Investigating the Effects of Working Memory Capacity, Visual Spatial Ability and Attitudes on Academic Attainment in Secondary School Physics

  • Younis Hussain

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The literature suggests that Academic Attainment (AA) in school science is strongly associated with two individual-level cognitive variables, Working Memory Capacity (WMC) and Visual Spatial Ability (VSA), and one individual-level affective variable, Attitudes towards Science (AS). However, few studies have applied a robust theoretical perspective to explain this association and even fewer have investigated the precise nature and strength of this influence on AA in physics in lower secondary education. My thesis bridges these gaps in the literature. Samples comprising 45 and 55 participants (aged 15 to 16) were obtained from two unrelated secondary schools in Bradford, a city in northern England. The participants’ WMC and VSA were assessed quantitatively using the Digit Span Backwards Test (DSBT) and the Purdue Spatial Visualization Test of Rotations (PSVT: R) respectively. The participants' Attitudes towards Physics (AP) were gauged via questionnaire and two focus group interviews (one per school). The participants' GCSE grades in physics were used to represent AA in physics.

Multiple Regression Analysis (MRA) revealed statistically significant positive correlations between GCSE grades in physics and the aforesaid variables. These were as follows: VSA (PMCC =0.44); WMC (PMCC=0.33) and AP (PMCC=0.30). MRA also showed that collectively, these variables accounted for approximately 21% of the variance in GCSE grades in physics. In addition, analysis of the quantitative and qualitative data revealed six specific factors that strongly influenced the respondents’ AP. These were as follows: perceptions of the physics teacher; self-efficacy in physics; perceptions of physics lessons; proficiency in mathematics; relevance of physics in the real world, and awareness of career opportunities related to physics. To explain these findings, I applied the theoretical perspectives afforded by Information Processing Theory (IPT) and Attitude Theory (AT). Using established criteria for assessing the probability of a causal relationship between variables, I argue that a direct causal link with AA is probable in the case of WMC and VSA, but the in the case of AP any causal link may be bidirectional.

There is strong empirical evidence in the literature to suggest that WMC and VSA can be improved through cognitive training. In addition, AT contends that attitudes towards any given phenomenon can be shifted in a more positive direction by manipulating the factors that strongly influence them. When viewed in the context of this literature, I argue that we can potentially improve GCSE grades in physics by targeting WMC, VSA and AP.
Date of Award3 Mar 2022
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorRonald Thompson (Main Supervisor) & David Peebles (Co-Supervisor)

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