Authors: Heidi Miller Crone

University of North Carolina Wilmington

Corresponding Author:

Heidi Miller Crone, Ed.D.
6518 Trammel Dr.
Dallas, TX, 75214

Dr. Heidi Miller Crone is a physical education teacher and coach at the Hockaday School in Dallas, TX.

Understanding High School Females’ Perceptions of Physical Education Through Attitude Theory


Purpose: This study aimed to explore high school females’ perceptions of physical education through semi-structured, one-on-one interviews.

Methods: Qualitative data collection methods were utilized for this research to gain insight into high school females’ perceptions of physical education. This study conducted in-depth interviews with ten high school girls from a private school. NVivo data analysis software was employed, as well as coding data by hand. Greater trustworthiness of the findings and credibility of the data analysis were further enhanced by utilizing an additional researcher during the coding and analysis process.

Results: Four themes emerged from the interview transcripts, which include (a) students want their voices to be heard, (b) social factors significantly affect the physical education experience, (c) students find physical education to be useful, and (d) there is a broad spectrum of feelings toward physical education.

Conclusions: The findings from the research are significant because there is a lack of qualitative studies that specifically focus on high school girls’ perspectives regarding physical education. The results indicate that students want variety and autonomy within physical education, and they need physical educators who understand the impact of social factors. Additionally, they believe physical education is valuable, and they have a wide array of feelings toward physical education.

Applications in Sport: Identifying factors that shape students’ perceptions of physical education will be helpful for practitioners and researchers. An excellent starting point for current practitioners is to survey the students and work toward creating a more student-centered curriculum to help improve high school females’ perceptions of physical education.

Key Words: girls, movement, curriculum, choice, interviews, student-centered, attitude


In western societies, physical activity (PA) levels are more dependent on a person’s internal desires rather than a demand or necessity (17). Therefore, individuals can choose to live an active or sedentary lifestyle. Excess weight in adults and children continues to be a worldwide health problem as it affects mortality, morbidity, and quality of life.

Preventing unhealthy weight gain in children is paramount because health behaviors developed as a child are likely to prevail as an adult (22). Physical education (PE) is vital in helping students develop a healthy lifestyle (7). In addition, research suggests that students’ attitudes toward PE may impact their PA enjoyment overall (15). Individuals who maintain a more positive attitude toward PA are more active with greater intensity than their peers (9).

Current State of Adolescent Health

Physical inactivity has harmful effects on all aspects of adolescents’ health, and in the United States, 64% of boys and 80% of girls do not meet the minimum guidelines for physical activity (21).Adolescence is a developmental time when physical activity levels typically decline, especially for females (11). PE is an excellent way to increase PA, but often girls will be disengaged and have adverse feelings associated with movement (14, 22).

Attitude Theory

The most commonly used theoretical framework for assessing students’ attitudes in PE is the two-component view of attitude, also known as attitude theory (15). According to attitude theory, the students’ formation and development of attitude are significantly impacted by affective (emotions) and cognitive (beliefs) factors (18-20). Most researchers agree that attitudes are learning products and that positive PE experiences help develop positive attitudes toward PA (5).

Attitudes Toward Physical Education

PE classes are generally described as enjoyable for males. They perceive PE to be more valuable than females do (10). Gender differences play a role in attitude toward PE and the perception of PE is important because it ostensibly impacts how active someone chooses to be across the lifespan (17). Positive attitudes toward PE decline as children get older, which is especially rampant in adolescent females (9, 12).

A student’s attitude toward PE is important because PE can become an arena where negative experiences regarding movement are enforced, or it can be a positive experience that provides purpose and joy (17). The purpose of this research was to explore high school females’ perceptions of physical education through semi-structured, one-on-one interviews.


MVPA – Moderate to vigorous physical activity

PA – Physical activity

PE – Physical education


A qualitative research design was used to provide “depth and richness of results” and allowed the “opportunity to ask follow-up questions that are not feasible when using a data-collection instrument such as a survey” (2). The following research question guided this study:

R1: What factors contribute to a decrease in positive attitudes toward physical education among high school females?


This inquiry utilized a phenomenological approach. A purposeful sample was drawn from a female population of just over 500 students, ages 14-18, in a private high school in Texas. All female students were invited and eligible to participate in the study if they had taken a minimum of two PE classes. The ten subjects who participated in the study were female students in Grades 9, 10, 11, and 12.

An additional three students participated in the research as part of the pilot interviews. These interviews were not included in the results and discussion, but the pilot interviews were used to refine the interview guide. This study was approved by the Institutional Review Board at the United States Sports Academy.


Permission was obtained from the high school’s leadership team to recruit students. Solicitation of research subjects initially began with a letter sent to female students informing them of the opportunity to become study participants. Within the letter, the researcher encouraged any student interested in participating in the study to contact the researcher via email.

