engaging students effectively in science, technology and engineering

My eye was caught by that title to a paper just out on the Ako Aotearoa website (click here for the summary document & here for the full report). The sub-title is The pathway from secondary to university education, a topic that is dear to my heart.

Tim Parkinson & his co-authors were keen to get a handle on just how university students make the transition from secondary school to university, and how they become/remain engaged with science during that process. The project’s underlying aims were to:

  • improve student engagement in the study of science at university;
  • improve the transition from the school learning environment to that of university;
  • identify and promolgate pedagogical ‘best practice’ for science education in the first year at university.

(I know this is nit-picking, but surely the aim was to provide information that will help universities enhance student engagement and transition, using a range of ‘best practice’ options identified during the project. They weren’t looking at whether particular interventions actually had that result.)

In order to know how to make these changes, you really need to know what’s currently happening – and also how lecturers & students percieve what’s happening in their classrooms. We already know (eg Buntting, 2006) that there’s a mismatch between lecturer & student perceptions about prior knowledge, in biology at least, so I think it’s a fairly safe bet that the same mismatch exists around perceptions of teaching quality and engagement. The research team looked at all this using a combination of questionnaires & focus groups, working with secondary school science students (N=421), university students in their first year of a science degree (N=630), school science teachers (N-33) and uni science lecturers (N=69). Each of the four groups in the study answered the same questions, although the wording differed a bit depending on the group. For example,

Teacher questionnaire: I give students the opportunity to influence the way that they are taught. Student questionnaire: I am given the opportunity to influence the way I am taught.

(Parkinson et al, 2011; answers were scored on a 5-point Likert scale.)

As you might expect, it turns out that lecturers’ style, personality & enthusiasm had a big impact on students’ engagement with science at university, and on their ability to move smoothly from secondary school to higher-level study. But the lecturers’ abiltiy to present information in contexts that students see as relevant to their own specific interests is also important – not least because this would allow students to fit that information into their own internalised understanding of & knowledge about science (their ‘schema’). In addition

learning science in a contemporary context… stimulates engagement, and students enjoy learning when it is connected with a sense of discovery.

And there were definitely notable differences in perceptions related to teaching and learning. For example, the team commented that

… school and university students thought less highly of the abilities of their teacher in [the area of teacher qualities ie things like presentation skills, quality of feedback] than did the teachers and lecturers themselves. For example, university and school learners perceived their lecturers’ qualities to be of a moderate standard, whereas lecturers themselves reported that their own lecturing qualities were of a high standard.

Something that I found intriguing was that none of the groups felt that self-directed learning was a significant facet of classroom activity – its reported frequency fell around ‘sometimes’ and ‘rarely’. Our graduate profile document indicates that we expect students to be independent learners by the time they complete their degree – developing the necessary skills must surely begin in first year! Surely there’s a need – noted by the researchers in their summary, to make sure that we reward such things as critical thinking and other higher-order learning skills (which of course has an impact on how we assess our students’ learning).

It is tricky for uni staff though, for our students come into class with a wide range of previous learning experiences, depending on what subjects and which standards they’ve studied at school. This means that we’re a bit between a rock & a hard place, needing to extend able students with a lot of existing content knowledge without losing those who might not have the same skills or learning experiences. Parkinson & his colleagues suggest that universities – certainly university staff engaged in first-year teaching – need to become much more aware of the learning outcomes gained by students in their NCEA studies. This would mean that those lecturers would be able to

build on the diversity of knowledge that results from the standards-based NCEA high school education.

It occurs to me that doing this would send a powerful message to students – that their lecturers really do care about helping manage the transition from school to uni and are personally interested in their learning outcomes. (I don’t mean to suggest that we aren’t, only that students may not perceive things that way!) And that can have a big impact on how students perceive and approach their studies.

C.Buntting (2006) Educational issues in tertiary introductory biology. PhD thesis, University of Waikato.

T.J.Parkinson, H.Hughes, D.H.Gardner, G.T.Suddaby, M.Gilling & B.R.MacIntyre (2011) Engaging students effectively in science, technology and engineering (full report) Ako Aotearoa ISBN 978-0-473-18900-6 (online)

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