Perceptions of Science Graduating Students on their Learning Gains

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Wayne State University]On: 26 November 2014, At: 10:35Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    International Journal of ScienceEducationPublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/tsed20

    Perceptions of Science GraduatingStudents on their Learning GainsCristina Varsavskya, Kelly E. Matthewsb & Yvonne Hodgsonca Faculty of Science, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria 3800,Australiab Teaching and Educational Development Institute, University ofQueensland, Brisbane, Australiac School of Biomedical Science, Monash University, Victoria 3800,AustraliaPublished online: 21 Aug 2013.

    To cite this article: Cristina Varsavsky, Kelly E. Matthews & Yvonne Hodgson (2014) Perceptions ofScience Graduating Students on their Learning Gains, International Journal of Science Education,36:6, 929-951, DOI: 10.1080/09500693.2013.830795

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    http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditionshttp://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditions

  • Perceptions of Science Graduating

    Students on their Learning Gains

    Cristina Varsavskya, Kelly E. Matthewsb andYvonne HodgsoncaFaculty of Science, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria 3800, Australia; bTeaching

    and Educational Development Institute, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia;cSchool of Biomedical Science, Monash University, Victoria 3800, Australia

    In this study, the Science Student Skills Inventory was used to gain understanding of student

    perceptions about their science skills set developed throughout their programme (scientific

    content knowledge, communication, scientific writing, teamwork, quantitative skills, and ethical

    thinking). The study involved 400 responses from undergraduate science students about to

    graduate from two Australian research-intensive institutions. For each skill, students rated on a

    four-point Likert scale their perception of the importance of developing the skill within the

    programme, how much they improved it throughout their undergraduate science programme,

    how much they saw the skill included in the programme, how confident they were about the

    skill, and how much they will use the skill in the future. Descriptive statistics indicate that overall,

    student perception of importance of these skills was greater than perceptions of improvement,

    inclusion in the programme, confidence, and future use. Quantitative skills and ethical thinking

    were perceived by more students to be less important. t-Test analyses revealed some differences

    in perception across different demographic groups (gender, age, graduate plans, and research

    experience). Most notably, gender showed significant differences across most skills. Implications

    for curriculum development are discussed, and lines for further research are given.

    Keywords: Learning gains; Science skills; Undergraduate science; Student perceptions

    1. Introduction

    The introduction of accountability processes is one of the most significant trends in

    recent decades that has had an impact on higher education across the world (Santiago,

    Tremblay, Basri, & Arnal, 2008). Quality assurance and accreditation agencies such

    as the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for Higher Education in the UK and Tertiary

    International Journal of Science Education, 2014

    Vol. 36, No. 6, 929951, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2013.830795

    Corresponding author. Faculty of Science, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria 3800,Australia. Email: cristina.varsavsky@monash.edu

    # 2013 Taylor & Francis

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  • Education Quality and Standards Agency in Australia have been instrumental in gen-

    erating a culture of institutional quality, transparency, and self-improvement. Within

    this framework, institutions have made substantial efforts towards defining holistically

    the characteristics or attributes of their graduates; that is, the knowledge and skills stu-

    dents develop throughout their programmes. During most of the last decade the

    quality assurance activities revolved around curriculum design and teaching standards

    (Barrie, 2007), with a focus on defining attributes at the institutional or programme

    (discipline) level (Kuh & Ewell, 2010; QAA, 2009; Tuning Association, 2011) and

    mapping these across the curriculum (Spencer, Riddle, & Knewstubb, 2012).

    In recent years, there has been a shift from a focus on programme design and

    mapping graduate attributes to an increased emphasis on demonstrating what stu-

    dents learn by the end of their programme (Coates, 2009). National and international

    assessment systems are being developed and implemented for the purpose of account-

    ability and comparability across institutions and across countries. In the USA, the

    Collegiate Learning Assessment test is administered to samples of students within

    an institution to derive a standardised measure of students development of skills;

    data resulting from this sample testing are used to demonstrate the overall perform-

    ance of the institution in adding value to the education of their students (Klein, Ben-

    jamin, Shavelson, & Bolus, 2007). Globally, the Organisation for Economic

    Cooperation and Development (OECD) is undertaking the Assessment of Higher

    Education Learning Outcomes study to establish the feasibility of worldwide collec-

    tion of data on the capabilities of final-year bachelor degree students (Coates &

    Richardson, 2011). In Australia, the current focus is on developing teaching and

    learning standards to apply for institutional re-accreditation, with no indications yet

    on how these will be assessed (Australian Learning and Teaching Council, 2010).

    1.1 Science Graduates Skill Set

    The need for science graduates with a skill set appropriate to the current and future

    rapidly evolving technological environment has been the focus of debates across the

    world (National Academy of Sciences, 2006; OECD, 2006; Roberts, 2002), paired

    with calls for the improvement of science education (Wieman, 2007; Wieman,

    Perkins, & Gilbert, 2010).

    In Australia, the government has invested in the development of discipline-specific

    learning standards; it did so through its Learning and Teaching Assessment Standards

    (LTAS) project. The science threshold learning outcomes developed as part of LTAS

    project now provide a point of reference for the desired minimum standards of every

    science graduate in Australia (Yates, Jones, & Kelder , 2011); they are the product of a

    comprehensive national consultation involving science academics, policy-makers, and

    industry. Although this a positive development, an agreed set of threshold learning

    outcomes for science graduates is only a starting point. Within the current trend

    towards institutional accountability, there is a need to demonstrate that our science

    students graduate with these skills.

    930 C. Varsavsky et al.

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  • Universities have been addressing the skills agenda in various ways, including inte-

    gration of skills in key units at each year level, or the so-called capstone units at the end

    of the programme where students draw together what they learn from the point of

    admission (Ewell, 2013). However, there is a paucity of literature on such efforts in

    the context of science undergraduate programmes. There has been very little

    change in the science curricula around the world. Science teaching and learning at

    the undergraduate level still seem to focus primarily on knowledge transfer, with

    little attention being paid to skills required to apply knowledge (Weiman, 2007;

    Wood, 2009). Brownell and Tanner (2012) argue that profound cultural change is

    needed to achieve real reform in science, and calls have been made to increase the

    pace of that reform (Henderson, Beach, & Finkelstein, 2011).

