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Profiling The Personal Agency Belief Patterns Of K - 12 Science Teachers

author: Jodi Haney, Andrew T. Lumpe
submitter: TAPESTRIES
description: A paper presentation at the Annual Meeting of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching, San Diego, CA, April 18-22 , 1998.
published: 04/30/1998
posted to site: 04/30/1998

The primary purpose of this study was to profile personal agency belief patterns (PAB) of K - 12 teachers regarding effective science teaching. The Contexts Beliefs About Teaching Science instrument (CBATS ) was used to identify teachers' context beliefs and the Science Teaching Efficacy Beliefs Instrument (STEBI) was used to target teachers capability beliefs. Together, the instruments were used to construct personal agency belief profiles according to Ford's (1992) Motivational Systems Theory. Personal agency beliefs (PABs) include an individual's perception of whether they possess both the personal skill needed to function effectively (capability beliefs) and a responsive environment needed to support effective functioning (context beliefs). Data were collected from 132 respondents (59.7% response rate) and analyzed using both descriptive and correlation statistical techniques. The following belief pattern distributions were found: 68% Tenacious; 19% Vulnerable, 4% Robust, 3% Accepting/Antagonistic, 2% Modest, 2% Discouraged, and 2% Self-doubting. Personal agency belief patterns showed significant correlation with both the number of science education graduate courses/workshops taken and the minutes per week spent teaching science. No significant relationships were found between PAB and gender, grade level, years of experience, or variety of teaching strategies used. It appears that most teachers possess a Tenacious PAB pattern which suggests that they have strong capability beliefs, yet neutral or variable context beliefs about the responsiveness of the school environment.


The current state of affairs of science education in the United States is perhaps best described by a popular American songwriter's lyrics "these times are a changing". From national political figures to classroom teachers, we as a society have a dramatically heightened awareness of the shortcomings of the scientific literacy of our youth. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS, 1998) has added new momentum to the cause. According to this report, United States students lag far behind students from other countries in science and mathematics achievement in both the eighth and twelfth grades. Moreover, the report refutes typical excuses for our low achievement such as poor preparation of teachers, less class time spent and homework given in these subject areas, and increased student television viewing. It appears that the "inch deep and mile wide" United States curriculum may be at the heart of our struggle to be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement. In light of the profuse science achievement studies reported over the last 10 - 15 years, science education reform is currently in full swing.

Policies outlining reform recommendations are abundant, yet they offer a unified direction to guide the improvement of science teaching and learning (Rutherford & Ahlgren, 1989; NRC, 1996; AAAS, 1998). Common themes found in the recommendations include a plethora of educational ideas such as: constructivism, learning styles, cooperative learning, thematic approach, classroom management, assessment and evaluation, equity, science/technology/society, the nature of science, hands-on activity, and science content knowledge (BSCS, 1994). Responding to the national call for reform, many states developed model curricula and initiated mandatory high stakes testing procedures. Local school districts modified their science courses of study and currently teachers are left with the immense challenge of implementing these diverse and substantial innovations in the science classroom.

Duschl (1990) reminds us that in order to avoid the pitfalls of previous science education reform efforts, classroom teachers (vs. policy) must be at the epicenter of the reform. Bybee (1993) maintained that teachers are the "change agent" of educational reform and that beliefs of teachers should not be ignored. According to Bandura (1986), beliefs are the best indicators of the decisions people make throughout their lives. Beliefs are often described as the personal convictions or ideas one holds. Clusters of beliefs form attitudes or action agendas (Ajzen, 1985; Pajaras, 1992). In other words, people tend to act according to their beliefs. More accurately then, it is the beliefs that teachers hold regarding science reform ideas that are at the center of educational change.

Theorists have attempted to define the role of people's beliefs in achieving a particular goal (Bandura, 1986; Ajzen, 1985). Ford's (1992) Motivation Systems Theory (MST) synthesized a diverse set of existing motivation theories, and thus was used as a guiding framework for this particular study. Ford avers that competence in any given area (e.g., science teaching) is a combination of a person's motivation, skill, and environment and that motivation is composed of an individual's goals, emotions, and personal agency beliefs. Personal agency beliefs are evaluative beliefs comparing a person's goals with the consequences of their pursuit of those goals. Ford (1992) states that,

personal agency beliefs play a particularly crucial role in situations that are of the greatest developmental significance-those involving challenging but attainable goals. Consequently, they are often key targets of intervention for parents, teachers, counselors, and other interested in promoting effective functioning. (p. 124)

Considering the potential changes proposed for science education, it is our contention that science teaching fits this description and should be the target of future investigation.

