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Attitude and Related Concepts in

Science Education


Science Education Center, The University of Texas at Austin,
Austin, Texas 78712

Published articles and papers presented at regional and national meetings suggest
that the study of affective variables, particularly attitude, is being given considerable
attention by science educators. Shibeci (1984) reports of more than 200 studies b e
tween the years of 1976 and 1983 that examined affective variables. Much of this
recent attention seems to stem from the belief that affective variables are as important
as cognitive variables in influencing learning outcomes, career choices, and use of
leisure time. Even with the increased emphasis being placed on the study of affective
variables, concepts in the affective domain remain inconsistently defined in the science
education literature (Haladyna and Shaughnessy, 1982) and are sometimes used inter-
changeably. The confusion brought about by such inconsistency and use can only
result in negative implications for interpreting research findings.


The purpose of this work is twofold. The first purpose is to define attitude and dis-
tinguish it from related concepts. The second is to point out some of the weaknesses
inherent in the attitude research currently conducted in science education and to offer
suggestions as to how interest in attitude research might be more productively chan-
Not germane to the context of this work is a discussion of scientific attitudes.
Scientific attitudes, or more aptly labeled “science attributes, ” are those behaviors as-
sociated with critical thinking and typically meant to characterize the thinking proces-
ses of scientists (e.g., suspended judgment).

Science Education 72(2):115-126 (1988)

0 1988 John Wiley C Sons, Inc. CCC 0036-8326/88/020115-12$04.00

Affective Variables


Attitude was first used as a psychological concept by Thomas and Znaniecki (1918)
to describe the acculturation of Polish peasants in urban America during the early part
of the 20th century. Their work, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, is his-
torically important, Fishbein and Ajjzen (1975) tell us, because it stripped attitude
from its physiological content and served to user in a period during which a more
cognitive view of the attitude gained acceptance.
Early in the 18th century attitude was used to describe the physical posture of im-
mobile figures and later the posture of movement among actors and dancers (Fleming,
1967). Even today the physical posture of an object remains linked to the term; the at-
titude of an aircraft in flight is but one example. Further evolution of the term is cap-
tured in Charles Darwin’s use of attitude to describe the physical expression of an
emotion in animals in a state of fight or flight (Albrecht, Thomas, and Chadwick,
1980) and the British physiologist Sherrington’s study of human muscle reflexes
(Allport, 1954). Experiments by industrial psychologists of the Hawthorne Works of
the Western Electric Company in Chicago, Illinois during the late 1920s are credited
with helping to firmly establish attitude as a mental concept (Fleming, 1967). As cur-
rently conceived and generally used, attitude is truly a modem concept having its
origin in the early part of the 20th century.
Because the term attitude is a popular one in daily life, almost everyone has some
idea of its meaning. Nonetheless, the meanings given the term do not always coincide.
Indeed, attitude has been defined in a variety of ways by those who have used it as a
unit of social psychological analysis (see Kiesler, Collins, and Miller, 1969; Himmel-
farb and Eagly, 1974; Petty and Cacioppo, 1981). Science educators, however, must
define the term carefully for themselves if it is to be used to better understand and
predict the science-related behaviors of students and teachers.
One definition seems to embody the essence of many other definitions and enables
11s to explore the diversity of the attitude concept. Fishbein and Ajzen (1975) contend
that “most investigators would probably agree that attitude can be described as a
learned predisposition to respond in a consistently favorable or unfavorable manner
toward an attitude object” (p. 6). They go on to say that, by allowing for multiple in-
terpretations, this definition serves to obscure the existing disagreements among re-
searchers. A closer examination of the definitions, as Fishbein and Ajzen recommend,
should reveal the components of the definition that underlie much of the ambiguity as-
sociated with the attitude concept.
Most people would agree that babies are not born with attitudes toward snakes,
taking physical science in high school, or a nuclear navy; these attitudes and all others
are learned from experience. They may be learned either actively or vicariously. Be-
cause attitudes are learned they are susceptible to change, but they are not momentari-

