Poppy Turner

  • Undergraduate learning at programme level: an analysis of students’ perspectives

    Poppy Turner, University of Bath, UK

    Session 1e, Monday 15.45

    Research paper

    Themes addressed:

    • Teaching methods
    • Course and programme design
    • Supporting learners

    This research aimed to understand undergraduate learning at programme level. Seventy graduates and undergraduates contributed perceptions of their learning opportunities while studying Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) at the University of Bath between 1994 and 2005. The researcher had herself been an undergraduate of MCB, as a mature student, before undertaking her doctoral study.

    The methodology was qualitative, involving open dialogue (face to face and by email) whereby students’ concerns dictated the agenda, rather than those of the researcher. Students contributed what was of interest or significance to them, what mattered to them about their undergraduate learning experiences. Students were both willing and able to describe their perceptions of a range of learning experiences. Resulting data were rich and varied and included students’ perceptions of their lectures, practical courses, tutorials, placements, student seminars, workload and feedback.

    Initial research suggested that learning from professional work placements could be especially significant and placements were the initial focus of the project. Research questions crystallised in the following areas: ‘What is the nature of placement learning?’, ‘How does it come about?’ and ‘How does it compare with learning from university-based learning opportunities?’ Research data suggested a strong link between the nature of work in which students were involved and the nature of their placement learning. Opportunities to engage in worthwhile projects provided the impetus for deep and transformational learning while routine work led to little more than the acquisition of skills. The nature of supervision and the ethos of the placement institution also influenced student learning.

    Preliminary data suggested that undergraduate learning could best be understood through analysis using Socio-cultural and Activity theories of learning (SCAT) but this did not explain the disparity which can occur between intended learning outcomes, envisaged by the University, and the learning actually reported by students. Data from a four year longitudinal study was, therefore, analysed using a fusion between SCAT and Theories of Action (comparison between theories espoused by the University and theories in use, experienced by students).

    The department espouses high quality teaching and learning support yet analysis of its student data showed that opportunities to engage in meaningful activity, good supervision and a supportive culture were often lacking. Some lectures and practical courses were seen as ‘a waste of time’ and students felt unsupported, ‘in a muddle all the way through’. In addition, students reported feeling stressed (‘panic’, ‘anxiety’) and overloaded with assessment tasks: ‘they conspire to stop you reading’, ‘pushes some of my studies away’. Under these conditions students reported learning little.

    This marriage between SCAT and Theories of Action seems to have provided an informative approach to analysing undergraduate learning in a variety of situations, at university and on placement. In particular, it seems to reveal some of the reasons why students sometimes reported learning little from potential learning opportunities and hence provides some clues to areas which could be enhanced.