Effects of Animals in Post-Secondary Science Classrooms on Academic Achievement, Academic Retention,...

Casey Krull, Josie Suchomel, Michael Bechtel

American Journal of Educational Research

Effects of Animals in Post-Secondary Science Classrooms on Academic Achievement, Academic Retention, and Intrinsic Motivation

Casey Krull1, Josie Suchomel1,, Michael Bechtel1

1Wartburg College


This study investigates biophilia, the love of life, and how to incorporate this concept, originally recognized by E.O. Wilson, into schools [9] Studies have shown animals can increase student interest, motivation, attitude, academic achievement, and academic retention. However, resistance to animals in classrooms has emerged because of safety concerns. After consulting past research, the prediction is made that after attending lessons taught using the 5E Learning Cycle, students in a class with animals will have higher academic achievement, academic retention, and intrinsic motivation. Students were taught using a 5E lesson design for two nonconsecutive lab experiences. During the two-pronged study, students were differentiated into each one of the following groups at one point throughout the study: 1) content covering evolution using living herpetofauna, versus images, and 2) the Theory of Natural Selection using the classroom’s terrariums and enclosures as models, versus images. After the study, a paired t-test was run and found no significant difference in the academic achievement and academic retention for student taught with animals versus those that were not. There was however, a difference in intrinsic motivation, which turned the focus into what the change in motivation means for future research. This study was one step in a much larger academic reform involving how students learn, and continued research is needed in order to ensure significance with biophilia in the classroom.

Cite this article:

  • Casey Krull, Josie Suchomel, Michael Bechtel. Effects of Animals in Post-Secondary Science Classrooms on Academic Achievement, Academic Retention, and Intrinsic Motivation. American Journal of Educational Research. Vol. 3, No. 9, 2015, pp 1193-1207. http://pubs.sciepub.com/education/3/9/21
  • Krull, Casey, Josie Suchomel, and Michael Bechtel. "Effects of Animals in Post-Secondary Science Classrooms on Academic Achievement, Academic Retention, and Intrinsic Motivation." American Journal of Educational Research 3.9 (2015): 1193-1207.
  • Krull, C. , Suchomel, J. , & Bechtel, M. (2015). Effects of Animals in Post-Secondary Science Classrooms on Academic Achievement, Academic Retention, and Intrinsic Motivation. American Journal of Educational Research, 3(9), 1193-1207.
  • Krull, Casey, Josie Suchomel, and Michael Bechtel. "Effects of Animals in Post-Secondary Science Classrooms on Academic Achievement, Academic Retention, and Intrinsic Motivation." American Journal of Educational Research 3, no. 9 (2015): 1193-1207.

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At a glance: Figures

1. Introduction

Biophilia is a term coined by Edward O. Wilson meaning “the love of life” [11]. The concept also refers to the idea that all organisms have biophilia in their DNA to be attracted to other living things, such as plants and animals [6]. In understanding that students have an attraction towards living things, it would make sense to have living organisms in the classroom. The Biophilia Hypothesis supports the claim that nature can increase mental health and personal fulfillment for humans [11]. In a classroom, living organisms could help students refresh their mind and have a better environment for learning.

Animals not only help students remain active learners, but assist students with connecting to nature. In today’s society, students are interacting with nature less and less [8]. Children are spending more time inside than they once did because of technology or parental safety fears of having their children explore nature [8]. Animals in the classroom can increase student exposure to nature and get them more interested in the outdoors. Nature has shown to have positive impacts on the human body by lowering of blood pressure and lowering the mortality rate of heart disease patients [8]. To get students more involved in nature, teachers could bring nature to them by having living organisms in their classrooms. This simple endeavor will spark students’ interest in nature and can encourage them to interact more with the living world outside.