ly transient. Temporal stability is the term used by Miller and Coleman (1981) to
describe this characteristic of attitudes. Wrightsman (1977) suggests that the change-
able nature of an attitude is tied to its specificity. For example, the attitude of an earth
science teacher toward science education is probably rather enduring, while his at-
titude toward Madeline Hunter’s directed teaching model or middle school science
fairs is more specific, and easier to change.
While breaking the link with its physical past, attitude has retained its posture of
readiness or predisposition ro respond. Allport (1968) characterizes an attitude as a
“state of readiness for mental and physical activity” (p. 60). Bogardus (1960) likens
this aspect of attitude to a trap waiting to be sprung by the right stimulus. Consistency
is the key component of this posture, enabling us to interpret experiences based on ex-
pectations and react to new and varied circumstances daily.
Different situations in which the same person behaves in a similar manner
epitomizes the essence of consistency as related to the concept of attitude. A person
holding an unfavorable attitude toward the generation of electricity from nuclear reac-
tors who expresses her reservations about the building of a nuclear power plant ex-
hibits consistency. However, consistency between attitude and action has not always
been demonstrated in research (see Wicker, 1969). Recent advancements in attitude as-
sessment and attention to the situations in which behavior is observed have served to
improve consistency to the point where most experts agree that attitude and behavior
are related in a probabilistic manner (see Schuman and Johnson, 1976; Ajzen and
Fishbein, 1980). Consistency between attitude scores and subsequent behavior is
paramount if attitudes are to be used to predict and understand human behavior.
Considered the most important quality of the attitude concept is our favorable or
unfavorable feelings toward objects, persons, groups, or any other identifiable aspects
of our environment. Bem (1970) writes, “Attitudes are our likes and dislikes” (p.14).
Several experts in the field of attitude study even feel that other attributes of the con-
cept might be set aside, making this the only element of the definition (Edwards,
1957; Fishbein and Ajzen, 1975). The importance of the attribute of evaluative quality
is witnessed in the bipolar adjectives (e.g., good-bad; strong-weak) used in the seman-
tic differential scaling technique developed by Osgood and others (1957). As opera-
tionalized by most scaling techniques, attitude reflects only the favorability of our
feelings toward a particular object or issue.
Finally, people often think of attitudes in general terms, such as “The student has a
bad attihide.” However, it is important to note that attitudes always have a referent.
That is, they always refer to feelings about or toward some attitude object. The at-
titude object can be a person, situation, group, policy, issue, or an abstract idea. It is
this generality that makes the attitude concept of interest and importance to science
A more comprehensive analysis of the attitude concept may be found in the work
of Shrigley, Koballa, and Simpson (in press).


Fishbein and Ajzen (1975) explain the distinction between attitude and belief in the
following manner: “Whereas attitude refers to a person’s favorable or unfavorable
evaluation of the object, beliefs represent the information he has about the object.
Specifically, a belief links an object to some attribute” (p. 12).
Thus, a belief associates some attribute or characteristic with an object. For ex-
ample, the belief “science is messy” links the object “science” with the attribute
“messy.” The belief “acid rain is an environmental hazard” links the object “acid
rain” with the characteristic “environmental hazard.” Note that, like attitudes, we can
also have beliefs about virtually anything (people, situations, groups, policies, issues,
and so forth) and the attributes or characteristics that can be linked to the object are
limitless (traits, qualities, other objects, and so on). Unlike attitudes, beliefs can range
from descriptive to evaluative (Oskamp, 1977); attitudes are strictly evaluative. The
descriptive belief “silver is shiny” might be considered factual. In comparison, the
belief “the atomic bomb is the most important scientific breakthrough of the 20th cen-
tury” seems very evaluative.
Whether leaning toward descriptive or evaluative, beliefs may be held by people at
different levels of strength. For example, one person may be absolutely certain that
acid rain is an environmental hazard, whereas someone else may believe that acid rain
is only a possible environmental hazard. This point reveals another aspect of beliefs:
beliefs link objects to attributes at some level of probably between 0 and 100 percent
(Fishbein and Ajzen, 1975). For example, although an elementary teacher may as-
sociate the attribute “messy” with the object “science,” she may also know that
science lessons need not be messy. Thus, she may have the specific belief that
“science is messy 70 percent of the time.” Similarly, a resident of Michigan may
believe that “acid rain” is an environmental hazard with 100 percent certainty,
whereas a Texan may have the belief that “the probability of acid rain being an en-
vironmental hazard is 20 percent.” These two beliefs are linking the same object (acid
rain) to the same attribute (environmental hazard), but at different levels of prob-
ability. Moreover, Fishbein and Ajzen (1975) contend that a set of beliefs form the
basis of one’s attitude. Whether one has a positive or negative attitude toward some-
thing depends on whether the relevant beliefs are evaluated positively or negatively
and the strength with which the beliefs are held.
It seems to make sense to propose that our attitudes (feelings) are dependent upon
our beliefs (knowledge), but precisely how does this dependency operate? Recall that
beliefs are cognitive links between an object and an attribute, and that links are made
at some level of probability. For example, suppose that you have a relatively large
number of related beliefs about acid rain, three of which are that acid rain disrupts the
life cycles of plants and animals, effects humans indirectly by contaminating the food
we eat and water we drink, and has strained political relations between the United

