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1 Understanding student learning: Statistics for professionals Statistical analyses forms a core UoS for undergraduate degrees of the Faculty of Health Sciences. Students are introduced to the principles behind descriptive and inferential statistics and use the statistical package SPSS. They are taught in weekly lectures with students from other disciplines (medical radiation sciences, speech pathology, rehabilitation counselling) and at differing stages in their degree (2 nd to 4 th year). A tutorial manual containing SPSS exercises complimenting lectures is provided to students. These are completed in self-directed tutorials. Fortnightly tutorials are staffed three times during semester once in weeks 2/3, once before the assignment is due and once at the end of semester. During staffed tutorials, students are able for clarification on any issues that have arisen in their independent learning. I am a lecturer and tutor in this course. The following presents a discussion of student approaches to statistics, their conceptions of learning, factors affecting the approach adopted and the inter-relation of these variables based on student interviews and education literature. Approaches to learning A dual-faceted concept, approach to learning is to the relationship between an individual and a learning task. It is not a characteristic of the individual learner but the experience of a specific learning situation. Approach to learning refers to both the content of student learning (what students learn or perceive as the object of learning) as well as the method used in structuring learning materials (how a student organises the information presented; Ramsden, 2003). Page 1 of 10

2 In ascertaining the approaches to learning adopted by health sciences students studying statistics, students were asked to describe how they went about note taking and what they did in preparation for assessments. The responses were varied: Student 1: I go through the textbook and write down key points about the t-test for example and then I look at information about how to use it so I m ready for the exam key points is the information about when can I use it and how to read the SPSS tables I have to know significance, what is the p-value is, is it greater than or less than 0.05? Student 2: I want to know what the numbers mean and where they come from. I do practice questions but it s not just about the right answer, that doesn t mean that I understand the concepts. In terms of understanding, when I get the results and I can see what makes the answer right see the right pattern [of equations] then I understand. But if I get the question right but don t see the pattern then I don t really understand it. I go to the textbook then. Student 3: I m a visual person, I like mindmaps and flowcharts [shows a copy of her lecture notes from the last lecture]. They let me see the connections better. I think all the ideas are related, they all fit together but when I write it in words and lists I can t see it. Student 1 demonstrates a surface approach to exam prep. They focus on accumulating information without seeing (possibly without feeling the need to see) the relations between each part. For instance, knowing that a p-value of less than 0.05 represents a significant finding but not understanding why or how just that it does. Student 1 is using an atomistic method, attends to each element not the broader picture. Page 2 of 10

3 Students 2 and 3 exemplify the deep approach to learning. Concentrating on the meaning of a task, the underlying principles/concepts, they adopt a holistic method. Attention is directed at the overall structure of the material and how each element is related to a unifying concept or issue (the pattern described by student 2 and the connections between ideas of student 3; Ramsden, 2003). Student 1 could be exhibiting the strategic approach (focussed on achieving high marks by ascertaining task requirements and adapting study methods accordingly; Entwistle, 1997). However, it does not have a what and how facet which charaterise learning approaches. What content do students using the strategic approach focus upon? How do they organise their material differently to that of students adopting a surface/deep approach in the same task? The strategic approach refers to a decision making orientation. It is better suited to answer the question how do students decide which approach to learning is appropriate? as opposed to how is this learning task experienced by students? Thus in analyses of student interviews, this proposed learning approach was omitted. Conceptions of learning Säljö s (1979 as cited in Ramsden 2003) hierarchy of learning conceptions describes 6 views of learning. Student 1 sees learning at the third conception: Learning is basically you get a skill and you use it the purpose of learning is money. You learn to pass the course, then get a job then earn money. And you help people. The student perceives learning to be more than memorisation (conception 2) and accumulating facts (conception 1). This knowledge requires application (conception 3). Page 3 of 10

4 Though they see it s relation to the external world learning is seen as a means to an end rather than a method of understanding reality (conception 4). Student 2 s conception of learning encompasses conception 3 and highlights the need to experience the principles of learning in the real world conception 4. To me, when I ve learnt something, I m able to use that knowledge, apply it and show someone it you have to focus on things and experience them in the real environment. Student 3 also holds conception 4: Learning is when you apply something and not just memorise it. But if you want to apply it, you need to know how it all fits together, how the [mind]map works and what the connections are. So you need to know the concept and how to apply it. Again, it is not enough to know facts, this student views learning as learning about integrated whole. Conceptions 5 and 6 involve reinterpreting reality and personal development. Relationships between approaches to and conceptions of learning Literature has drawn connections between learning approaches and conceptions (Marton & Säljö, 1997; Ramsden 2003). Some argue that individuals adopting a surface approach are more likely to have conceptions 1-3. (Ramsden, 2003), others link surface approaches to conceptions 1 and 2 only that the third is a transition between the two approaches (Entwistle, 1997). Page 4 of 10

5 From a teaching and learning perspective, questions concerning this relationship are pragmatic can changes in learning approaches affect changes in conceptions of learning or vice versa? Assuming it is possible to induce deeper learning in students (still an object of empirical debate) it follows logically that students conceptions of learning could be broadened they may be more open to the idea that learning is more than memorising information. It is also possible, however, to hold a learning conception of 4 or above and adopt surface approaches: If I don t have the time to go study for it thoroughly I ll probably just stick to memorising the lecture notes because I m pressed for time (student 2). This discrepancy in the effect of learning conceptions on learning approaches and vice versa occurs because conceptions of learning are not context dependent. Säljö s conceptions derived from interviews asking adults what learning meant to them, not what it consisted of in particular situations. Approaches to learning, on the other hand is context specific. What approach one takes in a statistics assignment may be different to what one engages in in preparing for the exam. Therefore, it is possible to hold a particular conception of learning but adopt a different approach depending on characteristics of the learning task (and its context e.g. time factors). Perhaps a better conceptual mediator of the conceptions approaches relationship is how students structure understanding (Entwistle & Entwistle, 1997). At the lowest level of the hierarchy, students understanding have no structure. Moving up, they use others structures, preparing material based on previous exams, organising information into predicted questions and structure information into personally relevant conceptions. It is perhaps possible then, to create environments which reward a particular level of structured understanding and through this affect changes in approaches to and conceptions of learning. Page 5 of 10

