Influence of different types of subject-specific prior knowledge on academic success in biology and physics

Philipp Schmiemann, Angela Sandmann, Heike Theyßen und Bernd Sures,
University of Duisburg-Essen

Scientific assistant:
Torsten Binder


Academic success is influenced by a variety of general and subject-specific factors. So far, most studies on the modelling of students’ academic success have mainly focused on general, non-specific factors like employment or grade point average. With regard to the improvement of university instruction, however, subject-specific factors are of particular inter-est. Especially students’ subject-specific prior knowledge is a good predictor of their academic success. This is further emphasized by the predictive validity of subject-specific university admission tests. Nevertheless, there seem to be some differences concerning different types of prior knowledge. Some studies suggest that the influence of different types of prior knowledge on students’ academic success might depend on the subject area.

The purpose of this project is to analyze the influence of these types of prior knowledge on students’ academic success in biology and physics. On the basis of a theoretical model, we differentiate between four types of knowledge: knowledge of facts, knowledge of meaning, integration of knowledge, and application of knowledge. We put forward the hypothesis that these types of prior knowledge predict academic success differently in the two subjects, as the performance requirements differ between the two subjects in the first semesters. For in-stance, for the introductory biology courses (e.g. taxonomy in zoology), knowledge of facts and knowledge of meaning as well as the integration of knowledge seem to be more important than the application of knowledge. For the introductory physics courses, however, we assume that the application of knowledge is very important to solve physical problems (e.g. using conservation laws in mechanics). In order to analyze the importance of the four types of knowledge, we will develop a test for each subject and type of knowledge. Using these tests, we will assess students’ knowledge at three time points during their first year at university. Moreover, we will gather data on other potential influencing factors on students’ academic success (e.g. interest, cognitive abilities).

As a result, we will have a valid testing tool to assess different types of prior knowledge in biology and physics and we will be able to make detailed statements about the influence of these types of knowledge on the students’ academic success. In addition, this project will pro-vide insight into the correlation between academic success and subject-specific factors as well as more general factors. The project’s findings can be used to develop subject-specific tests for university admission and to improve university instruction


(To overview)