Perceptions of Science Graduating Students on their Learning Gains
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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
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2013.830795
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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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
# 2013 Taylor & Francis
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.
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
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
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.
skills. The SSSI has been previously published, including information on its validity
and reliability (Matthews & Hodgson, 20...