States and Canada. Suppose further, that you are confident that acid rain disrupts the
life cycles of plants and animals (belief strength = 90%), quite sure that acid ran con-
taminates human food and water (belief strength = 70%), and confident that acid rain
has strained relations between the United States and Canada (belief strength = 90%).
Finally, imagine that you value environmental quality and good health, and are sensi-
tive to the welfare of our northern neighbors. In this instance, your attitude toward
acid rain is going to be strong and very negative.


Fleming (1967) tells us that opinion once competed for the position now held by
attitude in the minds of most people. He depicts opinion as straddling the domains of
attitude and belief, considering opinion more affective than belief and more cognitive
than attitude.
More recently, Berkowitz (1980) delineates attitude from opinion and belief. He
characterizes opinion and belief as cognitive in nature and says that one can have an
opinion or belief without caring deeply.
The shared meaning associated with opinion, belief, and attitude seems to explain
why the terms are sometimes confused and used interchangeably. With rather distinct
definitions for attitude and belief, no advantage seems to be gained by considering
opinion as a research variable in science education.


In contrast to attitudes, values lack a specific object and are more broad in nature
(Rokeach, 1970). McGee (1980) suggests that values are content-free. Our general
culture, subculture, and social class are responsible for many of the values that we
hold. A respect for human life and a distaste for communism are examples of culture-
oriented values. Such values vary from one culture or subculture to another. For ex-
ample, many Eastern cultures place great value on spiritual matters, including self-
denial and inner growth; however, Americans have typically valued material success.
Valued highly by science teachers are scientific literacy, academic achievement, and
professional accountability.
Besides cultural origins, values seem to develop from personal contact with par-
ticular experiences (Rokeach, 1969). For example, economic and social deprivation
often prompt people to place great value on work, wealth, and social status. On the
other hand, a child born to extremely wealthy parents may develop values directed
toward self-fulfillment and creative use of leisure time. Such values may in part ex-
plain the behavior of students in science class. Whatever their origin, values are rela-
tively strong and persistent.

Attitudes tend to be less central and ego involving than values (Rokeach, 1970).
While our attitudes are related to our values, they are directed toward specific and
potentially changing objects. Genetic engineering, teaching evolution in public school,
and underground nuclear testing are examples of attitude objects. The strength of such
attitudes is in part a function of their relationship to our values. For example, the
issue of acid rain may elicit strong positive or negative feelings because it relates to
values like the rights of people and respect for the environment.
Values are most important to science educators because of the crucial role they play
in mediating a multitude of attitudes. Rokeach (1969) claims that while we have only
several dozen values, we have thousands of attitudes. A value, such as good health,
can foster a multitude of attitude objects (e.g., smoking, food additives, water pollu-
tion, and many more). While values can be gradually transformed, changes of interest
to science educators may be best accomplished by taking advantage of the stability and
persistence of established values.

