Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Insights into undergraduate learning by first year science students

Anne Mathews
Plant Science Department, Faculty of Agriculture
The University of Western Australia
This study explores the learning strategies employed by undergraduate science students at the University of Western Australia by examining the responses of 335 students in the Human Biology 100 unit. From this research it was found that most students could concentrate for 30 minutes or longer at a time; preferred to study at night; in silence; and individually rather than in groups. In terms of preparing for study: 84% indicated that they supplement their lecture notes with additional reading; 40% rewrite lecture notes; and 61% make summaries of their notes. It was interesting to note that in terms of revising and studying for examinations, a large proportion of the class said that they did not make a revision timetable; did not know how to do a final revision; and left their study to the last minute; but would look at past examination papers. A large majority of the students indicated that they did endeavour to understand their study material rather than memorise it and did find the time to pursue a sport, hobby or an extracurricular activity. In light of these findings strategies for learning effectively in first year will be discussed in this paper.


The major function of university education is to increase students' capacity to learn and deal with new information as well as to analyse problems critically. Teaching in higher education should aim to train students to think and work independently. Therefore, regardless of the degree being undertaken, a university degree should train students in learning 'how to think' and should equip them with problem-solving skills, analytical skills and information processing skills. In the past, efforts to reform science education have focussed on course materials and teaching enhancements (Tobias, 1992). Subsequently, research has indicated that what makes science difficult to learn are 'the pace, attitudes of the lecturers and fellow students, unexplained assumptions and conventions, examination design, grading practices, class size, exclusive presentation of new material by means of lecture, and the absence of community' (Tobias, 1992).

A student entering a university is faced with the challenge of making major adjustments to one's life both socially and academically (Mathews, 1998). For many students entry to university involves a huge change in their way of life as they are expected to be independent and take greater responsibility for their education. Commonly, however, students enter university with little relevant learning strategies and skills to enable them to make optimum use of learning opportunities available to them. Study skills of students such as reading, writing, time management, revising for examinations are taken for granted and receive little or no attention (Beard and Hartley, 1984). Students need personal and practical help to make this transition into tertiary education rapid and efficient. In addition, a positive outlook, commitment, hard work and effective study habits are essential to succeed at university and to achieve the best results. This can be summed up in the words of a student who contributed to this research, "you have to want to succeed, and if you want to succeed, you'll make sure you take good notes, attend lectures and tutorials and work hard."

Studying at university is different from school

University life is in general very different from school. However, some aspects of learning are similar at school and university such as attending classes, paying attention in class and working consistently and effectively. Therefore, having established good study habits at school, studying at the university can be relatively easier with some adjustments to the different styles of teaching and learning at the university. On the other hand, if a student has relied heavily on the teachers to get through school, major adjustments will have to be made at the university. In order to understand students' views on this aspect, the following responses obtained from students in science and engineering at the University of Western Australia indicate the difference between studying at school and at university.
You have to be more independent at the university. In most cases, it is up to you to study, complete your assignments and ensure that you have understood the subject matter. The lecturers will teach and point you in the right direction, but it is you who do the work.

You have to be well organised and learn to manage your own time. No one will tell you what to do each day. How you manage your time will determine whether you have time for a social life or not.

The amount of learning you do is entirely up to you. In a sense, this is good because you have a lot more freedom, but there is no one to check on your 'homework' and there is no one making sure you are coping with the course.

The research

In order to gain an understanding of private study and revision strategies used by first year undergraduate science students, 335 students (of a class of 475 students enrolled in the first year Human Biology 100 unit at the University of Western Australia) were surveyed in 1998. A questionnaire was designed to gain an insight into the learning strategies of first year undergraduate students. Students were surveyed on aspects of private study and revision strategies including:

Study habits

From this research it was observed that the majority (85%) of the students indicated that they could concentrate for 30 minutes or longer at a time. In terms of the best time of the day/night for study, 73% of the students showed a strong preference for night time study. Students also showed a strong preference for study in silence (66%) compared with studying with music in the background. One of the effective ways of enhancing learning is the sharing of ideas with others in a group study situation. Group study encourages students to improve learning strategies, such as explaining concepts and ideas. However, in this research it was clear that almost all of the students preferred to study individually rather than in groups. It is quite clear that the study habits of students vary and each student has to find their own preferred study strategy.

Preparation for study

Students obtain a large proportion of their information from lectures. Taking adequate lecture notes is a cause of concern to many students. They are uncertain whether to take down complete notes or to concentrate on listening to the lecturer and make brief notes; to rewrite notes neatly after a lecture; or to supplement notes with additional reading (Beard and Hartley, 1984). From this research it was found that 40% of the students would rewrite lecture notes and 84% indicated that they supplement their lecture notes with additional reading. There are two main reasons why students take notes in lectures: note-taking helps recall at a later date and helps during revision for examinations. Therefore, a complete and good set of notes is invaluable for understanding the information disseminated during the lecture and for revision at examination times.