After the letter was sent, the researcher met with each PE class to describe the research project. After receiving emails from interested participants, the researcher sent out letters to the parents of those students. The letter provided information about the study, and the consent and assent forms were enclosed. The researcher explained to the students that participation in the research was voluntary, anonymous, and would not impact their PE grades.

Students received parental or guardian consent and gave assent to the researcher. Once the study participants submitted the required forms, the researcher began the pilot interviews. During the pilot interview process an additional researcher, with ample interview experience, sat in on the interviews. After each interview, the additional researcher provided feedback to the primary researcher. Once the pilot interviews were completed, the researcher made final adjustments to the interview guide. Data collection commenced through ten one-on-one semi-structured interviews. Semi-structured interviews were optimal for this study because they empowered the high school girls to comment freely on their PE experiences (8).

The principal researcher of this study conducted all interviews. Students were informed that the interview would help the researcher better understand their thoughts and feelings regarding their current or most recent PE experiences. It was conveyed to the students that they would choose a pseudonym before the interview recording began to ensure confidentiality.

The interview followed attitude theory in a dual-component model by asking questions about PE and PA that pertained to both affective and cognitive aspects of attitude. The central portion of the interview questions was an adapted version of an instrument used in research conducted by Landolfi (9). Academic terminology was modified to be more conversational and comprehensible for high school females. Interviews lasted approximately 15-30 minutes, and all were completed over a three-week period. The unique lived experiences of each participant were documented during the interview process.

After each interview, the researcher explained to the participant that she would receive a copy of the transcript and that she should inform the researcher if anything needed to be corrected. All interviews were audio recorded, transcribed verbatim, and then coded. Once member-checking was completed the researcher utilized a qualitative data analysis software, NVivo, for initial analysis and then reviewed all data by hand multiple times.

Data Analysis

During data analysis, an assistant researcher was utilized to provide greater trustworthiness of the findings through investigator triangulation of the data. The additional perspective further enhanced the quality and credibility of the findings from the additional level of data scrutiny. Finally, the researcher searched for disconfirming evidence during the data analysis. The search for negative cases could disprove themes and supply a contrasting perspective (19).


The data analysis revealed four emergent themes 1) students want their voices to be heard, 2) social factors significantly affect the PE experience, 3) students find PE to be useful, and 4) there is a broad spectrum of feelings toward PE.

Students Want Their Voices to be Heard

All ten research participants responded to the interview questions stating that they wanted their voices to be heard in PE. A few students conveyed to the interviewer that they were interested in participating in this study because it would allow them to share their thoughts about the PE program.

Several of the students wanted PE teachers to ask them about their interests and desired more variety and content choices. When asked if there was anything she wished the PE teachers would do differently, Olive responded, “having us take a survey to see the things we want to focus on in our PE classes would be helpful. I think sometimes PE teachers forget that we’re not D1 athletes.” Maxine was bored with the full-body circuit workouts and wanted to see more variety in class.

 When asked if they would like to choose between two different types of PE classes, all students agreed that they would prefer to have a choice. It was explained to the students that one class would focus on lifetime activities while the other would concentrate on strength and conditioning. Aanya thought the separate PE tracks would be helpful. She stated, “PE would be more useful for each person. One class would learn about how to be healthy overall, and the other class could focus on training”.

Social Factors Significantly Affect the PE Experience         

Social factors affect students’ PE experience both positively and negatively. In these interviews, typically, when a student identified herself or her peer as an “athlete,” then her perception of PE was more positive than a student who identified as a “non-athlete.” Interestingly, nearly every student designated herself and her peers as an “athlete” or “non-athlete” or something similar such as “artsy” or “sporty.”

Sometimes comparisons in PE caused feelings of distress. As Maria commented, “I feel a little overwhelmed sometimes based on how much they [my peers] know. I don’t have the knowledge that some other people have.” Hannah was intimidated by how much her peers could lift. She explained, “I feel pressured to take a weight that may be too heavy.” Students such as Olive and Maxine struggled with comparison, feared making a mistake and failing in front of their peers, and did not enjoy competitions.

Another social factor that gives insight into high school females’ perceptions of PE is hygiene. Half of the study participants mentioned hygiene as something that makes PE not as enjoyable, citing that they did not want to go back to class “hot and sweaty.”

All social factors were not inherently negative. Students such as Rebecca and Maria felt that competitions were fun. In more than half the interviews the research subjects stated that being with friends is what they enjoyed most about school-based PE.

Students Find PE to be Useful

The third theme that emerged from the data analysis is that students find PE to be useful. The most prevalent way study participants acknowledged that PE was useful was through statements about what they learned in PE and the benefits of PE.

Abigail, who was one of the more reserved students interviewed, and she reported that PE was valuable because of what she learned in class. She stated, “PE keeps you healthy, and… you learn how exercises work certain muscles, and it helps you reach your goals that you want to accomplish.” Other students reflected on the usefulness of PE by mentioning the benefits of being in a PE class. Maya said, “There’s the physical benefits, but I think there’s a lot of mental benefits for me personally. I’ve learned to be more accepting of myself.”

