Paul Ginns

  • Associations between postgraduate research students’ experiences and learning outcomes.

    Paul Ginns(1), Paul Ramsden(1) and Linda Conrad(2)

    1. University of Sydney, Australia
    2. Griffith University, Australia

    Research paper

    Themes: managing change and innovation, institutional strategies

    Modern universities are responsible for the stewardship of an extremely diverse range of postgraduate research students. Within this diversity, are there similarities between students in how they perceive quality of research training?

    Although there is considerable evidence that undergraduate students’ experiences influence their approaches to studying and subsequent learning outcomes, the effects of postgraduate research students’ experiences on outcomes have not been systematically studied. This study aimed to test a structural model of the research student experience, examining the relative importance of supervision and support, clarity of goals and expectations, research climate, and infrastructure, in predicting outcomes of skill development, overall satisfaction and completion rates.

    The sample consisted of 3137 research students in 15 Australian universities. Students completed surveys of their experiences and the estimated frequency of types of supervision. We used multilevel statistical modeling of the outcome variables to determine the impact of hierarchical levels (broad field of study => university => department => student) in the data, which could violate assumptions made in the analyses. The presence of such design effects was found to be negligible. We used structural equation modelling to test models relating students’ perceptions of supervisory and contextual factors to their perceptions of degree outcomes. Similarities and differences between groups of students (e.g. gender, age, field of study) in the fit of the hypothesised model will be examined and discussed.

    FIgure 1: structural model of RHD student's perception
    FIgure 1: structural model of RHD student's perception

    We sought additional evidence of the validity of the constructs investigated in the present study by examining departmental completion rates. For 67 departments for which data were available, we correlated the aggregate student context scale scores for each department with the average 1997 (Masters research and doctorate) departmental completion rate. The correlation between predictor and outcome was not significant for perceptions of supervision (r = .20, p = .113), nor clarity of goals (r = -.11, p = .367); was marginally significant for frequency of informal peer supervision (r = .23, p = .057); and was significant for perceptions of climate (r = .32, p = .009) and infrastructure (r = .42, p < .001), frequency of face-to-face meetings (r = .50, p < .001) and frequency of group meetings (r = .41, p = .001). These aggregate level results provide further evidence of the validity of the instrument scales, as the completion rates were derived from a cohort that preceded the survey cohort.

    These results provide evidence that, consistent with theoretical models derived from studies of coursework students, research students’ experiences of the context of learning are associated with their learning outcomes and rates of completion.