Behavioral Intention

Whereas attitudes are feelings toward a target and beliefs are cognitive links be-
tween the target and various attributes, behavioral intentions are a person’s intention
to perform a specific behavior (Ajzen and Fishbein, 1980). For instance, one may
favor differential pay scales for science teachers; that is, one may intend to behave in
ways that are favorable to differential pay scales (for example, sign a petition, join a
science teachers’ organization that favors differential pay, write letters to members of
the local board of education, and so on). Like beliefs,, behavior intentions are
people’s personal estimate of how likely it is that they will perform particular actions
(Fishbein and Ajzen, 1975). When we intend to behave in a certain way, it means that
we are likely to do so. If asked we could probably provide an estimate of how likely
it is that we will carry through with our intentions. Thus, while intentions influence
how we behave they do not make it absolutely certain that we will perform particular


The final concept that needs to be considered here, although not often confused
with attitude, is behavior. Whereas attitudes, beliefs, opinions, values, and behavioral
intentions are internal, not directly observable, and must be inferred from verbal
remarks or responses to questionnaires, behavior can be observed directly. The
science-related behaviors of students and teachers are our ultimate interest and con-

Relationship Among Concepts

Fishbein and Ajzen (1975; Ajzen and Fishbein, 1980) have presented a model of
the relationship among beliefs, attitudes, behavioral intentions, and behavior. Basical-
ly, these authors, in agreement with other theorists, suggest that a person’s beliefs
about an object determine how the person feels towards the object (that is, the
person’s attitude). In turn, the attitude, mediated by values, determines the person’s
behavior intentions with respect to the object. Finally, these behavioral intentions in-
fluence, but do not completely determine, how the person actually behaves toward the
object. Thus, although these concepts are distinct, they are related to one another in
important ways. Figure 1 presents an overview of the relationship among the variables
as suggested by their model.
An important variable in Fishbein and Ajzen’s model that is not addressed in this
discussion is subjective norm. Subjective norm is the social component of the model
and refers to a person’s perception of the social pressures associated with the object of
interest (e.g., computers). Like attitude, it is a function of beliefs; however, these
beliefs are about persons or groups perceived to wheedle social influence. Fishbein
and Ajzen view subjective norm as equivalent to attitude in affecting behavioral inten-
In the context of this discussion it is also important to mention that one common
view of attitude in the past was that it had three components: a cognitive component,
consisting of the person’s beliefs about the object; an affective component, consisting
of a person’s feelings about the object; and a conative component, consisting of a
person’s intentions to act in a particular way toward the object (see Rosenberg and
Hovland, 1960). This view is now less widely accepted by attitude theorists, at least
in part because it clouds some important distinctions between the concepts. As cur-
rently conceived and operationalized, the affective component of the trilogy is the sole
attribute of the attitude concept.

Attitude Research in Science Education

Over the years, science educators have given research attention to attitudes because
of assumed relationships between attitude and a variety of variables. Studies reporting
relationships, both strong and weak, between attitude and achievement, intelligence,
gender, grade level, socioeconomic status, cultural backgrounds, peer influence, and a
multitude of other variables are found in the science education literature (see Schibeci,
1984). Reports of the effect of curriculum and instructional variables on attitudes con-
stitute by far the greatest number of studies.
These efforts have generated a wealth of literature, but several sources tell us that
they have contributed minimally to our understanding of the attitude concept and have
done little to advance attitude research in ow discipline (Blosser, 1984; Gardner,
1975; Peterson and Carlson, 1979). In fact, Schibeci (1984), in summarizing his


3 & m '

review of over 200 studies conducted between the years 1976 and 1983, is able to
share only five tentative conclusions:

1. Sex appears to be an important variable, both alone and in interaction with

other variables.
2. The effect of particular science programmes on attitudes varies considerably.
There is no consistent set of results for this variable.
3. Home background and peer group variables are probably important, but the
influences are not direct.
4. ‘Science’ must be divided into physical and biological science. Students’ at-
titudes to biological science appear generally to be more favourable than to
physical science.
5 . Attitudes to science appear to decline as school students move to higher
grades. 0.46)

Science educators should find Schibeci’s conclusions most inconclusive.