In his theory, Ford identifies two types of beliefs that are critical for a person's effective functioning: capability and context. Capability beliefs include an individual's perception of whether they possess the personal skills needed to function effectively (capability beliefs are synonymous with Bandura's concept of self-efficacy). Context beliefs include an individual's perceptions about how responsive the environment (external factors and/or people) will be in supporting effective functioning. Ford indicates that capability and context beliefs combine to form personal agency belief patterns that regulate the level of motivation a person has in reaching a target goal. Ford (1992, pg. 134) outlines nine belief patterns that are determined by the strength of an individual's capability and contexts beliefs. These belief patterns can be seen in Figure 1 and include: Robust (strong capability, positive context); Modest (moderate/variable capability, positive context); Fragile (weak capability, positive context); Tenacious (strong capability, neutral/variable context); Vulnerable (moderate/variable capability, neutral/variable context); Self-Doubting (weak capability, neutral/variable context); Accepting or Antagonistic (strong capability, negative context); Discouraged (moderate/variable capability, negative context); and Hopeless (weak capability, negative context).

According to Ford, these identified belief patterns are characterized as follows:

Belief Pattern Descriptive Statements
Robust (S, +)* Strong/firm in purpose or outlook
Tenacious (S, 0) Strength in dealing w/ challenge
Accepting/Antagonistic (S, -) Accepting: endure difficulties quietly/with courage
Accepting/Antagonistic (S,-) Antagonistic: actively express annoyance/hostility
Modest (M,+) Moderate estimate of ability
Vulnerable (M, 0) Functioning, but at risk under stress
Discouraged (M, -) Maintains some confidence/hope
Fragile (W, +) Intact but easily broken
Self-Doubting (W,0) Lack of faith in chance for success

* Capability = Strong (S), Moderate/Variable (M) , Weak (W)

Context = Positive (+), Neutral/Variable (0), Negative (-)

Ford notes that no single PAB pattern is best for all circumstances. For example, a self-doubting pattern is actually helpful when associated with negative behaviors such as compulsive gambling or acts of drinking and driving. However for most circumstances, effective functioning is affiliated with Robust, Tenacious, or Modest PAB patterns.

Bandura's (1986) work surrounding the construct of self-efficacy has been useful in examining science teachers' capability beliefs and its relationship with classroom behavior. Riggs and Enochs (1990) employed Bandura's theory to develop the widely used Science Teacher Efficacy Beliefs Instrument (STEBI). Researchers using the STEBI have provided evidence to support Ford's claim that the environmental context plays a role in shaping a science teachers' beliefs. Ramey-Gassert, Shroyer, and Staver (1996) used the STEBI to examine factors related to science teaching self-efficacy in elementary teachers. They outlined three categories of factors: antecedent, internal, and external. Antecedent factors included science related experiences in and out of school, teacher preparation, and science teaching experiences. Internal factors included attitudes toward and interest in science. External factors impacting science teaching self-efficacy included the school workplace environment, student variables, and community variables. Cannon and Sharmann (1996) found that cooperative field experiences increased preservice science teaching self-efficacy. Enochs, Scharmann, and Riggs (1995) found significant correlations between science teaching self-efficacy and the number of science courses taken, instructional practice, and perceived teaching effectiveness. These findings lend evidence to support Ford's (1992) claim that environmental contexts play a role in shaping a person's beliefs.

However, Ford contends that Bandura's original definition of self-efficacy was precise but narrow. He argued that the inclusion of context beliefs would allow researchers to develop broader personal agency belief profiles. Context beliefs are sometimes called perceptions of control and are similar to Ajzen's (1985) perceived behavioral control construct and Bandura's (1986) outcome expectancy construct. Ford contends that his context belief construct is similar to Bandura's construct of outcome expectancy but is more encompassing of the total environment. Ford's context belief construct goes beyond simply defining the connection between a person's actions and the context's response to the action. In other words, science teaching outcome expectancy refers to a teacher's belief that effective science teaching will help children learn science. Ford's context belief construct includes the role of the entire context in meeting the desired goal. In the case of science teaching, context beliefs would encompass not only the students, but also administrators, parents, other teachers, institutions, organizations, and the physical environment. As early as 1985, Ashton realized the importance of context beliefs when she stated,

We believe that the individual change strategies advocated by Bandura are not likely to have long-term impact on teachers' sense of efficacy without organizational supports that ameliorate the conditions that threaten teachers' sense of efficacy. If structural changes are not instituted that provide teachers with the collegial, supervisory, community, and economic assistance required to resist the many challenges to their sense of efficacy, efforts to change teachers' attitudes and behaviors toward their students are likely to have only transitory effects, at best. (p.165)