    1.2 Student Perceptions of Skills

    Student surveys to appraise perceptions of skills developed within undergraduate pro-

    grammes have been used in a variety of contexts. They are most commonly used at

    graduation point, for institutional accountability and ranking purposes (see, e.g.

    Kuh & Ewell, 2010 for the USA; Surridge, 2008 for the UK). In Australia, the instru-

    ment used for this purpose is the Course Experience Questionnaire. Graduates com-

    plete this survey approximately six months after graduation (Ramsden, 1991). Only

    five items of the instrument are designed to gauge skill development, and similar to

    other such instruments used around the world, no reference is made to the discipline

    studied. In the context of bioscience, a UK study found a strong correlation between

    the perception of importance of skills between graduates and their employers (Saun-

    ders & Zuzel, 2010). The study also found that graduates tend to assess their skills

    more highly than employers, particularly if they did not have an industry placement

    experience as part of their programme.

    To a lesser extent, the literature also includes studies where the student perception

    of skills have been sought to inform curriculum development. For example, Walker

    (2008) canvassed college students to identify five skills they should learn in college,

    suggesting that learning is not always aligned with what teachers want students to

    learn, and that grades do not always represent what students actually learned.

    Leggett, Kinnear, Boyce, and Bennet (2004) conducted a study to address the

    missing student voice in the debate on the importance of science skills, and concluded

    that student perceptions align better with teacher perceptions towards the end of the

    programme. This study also suggests that there is a link between the importance of

    students place on science skills and the extent to which these are assessed.

    The literature includes studies with arguments for and against self-reported learn-

    ing gains as compared to direct measures. A US study involving over 2,000 students

    comparing students grade point average, their results of a standardised test, and their

    self-reported learning, suggested that student self-reported gains have a modest rela-

    tive validity (Anaya, 1999). Kuh (2001) argued that the National Survey of Student

    Engagement did not measure what American students learned from admission to

    graduation, but that nevertheless the results of these surveys provided important

    Perceptions of Science Graduating Students 931

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  • information for institutional self-improvement. More recently, Douglass, Thomson,

    and Zhao (2012) highlighted that well-designed surveys offer a valuable and more

    nuanced alternative in understanding and identifying learning outcomes, particularly

    in research intensive and complex institutions.

    2. Purpose of Study

    The purpose of this study is to address the scarcity of literature on skills developed in

    the context of a whole science undergraduate programme, and begin to understand

    how science students see their learning of these skills as they approach graduation.

    More precisely, this research aims to explore the perceptions of graduating science

    students of the skills they develop as part of a science programme, their importance,

    their inclusion in the programme, and their confidence with the skills. We use the

    Science Students Skills Inventory (SSSI) which was developed at the University of

    Queensland (Matthews & Hodgson, 2012), modelled on the Student Assessment of

    Learning Gains (Seymour, Wiese, Hunter, & Daffinrud, 2000). The distinctive

    science graduate skills addressed in this inventory include

    (a) Scientific content knowledge.

    (b) Oral communications skills to make scientific presentations.

    (c) Scientific writing skills.

    (d) Team work skills (working with others to accomplish a shared task).

    (e) Quantitative skills (mathematical and statistical reasoning).

    (f) Ethical thinking skills (ethical responsibilities and approaches).

    The specific research questions addressed in this study are

    (1) What perceptions do graduating science students have of the importance of

    developing science graduate skills during their degree programme? What is

    their perceived confidence and improvement in these skills, and how much do

    they think these skills were included in their degree programme and will be

    used in the future?

    (2) Are there mismatches between student perceptions of science graduate skills and

    their perceptions of (i) the improvement they made within the whole programme,

    (ii) how much they saw them included in the programme, (iii) their confidence

    with these skills, and (iv) how much they will use them after graduation?

    (3) Are there differences in perceptions by different demographic groups such as

    gender, age, their research experiences within the programme, and their future

    plans?

    3. Methodology

    The SSSI was used to capture the breadth of perceptions of graduating science stu-

    dents about their skill set. This instrument is specific to science and explores how

    the whole science degree programme contributes to the development of science

    932 C. Varsavsky et al.

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  • skills. The SSSI has been previously published, including information on its validity

    and reliability (Matthews & Hodgson, 2012).

    3.1 The Survey

    For each of the six science graduate skills, the survey asked students to rate, on a four-

    point Likert scale (Table 1).

    . How important it is to have in the science programme activities that develop the par-ticular skill (from 1 not at all important to 4 very important).

    . The level of improvement they made regarding the particular skill as a result of theoverall science programme (from 1 no improvement to 4 a great deal ofimprovement).

    . To what extent were activities to develop the particular skill included in their scienceprogramme (from 1 not included at all to 4 included a lot).

    . To what extent they felt confident with the particular skill as a result of the scienceprogramme (from 1 not at all confident to 4 very confident).

    . Five years after they graduate from the science programme, how much do they thinkthey will use the particular skill (from 1 not at all to 4 a lot).The demographic information sought from students included gender, age, partici-

    pation in undergraduate research experiences (URE) (summer research scholarships,

    Table 1. Structure of survey questions, with measures of perception and categories used for

    analyses

    Question 1 (low) 2 (low) 3 (high) 4 (high)

    How important is to have in

    the science programme

    activities that develop [skill]?

    Not at all

    important

    Not very

    important

    Important Very important

    As a result of your overall

    science programme what

    improvements have you

    made with [skill]?

    No

    improvement

    Little

    improvement

    Moderate

    improvement

    A great deal of

    improvement

    To what extent were

    activities to develop [skill]

    included in your science

    programme?

    Not included

    at all

    Included a

    little

    Included a

    moderate

    amount

    Included a lot

    To what extent do you feel

    confident about [skill] as a

    result of your science

    programme?

    Not at all

    confident

    A little

    confident

    Moderately

    confident

    Very confident

    Five years after you graduate

    from your science

    programme, how much do

    you think you will be using

    [skill]?