Are invalid attitude instruments or poor research designs responsible for the disap
pointing conclusions that can be synthesized from years of research? Should thesis and
dissertation advisors be blamed for the fact that attitudes are often included as an
afterthought in studies conducted by novice researchers? Has the absence of theoretical
frameworks and the lack of specificity in the identification of attitude objects
hampered research? There is little doubt that the aforementioned reasons have con-
tributed to the current situation, but they cannot be considered the sole source of the
problems facing attitude research in science education. Perhaps science educators need
to step back and reevaluate their reasons for studying attitudes. Attitude theorists offer
three reasons for studying attitudes.
First of all, attitudes are relatively enduring; that is, people’s feelings toward ob-
jects and issues are relatively stable over time (Petty and Cacioppo, 1981). Although
attitudes can be changed, such occurrences are not random: something must happen to
cause the change. For example, teachers do not typically fluctuate from being in favor
of hands-on science instruction one day and being opposed to it the next. Few studies
in science education have attempted to tease out the variables that are responsible for
attitude changes or determine how long exhibited changes last. The precedent of test-
ing such experimental variables as year-long courses and teaching modes (e.g.,
laboratory vs. lecture) was abandoned by social psychologists in the 1930s (Kiesler,
Collins, and Miller, 1969). Their rationale for doing so was that the gross nature of
such variables made it difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain the facet responsible for
the result. Studies testing such variables are still found today in the science education
literature. Also in science education, Crawley and Krockover (1979) and Koballa and
Shrigley (1983) have noted the problems of lasting changes. Koballa (1984; 1986a)
suggests strategies that may serve to be useful in the maintenance of changed attitudes.

Second, attitudes are learned (Fishbein and Ajzen, 1975). Our students are not born
liking or disliking the study of science in school; they learn to like or dislike it. One
theoretical framework that takes advantage of this premise is persuasion. Persuasion as
practiced by science educators attempts to teach socially desirable attitudes by linking
attitude objects to well-established values and behavioral patterns (see Shrigley, 1978).
Making this theoretical framework acceptable to science educators is its psychological
rooting in instrumental (operant), stimulus-response learning theory and the fact that,
to a point, it resembles classroom instruction. The steps involved in the persuasion
process include 1) gaining the attention of the message recipient, 2) comprehension of
the arguments presented in message by the recipient, and 3) the recipient’s interpreting
the arguments, a process which in turn influences one’s yielding to the position advo-
cated in the message. Beliefs, ranging from descriptive to evaluative, that advance the
position of the source constitute the arguments presented in the message. Persuasion
differs from coercion in that the message recipient has a choice to either accept or
reject the arguments forwarded in the message. Petty and Cacioppo (1981) view per-
suasion as an umbrella process encompassing at least seven different classic and con-
temporary approaches to attitude change (e.g., judgmental, motivational, attributional,
and self-persuasion).
Third, and most important, attitudes are related to behavior; that is, people’s ac-
tions reflect their feelings toward relevant objects and issues in a probabilistic way
(Ajzen and Fishbein, 1980). The study of attitudes has been historically based on the
assumption that attitudes are related to behavior. With the exception of a few studies,
science educators seem to have totally neglected this important relationship (see Jaus,
1977; Koballa, 1986b). Is not our ultimate purpose for studying attitudes their
relationship to science-related behaviors? The work of Fishbein and Ajzen (1975;
Ajzen and Fishbein, 1980) may serve science educators well in attempts to identify
relationships between attitudes and science-related behaviors.
Attitude has been defined and distinguished from related concepts. Weaknesses in-
herent in attitude research in science education have been cited and suggestions in-
tended to improve the status of attitude research have been proffered. Based on the
present discussion, one might correctly conclude that attitude research in science
education is alive, but is ailing. Many factors have contributed to the current state of
affairs. One prominent factor may be that science educators have lost sight of the real
reasons for studying attitude.
The author wishes to thank Robert L. Shrigley for his comments on an earlier draft
of this article.


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Accepted for publication 3 September 1987.