The purpose of this particular study was to profile personal agency belief patterns that K - 12 teachers possess regarding the effective teaching of science. The Contexts Beliefs About Teaching Science instrument (CBATS - A, Lumpe & Haney, 1997) was used to identify teachers' context beliefs and the STEBI-A (Riggs & Enochs, 1990) instrument was used to target teachers self efficacy and outcome expectancy (capability) beliefs. Together, the instruments were used to construct illustrative personal agency belief profiles as described be Ford (1992). These profiles may be instrumental in: 1) determining the factors which predict specific personal agency belief patterns; 2) assessing teachers' perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of their school science programs; 3) monitoring longitudinal changes in teachers' belief patterns; and 4) planning professional development experiences for science teachers in order to motivate teachers toward achieving the goal of effective science teaching.


A sample of 221 teachers was randomly selected from a listing of all public and parochial schools in a Midwestern state. The teachers were mailed a survey containing a total of 28 CBATS - A items, 25 STEBI - A items, along with various demographic information items (Appendix A: form "A" is for inservice teachers). The CBATS includes five point Likert scale items that measured both the teachers' beliefs regarding the degree to which identified factors would enable them to be an effective science teacher (strongly agree - strongly disagree) and how likely it was that these factors would occur (very likely - very unlikely). Follow-up surveys and reminder postcards were sent to all non-respondents in ten day increments. A total of 132 teachers responded to the survey representing a 59.7% return rate. The achieved sample was representative of typical K - 12 teaching populations in terms of gender, years experience, and grade level assignment.

The data were analyzed using both descriptive and correlation statistical techniques. Individual's beliefs were assigned to one of three categories for both the capability (strong, moderate/variable, week) and context (positive, variable/neutral, negative) constructs. The categories were determined by dividing the possible range of scores for the STEBI and CBATS instruments into equal thirds. Each teacher was then classified into one of Ford's nine identified belief patterns based on their STEBI and CBATS category. The assigned pattern was recorded on the matrix, and percentages for teachers fitting each pattern type was calculated.

As a further test of Forsd's MST model, double blind follow-up telephone interviews were conducted with 9 purposely selected participants representing the Robust (n=1), Tenacious (n=2), Modest (n=2), Vulnerable (n=2), and Accepting/Antagonistic (n=2) belief patterns. The participating teachers were asked to respond to the following prompts in order to ascertain more information about their capability and context beliefs regarding effective science teaching:

  1. What do you think it takes to be a good science teacher?
  2. Describe how the physical environment in which you teach has either helped or hindered your science teaching.
  3. Describe how people have either helped or hindered your science teaching.
  4. Tell me about any positive or negative childhood experiences you've had related to learning science.
  5. Tell me about any positive or negative college course experiences you've had related to learning science.
  6. Describe how well those classes prepared you to teach science.
  7. Tell me about any positive or negative experiences you've had related to science during your adulthood.
  8. Tell me about any positive or negative professional development experiences you've had related to learning science.
  9. Do you think that you are capable of effective science teaching? Why or why not?
  10. What are your strengths and weaknesses as a science teacher?
  11. Is there anything else you would like to add regarding effective science teaching?
The data collected from the interviews was then compared to descriptive statements characterizing Ford's PAB profiles.


The classification system revealed the following belief pattern distribution for the respondents: 67.4% Tenacious; 18.9% Vulnerable, 3.8% Robust, 3.0% Accepting/Antagonistic, 2.3% Modest, 2.3% Discouraged, and 2.3% Self-doubting (See Figure 2). Positive relationships were found between personal agency belief patterns and the number of science education graduate courses/workshops taken (r = .24; p= .015) and the reported weekly time devoted to teaching science (r = .38; p = .000). No significant relationships were found between PAB and gender, grade level, years of experience, or variety of teaching strategies used. Since a majority of the teachers were profiled as tenacious (neutral or variable context beliefs), a post hoc investigation of the individual environmental factors was conducted. A rank ordering of the individual item means for the CBATS revealed that the teachers displayed negative beliefs concerning thirteen of the environmental factors. Of these thirteen, class size, planning time, and the amount of content required to teach were the most negative. The remaining fifteen factors resulted in positive means with support from other teachers, official school curriculum, and availability of hands-on kits ranking highest.

The follow-up phone surveys supported the profiles assigned to 9 respondents. The participant classified as Robust expressed both confidence in his/her ability to teach science effectively and support in attempting to do so. This individual perceived the presence of many positive support structures such as technology support, teaming, and professional development opportunities. He/she identified the "ability to keep up with what's going on out there" as their biggest strength. Positive experiences with science as a child, in college, and as an adult were also noted".