    Not at all A little Quite a bit A lot

    Perceptions of Science Graduating Students 933

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  • or a research unit undertaken for credit) and plans students had for after graduation

    (employment, postgraduate studies (research or other), or no plans yet). Finally, the

    two institutions involved in the study are very similar; both belong to the Group of

    Eight Australian universities, admit students at the highest end of academic perform-

    ance, their science programmes are equivalent in breadth and depth, and their teach-

    ing largely aligns with the more traditional approaches used in research-intensive

    universities.

    3.2 Data Collection

    The survey was administered online to all students undertaking their final semester of

    the Bachelor of Science or the Bachelor of Biomedical Science at two research-inten-

    sive Australian institutions. A total of 1,207 final semester science students were

    invited to complete the online survey, and 647 responses were received. Students

    who were combining science studies with other disciplines (dual degrees) were

    removed to ensure the perceptions were about what students learned in a science

    degree programme. Incomplete surveys were also removed. In total, 400 surveys

    were used to perform the data analysis; this represents 45.4% of all surveyed students

    who were studying a science single degree. The data set included 56% female stu-

    dents, 83% in the 1922 age bracket, and 60% students from University A.

    3.3 Data Analysis

    For each skill, descriptive statistics of importance, improvement, confidence,

    inclusion, and future use were examined. Similar to Wyer (2003), ordinal data were

    analysed using logistic regression with Likert scale responses grouped into high and

    low categories. Measures of perception were divided into high and low categories to

    assess not only students average perception but also the degree of opposing views

    within each skill. Low category was based on the two lower points of the scale

    (such as not at all important and not very important) whereas high category

    was based on responses corresponding to the two highest points on the scale (such

    as moderately confident and very confident) (Table 1). Age was also categorised

    to reflect the primary cohort within the undergraduate science degree programmes

    (aged 1922 years) relative to individuals outside of this cohort (aged 23+). Gradu-ate plans were based on categories describing students intentions after graduating

    from the science degree programme. Students intending to continue with postgradu-

    ate studies aimed towards medicine or education were categorised as having pro-

    fessional postgraduate plans. Those planning to undertake postgraduate studies in

    research were categorised as having research postgraduate plans. Students intending

    to enter the work force after graduation, whether that be in a science- or non-science-

    related area, were categorised as work force. Students were categorised as not having

    a set plan after graduation based on giving this response in the survey; other graduate

    plans include those intending to enrol in another postgraduate degree programme and

    those who answered other in the survey (Table 2).

    934 C. Varsavsky et al.

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  • A series of independent samples t-tests and one-ways Analyses of variance

    (ANOVAs) were used, where appropriate, to determine whether student perceptions

    of each graduate skill differed according to gender, age, graduate plans, URE, and uni-

    versity. When using one-way ANOVAs, Bonferroni adjustment was used for planned

    contrasts. A series of paired t-tests were used to determine whether there were differ-

    ences between student perception regarding importance of graduate skills and percep-

    tion regarding improvement, inclusion, confidence, and future use of these skills. For

    all analyses, an alpha level of 0.05 was used as an indication of statistical significance.

    Data were analysed using PASW 20.0.

    4. Findings

    4.1 Student Perceptions of Skills

    Table 3 gives descriptive statistics of perceptions of importance, improvement, inclusion,

    confidence, and future use for each of the six skills. Figure 1 complements this

    Table 3. Perceptions of importance, improvement, inclusion, confidence, and future use for each

    of the six skills: mean (standard deviation) and number (percentage) of student rating high

    Scientific

    content

    Oral

    communication Writing Teamwork Quantitative

    Ethical

    thinking

    Importance 3.78 (+.42) 3.50 (+.57) 3.70 (+.51) 3.34 (+.68) 3.36 (+.69) 3.17 (+.77)High 399 (99.8%) 385 (96.3%) 393 (98.3%) 359 (89.9%) 356 (89.0%) 330 (82.5%)

    Improvement 3.72 (+.58) 3.06 (+.82) 3.36 (+.73) 2.95 (+.78) 2.88 (+.87) 2.76 (+.85)High 385 (96.3%) 314 (78.5%) 352 (88.0%) 302 (75.5%) 270 (67.5%) 253 (63.3%)

    Inclusion 3.77 (+.47) 3.12 (+.74) 3.49 (+.70) 3.30 (+.69) 2.84 (+.76) 2.46 (+.71)High 391 (97.8%) 323 (80.8%) 359 (89.9%) 352 (88.0%) 261 (65.3%) 163 (40.8%)

    Confidence 3.37 (+.60) 3.17 (+.79) 3.24 (+.69) 3.35 (+.72) 2.64 (+.86) 2.92 (+.85)High 378 (94.5%) 335 (83.8%) 354 (88.5%) 363 (90.8%) 242 (60.5%) 282 (70.5%)

    Future use 3.32 (+.82) 3.42 (+.70) 3.07 (+.87) 3.56 (+.61) 2.65 (+.89) 2.96 (+.92)High 330 (82.5%) 355 (88.8%) 289 (72.3%) 378 (94.5%) 221 (55.3%) 274 (68.5%)

    Table 2. Demographic variables and categories used for analysis

    Variable Categories

    Sex Female Male

    Age 1922

    years

    23+ years

    University University

    A

    University B

    Graduate plans No set

    plans

    Work force Postgraduate

    (professional)

    Postgraduate

    (research)

    Other

    Research

    experience

    (URE)

    None Summer

    research

    scholarship

    Unit (for credit) Both

    Perceptions of Science Graduating Students 935

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  • information, displaying the percentage of students who rated high each of the five vari-

    ables. Tables 49 show the results of the independent sample t-tests and one-way

    ANOVAs; where significant differences in perceptions were found, these are highlighted.

    4.1.1 Scientific content knowledge. Results from independent sample t-tests and

    one-way ANOVAs showed perception of scientific content knowledge were largely

    consistent by gender, age, university, graduate plans, and URE with some exceptions.

    Specifically, males were more confident. Students completing both a research course

    unit and research scholarship had a significantly higher rating of scientific content

    knowledge relative to students with no URE. Finally, students reporting other as

    their graduate plan had more future use of this knowledge compared to those intend-

    ing to enter the workforce or enrolling in postgraduate research studies.

