Assessment of Advanced Level physics practical work skills

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This chapter outlines and justifies the research methodology that was employed during the study. The research study was guided mainly by the qualitative research paradigm where the quantitative aspects were also used in data collection and analysis thus a mixed method approach was employed in this study. The methodological design employed in this study was a case study of eighteen ‘A’-Level physics students and six ‘A’ level physics teachers purposively sampled from three high schools in Harare province of Zimbabwe. The interpretive philosophical paradigm was employed during the research study where phenomenology was the guiding perspective. Unlike the naturalistic qualitative paradigm the progressive one was the guiding principle in this research. According to Gray (2011:37) a progressive paradigm entails that reality and science are socially constructed such that research must engage in reflexive and self-critical dialogue where aspects of both quantitative and qualitative paradigms must complement each other as the purpose of research is to reveal hidden realities. The research methodology chapter is sub-divided into nine sections that include:

  • Methodology,
  • Research design,
  • Population and sample,
  • Research tools and instruments,
  • Procedure for data collection,
  • Data analysis procedures,
  • Limitations of the study,
  • Validity and reliability issues, and
  • Ethical issues.


The qualitative research methodology was predominantly employed in this study where also quantitative techniques in data collection and analysis were also used, entailing a mixed methods approach. Gray (2011:166) defines qualitative research as an approach that seeks to understand phenomena within its contextual specific settings and uses various theoretical stances and methods including the use of interviews, observations, questionnaires and document analysis. De Vaus (2008:223) defines qualitative research as an in-depth study of situation or phenomena where often participant observation and in-depth interviews are common. The justification for using this methodology mainly is that it combines several strategies and methods within a research design. In this study where the researcher is trying to establish the influence of practical work assessment method on skill development of ‘A’ level physics students the qualitative paradigm will be useful in trying to “see truth and meaning as constructed and interpreted by individuals” as Gray (2011:203) puts it across. This was done through observing students doing practical work as well as triangulating with some open ended interviews with physics teachers as well as focus group discussion with the students. Porta and Keating (2008:227) also note that qualitative researchers tend to analyse their data inductively and theory developed is bottom up. This paradigm becomes very useful in this study as the researcher will then develop a model of practical work assessment as an alternative to practical work examinations. According to Yin (2006:36) qualitative research paradigm requires the researcher to “approach the world with the assumption that nothing is trivial and that everything has the potential of being a clue to unlock a more comprehensive understanding of what is being studied.” This was the guided principle in advocating for embedded multiple case study design to get information from different sources that includes ‘A’-level physics students, physics teachers and document analysis. Quantitative research uses measurable data to formulate facts and uncover patterns. Quantitative data is often structured. It was necessary in this research study to collect quantitative data using a structured observation schedule and then use correlation analysis to compare students’ grades from DAPS and IAPS.

The mixed methods approach

Data collected from the observation schedule was analysed quantitatively. Correlation analysis was employed to analyse quantitative data from the marks obtained from DAPS and those from IAPS. Qualitative data was obtained from interviews with physics teachers as well as focus group discussions with ‘A’ Level physics students. Both narrative and conservation analysis were used to analyse qualitative data. The study therefore employed the mixed methods approach. Creswell and Clark (2007:212) defines the mixed methods approach as “collection or analysis of both quantitative or qualitative data in a single study in which the data are collected concurrently or sequentially, are given a priority, and involve the integration of data at one or more stages in the process of research”. Gray (2011:199) observes that mixed methods designs are those that include at least one quantitative and one qualitative method where neither type of method is inherently linked to any particular inquiry paradigm.
The philosophy of mixed methods research according to Johnson et al. (2007:114) adopts a pragmatic approach based on the view that knowledge is both socially constructed and based upon the reality of the world we experience and live in. Mixing can occur at various stages and in the case under study mixing occurred at both data collection and analysis stages where grades obtained by ‘A’-Level physics students during practical sessions where correlated with marks obtained from a submitted practical work report. Considering that some of the data were obtained from interviews, this resulted in two types of data analysis, which are statistical and thematic. Conclusions from these findings were subjected to both objective and subjective interpretations.
Gray (2011:213) identifies the rationale for mixed methods as that, one method can deepen and validate the other and also argues that, historically triangulation is the root of mixed method research. The other benefit is complementarity in measuring overlapping but different elements of phenomenon. In the case under study the observation schedule was useful in determining physics students’ practical skills whereas interviews were necessary in getting students’ perceptions on skill development. Gray (2011:214) identifies the major weakness of the mixed method approach as that of bias towards one type of interpretation. Sarantakos (2013:54) notes that the mixed methods approach provide researchers with ways to improve the capacity of their methods and enrich the quality of their findings, their validity, flexibility, credibility, complementarity, generalizability and popularity. Despite advantages associated with the mixed method approach there are some disadvantages in terms of methodological discourse. According to Sarantakos (2013:56) the major weaknesses is related to incompatibilities of the ontology, epistemology, methodology, paradigm and ideology of qualitative and quantitative research which cannot lead to valid and acceptable research outcomes.
According to Sarantakos (2013:50) whilst mixed method is a procedure that employs both qualitative and quantitative methods and strategies in the same project, mixing does not alter the structure and identity of each methodology. Each methodology acts as guided by its epistemology and as employed when used alone.
Strict and rigid adherence to any method, technique or doctrine position may for the researcher become like confinement in a cage. The use of both quantitative and qualitative approaches was quite healthy in this research study. The use of the mixed methods approach ensured validity and reliability in both data gathering and interpretation.

