Ellen Jansen

  • Learning environment and its influence on the acquisition of generic skills in biology, pharmacy and life science and technology students

    Ellen Jansen, J Steur, A van Trigt and M Ossevoort 
    University of Groningen

    Research seminar

    Theme: learning environments

    Is there a difference in the achieved level of generic skills after one year of study within different learning environments? In this study a comparison is made between three life science bachelor programs in the Netherlands that are based on different learning and teaching philosophies.

    Academic learning yields domain-specific skills and generic skills (e.g. Allen and De Vries, 2001; Lizzio et al., 2002; Wilson and Lizzio, 1997). Domain-specific skills are skills that are directly related to the field of study, like theories, specific research methods and knowledge. Generic skills are skills that are not directly related to the field of study. However, there is close interaction between these two types of skills. Generic skills are critical thinking, lifelong learning, scholarship and global citizenship (Barrie, 2004; Ten Dam and Volman, 2004). Generic skills can be further divided into different aspects, viz. practical skills, critical thinking skills and social skills (Billing, 2003; Cheung, et al., 2002; De la Harpe, Radloff and Wyber, 2000, Tait and Godfrey, 1999).

    The importance of skills, and especially generic skills, can be told from the Bologna Declaration (QANU, 2004). This declaration is a European agreement that states which skills students should have acquired after finishing either their bachelor or their master program. These so-called Dublin descriptors point out which skills should be acquired, but it does not prescribe the way these skills have to be assessed.


    We distinguish between two kinds of aspects that influence the level of acquired generic skills (Biggs, 1999). First, teaching context based aspects which yield among others teaching quality and assessment methods. Second, student based aspects, here we focus at motivational aspects in particular. In this study four questions will be investigated.

    • Is there a difference in students’ perceptions of the learning environment (including assessment) in which they study?
    • In which way does a presumed difference become apparent?
    • Is there a difference in the level of generic skills acquired between students from the three bachelor programs?
    • Which aspects of the learning environment or intrinsic motivation have an influence on the acquisition of generic skills in the different bachelor programs?

    Instruments used to measure the learning environment, including the types of assessment are derived from the Course Experience Questionnaire (Ramsden, 1991; Wilson and Lizzio, 1997) : the good teaching scale (GTS), the clear goals and standards scale (CGS), the appropriate workload scale (AWS) and the appropriate assessment scale (AAS). The perceived differences in learning environment were measured by an additional set of questions. Students had to state whether a particular activity had been part of their program so far.

    In order to measure motivational aspects we used the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (Ryan, 1982). This instrument consists of four subscales: Interest/enjoyment, perceived competence, perceived choice, pressure/tension

    Generic skills , the depend variable in this study, is measured by using the generic skills scale (GSS) of the Course Experience Questionnaire.


    Students from the different programs claim having performed different activities. Their perceptions of some parts of the learning environment, as measured with the CEQ subscales, seem to differ as well. We found that students perceived differences on the aspects Clear Goals and Standards and Appropriate Workload.

    The level of generic skills students acquired measured by the Generic Skills Scale from the Course Experience Questionnaire differed also between students in the three study programs. Furthermore, in the three study programs we found different aspects that have an effect on generic skill acquisition for different programs. The differences account both teaching context based aspects and student based aspects. LS&T students came across activities that involved social skills more often than students of the other programs, especially activities that involved cooperation. Biology students report activities that involve assessment more often than other students. They also report more often activities that deepened their understanding of the subject, which involves critical thinking skills. Pharmacy students more often mention having had the opportunity of doing an example exam. This involves learning skills, which we have viewed as practical skills. These results are in line with the descriptions of the learning environments of the three different programs.

    An interesting point for discussion will be the used instruments. For example, the reliability of the scales of the CEQ differed between the three programs. It seems that the usability of the instruments depends on the learning environment.

    Implications for practice

    To make a teaching and learning philosophy successful it is necessary to use types of assessment that corresponds with the demands the study aims at (Biggs, 1999) It is clear that the way students are assessed is a strong steering mechanism for students’ study behaviour (Norton, Tilley, Newstead and Franklyn-Stokes, 2001). In higher education the traditional type of assessment seems to promote a surface approach in student learning (Brown, 1997). If lecturers preach to design and teach according the new philosophy, but they assess students traditionally the effects of the new teaching and learning concept will diminish. Therefore, it is important to pay a lot of attention to the use of assessment in order to promote the type of learning or skills acquisition the departments have in mind.


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