    Figure 1. Percentage of students assigning high ratings

    936 C. Varsavsky et al.

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  • Table 4. Differences in perception of scientific content knowledge by demographic and academic factors

    Variables

    Importance Improvement Inclusion Confidence Future use

    M (SD) p M (SD) p M (SD) p M (SD) p M (SD) p

    Gender .35 .15 .94 .02 .80

    Female 3.80 (+.40) 3.75 (+.55) 3.77 (+.46) 3.31 (+.60) 3.34 (+.78)Male 3.76 (+.44) 3.66 (+.60) 3.77 (+.48) 3.46 (+.60) 3.32 (+.87)

    Age .68 .45 .61 .53 .09

    1922 3.78 (+.42) 3.72 (.57) 3.78 (+.47) 3.38 (+.61) 3.31 (+.83)23+ 3.80 (+.40) 3.65 (.64) 3.74 (+.49) 3.33 (+.52) 3.52 (+.72)

    University .67 .43 .82 .25 .61

    Institution A 3.77 (+.43) 3.69 (.57) 3.78 (+.47) 3.40 (+.59) 3.35 (+.82)Institution B 3.79 (+.41) 3.74 (.58) 3.77 (+.47) 3.33 (+.62) 3.30 (+.83)

    Graduate plans .48 .09 .21 .08 .02

    No set plans 3.71 (+.47) 3.57 (+.85) 3.50 (+.65) 3.29 (+.47) 3.36 (+.93)Work force 3.72 (+.45) 3.76 (+.46) 3.79 (+.41) 3.25 (+.55) 3.20 (+.90)Postgraduate(prof) 3.78 (+.43) 3.66 (+.61) 3.77 (+.50) 3.38 (+.62) 3.35 (+.79)Postgraduate(res) 3.77 (+.43) 3.59 (+.73) 3.73 (+.46) 3.23 (+.75) 2.91 (+.92)Other 3.84 (+.37) 3.83 (+.48) 3.82 (+.42) 3.49 (+.58) 3.49 (+.75)

    Research experience .98 .05 .91 .26 .79

    None 3.78 (+.03) 3.65 (+.65) 3.76 (+.48) 3.33 (+.61) 3.30 (+.81)Scholarship 3.76 (+.43) 3.72 (+.45) 3.79 (+.44) 3.37 (+.60) 3.34 (+.87)Course unit 3.80 (+.41) 3.80 (+.46) 3.80 (+.46) 3.48 (+.55) 3.40 (+.84)Both 3.78 (+.42) 3.86 (+.46) 3.78 (+.48) 3.46 (+.61) 3.39 (+.79)

    Note: Bold values represent statistically different perceptions (p , 0.05).

    Percep

    tions

    ofS

    cience

    Gra

    duatin

    gS

    tuden

    ts937

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  • Table 5. Differences in perception of communication skills by demographic and academic factors

    Importance Improvement Inclusion Confidence Future use

    M (SD) p M (SD) p M (SD) p M (SD) p M (SD) p

    Sex .01 .01 .02 .80 .61

    Female 3.56 (+.56) 3.15 (+.82) 3.19 (+.73) 3.16 (+.81) 3.44 (+.70)Male 3.40 (+.58) 2.94 (+.81) 3.02 (+.73) 3.18 (+.76) 3.39 (+.70)

    Age .54 .90 .45 .12 .96

    1922 3.49 (+.57) 3.06 (+.82) 3.13 (+.73) 3.19 (+.79) 3.42 (+.70)23+ 3.54 (+.55) 3.04 (+.82) 3.04 (+.79) 3.00 (+.73) 3.41 (+.69)

    University .03 .001 .001 .84 .35

    Institution A 3.45 (+.58) 2.95 (+.82) 2.95 (+.69) 3.16 (+.74) 3.42 (+.70)Institution B 3.57 (+.56) 3.23 (+.80) 3.38 (+.74) 3.18 (+.86) 3.41 (+.71)

    Graduate plans .08 .37 .84 .19 .05

    No set plans 3.21 (+.58) 2.93 (+.83) 2.93 (+.92) 3.29 (+.73) 3.71 (+.47)Work force 3.54 (+.50) 3.16 (+.71) 3.13 (+.74) 3.07 (+.74) 3.45 (+.68)Postgraduate(prof) 3.44 (+.62) 2.98 (+.84) 3.12 (+.73) 3.19 (+.78) 3.35 (+.72)Postgraduate(res) 3.55 (+.51) 3.09 (+.81) 3.23 (+.61) 2.86 (+.89) 3.18 (+.80)Other 3.59 (+.51) 3.14 (+.86) 3.11 (+.76) 3.24 (+.81) 3.53 (+.66)

    Research experience .13 .001 .001 .29 .02

    None 3.46 (+.59) 2.91 (+.84) 3.00 (+.73) 3.10 (+.81) 3.35 (+.69)Scholarship 3.46 (+.58) 3.19 (+.82) 3.41 (+.72) 3.21 (+.82) 3.51 (+.70)Course unit 3.53 (+.55) 3.23 (+.73) 3.18 (+.75) 3.25 (+.67) 3.33 (+.76)Both 3.64 (+.48) 3.30 (+.73) 3.17 (+.69) 3.29 (+.71) 3.61 (+.65)

    Note: Bold values represent statistically different perceptions (p , 0.05).

    938

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  • Table 6. Differences in perception of writing skills by demographic and academic factors

    Importance Improvement Inclusion Confidence Future use

    M (SD) p M (SD) p M (SD) p M (SD) p M (SD) p

    Sex .001 .07 .08 .70 .48

    Female 3.77 (+.46) 3.42 (+.71) 3.54 (+.63) 3.25 (+.69) 3.10 (+.86)Male 3.60 (+.55) 3.28 (+.75) 3.42 (+.77) 3.22 (+.71) 3.03 (+.89)

    Age .09 .93 .56 .47 .01

    1922 3.68 (+.51) 3.36 (+.73) 3.48 (+.70) 3.32 (+.70) 3.03 (+.88)23+ 3.80 (+.45) 3.37 (+.71) 3.54 (+.72) 3.30 (+.63) 3.39 (+.77)

    University .40 .39 .38 .65 .99

    Institution A 3.68 (+.52) 3.33 (+.73) 3.46 (+.72) 3.25 (+.67) 3.07 (+.86)Institution B 3.72 (+.49) 3.40 (+.72) 3.53 (+.66) 3.22 (+.73) 3.07 (+.89)