Convergent – Parallel Mixed method Approach

Creswell (2014:219) identifies three types of mixed methods design which are:

  • Convergent parallel mixed methods design.
  • Explanatory sequential mixed methods design.
  • Exploratory sequential mixed methods design.

Explanatory sequential mixed methods design involves the collection and analysis of quantitative data with a follow up of collection and analysis of qualitative data to come up with meaningful interpretation. Exploratory sequential mixed methods design according to Creswell (2014:220) involves the collection and analysis of qualitative data which builds to quantitative data analysis. In this study the convergent parallel mixed methods design was employed. Basically, the design entails the collection and analysis of both quantitative and qualitative data which is then interpreted separately where comparisons may be done to establish any relationships of conformity or disconformity. According to Creswell (2014:219) the assumption of this approach is that both qualitative and quantitative data provide different types of information. It means that detailed views of participants qualitatively and scores on instrument should yield results that are comparable. In this study quantitative data was obtained through the use of the grade obtained by the student using the structured observation schedule for direct assessment of practical work skills which was correlated with the mark obtained by the same student from the marked practical work report. Qualitative data were obtained from interviews administered to both physics teachers and ‘A’ level physics students to get their views on how practical work assessment method influence the practical work skills that can be mastered by ‘A’ level physics students.

Research Paradigm: The qualitative aspect of the mixed methods approach.

An interpretive qualitative paradigm was the major philosophical underpinning of the qualitative aspect of the research study. Gray (2011:21) calls it interpretivism. According to this perspective, interpretive studies seek to explore people’s experiences and views and are inductive in nature. According to Gray (2011:21) the perspective argues that, the world is interpreted through the classification of schemas of the mind. Natural reality (laws of science) and social reality are different and therefore require different kinds of methods with natural sciences looking at consistencies in order to deduce laws (nomothetic) and social sciences dealing with actions of individuals (ideographic) as observed by Yin (2006), Creswell (2007), De Vaus (2008) and Gray (2011). The philosophical perspective advocates for interpretive understanding of human interaction. This philosophy is useful in the study as the influence of the assessment method on skill development of ‘A’- Level physics students can only be better understood through interacting with these students getting insights into their practical work activities as well as observing them carrying out physics practical work activities.
The qualitative aspect of this mixed methods design was guided by an interpretive qualitative paradigm where phenomenology was the guiding approach. Phenomenologists according to Gray (2011:22) hold the view that any attempt to understand social reality has to be grounded in people’s experiences within that social reality. Marshall and Rossman (2006:98) advise that guided by thisapproach the researcher needs to approach the field with a neutral, fair and investigative mind. Phenomenologists believe that multiple ways of interpreting experiences are available to each of us through interacting with others. Reality is socially constructed. According to Gray (2011:171) phenomenologists argue that the relation between perception and objects is not passive as human consciousness actively constructs the world as well as perceiving it. It was necessary for the researcher to gain access to ‘A’ –level physics students through observing and assessing them doing practical work as well as interviewing teachers and students in order to interpret and understand their action as phenomenology seeks to understand the world from the participants’ point of view. The meaning people give to their experience and their process of interpretation are essential and constructive as individuals construct meaning according to Gray (2011:22). This is the same philosophy that motivated the researcher to do interviews to ‘A’-level physics students and physics teachers than simply relying on the correlation analysis of grades obtained from observing students doing practical work against the grade obtained by student after marking the submitted report in order to get deeper insights on the practical work skills students develop during practical sessions. Gray (2011:22) sees phenomenology as an exploration via personal experience where attempts are made to avoid ways in which biased data can be collected. The basic beliefs of phenomenologists are that the world is socially constructed and science is driven by human interest and that the researcher should focus on meanings and models from data, through the use of multiple qualitative methods of data collection on a small sample which is studied at depth, according to Yin (2006), Creswell (2007) and Gray (2011). This is the philosophical perspective that guided the researcher in data collection and analysis.