The two tenacious participants expressed similar positive experiences, yet also mentioned environmental factors that inhibited their ability to teach science effectively. These factors included the lack of time, proficiency testing, student grading procedures, lack of parental awareness, administrator's assigning busy work to teachers, and student misbehavior. They also mentioned a few negative experiences as learners of science such as being asked to memorize (vs. learn concepts) in college, not being properly prepared to teach physical science, and experiencing a male teacher who thought teaching science to females was a waste of time.

The two Modest teachers expressed some doubt in their ability to teach science effectively. For example, one teacher identified a "lack of knowledge and the need to do extra research" as a weakness. The other teacher identified their lack of experience in teaching science as a weakness. Both individuals alluded to positive support structure of having hands-on materials to teach science.

When asked what it took to be an effective science teacher, one of the two vulnerable teachers was unsure. This individual responded to the question as follows: "Um... knowledge I guess... I don't know....preparation". He/she discussed several negative experiences as a learner of science ranging from having "weird science teachers" to college professors who didn't teach them how to teach, "they just more or less gave us the facts". This individual also identified a lack of knowledge as a personal weakness. When asked if they were capable of being an effective science teacher, this individual responded: "No, no, no ... that's probably a very weak area for me. I mean, I have to do a lot of reading before I feel comfortable teaching something". The other individual profiled as Vulnerable expressed beliefs more typical of the Modest category.

Both of the Accepting/Antagonistic teachers expressed a general sense of self-adequacy, but also a significant degree of distrust or skepticism toward the environment. One teacher stated that "if materials were available, it will help (her/him be an effective science teacher)... I've had problems purchasing materials at times. Materials are sometimes available, sometimes not." This same teacher stated "I definitely feel that I could be a good science teacher. I am. I've taken the time to learn the material, gathering supplies, and lesson planning. I use a lot of hands-on." Weaknesses identified by this teacher related to the environment (not enough time, too much to cover). The other Accepting/Antagonistic teacher stipulated similar beliefs. When asked about the physical environment, the teacher stated "well, I'd say right now it's hindering. We don't have room for lab stations, we don't have computers, or even places to sit. It's crowded". They also pointed out that parents do not understand what teachers are trying to do. Once again, this teacher expressed confidence in their capability of being an effective science teacher, but discussed several negative factors associated with an unresponsive school environment.


It appears that most teachers possess a Tenacious PAB pattern which suggests that they possess strong capability beliefs (i.e., "I believe I can teach science effectively"), yet neutral or variable context beliefs about the responsiveness of the school environment (i.e., "I'm not sure the environment will help me be an effective teacher"). Tenacious patterns are associated with "strength in dealing with obstacles and challenges" (Ford, 1992, pg. 134). Individuals possessing Tenacious patterns are not easily defeated and are persistent with their goals. This pattern is not surprising considering the goal orientation of individuals who choose teaching as a profession. Many teachers choose education as a career because of their belief that they can make a difference in the lives of youth. This goal is demanding, yet they believe they possess the skills necessary to succeed. Disconcertingly however, these individuals view their environment as unsurprisingly and predictably unresponsive. It is not uncommon to hear teachers communicate ideas such as "I would love to integrate the internet into my teaching, but it will be light years before this school is on-line". These views may be counterproductive since neutral or variable beliefs regarding one's environment often become more negative with repeated experiences with an unresponsive environment. Therefore, the Tenacious pattern may give rise to the weakened Accepting /Antagonist or Vulnerable motivational patterns if left unattended.

Nineteen percent of the teachers reported Vulnerable PAB patterns (moderate/variable capability, neutral/variable context). Individuals with vulnerable patterns can be described as "functioning adequately, but may be at risk under conditions of stress" (Ford, 1992, pg. 134). The implementation of contemporary science education recommendations are often stressful to teachers (Haney, Czerniak, and Lumpe, 1996); therefore Vulnerable patterns can again be counterproductive to the educational change process. It is likely that teachers that possess Vulnerable patterns may adopt an Accepting/Antagonistic or Self-Doubting pattern if either their capability or context beliefs are further hindered.

Few or no teachers were found to possess Fragile, Self-Doubting, Discouraged, or Hopeless profiles. Again, this is not surprising since these teachers are likely non-respondents. Often times, people respond to surveys in order to express their opinion in hopes of making a difference in the related circumstance. However, people who perceive little or no hope would not bother completing, let alone returning , the survey. Individuals who lack confidence in their ability or perceive a total lack of school based support rarely enter the field-- and if they do, they often experience teacher "burn-out" and leave the profession within the first few years.

