Gerry kicked off by commenting that education has a greater impact – on students, teachers, and the wider society in which education systems are embedded – when people work together across a range of disciplines. What are the issues currently facing undergraduate science in NZ & Australia, he asked, and how do we address them? This was something that generated quite a bit of subsequent discussion. On the list:
- rising enrolments: Gerry commented that in Australia, the removal of caps on enrolment, together with international demand, meant that some predictions of student numbers saw growth of perhaps 30% over the next few years'
- increased diversity – not only cultural and ethnic diversity, but also a wider range of prior knowledge and academic achievement on entry;
- as fees increase, and with that, student debt, we're already seeing a change in attitude: students see themselves as customers, paying for a product, and can expect particular outcomes;
- lower on-campus attendance may well have an effect on student engagement (and comments from attendees showed that this is something we all face) – but, to support increased numbers, we are pushed to provide more on-line delivery;
- this means that educators need to provide not only more on-line content and assessment, but also the sort of meaningful interactions that enhance student engagement;
- the need – Gerry described it as a moral obligation, & I agree that the obligation is there – to provice meaningful opportunities for students to enhance their employability. That is, it's not all about mastery of content, and students also need to gain a whole range of work-related competencies and capabilities.
Gerry then introduced some data from a report on student engagement in New Zealand universities (Radloff, 2011), which defines this thing called 'engagement' as
students' involvement with activities and conditions that are likely to generate high-quality learning, [something that] is increasingly seen as important for positive learning outcomes
and comments that
measures of student engagement provide information about individuals’ intrinsic involvement with their learning, and the extent to which they are making use of available educational opportunities. Such information enhances knowledge about learning processes, can be a reliable proxy for understanding students’ learning outcomes and provides excellent diagnostic measures for learning enhancement activities.
This wide-ranging report is based on data from the AUSSEA survey of student engagement, & includes chapters on Maori and Pasifika student engagement; engagement in relation to field of study; the experiences of international students; relationships between engagement, preparation for study, and employment; students' departure intentions; differences between part-time & full-time students; and the impact of distance education cf on-campus learning on student engagement. The survey has 6 engagement scales (academic challenge, active learning, student/staff interactions, enriching educational experiences, supportive learning environment, & work-integrated learning), & 7 outcome scales (higher-order thinking, general learning outcomes, general development outcomes, career readiness, average overall grade, departure intention, and overall satisfaction). In Radloff's report the AUSSE data from NZ were also benchmarked against responses from Australian, South African, and US undergraduate students.
The results, said Gerry, were generally good but (& the report also makes this clear) not entirely comforting. In measures of engagement, for example, NZ students rated the quality of staff-student interactions quite poorly (an average score of 18 compared to 35 in the US); and a low proportion (across all countries) felt that they had enriching educational environments – while at the same time strongly agreeing that they had quite a supportive learning environment!
And on the 'outcomes' scales, only about a third of NZ first-year students felt that they had gained some level of career readiness through their uni studies. At the same time, around 30% of them had considered leaving university (yes, there were a range of reasons underlying this). Even by the end of the degree only 35% felt that they were really career-ready, & 29% had considered leaving during the year. This is not particularly positive.
Overall, for the natural & physical sciences, NZ students felt that: they didn't get a lot of support from their university; they were less likely to answer questions or get involved in discussions; they had low levels of interaction with others in their class; felt they had lower career readiness, and lower levels of workplace-integrated learning experiences, than students from other disciplines (in fact, in this 2011 report only 9% reported involvement in some sort of placement or work experience); tended to have jobs unrelated to their future study/career hopes; and were less likely than those from other disciplines to feel that their study at uni helped prepare them for the workplace.
And again, there's that 30% of them who either considered leaving, or planned to leave, before completing their studies (but those reporting working regularly with others in class were much less likely to be in this group). However, it's not all doom & gloom on that front:
while nearly one-third of New Zealand's university students have seriously considered leaving their university before completing their study, students are generally very satisfied with their experience at university. [Around 75%] rated the quality of academic advice received as 'good' or 'excellent. [And more than 80%] were satisfied with their overall educational experience… The vast majority … indicated that given the chance to start over, they would attend the same university again.
Nonetheless, Gerry argued (& I agree), it appears that as a country we don't prepare science students particularly well for the workplace – despite the fact that we'd hope that they will be contributing to the 'knowledge economy'. So the delivery of workplace-integrated learning (WIL) becomes something that STEM faculties need to look at more closely. We also need to work on improving student perceptions of the nature of their learning experiences & outcomes. Here, Gerry suggested that experiential learning that helps develop skills as well as content knowledge, peer tutoring, innovative use of technology, case studies, group work, and role playing can all help – and can also be a part of preparing students for the WIL component of their learning, and for the workplace after university. (Of course, this means that institutions also need to provide ongoing PD for their teaching staff, to support them in using new means of delivery.)
Students benefit from WIL, as they can get a better understanding of the world beyond the universities. This is true even for projects run on campus, so long as there are industry links of some sort and the students are working on authentic problems that let them apply their content knowledge in real-world contexts. But WIL has benefits for academics as well, as the improved connections with employers can deliver research opportunities. It requires effort (& investment) to set up, but the outcomes for institutions and students would make this worthwhile.
A AUSSE: the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement
A.Radloff (ed.) (2011) Student engagement in New Zealand's universities. pub. ACER & Ako Aotearoa. ISBN 978-0-473-19590-8