Research Design

De Vaus (2008:9) defines a research design as a “work plan or structure before data collection or analysis can commence including population sample, methods of data collection and analysis”. From this definition, a research design is a logical structure of the inquiry. It deals with a logical problem by ensuring that the evidence obtained enables us to answer the research questions. A case study design was employed in this research using a mixed methods system in recognition of the fact that both qualitative and quantitative methods may have limitations where one may neutralise the limitations and biases of the other.
According to Porta and Keating (2008:226), the word case is derived from the Latin word “Casus” meaning occurrence or something that happens usually with unfavourable connotation. A case therefore requires a solution. Porta and Keating (2008:226) defines a case study as a “research strategy based on the in-depth empirical investigation of one or a small number of phenomena in order to explore the configuration of each case and elucidate features of a larger class of similar phenomena”. De Vaus (2008:220) defines a case as the object of study… a unit of analysis about which you collect information…a unit that we seek to understand a whole”. A case study seeks to build up a full picture of a case, its sub units and its context. Case studies can be used to develop and evaluate theories as well as formulate hypotheses or explain a particular phenomenon according to Porta and Keating (2008:227).
A case study approach was used to explain phenomena of practical work assessment and trying to come up with an alternative model of ‘A’-level physics practical work assessment. The case study focused on the identification of assessment practices currently used by ‘A’ level physics teachers and the practical work skills that are exhibited by ‘A’ level physics students during practical work sessions. Views of the physics teachers were also important in determining how the assessment methods employed by ‘A’ level physics teachers influence the development of practical work skills of their students. A multiple case study approach with an ultimate goal of theory building was employed in this study. This was done through purposively sampling of three high schools with ‘A’ level physics students of different economic and social backgrounds. Six students from each school type participated in the study. Gray (2011:257) call this ‘multiple case- embedded’ where in my research study, data obtained from different sources were collected from three different schools of socio-economic background in Harare province of Zimbabwe.

1.1 Purpose of the study
1.2 Context of the study
1.3 Statement of the problem
1.4 Aims of the study
1.5 Research questions
1.6 Significance of the study
1.7 Delimitations of the study
1.8 Definition of terms
1.9 Assumptions
1.10 Structure of the study
1.11 Chapter Summary
2.1 Introduction
2.2 Theoretical Framework
2.3 Formative Assessment
2.4 Assessment in constructivism
2.5 Assessment of Advanced Level physics practical work skills
2.6 Some perspectives on the assessment of practical work
2.7 Assessment of practical work in other subjects and qualifications: Towards an alternative model
2.8 Lessons drawn from literature on the assessment of practical work .
3.1 Introduction
3.2 Methodology
3.3 Research Design
3.4 Population and Sample
3.5 Procedure for data collection
3.6 Data analysis and interpretation
3.8 Ethical issues
3.9 Chapter summary.
4.1 Introduction
4.2 Observations made during practical work session and comments from the marked report for experiment 1
4.3 Observations made during practical work session and comments from the marked submitted report for experiment 2
4.4 Observations made during practical work session and comments from the marked submitted report for experiment 3
4.5 Observations made during practical work session and comments from the marked submitted report for experiment 4
4.6 Observations made during practical work session and comments from the marked submitted report for experiment 5
4.7 Observations made during practical work session and comments from the marked submitted report for experiment 6
4.8 Rating of practical work skill mastery during observations against obtained mark from the submitted marked report
4.9 Comment on observational results: Relevance of the assessment practices on students’ practical work skills development
5.1 Introduction.
5.2 Assessment of practical work skills by physics teachers
5.3 Teachers’ views on the relevance of the assessment practices on students’ practical work skill development
5.4 Teachers’ views on possible alternatives to physics practical work examinations4
5.5 Emerging themes from interview data
5.6Comment on teachers’ views on the assessment of physics practical work
6.1 Introduction.
6.2 Assessment of students’ practical work skills
6.3 Students’ views on the relevance of practical work assessment method
6.4 Students’ views on possible alternatives to current physics practical work assessment method
6.5 Comment on students’ views on the assessment of physics practical work
7.1 Introduction
7.2 An overview of ‘A’ level physics practical work assessment
7.3 The proposed model of ‘A’ level physics practical work assessment
7.4 Justification of the model
7.5 Anticipated challenges and proposed solutions
8.1 Introduction
8.2 Summary and conclusions
8.3 Recommendations

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