6 Factors affecting learning approach Student interviews reported time constraints as a factor leading to surface approaches. This is consistent with research showing that high workloads led to a focus on reproducing material rather than comprehending meaning (Ramsden, 2003). Perceived time constraints could be a result of high workload or reduced time management skills. Students are provided with 8 weeks to complete the assignment. Inappropriate time management may lead to stress. It is recognised however, that reduced staffed tutorials creates an unstructured learning environment where students may feel unsupported. They may want to wait for a staffed tutorial before working on the questions since this is when they are able to access support. I would like on hand help with stats, I make a mental note but that doesn t last very long so if I don t ask right away, I might not ask at all (student 3). Students report motivation and interest as a key factor in adopting particular approaches: If I like a subject, even if I do badly in it, I still like it enough to learn something in it I d be wiling to expand my knowledge of that learning outside the teaching (student 2). Research cited in favour of the motivation approach relationship shows that these are related but is vague (Ramsden, 2003). Would increasing student interest in statistics lead to deeper approaches? Are all students using a surface approach un-motivated? Student interviews suggest a third element: relevance. Page 6 of 10

7 If something is totally not useful in my eyes, I will just read it quickly before the exam. I don t think I ll use it again in my life. I m not going to be a researcher (student 1). Students training to be health professionals fail to see the relevance of statistics. Its importance is thereby reduced and motivation for performing well declines. Interestingly, only one student stated that task demands affected approach. Asked to clarify important information, student 1 responded: Information that the lecturer says is important. This is going to be in the exam or questions in the exam will be like this I pay more attention here. Biggs (1988 as cited in Ramsden, 2003) reports that assessment tasks can suggest a particular approach based on its perceived requirements reproducing facts or synthesis of evidence to form a structured argument respectively. This is the hidden curriculum. Additionally, Ramsden (2003) argues for constructive and timely feedback on assessment, teachers genuinely committed to student learning, opportunities for independent learning and clearly stated expectations in facilitating deeper approaches to learning. Implications for teaching statistics Examining literature and conducting student interviews about learning approaches, conceptions of learning and factors affecting the adoption of particular approaches, certain issues for teaching statistics is highlighted. Firstly ask the students. In behavioural research, we obtain baseline and post-intervention measures. Currently there is no measure of students approaches to statistics. To improve the quality of teaching for this cohort (recognising that Page 7 of 10

8 each student group is different), feedback from students should be sought during semester, not just at the end of it. However, recommendations from the feedback should be implemented with prudence. Studies attempting to induce a deep approach have resulted in students adopting surface approaches (Marton & Säljö, 1997). There is no straightforward way of inducing deep approaches. However, it is possible to build an environment encouraging deep approaches through affecting workload, time constraints, the hidden curriculum. Using the hierarchy of understanding (Entwistle & Entwistle, 1997), students structures of understanding can be selectively reinforced. Students could be provided with sample questions requiring integrated understanding of statistical concepts. Lecture slides with only the fundamentally key points (not the entire speech ) so students will be required to construct their learning. Additionally, learning environments highlighting the relevance of statistics can be established. Examples from each discipline can be used or students could be challenged to find where health professionals do use statistics. Without preaching, relevance and motivation can be addressed. Awareness of the hidden curriculum and revision of any shortcomings is necessary. Are we implicitly communicating to students different expectations to what is explicit in course outlines? Constructive alignment is a proposed solution. During this process teachers make explicit the course objectives and their relation to teaching activities/assessment tasks. However, this may promote the view of students as passive learners forced to behave in particular ways according to their environment (Haggis, 2003; Hussey & Smith, 2003). We recognise that this is not the case. A myriad of factors contribute to student approaches to learning, most prominent the students own perceptions. Proposed changes, however aim to promote (or at the very least make students aware of) deeper approaches to learning. Page 8 of 10

9 Passivity is antithetical to the notion of deep understanding. Also, in asking students about their approaches, their conception of learning and factors affecting approach, students are taking an active role in constructing their own learning environment. Revision is required of current teaching practices in this course if deep approaches to learning are as valued as the explicit curriculum contends. More generally, much research is also required of educators in ascertaining the relationship between approaches, conceptions of learning and the mediating factors of this relation. Key to both processes however is asking students. Page 9 of 10

10 References Entwistle, N. (1997). Contrasting perspectives on learning. In F. Marton, D. Hounsell and N. Entwistle, The Experience of Learning. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press. Entwistle N. & Entwistle A. (1997). Revision and the experience of understanding. In F. Marton, D. Hounsell and N. Entwistle, The Experience of Learning. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press. Haggis, T. (2003). Constructing images of ourselves? A critical investigation into approaches to learning research in higher education. British Educational Journal, 29, Hussey, T. & Smith, P. (2003) The uses of learning outcomes. Teaching in Higher Education, 8, Marton, F. & Säljö, R. (1997) Approaches to learning. In F. Marton, D. Hounsell and N. Entwistle, The Experience of Learning. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press. Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to Teach in Higher Education (2 nd Ed.). London: RoutledgeFalmer (Chaps 1-5) Final word count (excluding references): 2162 words Page 10 of 10

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