Biophilia can increase mental and psychological health while stress and mental fatigue can decrease mental and psychological health. The mind gets fatigued when it has to do long hours of work, studying, or worrying. Kaplan and Kaplan (as cited in [11]) found the fight to pay attention causes mental fatigue. Involuntary and voluntary attentions are two distinct types of attention. Involuntary attention is when the mind will passively pay attention to something that is interesting, exciting, fascinating, or engaging to the person, and does not require effort to stay focused [11]. Voluntary attention requires the person to force themselves to pay attention [11]. Living organisms have the ability to make things exciting, fascinating, and engaging which can help lead to involuntary attention [11]. Human learners will be able to pay attention better, without forcing themselves, and cause less mental fatigue if attention is modified from voluntary to involuntary attention through personal engagement and excitement.

However, even with the benefits of animals and living organisms in the classroom some schools are making administrative decisions to deny animals from being located in school classrooms. School boards are preventing animals in the classroom by creating policies to ensure safety for their students. For instance, some institutional leaders have prohibited animals at Cambridge Public schools, VT-including spiders, reptiles, and mammals [3]. Another school board in Port Angeles, WA is banning dogs, rabbits, snakes, and baby chicks [9]. Both school districts state they are using these policies to protect students from possible zoonotic diseases the animals could potentially bring into the school. In adhering to such mindset, the governing powers are protecting their students and families by denying contact with possibly infected animals [3, 9].

Even with certain groups against animals in classrooms, research is being done to see if biophilia affects students. Klingenberg [7] performed a study where he looked at living animals in the classroom (n=35) compared to videos of animals in the classroom (n=29). In the study 6th and 7th grade students were split into 2 different groups, the one group which used videos and exuviae, or an animal's cast or sloughed skin, and another group that used living animals. The living animals used in the study were invertebrates, such as sow bugs and leeches. Results were found using a pre-test, post-test, and retention test (2 months after lesson). In both groups, results showed a significant increase in knowledge compared to the control group, but students in the living animal group had an increase in interest and positive attitude. The living animal group students observed and interacted with the animals, which helped spark student interest and positive attitude in the classroom. Students also enjoyed working with living organisms during an interactive lesson, which lead to an increase in interest level [7].

Animals in the classroom improve students’ ability to learn and retain information over time [4]. Hummel and Randler [4] found classes taught using living animals increased student achievement compared to the control group without living animals. In this study 400 students observed mice, woodlice, and snails, followed by students recording their observations. Three different groups were formed for this study. The three groups were a living animal group, without living animal group, and a control group. The students took a pre-test, post-test, and two retention tests (6-8 weeks, and 7-9 months after last day). Having animals in the classroom allowed students to be more hands-on during learning and helped improve student learning.

Based on the above studies, educational research about animals in the classroom is a relatively new area of study, and needs to be further examined. Past research has found many interesting ideas about animals in the classroom, but has not put these ideas together in one study. By using a control group and treatment group, the proposed research will examine animals in the classroom using the following variables: presence of animals (independent variable), test scores (dependent variable) and lesson design (constant). The hypothesis is that animals in the classroom will improve academic achievement, academic retention, and intrinsic motivation. The prediction is that after attending a lesson taught using the 5E learning cycle, post-secondary students in the class with herpetofauna will have a higher academic achievement, academic retention, and intrinsic motivation.

2. Materials and Methods

Participants in the study were originally going to be a part of a college transition program at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. Due to permission issues and miscommunication, this portion did not occur, which decreased the participant count in the study. Instead, participants were volunteer recruits from introductory fall biology courses at the college. Researchers visited classrooms, gave a brief description of the study, and formed an email list of participants. The vast majority of the participants were Elementary Education majors or Business majors. The participants came from a variety of academic backgrounds, consisted of both genders, and ranged between 18-20 years of age. The participants were asked to select a set of lab days out of two options that they would attend. Each set included two 1-hour biology sessions. The groups were further split evenly into the two groups, so some volunteers had to switch from their initial preferred group. When the students arrived to the lesson presentations they were assigned an identification number kept on file separate from the researchers, which they used on all tests taken: including the retention and motivation test.