    Graduate plans .04 .70 .51 .86 .001

    No set plans 3.43 (+.51) 3.14 (+.86) 3.50 (+.65) 3.21 (+.43) 2.50 (+.76)Work force 3.71 (+.46) 3.41 (+.72) 3.57 (+.60) 3.22 (+.67) 3.22 (+.86)Postgraduate(prof) 3.65 (+.57) 3.34 (+.71) 3.43 (+.77) 3.22 (+.71) 2.98 (+.85)Postgraduate(res) 3.81 (+.48) 3.45 (+.86) 3.41 (+.73) 3.14 (+.83) 2.59 (+.67)Other 3.70 (+.40) 3.38 (+.73) 3.55 (+.63) 3.30 (+.69) 3.32 (+.89)

    Research experience .98 .13 .24 .57 .001

    None 3.70 (+.50) 3.31 (+.74) 3.49 (+.70) 3.21 (+.69) 2.91 (+.88)Scholarship 3.68 (+.56) 3.34 (+.75) 3.62 (+.57) 3.24 (+.67) 3.13 (+.88)Course unit 3.70 (+.52) 3.60 (+.59) 3.45 (+.71) 3.38 (+.63) 3.23 (+.72)Both 3.68 (+.50) 3.41 (+.73) 3.38 (+.77) 3.25 (+.76) 3.43 (+.87)

    Note: Bold values represent statistically different perceptions (p , 0.05).

    Percep

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  • Table 7. Differences in perception of team work skills by demographic and academic factors

    Importance Improvement Inclusion Confidence Future use

    M (SD) p M (SD) p M (SD) p M (SD) p M (SD) p

    Sex .01 .14 .02 .32 .38

    Female 3.41 (+.64) 3.00 (+.80) 3.37 (+.66) 3.38 (+.71) 3.59 (+.60)Male 3.23 (+.72) 2.48 (+.76) 3.21 (+.72) 3.31 (+.74) 3.53 (+.63)

    Age .75 .92 .19 .01 .46

    1922 3.34 (+.68) 2.94 (+.79) 3.32 (+.68) 3.38 (+.71) 3.57 (+.61)23+ 3.30 (+.70) 2.96 (+.76) 3.17 (+.71) 3.09 (+.76) 3.50 (+.62)

    University .10 .38 .26 .66 .60

    Institution A 3.29 (+.69) 2.92 (+.78) 3.27 (+.69) 3.33 (+.69) 3.55 (+.63)Institution B 3.41 (+.65) 2.99 (+.79) 3.35 (+.68) 3.37(+.77) 3.58 (+.59)

    Graduate plans .67 .41 .50 .58 .80

    No set plans 3.29 (+.47) 3.21 (+.58) 3.21 (+.70) 3.36 (+.63) 3.36 (+.93)Work force 3.38 (+.65) 3.05 (+.75) 3.28 (+.69) 3.26 (+.68) 3.58 (+.57)Postgraduate(prof) 3.28 (+.69) 2.91 (+.80) 3.33 (+.69) 3.35 (+.73) 3.57 (+.60)Postgraduate(res) 3.36 (+.66) 2.95 (+.72) 3.50 (+.60) 3.23 (+.75) 3.55 (+.67)Other 3.40 (+.70) 2.89 (+.82) 3.23 (+.70) 3.43 (+.75) 3.57 (+.61)

    Research experience .80 .15 .04 .75 .81

    None 3.33 (+.70) 2.87 (+.79) 3.26 (+.69) 3.36 (+.70) 3.57 (+.60)Scholarship 3.38 (+.60) 3.12 (+.72) 3.49 (+.59) 3.40 (+.67) 3.51 (+.74)Course unit 3.25 (+.74) 2.98 (+.80) 3.13 (+.82) 3.25 (+.71) 3.53 (+.51)Both 3.35 (+.66) 2.99 (+.80) 3.33 (+.66) 3.32 (+.87) 3.61 (+.57)

    Note: Bold values represent statistically different perceptions (p , 0.05).

    940

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  • Table 8. Differences in perception of quantitative skills by demographic and academic factors

    Importance Improvement Inclusion Confidence Future use

    M (SD) p M (SD) p M (SD) p M (SD) p M (SD) p

    Sex .73 .15 .28 .001 .10

    Female 3.37 (+.67) 2.83 (+.88) 2.80 (+.74) 2.49 (+.86) 2.59 (+.88)Male 3.34 (+.72) 2.95 (+.85) 2.88 (+.79) 2.83 (+.82) 2.73 (+.89)

    Age .08 .25 .26 .90 .004

    1922 3.33 (+.70) 2.86 (+.87) 2.82 (+.75) 2.64 (+.85) 2.60 (+.87)23+ 3.52 (+.62) 3.02 (+.77) 2.96 (+.84) 2.65 (+.92) 3.00 (+.92)

    University .14 .14 .13 .50 .10

    Institution A 3.40 (+.65) 2.93 (+.84) 2.88 (+.74) 2.66 (+.86) 2.59 (+.90)Institution B 3.29 (+.75) 2.80 (+.90) 2.77 (+.79) 2.60 (+.86) 2.74 (+.88)

    Graduate plans .09 .06 .002 .05 .002

    No set plans 3.14 (+.86) 3.14 (+.95) 3.21 (+.70) 3.07 (+.48) 2.43 (+.94)Work force 3.49 (+.68) 3.08 (+.76) 3.07 (+.75) 2.78 (+.78) 2.84 (+.80)Postgraduate(prof) 3.29 (+.68) 2.78 (+.86) 2.71 (+.69) 2.58 (+.85) 2.57 (+.89)Postgraduate(res) 3.44 (+.68) 2.68 (+.99) 2.68 (+.72) 2.32 ((+.95) 2.14 (+.83)Other 3.36 (+.69) 2.93 (+.90) 2.89 (+.85) 2.65 (+.93) 2.81 (+.89)

    Research experience .33 .27 .43 .37 .10

    None 3.34 (+.67) 2.87 (+.83) 2.86 (+.70) 2.60 (+.80) 2.55 (+.84)Scholarship 3.26 (+.77) 2.75 (+.97) 2.71 (+.83) 2.59 (+.89) 2.76 (+.99)Course unit 3.48 (+.64) 2.95 (+.85) 2.93 (+.85) 2.83 (+.76) 2.78 (+.87)Both 3.36 (+.72) 3.03 (+.87) 2.86 (+.76) 2.71 (+.94) 2.78 (+.89)

    Note: Bold values represent statistically different perceptions (p , 0.05).

