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Students' conceptions of the nature of 'learning' strongly influence the way they approach their learning and the quality of their learning outcomes (Prosser and Trigwell, 1999). The achievement of high quality learning is a goal within higher education which research has identified as elusive (Boulton-Lewis, 1998). High quality learning outcomes are particularly important in vocation education, including health, where the context of practice is continually changing.
Physiotherapy graduates are required to use current theoretical knowledge and practical therapeutic skills, problem solve and modify management for different individuals, reflect on their practice and continue their professional development (Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, 1996).
This study aims to redress the lack of information on the dynamics of student learning in physiotherapy in order to provide educators with valuable insights which can inform physiotherapy curriculum design and delivery in order to facilitate the achievement of necessary high quality learning outcomes. Although based in one discipline, this research also has relevance in the wider higher education context.
The research is a longitudinal multicentre study on the 1999 intake of students from 20 physiotherapy schools in England and Wales. Students completed the Reflections on Learning Inventory (RoLI) (Meyer and Boulton-Lewis, 1997) at the start of their first, second and final year of study.
Apart from analysis of whole sample data, age related issues are also being explored. Analysis of data from the first and second stages of the study is complete. Comparative findings for the three stages will be available for presentation at the conference.
In stage 1, exploratory factor analysis for the whole sample identified two structures (ie. dimensions of individual variation). One had a consistent, but educationally undesirable, focus on quantitative surface conceptions. The other contained a contradictory mix of some desirable deep qualitative conceptions, but also several quantitative ones. Analysis by age identified a similar pattern of results. However, the undesirable trends were stronger among the mature students (21 years and over) suggesting they could be more at risk of failure than the school leavers.
Variables demonstrating statistically significant age differences identified that the mature group were more intrinsically motivated than the younger group while the latter had a greater focus on the desirable characteristics of wanting to understand before memorising.
The stage 2 analysis demonstrated that, for both the whole sample and the two age groups, while some conceptions had altered in a desirable direction, the opposite had occurred with the others. Non-significant differences were found between the age groups for all the inventory variables.
The results of the first two stages of the study have demonstrated that, on entering, the physiotherapy students tended to exhibit undesirable conceptions of learning and that, although the experience of the first year of study altered the strength of the conceptions of both younger and older students, the overall patterns of variation changed little. Also, although the strength of change in more desirable directions was greater among mature students, they continue to demonstrate greater need for learning support.
The stage 3 analysis will identify the influences of the generally more clinically focused second year of study on the students conceptions. The implications of all the findings for physiotherapy education will be discussed.
Boulton-Lewis, G (1998) Applying the SOLO taxonomy to learning in higher education In: Dart, B and Boulton-Lewis, G Teaching and learning in higher education Melbourne, ACER
Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (1996) Curriculum Framework London, Chartered Society of Physiotherapy
Meyer, J H F and Boulton-Lewis, G (1997) The association between university students' perceived influences on their learning and their knowledge, experience, and conceptions, of learning 7th EARLI Conference, Athens, Greece
Prosser, M and Trigwell, K (1999) Understanding teaching and learning in higher education Buckingham, Open University Press