The lab days were taught using a productive lesson plan design chosen based on the results of Ajaja [1]. The research found, on average, students had the highest post-test scores after being taught using the 5E learning cycle as compared to more traditional lesson plan designs. The parts of the 5E cycle are engagement, exploration, explanation, elaboration, and evaluation; using this design the researchers co-taught four one-hour laboratory-based lessons, where each participant attended two. The participants split into two groups that switched lessons on the second session. The first day’s lesson focused on the process of natural selection and Charles Darwin (Appendix A). In the second lab experience, groups switched rooms to encounter the opposite learning environment and completed a lesson on evolution. The switching between experimental and control group members was to ensure all students have the ability to see the animals and not feel like they were treated unfairly or excluded. This dual-pronged procedure also allowed researchers to measure intrinsic motivation among students. When the students were able to experience both the course with lives animals and a course taught without live animals they could compare the experiences for the motivation section of the study. By creating this two-prong style experiment students could be counted in one study for the control and the other study in the experiment.

During data collection, four different tests were given to participants. The four tests provided data on academic achievement, academic retention, and intrinsic motivation of the students. The four tests were a pretest, posttest, retention test, and a motivation test. The tests were identical for the two different groups. Other than quantitative data, qualitative data was obtained, and recorded, through post-lab reflection. Researchers transcribed personal reflections on how they believed the lessons transpired and what could be improved.

The pretest and posttest provided data about academic achievement, and were written by the two researchers. The pretest, posttest, and retention test were the same test. Each test was 15 questions and was directly correlated with what was taught during the lesson (Appendix B). The pretest was taken before any content was covered and the posttest was given after the lab was completed, but before the student’s switched groups. The academic test questions were found using the sample questions in textbooks covering the content taught and were reviewed by research advisors and current science instructors. Scoring of the academic tests was performed by both researchers separately to ensure no mistakes were made.

The motivation test was a twelve question motivation test [2]. Questions from the previously tested motivation test were reworded and conformed to specifically fit this study (Appendix C). Students were given the motivation test after completion of the second posttest which was on the second learning experience so participants had experienced both options. The last test administered allowed subjects to show individual academic retention (process is shown in Figure 1). The academic retention test showed how well the students remembered the material. The lapse in teaching and contact provided time to firmly investigate whether academic retention existed, and to what extent retention rate affected the college students within the confines of this study. The retention test provided statistical data on classroom animal influence on academic retention.

Figure 2. This graph displays the difference in academic achievement (pre-test score-post-test score) for the treatment (n=27) and control group (n=13)
Figure 3. This graph displays the difference in academic retention (pre-test score-retention test score) for the treatment (n=12) and control group (n=8)

3. Results

Based on the test scores from the aforementioned tests, statistical analysis was conducted using a paired t-test. There was no significant difference in academic achievement (Figure 2) between the class taught with herpetofauna, and the class taught in a traditional classroom. The paired t-test also found no significant difference in academic retention graph (Figure 3), between the two groups. We found the p value to equal 0.1273 for academic achievement and the p value for the academic retention test was 0.7236 which again is not a significant statistical difference. However, significant differences existed between the students’ intrinsic motivation levels, with the majority finding themselves more engaged and excited when taught with herpetofauna (Figure 4). The two tables below (Table 1 and Table 2) contain the raw data from the test results. The spots on the table that are not complete are areas volunteer students did not participate.

Figure 4. This graph displays the difference in intrinsic motivation found from the motivation test for treatment and control group. Some students felt now difference between the classes (n=13)

Table 1. Above is the raw data found from the first two days in lab. C stands for the control lab and T stands for the treatment lab. Both were taught using the lab on Evolution during this day. Students without scores either did not take the retention test or did not participate in day 1 lab.

Table 2. Above is the raw data found from the second two days in lab. C stands for the control lab and T stands for the treatment lab. Both were taught using the lab on Evolution during this day. Students without scores either did not take the retention test or did not participate in day 2 lab.