Another way in which students think PE is beneficial is that it provides motivation. Emily reported that even though she plays soccer, it can sometimes be difficult to motivate herself to exercise. She commented, “during the summer, I’m not working out very much, but during the school year, when I’m in PE, I’m motivated to work out.” Every student interviewed expressed that PE was a valuable class for them.

There is a Broad Spectrum of Feelings Toward PE

The final theme that emerged from the research is that among the ten high school female students who were interviewed there was no consistency regarding how they felt about PE. Some students were uncertain about their feelings toward PE or provided seemingly contradictory statements during the interview. Many of the girls disliked or liked certain aspects of PE depending on changing factors such as the time of day they had PE, what activity they were doing in class, and whether they were looking forward to a break from studying.

As a whole, the PE program was meeting the cognitive needs of the study participants but not necessarily meeting their affective needs. This research revealed that high school females perceived PE as a vital class they mostly enjoyed. For instance, Hannah, a self-described “arts-oriented” student, provided this insight, “I think it’s [PE] been pretty good, and I enjoy going most of the time.”


The purpose of this study was to explore high school females’ perceptions of PE and factors that formulate their attitudes toward PE. The findings from the research are significant because there is a lack of qualitative analysis research that specifically focuses on the high school girl’s perspective regarding PE.

High school females continue to struggle to meet the minimum recommendations for MVPA and their positive attitudes toward PE decline as they grow older (6). Some research has conducted focus group interviews (1) or surveyed students (22). However, this study interviewed the high school girls individually with a focus on attitude theory. This research sought to fill a gap in the literature by utilizing semi-structured interviews to answer the research question:

R1: What factors contribute to a decrease in positive attitudes toward physical education among high school females?

The two main factors that contribute to a decrease in positive attitudes toward PE are the PE curriculum and social factors. The results indicate that students want variety and autonomy within the PE curriculum, value PE, and have a wide array of feelings toward PE. Students need PE teachers who understand the impact of social factors and teachers must continue to help students discover ways to enjoy PE.

Previous studies interviewed teachers’ impressions of what students think (9). However, to capture a more thorough understanding of high school females it was beneficial to go directly to the source. One-on-one interviews were conducted because a focus group is more likely to be impacted by peer influence and conformity with a group of adolescent students (16).

The bulk of the interview questions focused on attitude theory using specific words and phrases to include cognitive and affective concepts. Other research has structured questions similarly because this format can elicit responses that align with the dual component view of attitude (15).

The first two themes combined affective and cognitive components that affect students’ perceptions. Theme three focuses on the cognitive aspect of attitude and theme four spotlights the affective aspect of attitude.

No interview questions specifically addressed COVID-19 and the impact it may have had on the students and their perceptions of PE. The researcher wanted the interview to focus on PE as opposed to the school’s response to COVID-19.

It is important to note that every participant in this study stated that their families participated in PA. Based on the demographics, it is not surprising that all the students have physically active families. However, this connection is not necessarily the norm in the United States and therefore could have impacted the results. It is also possible that the student’s response to their family participating in physical activity was a small instance of social desirability bias. Parental support and expectations influence girls’ perceptions of PE and PA, which could undoubtedly impact the study’s results (17).


Currently, most adolescent females do not meet the minimum guidelines for MVPA and are not developing healthy habits (11). Additionally, students’ attitudes toward PE decline as the grade level increases (20).

Semi-structured interviews were conducted to gain insight into high school females’ perceptions of PE. The research question aimed to discover ways that PE teachers can support students to be more physically active, to help combat obesity and unhealthy behaviors, and to shift the perception of PE to a more positive mindset.

Students in this study valued PE, were impacted by social factors, and mostly enjoyed PE. They independently agreed that they would like more variety and autonomy within the PE curriculum. Offering choices to students can make their PE experience more enjoyable and empower them with greater investment in the activity (4).


Identifying factors that helped shape students’ perceptions of PE will be helpful for both practitioners and researchers. These results will not apply to every situation due to the specifics of the sample population; however, the results can still guide future research in hopes of improving adolescent females’ PA levels.

There is no simple solution to compel adolescent females to enjoy and value PE. However, through a variety of meaningful lessons, a student-centered curriculum, and encouragement, PE teachers can help students foster an appreciation for PE and PA. Studies suggest that having students engage in a wide variety of activities in PE can help them identify activities they enjoy and facilitate lifelong healthy habits (3, 13).

Creating and modifying the PE curriculum can be a daunting task. However, an excellent starting point for current practitioners is to survey the students and work toward re-evaluating the PE curriculum to help improve high school females’ perceptions of PE.


The author would like to thank her dissertation committee, who provided feedback throughout the research, and her colleagues, who also assisted her with the study. Additionally, the researcher is grateful for the support of the school administration for approving the research and the students who volunteered for the study. Finally, the author would like to thank her husband for his constant support during the research process.


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