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Astronomy Education Research; Community College; Test of Astronomy Standards TOAST
As discipline-based astronomy education researchers become more interested in experimentally testing innovative teaching strategies to enhance learning in undergraduate introductory astronomy survey courses ("ASTRO 101”), scholars are placing increased attention toward better understanding factors impacting student gain scores on the widely used Test Of Astronomy STandards (TOAST). Usually used in a pre-test and post-test study design, college faculty might naturally assume that the pre-course differences observed between high- and low-scoring college students might be due in large part to their pre-existing motivation, interest, experience in science, and attitudes about astronomy. To explore this notion, 11 non-science majoring undergraduates taking ASTRO 101 at west coast community colleges were interviewed in the first few weeks of the course after taking the TOAST as a pre-test to better understand students' pre-existing affect toward learning astronomy with an eye toward predicting student success. The goal is to contribute to a better understanding of the incoming knowledge of students taking undergraduate introductory astronomy classes and provide guidance for how faculty can best meet those students’ needs and assist them in greater achievement. Perhaps surprisingly, there was only weak correlation between students' motivation toward learning astronomy and their pre-test scores. Instead, the most fruitful predictor of TOAST pre-test scores was the quantity of pre-existing, informal, self-directed astronomy learning experiences, sometimes occurring many years before course enrollment. This data suggests that professors should be wary of correlating low incoming pre-course scores with student apathy toward their subject.