted their plans to continue with physics. This result held consistently across the four physics topics covered in year 11.

This finding highlights the competitive learning style promoted in Australian schools and the considerable importance students place on the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR), which is calculated at the end of the final year of senior secondary school examinations. There is a trend among year 11 students to discontinue the subjects in which they are not achieving well enough to get a high ATAR, even when they enjoy the subject.

To a large extent, this is a system-wide issue. However, there are ways in which individual teachers and schools can address it, and thereby help to retain students in senior secondary physics. For one thing, it is important to address students’ fears of poor performance in summative assessments. Teachers need to be aware of the motivational significance of performance perceptions that students develop in physics while learning the subject. The school and classroom environments are vital contexts that can enhance the performance perceptions of students. Teachers should employ strategies to ensure that students feel competent and achieve success.

These fears of poor performance arise in part from the competitive mindset generated by ATAR, and the narrow view of success that it encourages. While teachers cannot alter the facts of ATAR and end-of-year summative assessment, they can reduce the anxieties which that mindset tends to produce. If students are in a classroom where success is defined in terms of self-improvement rather than high test grades, then all students have the chance to feel successful. Cooperative and collaborative learning activities may encourage students to work together to solve tasks rather than to compete against each other. Social interactions can make everybody share the feeling of success and therefore increase enthusiasm for the subject.

Another important finding concerns the influence of gender stereotypes on students’ engagement and their intentions for further study. Research literature suggests that physics is perceived as a ‘masculine’ subject by students (eg DeBacker & Nelson, 2000; Frost, Reiss & Frost, 2005), creating the potential for gender stereotypes to reduce female students’ engagement and participation. The current study did find evidence that where stereotyped attitudes exist, they are likely to reduce female students’ engagement with physics.

However, few male or female students in the study were found to hold such stereotypical attitudes about girls and physics. Furthermore, for all four physics topics, the motivation and engagement of the female students were found to be equal to or higher than those of the male students.

It should be noted that the females in the current study represent a distinct group because they have already made a choice to participate in a stereotypically masculine domain. This suggests that once students have started studying physics, their motivation and engagement may not necessarily reflect gender biases in the wider student population, or the community at large. Knowing this may help physics teachers avoid making false assumptions that lead to gender-differentiated expectations and classroom practices (Elwood & Comber, 1996; Zohar & Bronshtein, 2005).

The only area in which female students differed from male peers was in their perception of the utility value of one of the four topics covered in year 11 physics: Moving About. This topic covers aspects of mechanics, such as forces and acceleration; it also demands more problem-solving skills than the other three topics. It is unclear why this topic is perceived as less relevant by females. This finding is however consistent with Osborne and Collins’ (2000) study results (see also Murphy & Whitelegg, 2006). The finding highlights the need to make the topic more relevant to the life experiences of female students.


The study found that students’ main consideration for staying with or leaving physics was their perception of how it would affect their ATAR scores, and thus their opportunities for tertiary entrance. Pessimism about their prospects was the main driver for dropping out. For this reason, it is of key importance that teachers and schools support students’ self-concept as learners of physics. One of the main ways to do so is to challenge the individualistic, competitive mindset generated by end-of-year summative assessment and rivalry for tertiary placement, by encouraging cooperation and mutual support amongst students.

The study also found that while gender stereotypes have the potential to discourage female students from physics, the existence of these stereotypes should not be assumed in any given classroom.

This study focused on physics, a subject which is likely to report a shortage of qualified persons more obviously than the other STEM-related careers in the near future in Australia. The retention of students in other STEM courses also needs attention. Preparing and repairing now can safeguard Australia’s scientific future.


Barmby, P & Defty N 2006, ‘Secondary school pupils’ perceptions of physics’, Research in Science & Technological Education, 24(2), 199–215

Barnes, G R 1999, ‘A motivational model of enrolment intentions in senior secondary science courses in New South Wales Schools’, Doctoral dissertation, University of Western Sydney, Macarthur

DeBacker, T K & Nelson, R M 2000, ‘Motivation to learn science: differences related to gender, class type, and ability’, The Journal of Educational Research, 93(4), 245–254

Eccles, J S & Wigfield, A 1995, ‘In the mind of the actor: the structure of adolescents’ achievement task values and expectancy-related beliefs’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21(3), 215–225. doi: 10.1177/0146167295213003

Elwood, J & Comber, C 1996, Gender Differences in Examinations at 18+: final report. London: Institute of Education

Frost, S, Reiss, M, & Frost, J 2005, ‘Count me in! Gender and minority ethnic attainment in school science’, School Science Review, 86(316)

Fullarton, S & Ainley, J 2000, ‘Subject choice by students in year 12 in Australian secondary schools’, Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth Research Report, Australian Council for Educational Research

Fullarton, S, Walker, M, Ainley, J, & Hillman, K 2003, ‘Patterns of participation at year 12’, Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth Research Report, Australian Council for Educational Research

Lyons, T, & Quinn, F 2010, ‘Choosing Science: Understanding the Declines in Senior High School Science Enrolments’, National Centre of Science, ICT and Mathematics Education for Rural and Regional Australia (SiMERR Australia), University of New England

Murphy, P, & Whitelegg, E 2006, ‘Girls and Physics: Continuing Barriers to “Belonging” ’, Curriculum Journal, 17(3), 281–305

Osborne, J F & Collins, S 2000, ‘Pupils’ and parents’ views of the school science curriculum’, London, King’s College London

Zohar, A, & Bronshtein, B 2005, ‘Physics teachers' knowledge and beliefs regarding girls' low participation rates in advanced physics classes’, International Journal of Science Education, 27(1), 61–77. doi: 10.1080/0950069032000138798

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Retention rates in schools
Student engagement
Girls' education
Science teaching
Secondary education
New South Wales (NSW)