    Percep

    tions

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    cience

    Gra

    duatin

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  • Table 9. Differences in perception of ethical thinking skills by demographic and academic factors

    Importance Improvement Inclusion Confidence Future use

    M (SD) p M (SD) p M (SD) p M (SD) p M (SD) p

    Sex .001 .002 .003 .60 .56

    Female 3.35 (+.68) 2.88 (+.83) 2.55 (+.72) 2.90 (+.87) 3.07 (+.88)Male 2.94 (+.82) 2.61 (+.86) 2.34 (+.68) 2.95 (+.83) 2.82 (+.95)

    Age .22 .86 .08 .24 .44

    1922 3.16 (+.78) 2.76 (+.86) 2.44 (+.70) 2.94 (+.86) 2.94 (+.93)23+ 3.30 (+.70) 2.74 (+.83) 2.63 (+.80) 2.78 (+.81) 3.11 (+.85)

    University .001 .003 .02 .18 .40

    Institution A 3.05 (+.81) 2.66 (+.83) 2.39 (+.64) 2.88 (+.84) 2.89 (+.94)Institution B 3.35 (+.67) 2.92 (+.87) 2.56 (+.79) 2.99 (+.88) 3.06 (+.88)

    Graduate plans .29 .35 .42 .90 .97

    No set plans 2.86 (+.66) 2.79 (+.80) 2.50 (+.65) 3.14 (+.77) 2.64 (+.84)Work force 3.17 (+.76) 2.92 (+.76) 2.58 (+.74) 2.93 (+.81) 2.83 (+.93)Postgraduate(prof) 3.22 (+.75) 2.76 (+.89) 2.44 (+.72) 2.90 (+.85) 3.09 (+.87)Postgraduate(res) 3.32 (+.57) 2.68 (+.84) 2.55 (+.80) 2.91 (+.87) 2.45 (+.80)Other 3.09 (+.86) 2.65 (+.86) 2.38 (+.67) 2.93 (+.92) 2.96 (+.97)

    Research experience .75 .84 .97 .71 .86

    None 3.16 (+.74) 2.74 (+.86) 2.47 (+.73) 2.88 (+.81) 2.91 (+.92)Scholarship 3.26 (+.77) 2.75 (+.87) 2.47 (+.74) 2.93 (+.97) 3.13 (+.91)Course unit 3.13 (+.85) 2.88 (+.82) 2.48 (+.68) 3.00 (+.85) 2.93 (+.86)Both 3.16 (+.83) 2.77 (+.86) 2.42 (+.63) 2.92 (+.85) 2.99 (+.93)

    Note: Bold values represent statistically different perceptions (p , 0.05).

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  • Results from a series of paired t-tests suggest that, on average, students believed the

    importance of scientific content knowledge was greater than their improvement, con-

    fidence, and future use of this skill (p , 0.05). See Table 3 for a summary of the mean

    differences.

    In addition, differences between importance of scientific content knowledge and

    graduate perceptions, stratified by age, gender, URE, university, and graduate

    plans, were also explored. A consistent trend emerged such that individuals across

    gender, age, university, and URE reported that importance of scientific content

    knowledge was greater than their confidence and future use of this skill (all p ,

    0.01) with one exception. There was no difference between perception of importance

    and future use of this content knowledge among students without graduate plans (p 0.14). See Table 4 for a summary of the mean differences.

    4.1.2 Oral communication skills to make scientific presentations. Females as well as

    students from Institution B perceived oral communication to be better improved,

    more important and with greater inclusion in the undergraduate science programme

    relative to males and students from Institution A, respectively. Those with no URE

    reported lower improvement, saw lower inclusion in the programme and predicted

    lower future use of oral communication skills compared to students who had partici-

    pated in URE.

    Students perception regarding the importance of communication skills was signifi-

    cantly higher than their perception of their improvement, inclusion, confidence, and

    future use of these skills (all p , 0.05). In addition, differences between importance of

    communication skills and graduate perceptions, stratified by age, gender, URE, uni-

    versity, and graduate plans, were also explored and revealed that importance of com-

    munication skills was greater than their perception of improvement, confidence, and

    inclusion of these skills (all p , 0.05), with some exceptions. Specifically, perceptions

    regarding importance and future use of communication skills were the same between

    males, students 23 years and older, those who completed a research scholarship,

    research course, both a scholarship, and a course and students who plan to work or

    other after graduating from the undergraduate programme (p 0.08 and p 0.74, respectively). Further null differences were found between inclusion and impor-

    tance among those who completed a research scholarship (p 0.79) and those withno set plans after graduation (p 1.00). Null differences were also found with thelatter regarding confidence and importance of communication skills (p 0.75). SeeTable 5 for a summary of the mean differences.

    4.1.3 Scientific writing skills. Most differences regarding scientific writing skills

    centred on future use of this skill. Older students considered they would use this

    skill more in the future. Students with other graduate plans reported that they

    would utilise scientific writing more in the future relative to those with postgraduate

    plans, work, or no plans. Students who planned to work after graduating also thought

    they were more likely to use scientific writing relative to those enrolling in

    Perceptions of Science Graduating Students 943

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  • postgraduate research studies as well as those with no plans. Furthermore, students

    with course and scholarship research experience also predicted greater future use of

    scientific writing compared to students without URE (Table 6).

    Students perception regarding the importance of writing skills was significantly

    higher than their perception of the improvement, inclusion, confidence, and future

    use of these skills (all p , 0.001). See Table 3 and Figure 1 for a summary of the

    mean differences. In addition, differences between importance of writing skills and

    graduate perceptions, stratified by age, gender, URE, university, and graduate

    plans, were also explored. Data suggest students older than 23 years, those who com-

    pleted a research scholarship, those who completed a research course unit, those with

    no set plans as well as those preparing to undertake postgraduate research work after

    graduation had the same perception regarding importance of writing skills and

    inclusion of writing skills in this programme (p 0.991.00). See Table 4 for asummary of the mean differences.