4. Discussion

The research conducted was a small step in a much larger process. The hypothesis was that after attending a course taught using the 5E learning cycle, students in the class with herpetofauna will have a higher academic achievement, academic retention, and intrinsic motivation. Our hypothesis was not supported based on the statistical findings from the study for academic achievement and academic retention; however the hypothesis for intrinsic motivation was supported based on the results from the motivation test. The results modified the focus of the reporting to focus more on student motivation than academic achievement and retention.

The motivation test allowed students to reflect on their own motivation and engagement, after analyzing results researchers found more students scored higher on intrinsic motivation after being taught with animals. Based on previous research [4, 7] this finding makes sense, because soft-skills are impacted by classroom setup. In education, many schools are moving to evaluate not only content knowledge, but also measures called soft-skills. Soft-skills are features like personality traits, communication, work ethic, dedication, and empathy. Soft-skill and motivational developments are connected to social emotional development; there are three levels used to describe this growth. The first level is to build positive relationships. Children are able to build positive relationships through human animal interaction by community building, learning about caring, promoting their self-confidence, and creating home-school connections [5]. The first level focuses on building confidence of the students and teaching them about life lessons.

The second level of social-emotional development is prevention and supportive environments. The preventative practices include well-defined rules, set routines, and positive attention that will help students feel comfortable in the classroom [5]. The living organisms in this level help demonstrate how animals need well-defined rules when caring for them. Living organisms need set schedules when to be fed and receive attention so they do not become neglected. The third level of social-emotional development is social and emotional learning strategies. In this level, human interaction can help students learn how to deal with different feelings and emotions that they develop from interaction with the animals [5]. This higher level also assists in building human-human friendships; students can work in groups using the animals to help spark conversation and build respectful, interactive relationships with one another.

With an increase in intrinsic motivation with animals, we expected academic achievement would similarly increase. However, researchers did not find this to be true. The reason for the lack of simultaneous progression could be due to the low sample size or high dropout rates. Researchers suggest four steps that could be taken in order to improve and build from this study. The first step would be to increase sample size, the larger participant population would provide more accurate statistics that could lead to the predicted significant results for academic achievement and academic retention. The previous studies used to formulate the hypothesis had larger sample sizes; Hummel and Randler’s [4] study had 400 participants and Klingenberg [7] had 62 participants which allowed for them to get significant results. This endeavor could be accomplished through a variety of ways. One would be to use an actual class; another is to possibly offer something to the volunteers for participating in the study to increase willingness to stay on. Another means to increase participation could be to carry out the study in partnership with other schools, to get a more diverse group of students and a larger sampling. The lack of commitment from the volunteers in the current study gave rise to issues in the statistics of the study.

Another suggestion to improve the study is to extend the methods into a unit’s time; this would allow for an increase in content coverage and provide more time for data collection. By increasing the amount of content covered a more reliable academic test could be given with more questions. In Klingenberg’s study, the lessons were a unit time allowing more content coverage resulting in significant results in academic achievement; the retention test was 2 months after the unit which gave enough time for students to be away from material, resulting in significant difference in retention tests between groups [7]. The third suggestion is to reach students in a variety of academic fields; providing for a more realistic classroom makeup of student clientele. By simulating the most realistic classroom, the study would be able to exemplify an actual class making the results more reliable. The length of the current study consisted of four lab periods and a retention test day, which may not have covered enough content in depth or girth. The last suggestion would be to attempt the process in other content areas besides science; this modification would support the idea that biophilia affects student’s abilities to connect cross-curricular content and have higher academic achievement.


We would like to thank our Advisor Dr. Bechtel, our volunteers, Wartburg College IRB, the animals, and our friends and families for supporting us throughout the research process.


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Appendix A

Appendix B

Appendix C

Motivation Test

Motivation 8 (Turkish version MSLQ) #2-9 The following questions ask about your motivation for, and attitudes about, evolution and natural selection. Remember there is no right or wrong answers; just answer as accurately as possible. Use this scale to answer questions. If you think the statement is very true of you, mark "very true of me"; if a statement is not at all true of you, mark "not at all true of me". If the statement is more or less true of you, find the place between the two ends that best describes you.

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