The significant correlations found between the PABs and the number of science courses/workshops taken and minutes spent teaching science supports the notion that beliefs are tied to action (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980). It is not surprising that the teachers who reported the strongest motivational patterns were also the ones who reported taking more graduate course work to improve their teaching and spending more time teaching science. But why do they spend more time teaching science and why do they choose to participate in the professional development opportunities? Is it because they possess healthy motivational patterns? Or do they develop these healthy patterns as a result of successful teaching and professional development experiences? Further investigation into these questions is needed.

The responses gathered from the follow-up telephone interviews appear to support Ford's personal agency belief patterns. Generally speaking, the Robust teacher expressed strong capability and context beliefs; the Modest teachers alluded to strong context, yet neutral or variable capability beliefs; the Tenacious teachers gave evidence of strong capability beliefs, yet neutral or variable context beliefs; the vulnerable teachers offered statements indicating both moderate capability and context beliefs; and the Accepting/Antagonistic teachers discussed beliefs typical of high capability and low context profile. The small interview sample size (n=9) is an important limitation of this study. Similar studies comparing the CBATS/STEBI responses to information gathered from interview are therefore warranted.

If it is true that beliefs precede action, then the PAB profiles of science teachers may provide a worthy heuristic in foreshadowing the likelihood that contemporary science education reform recommendations will be implemented in the classroom. The results of this study offer rich profiles of the PAB patterns of 132 teachers that responded to the CBATS and STEBI instruments. Replicate studies are needed to increase the total number of respondents. Longitudinal studies would offer insight into questions such as: "What happens to belief patterns over time", and "How do belief patterns change as a result of professional development"? Qualitative techniques that enable researchers to validate the profiles through interview and observation opportunities are also needed.


This study offers several implications to the profession, namely:

  1. Both the capability and context beliefs of teachers must be identified. Instruments measuring teacher capability beliefs offer valuable insight, yet used exclusively, neglect critical perspectives regarding the context of teaching. The CBATS instrument enables researchers to examine this important dimension.

  2. Belief profiles of teachers should be examined longitudinally beginning with undergraduate training and extending through continuing professional development activities. These profiles may be instrumental in: determining the factors which predict specific personal agency belief patterns; assessing teachers' perceptions of the evolving strengths and weaknesses of their school science programs; monitoring longitudinal changes in teachers' belief patterns; and planning professional development experiences for science teachers in order to motivate teachers toward achieving the goal of effective science teaching.

  3. When identifying the beliefs of teachers, researchers often attempt to differentiate between real vs. perceived environmental support factors. However, it is an individual's perception that validates truth. Beliefs are action agendas; therefore, if a teacher believes it to be true, then they are likely to act (or not act) accordingly. Educational researchers can not ignore the power of perception regarding environmental support structures. We must consider both the "real" status of educational support in conjunction with the teachers' perceptions of this support.

  4. Professional development providers should afford teachers the opportunity to develop their perceptions of existing environmental support structures. These discussions must go far beyond "pep talks" about the potential for reform. Teachers should be provided with frequent opportunities to identify their beliefs, reflect on the current status of the responsiveness of their school environment, and dialogue with administrators and local school community members about these issues. School communities are often unaware of the responsiveness of the environment and it's importance to the educational change process.

  5. It has been said that teacher are the change agents in educational reform. We believe that teacher beliefs (specifically, capability and context beliefs) are the more precise agents of change. Societal values and actions undoubtedly impact teachers' capability and context beliefs; therefore, as citizens we all influence educational change. What we do, say, believe, and support as a society matters. Teachers can not, and should not, take on the sole responsibility of improving the science education of our nation's youth. Communities must provide teachers with a supportive environment. The media is called to provide positive public relations that depict the successes taking place in schools across the nation, instead of the over represented "finger pointing reporting" that we've grown to expect. As a nation, we must provide both material support and deep rooted encouragement for teachers. If we truly cherish our national goal of providing every student with a world-class education, then let's put our support were our mouth is ... talk is cheap. To judge is easy, to understand is more difficult, to make a conviction to the cause is ideal. A society with a conviction can accomplish the task at hand.


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American Association for the Advancement of Science (1993). Benchmarks for Science Literacy. New York: Oxford University Press. Authors.

Ashton, P. (1985). Motivation and the teacher's sense of efficacy. In C. Ames and R. Ames (Eds.) Research on motivation in education, Vol. 2. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

BSCS (1994). Innovations in science education survey instrument. Colorado, Springs, CO: Author.

Bybee, R. W. (1993). Reforming Science Educ