    4.1.4 Team work skills. Few differences in perceptions were found when examining

    team work skills. Females believed team work was more important and more included

    in the undergraduate science degree programme. Younger students reported greater

    confidence of these skills. Students completing a research scholarship thought team

    work had higher inclusion in their programme relative to students completing a

    research unit.

    Results from paired t-tests suggest that, on average, students believed the impor-

    tance of team work skills was greater than their improvement in this skill within the

    undergraduate science programme (p , 0.05). However, students also perceived

    that team work skills had greater future use relative to the importance they placed

    on these skills. Perceptions of importance matched perceptions of inclusion (p 0.20) and confidence (p 0.91). See Table 3 and Figure 1 for a summary of themean differences. In addition, differences between importance of team work skills

    and graduate perceptions, stratified by age, gender, URE, university, and graduate

    plans, were also explored. Unlike the other graduate skills, ratings of importance rela-

    tive to improvement, confidence, inclusion, and future use were the same over cat-

    egories of age and gender. This trend of null differences was also found across

    university, URE, and graduate plans, with few exceptions. First, students with no

    set plans, University A students as well as those with both scholarship and course

    experience in research perceived future use of team work skills higher than importance

    of team work skills (p , 0.05). See Table 7 for a summary of the mean differences.

    4.1.5 Quantitative skills. Males reported higher confidence in this area; older stu-

    dents perceived greater future use of these skills. Students planning to enter the work-

    force also reported greater inclusion of quantitative skills and higher future use

    compared to students planning to undertake postgraduate studies in a professional

    area.

    944 C. Varsavsky et al.

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  • Perception regarding the importance of quantitative skills was significantly higher

    than their perception of the improvement, inclusion, confidence, and future use of

    these skills (all p , 0.001). See Table 3 and Figure 1 for a summary of the mean differ-

    ences. This trend was consistent by age, gender, URE, and graduate plans (all p ,

    0.001) with few exceptions. Those with no set plans reported similar perceptions

    relating to importance and inclusion (p 1.00) as well as confidence (p 0.54) inquantitative skills. See Table 8 for a summary of the mean differences.

    4.1.6 Ethical thinking skills. Regarding ethical thinking all differences are centred

    on gender and university. Specifically, females as well as University B students per-

    ceived ethical thinking skills to be more important, better improved, and more

    included in the degree programme compared to their male counterparts and Univer-

    sity A students, respectively.

    Perception of importance of ethical thinking skills was significantly higher than their

    perception of the improvement, inclusion, confidence, and future use of these skills

    (all p , 0.001). See Table 3 and Figure 1 for a summary of the mean differences.

    Again, this trend was largely consistent across the different socio-demographic and

    academic groups explored in this study (all p , 0.05). However, perception of impor-

    tance was the same as confidence and future use of ethical thinking among students

    who completed a research course unit, both a scholarship and research course unit

    and those with no plans after graduation (p 0.10.38). Males also had similar per-ceptions regarding importance and confidence (p 0.89) with those completingresearch scholarships rating importance and future use of ethical thinking (p 0.28) on the same level. See Table 9 for a summary of the mean differences.

    5. Discussion

    This study gives an insight into how students perceive the development of skills in the

    context of science studies, across their whole degree programme, as they approach

    graduation. Students will draw upon their skills as they embark on their next stage

    in life, be this employment or further studies; hence, a reflection on these skills

    close to graduation becomes highly relevant to them. The development of employabil-

    ity skills is one of the main reasons students pursue higher education; while a good

    qualification is important when seeking employment, employers are now more inter-

    ested in the set of skills they have to offer rather than grades (Yorke, 2006).

    5.1 Perceptions of Importance, Improvement, Inclusion, Confidence, and Future Use of

    Science Skills

    Students reported all six skills to be important, although ethical thinking, quantitative

    skills, and teamwork were perceived to be less important than scientific content

    knowledge, oral communication, and scientific writing. On average, students consist-

    ently reported that most graduate skills were moderately improved throughout their

    Perceptions of Science Graduating Students 945

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  • programme, they saw them included a moderate amount in their programme, and stu-

    dents were moderately confident in applying these skills, and would use them in the

    future. High and low ratings of these skills show a similar picture, with the majority

    of students consistently viewing these skills as having high importance, high inclusion,

    high improvement, have high confidence in applying them, and see high future use.

    In this analysis two of the six skills stand out: quantitative skills and ethical thinking.

    Although these show similar patterns as the other four skills, more students reported

    lower importance, inclusion, improvement, confidence, and future use of these skills.

    These perceptions seem to be a reflection of the curriculum. Despite general agree-

    ment across the world that quantitative skills are essential graduate outcomes (Mat-

    thews, Belward, Coady, Rylands, & Simbag, 2012), the importance of mathematics

    in science programmes has been de-emphasised (Berlin & Hyonyong, 2005;

    Brown, 2009; Koenig, 2011). On the other hand, the role of ethics in the science cur-

    riculum has not been discussed up until recently (Atweh & Brady, 2009; Boyd et al.,

    2008; Reiss, 1999) and has largely focused on plagiarism. Our results suggest that not

    enough attention is being paid to ethics in the science curriculum, despite it being

    articulated as a graduate attribute in the science threshold learning outcomes (Yates

    et al., 2011).

    Overall, perception of importance of all six science skills being included in the cur-

    riculum was greater than perception of improvement, inclusion, confidence, and

    future use. The only exception was team work; this skill was perceived consistently

    across socio-demographic and academic groups of students as being highly relevant

    in their future. The perceptions of our respondents match Saunders and Zuzel find-

    ings (2010) that teamwork was rated more highly than other skills by bioscience

    graduates and their employers. Learning in teams does not only help students build

    team work skills; studies in the context of science have shown that small group learn-

    ing also has positive effects on student attitudes towards learning (Springer, Stanne, &

    Donovan, 1999) and on performance (Gupta, 2004). Interestingly, the participants of

    our study felt very confident about their team work skills even when they saw this skill

    less included in the curriculum. Greater research is required to understand how and

    where students develop team work skills.

    5.2 Demographic Differences in Perceptions

    There were some differences in perceptions across the different demographic groups.

