prior learning & university success in biology

One of the sessions at FYBEC – on the changes in NCEA Achievement Standards in order to align them with the 2007 Curriculum document – generated a lot of discussion. It was great to have this session, as a heads-up to the changes in prior learning that we’ll see in students coming in to uni-level biology from 2013 (genetics will be moved to year 12, for example). Not least because I think many tertiary educators are still not really clear on how NCEA (the National Certificate in Educational Achievement, for my non-NZ readers) & the curriculum work, in the sense that there is plenty of room for flexibility in which (& how many) standards schools may decide to offer. From the uni perspective, this means that there will be a lot more diversity in prior learning among that 2013 cohort. (Even more than exists now, that is.)

I think it’s fair to say that at FYBEC responses to this information were quite wide-ranging. At one end there were those who found this quite worrying: surely schools should be given guidelines on just what they should be teaching those year 13 students, so that they all came to uni with the same general background in biology? This is certainly something that’s been discussed before, but my own opinion is that if we went down that route, it would suggest that we’re out of touch with what’s going on in the secondary schools. It also ignores the fact that a lot of year 13 students are not actually going on to university study, & schools have a responsibility to prepare all their students for their future lives & careers, not just the uni-bound cohort. Plus, the new curriculum actually encourages schools to offer a mix of standards that suit the needs of their own students & community (eg it’s possible to combine standards in chemistry & biology so that students can focus on biochemistry).

The thing is, while the current changes in standards & curriculum may increase the diversity in student backgrounds, that diversity is actually nothing new. A reasonably large number of students in my own first-year bio classes will have last studied biology in year 12, for example, and there’s usually a smattering of people who’ve not studied the subject beyond year 11 (if that). But research has shown that this doesn’t really matter: by the end of the semester there’s no real difference in levels of achievement between those different groups -provided we adapt our teaching accordingly (eg Buntting, Coll & Campbell, 2005).

So when my friend Pip gave me a paper entitled Prior learning in biology at high school does not predict performance in the first year at university, by Elisa Bone & Robert Reid (2011), I was eager to read it.

There are many factors that can affect a student’s transition from secondary school to university life, and Bone & Reid expected that one predictor of academic success in biology classes would be prior study in the subject. They set out to look for any correlation between students’ results in a paper on cellular & molecular bioloty wtih their school results, predicting that students with prior learning in biology would have higher results than those without it, but that chemistry might also be important (for students in this particular paper, anyway). The research was carried out at the University of Adelaide which (as is the case in New Zealand) has no requirement for previous study in biology or chemistry for students intending to enrol in the paper.

Now, introductory classes typically cover a lot of material (see my previous post on the issue of content), fairly quickly, & so it’s reasonable to expect that some prior learning in that area would be beneficial. Other factors that might affect success include the need to get used to large class sizes & the expectation from teaching staff that students are, or are becoming, independent learners; the need to adapt to high workloads & to become enculturated into the sometimes rather impersonal life of an academic institution; and  things outside the institution’s control, such as family responsibilities or work (Bone & Reid, 2011; Zepke et al., 2005).

In the period 2004-2007 the paper’s organisers had streamed students, with everyone having the same lectures & labs but students who hadn’t completed the final year of bio at school attended a 2-hour long tutorial each week (as opposed to the normal 1-hour class). The idea was that the students would have extra time to ask questions & work on problems but – I suspect rather to the surprise of the organisers – overall this intervention had no significant effect on either student success or retention. So, for students in the 2007-2009 cohorts, Bone & Reid looked at student performance for 3 groups: those who’d taken biology but not chemistry, those who’d completed chem but not bio, & those who’d done both subjects right through their final year of school.

Much to the researchers’ surprise, they found no difference in outcomes for students who had, or hadn’t, studied biology in their final year of school – unless they’d also studied chemistry:

[There] were no differences between final… grades [in the cellular & molecular paper] for students who completed biology in Year 12** and those that had not, whereas students who completed chemistry in Year 12 performed better… than those who had not.

(** In Australia year 12 is the equivalent of year 13 in New Zealand.)

Deeper analysis showed that around a third of students who studied biology weren’t taking any other science, while those who took chemistry were highly likely to take another science (most commonly physics). Bone & Reid wondered if the chemists were likely to have a higher level of scientific literacy & that this was more likely to influence success than prior experience in biology. Now that would be a very interesting question to delve into! But presence or lack of prior learning in biology was not a predictor of success in the subject at university.

Because prior learning in the sciences seemed to be most important, the researchers felt that a comparison of secondary and tertiary curricula in biology would be useful – and indeed it would. For a start, students don’t come to us as blank slates, & without some idea of their prior learning experiences, how on earth can we help them develop a schema that lets them build new knowledge onto that previous base?

They also noted that, while lecturers might often expect students to read the primary literature, "the language of science as presented at secondary school level may be very different to that used in the primary scientific literature". This is almost certainly true – and to be expected considering that schools are necessarily catering to a much wider range of needs. But it does imply that first-year teachers might need to develop ways to help students learn the language of academic discourse – and maybe also teach them how to read a scientific paper.

What’s more,

[much] secondary school science teaching also aims to focus on broad conceptual understanding and the application of concepts to real-life experiences, whereas in the tertiary environment educators may place less emphasis on these applications and more on the learning of fundamental, potentially abstract principles… [This] change in teaching styles could lead to a decrease in student engagement.

As Deslauriers, Schelew & Wieman showed for physics students, there’s no "could" about it. And – while large class sizes are pretty much the norm at university, this doesn’t mean that university lecturers can’t use a range of techniques to engage, encourage, and support students in their learning – and to maximise their students’ chances of success regardless of background in the subject.

Bone & Reid conclude that

educators and administrators cannot expect students to be suitably prepared for first-year biology simply because they have completed biology at the senior high school-level… In addition, first-year educators face continuing issues as a result of the mismatch and need to tailor their teaching activities to suit students with widely varying levels of background knowledge.

To which I respond: hear hear!

E.Bone, & R.Reid (2011). Prior learning in biology at high school does not predict performance in the first year at university. Higher Education Research & Development, 30 (6), 709-724

C.Buntting, R.Coll & A.Campbell (2005) Using concept mapping to enhance conceptual understanding of diverse students in an introductory-level university biology course. Paper presented at the 36th Annual Conference of the Australasian Science Education Research Association

N.Zepke, L.Leach, T.Prebble, A.Campbell, D.Coltman, B.Dewart, M.Gibson, J.Henderson, J.Leadbeater, S.Purnall, L.Rowan, N.Solomon & S.Wilson (2005) Improving tertiary student outcomes in the first year of study. TLRI report, NZCER Distribution Services.

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