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23 September 2021

Subject confidence among bioscience students


Dr Harriet Jones
Senior Lecturer, School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia

Professor Jon Scott
Higher Education Consultant and Emeritus Professor of Bioscience Education

Dr Harriet Jones from the University of East Anglia and Professor Jon Scott from the University of Leicester discuss the initial outcomes of a longitudinal study of bioscience students’ experiences transitioning to higher education.

Results from a 2021 survey of Year 13 bioscience students, who had completed their A level biology course in England, demonstrated confidence in their knowledge and understanding of biological terms and concepts. At this stage, these levels of confidence are higher than those seen in the previous year’s cohort at the start of their first year at university. Likewise, the Year 13 students in 2021 made fewer factual errors on the multiple-choice questions in the survey than the 2020 cohort at the start of their university education.

For several years, we have been studying the retention of knowledge and understanding in bioscience students as they make the transition to university. To understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we carried out a small survey of Year 13 students on their knowledge and understanding of the Biology A-level syllabus. This will be followed by continuation of a larger project, studying UK students’ preparedness for higher education as they enter university. The research is carried out by Dr Harriet Jones (University of East Anglia), Professor Jon Scott (University of Leicester), Professor Jon Green (University of Birmingham) and two data analysts, John Prendergast and Valentina Zini. We are also pleased to have support from QAA for our work during 2021-22.

The survey asked students to say whether they knew and understood a list of biological terms, and then complete a short multiple-choice question test with confidence-based marking. Results were compared to surveys of first-year undergraduates undertaken over the last two years and in light of research from 2014 looking at how knowledge and understanding change during the school to university transition.

These findings should not be surprising as students were at the end of their course and assessments, and so should be relatively confident and have a relatively good knowledge base. There is a significant expectation that 2021 university entrants will know less and be less confident than previous cohorts. Previous research tells us that there is a drop off in knowledge and confidence as they enter higher education. The key will be testing new undergraduates in October 2021 to see whether this reduction is of the same magnitude as in previous years or whether the changes in studying patterns have reduced the impact of cramming for examinations.

One of the key issues with this survey was the low number of respondents. This reflected the incredibly difficult situation schools were under. Rules of assessment were in a state of flux until very late in the academic year, resulting in a huge and uncertain workload for teachers. Most were simply unable to take on any additional tasks in the last couple of months of the course. We have been able to analyse the small data set we did receive and this forms the basis of a discussion which will continue into the first semester of 2021 in universities. Our short survey demonstrates that there is confidence there, and they have developed a good level of knowledge and understanding despite the impact of COVID-19 on teaching. Whether it is enough for normal teaching will be assessed in the October survey of university first years.

Discussion of this research took place at the annual BIO-Summit, held earlier this month at Royal Holloway. The summit brought together university lecturers in the biosciences who are passionate about good teaching. Appreciating the knowledge and understanding these new students bring with them to higher education is going to be crucial for universities to support their students effectively.  We believe student confidence is going to be a key factor.

We are looking for universities to participate in the October survey as obtaining a wide group of respondents will greatly increase the value of the study. To register your interest or to find out more about this survey please email Jon Scott.

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