    Most notably, gender showed significant differences in perceptions across most skills.

    Male students reported greater confidence in scientific content knowledge and in

    quantitative skills.

    On the other hand, their female counterparts assigned greater importance to oral

    communication, scientific writing, team work and ethical thinking and saw greater

    inclusion of communication, teamwork, and ethical thinking skills. There is a

    dearth of literature on gender differences in perception and development of skills in

    the science context; however, our findings are largely consistent with the few

    studies related to these. A UK study found that male students are more confident

    946 C. Varsavsky et al.

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  • in quantitative skills than their female counterparts. (Tariq, Qualter, Roberts,

    Appleby, & Barnes, 2012). Other studies concluded that females prefer teamwork

    and gain more educational benefits than males (Curran, Sharpe, Forristall, &

    Flynn, 2008; Wainer, Bryant, & Strasser, 2001). Research at the university level on

    ethics teaching has largely been conducted in business-related fields; one such

    study found that female university students showed more favourable perception

    towards ethics than males (Luthar, DiBattista, & Gautschi, 1997). An Australian

    study of tertiary entrance exam performance found that females scored higher on

    written communication than males (Cox, Leder, & Forgasz, 2004). Finally, when

    researching attitudes of high school students towards science as they were choosing

    their university studies, Miller, Slawinski Blessing, and Schwartz (2006) found that

    females were more interested than males in majors that were more people oriented

    and they choose science largely because of the skills required to achieve this end.

    This may explain why women doing science assign greater importance to oral com-

    munication, scientific writing, team work, and ethical thinking.

    Our study found that students with URE of some kind report greater improvement

    of their communication skills, even when they do not assign greater importance to this

    skill. Furthermore, those who had both types of research experiences (scholarship and

    course unit) also predict greater use of scientific writing and oral communication in

    the future. It could be argued that the latter group had in mind a postgraduate

    pathway that will require those skills; however, this is not reflected in the differences

    seen in their future plans: those with plans for postgraduate studies did not rate higher

    the future use of scientific writing and communication. The present findings support

    prior research on the benefits of URE (Seymour, Hunter, Laursen, & DeAntoni,

    2004).

    With relation to future plans, those with plans other than postgraduate studies or

    workforce saw greater future use for scientific content knowledge. It is not obvious

    why this is the case, and no literature was found to explain it; further investigation

    will be required to understand this difference. Finally, age seems to influence percep-

    tions of scientific writing and team work skills, with older students seeing greater

    future use and greater confidence with team work skills. It is likely that older students

    have already operated in a workplace, and hence have the benefit of the insight into the

    requirements of employment (Saunders & Zuzel, 2010).

    Students from both institutions responded consistently across most variables and

    skills, with two exceptions. These related to oral communication and ethical thinking

    where importance, improvement, and inclusion of these two skills were rated higher in

    one of the two institutions. This is surprising, as it would appear that the teaching and

    assessment practices of the two institutions are comparable; further research will be

    required to understand what lies behind these differences.

    6. Conclusion and Further Research

    This quantitative study gives a picture of student perceptions about their science skill

    set as they are about to enter their next stage in life after their undergraduate degree.

    Perceptions of Science Graduating Students 947

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  • Overall, student perceive all six skills as important, they report moderate improve-

    ment, see them moderately included in their programme, feel moderately confident

    and they see themselves using them in their future. Perceptions of importance of

    these skills are greater than perceptions of improvement, inclusion in the programme,

    confidence, and future use. Quantitative skills and ethical thinking were perceived by

    more students to be less important. Team work skills were perceived as having greater

    future use, but were seen less often in their programme. Some differences in percep-

    tion across different demographic groups were found. Most notably, gender showed

    significant differences across most skills. Male students reported greater confidence

    in scientific content knowledge and in quantitative skills; female students assigned

    greater importance to oral communication, scientific writing, team work and ethical

    thinking and saw greater inclusion of communication, teamwork, and ethical thinking

    skills.

    Caution should be exercised when generalising these results. The data set analysed

    is large, but it should be noted that data represent perceptions of only about half of the

    students surveyed, and that this study involved two very similar institutions with a

    strong focus on research. Also, our study does not attempt to explain these percep-

    tions and the differences found across demographic groups.

    The present study has several implications for curriculum reform and further

    research. An examination of teaching and assessment practices is required to under-

    stand the difference of perception of importance of skills and improvement, inclusion,

    confidence, and future use. For example, how are these skills integrated throughout

    the programme? Are they explicitly included in the teaching and in the assessment

    tasks? Does performance on these skills count towards their grades? The use of a

    survey on student perceptions of their skills has several advantages for curriculum

    reform. First, student surveys focused on a particular programme taught within an

    institution provide valuable information for short-term curriculum changes; unlike

    national and institutional generic surveys, a programme directed survey can provide

    information in a timely fashion allowing responsive changes to be made to curricula

    (Harris et al., 2010). Second, students are more likely to be responsive to a survey

    that comes from the academics who teach them as opposed to administrators from

    institutions or government (Denson, Loveday, & Dalton, 2010), and hence the infor-

    mation gathered is of greater value. Finally, programme level surveys of perceptions of

    skills provide an opportunity to engage all academics teaching into the programme, to

    increase their familiarity with the programme intended learning skills, and hence

    improve teaching and assessment practices (de la Harpe & David, 2012).

    Future research should examine several areas. First, our results would be enriched

    with a qualitative approach to explain student perceptions of importance, inclusion,

    improvement, confidence, and future use of science skills. Second, further work

    needs to be done to understand student perceptions of where, how, and when

    science skills are developed. For example, a possible line of inquiry could seek to

    complement the study by Leggett et al. (2004) to gain greater understanding of

    student perceptions of their science skills as they progress level by level from the com-

    mencement of their programme through to graduation. Third, more research

    948 C. Varsavsky et al.

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  • contextualised in undergraduate science is required to understand the demographic

    differences found in this study, particularly gender differences on perceptions about

    ethics and teamwork. Fourth, because our findings are in the context of large

    research-intensive universities, it is important to question if they can be generalised

    to other institutions. Finally, studies that examine the relationship between student

    perceptions of learning gains in science skills and academic assessment of those

    gains would greatly benefit the higher education sector.

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