Date of Submission



Physical science (or physics) is known to be one of the least popular school curriculum domains, mainly because of its complexity. When students encounter seemingly insurmountable difficulties when learning something, they lose the motivation to continue. It has been suggested that both the cognitive (e.g., students’ conceptual understanding and achievement) and non-cognitive (e.g., psychological aspects such as academic self-concept and motivation) factors of learning are essential for helping students achieve their optimal best in a curriculum domain. However, there has not been much research, if any, which uses a dual approach to investigate both aspects of science learning. Most research focused on either the cognitive or non-cognitive aspect. Research on cognitive aspects of learning suggests that element interactivity is a useful construct with which to examine students’ cognitive processes and the complexity of learning materials. However, there has been no illustration on how an analysis of interacting elements in science learning tasks may improve learning. Studies on the effects of reducing element interactivity on students’ achievement and motivation are also scarce. Research on non-cognitive aspects of learning suggests that motivation is necessary to sustain students’ engagement in learning. However, if the complexity of learning tasks is so high that students experience repeated failures, their motivation is not sustained. Therefore, both cognitive and non-cognitive factors play a crucial role in students’ learning and both must be present to ensure an optimal learning environment.

The overarching aim of this thesis is to investigate the cognitive (i.e., students’ achievement and cognitive processes in terms of element interactivity) and non-cognitive aspects (i.e., self-concept and other motivational factors) of students’ learning of science. The thesis includes five studies. The first study showed that the five main findings from past self-concept research were applicable to the Grade 7 students from Singapore selected for the study. Students’ sense of competence in a curriculum domain enhanced their future achievement in that domain only, except for physics and math, which showed interrelatedness (i.e., the enhancement was transferable from one domain to the other). The findings showed a strong interplay between academic self-concept and achievement and highlighted the important role that academic self-concept plays in determining students’ learning outcomes. Therefore, strategies to enhance students’ self-concept should be implemented in schools.

The results of the second study showed strong positive correlations between students’ achievement and their motivation within a school year. Students’ Grade 6 (final primary school year) achievement did not strongly contribute to their motivation in Grade 7, indicating the importance of providing an optimal learning environment in Grade 7 for a positive start to their secondary school education.

The third study showed how the interactions between the elements (i.e., element interactivity) in problem solving tasks reflect their level of complexity and how the number of operational lines that students used to solve problems could indicate their level of expertise in problem solving in that domain. This study highlighted the role of element interactivity as a planning tool for learning tasks and how teachers may use it to gain insights into students’ cognitive processes.

The fourth study involved an intervention, which reduced element interactivity during science instruction, and the results revealed that students’ achievement improved, and their science self-concept was maintained. The results and implications of the first four studies were used to design a dual-approach instruction to facilitate both cognitive and non-cognitive aspects of students’ learning in the fifth and final study. The results of the final intervention study indicated that the dual-approach instruction was beneficial. The experimental group of students outperformed the comparison group in both cognitive and non-cognitive factors. Results from multiple regression analyses revealed that those who experienced the intervention not only had higher achievement than those in the comparison group in the complex problem tasks, but also had higher motivation (i.e., self-regulation, task goal, inquiry, and educational and career aspirations) and higher academic self-concept (i.e., sense of competence).

This thesis demonstrates that there are strong associations and a significant interplay between students’ achievement and motivation levels (i.e., cognitive and non-cognitive aspects of learning). The analysis of learning tasks and instruction in terms of element interactivity enables the scaffolding of complex learning tasks to suit students’ cognitive levels, leading to higher achievement. Higher achievement contributes to higher motivation levels, including students’ academic self-concept. When learning environments attend to basic psychological needs (i.e., a sense of competence, autonomy, and relatedness), students’ motivation is enhanced and when motivated students experience learning that is within their ability and cognitive load capacities, their self-beliefs and motivation in the learning domain are sustained. Attention to both cognitive and non-cognitive factors in learning situations maximizes students’ learning potential and should therefore be strongly considered by educators and curriculum planners.


Institute for Positive Psychology and Education

Document Type


Access Rights

Open Access


368 pages

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)