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Scientific Knowledge and Skills in Competitions

October 25th, 2018

A Study Characterizing Participants in Student Science Competitions

Christine Köhler


The results of PISA 2015 made it clear that it is not only important to support underachieving students but also high-performing students. The scientific competence of high school students, for example, fell in comparison to the results from PISA 2006. Student competitions are generally regarded as an effective measure to support high-performing students. School competitions can contribute to talent development. This study characterized the requirements that student competitions place on the participants as well as the participants themselves, the latter in particular, with regard to performance-specific characteristics. One of the aims of the study was to identify factors required for successful participation in such a competition. Knowledge of these factors is needed to provide targeted and lasting support for students interested and talented in science.

The dissertation project, which was part of the project "Characterization of Individual Interests and Convictions of Students as the Basis for Promoting Talent in Science" funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), examined the knowledge and skills of students who have taken part in various scientific student competitions. One focus was on the influence of scientific knowledge and skills on competitive performance, as studies on factors influencing academic and professional performance as well as expertise-related research suggest that (domain-specific) knowledge determines performance even more than intelligence or cognitive skills. Affective characteristics, which were identified as predictors of school performance on the basis of research results from the school context, were additionally surveyed within the framework of the research project and, with the scientific knowledge and skills, examined for their potential influence as predictors of performance in the competitive context (e.g., the academic and subject-specific self-concept, self-efficacy and goal orientations). The scientific knowledge and skills were defined on the basis of the German educational standards in the areas scientific content knowledge and skills following scientific inquiry.

In a first step, a suitable test instrument was developed to measure the scientific knowledge and skills of those who participate in scientific competitions at different performance levels compared to students who do not participate in competitions.

In a sample with N = 195 pupils (ages 13-18, M = 14.61, SD = 0.98, 46.2 % girls), variance-analytical differences in scientific knowledge and skills were found between those who had successfully participated in a competition (in this case participants in the Federal Final of the International Junior Science Olympiad, IJSO) and those who had never taken part in a mathematics and science student competition. In addition, students who had taken part at least once in such a competition already showed significantly higher scientific knowledge and skills than those who had never previously taken part. However, clear overlaps between the individual groups raise the question of why students who appear to have the necessary knowledge and skills are not or not successfully participating in a mathematics and science competition. This question needs to be investigated further.

Regression analyses were carried out to find out which aspects motivate students to take part in a competition and which aspects determine success, i.e., to determine possible predictors of (successful) participation in a competition. The school grades in biology, chemistry and physics, age and interest in activities carried out in a scientific funding measure were determined as predictors for participation in a mathematics and science school competition. The scientific knowledge and skills, the school grades in biology, chemistry and physics as well as the frequency of previous competition participations were predictive in considering whether this participation - here it was the achievement of the Federal Final of the IJSO - was crowned with success.

The results indicate that it is not only school performance or cognitive abilities that decide whether a person takes part in a competition or succeeds in it. As interest in extracurricular activities is increased (predictor "interest in activities carried out in a scientific support measure"), more students may be interested in taking part in the competition. Also important are the influencing factors of domain-specific knowledge and repeated participation in competitions on performance in a science student competition. These findings make it clear that even young students should be encouraged to take part in a science school competition. Success in a competition context therefore seems "trainable", and can have a motivational effect on students.