The results obtained in this research also indicate that 61% of the students make summaries of their notes to assist them in preparing for examinations. Writing summaries and highlighting key concepts and ideas are useful ways of increasing students' understanding of the lecture. In addition, the process of writing the summary assists in informing students about the understanding of the content of lectures and in providing feedback on the adequacy of their notes (Chalmers and Fuller, 1995).

Studying for examinations

In this research about 52% of the students said that they did not know how to make a revision timetable and 66% did not know how to do a final revision. Drawing up a revision timetable is an important way of organising revision time. Inclusion of adequate time for rest and relaxation in the revision timetable is important. Likewise, it is advisable to revise topics from different areas and not just one area at a time, so as to enable integration of the material (Beard and Hartley, 1984). The best preparation for examinations is daily and consistent revision of lectures and tutorials throughout the semester. However, it was surprising to note that in this research, 55% of the students said that they would leave their study to the last minute. In the words of Fontana (1981), "Phased revision leads to a growing mastery of the whole course as students work their way through it, with each new piece of knowledge being placed in its proper context. When it comes to final examination preparation the student is therefore looking back over material that has already been over learnt". On the other hand, memorising might enable the student to pass the examination, but a lot of what is learnt is quickly forgotten and unlikely to be retained in the long run (Maddox, 1963).

Most of the students surveyed (93%) indicated that they would look at past examination papers. Some of the likely reasons why students examine past examination papers is: to gain an understanding of the duration of the examination, time allocated for each question, the number of questions that must be answered, the type of questions asked be they multiple choice, short essay type or long essay type. Some students try to gauge which questions get repeated by inspecting a number of question papers from the previous year. However, this method of guessing questions that might appear in the examination is risky. On the other hand, listing what has been covered in the lectures and deciding on which issues are the most important is a more advised strategy (Beard and Hartley, 1984).

Eighty five per cent of the students indicated that they did attempt to understand their lectures and study material rather than memorise it. Understanding the information in lectures and textbooks involves making sense or meaning of the information presented. It enables the students to integrate the information learned and, if appropriate, apply it to the real world. On the other hand, memorising information involves the storing of information to be reproduced in the examination without necessarily understanding the content of the information. This results in the reproduction of isolated pieces of knowledge.

Extracurricular activities

Of the students surveyed in this research, 95% of the students indicated that they did find time to pursue a sport, hobby or an extracurricular activity. In the words of a student, "keep it in moderation, there are times for fun and also times when you have to work." Students have many demands on their time such as social activities and recreation besides studying. Therefore, managing their time by setting priorities and scheduling enough time to allow them to meet these priorities is a important aspect of student life particularly when the workload is heavy.

Appropriate learning strategies

This research has shed light on the nature of learning and preparation for examinations by first year undergraduate science students. Several key areas in undergraduate learning by first year science students have been identified where there is room for improvement. These include: note-making, time management, making a revision timetable, daily revision of lectures and a final revision. These deficiencies can be met by conducting appropriate workshops for students in these areas. This will enable a more efficient and smoother transition into tertiary education.

Strategies for improving first year undergraduate learning can be summarised in the following words of advice provided by the science and engineering students at the University of Western Australia:

  1. Avoid having to cram for examinations, so try and keep up to date with all your work and revise regularly.

  2. I never study heaps. I try to do a little each night and on weekends. Remember: a little added to a little will make a pile. This left plenty of time for work or socialising, but not for both.

  3. Set aside times for doing homework as well as study and revision. Try to summarise different topics within a subject and see how topics connect.

  4. The best advice I can give it to complete work and assignments as you go, make summaries and move on.

  5. There is no time nor room in your head to learn new things before exams, but merely time to revise and refresh what you have learned.

  6. Take good notes in lectures, read relevant points of the textbook, discuss problems with friends/tutors,work through past exam. papers.

  7. Take up a sport (cycling, running or gym work) then a shower before uni. will wake you up for your first lecture.


I would like to thank the first year undergraduate students in Human Biology 100 and the Science and Engineering students who participated in this. Dr. Geoffrey Thomas is thanked for valuable discussions.


Beard, R. and Hartley, J. (1984). Teaching and learning in higher education. Fourth Edition. (Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd.).

Chalmers, D. and Fuller, R. (1995). Teaching for Learning at University. Edith Cowan University.

Fontana, D. (1981). Psychology for Teachers. London: Macmillan.

Maddox, H. (1963). How to study. London: Pan.

Mathews, A. (1998). Teaching and learning of science in a large class situation. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 194-198. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/pubs/tlf/tlf98/mathews-b.html

Tobias, S. (1992). Revitalising undergraduate science. Why some things work and most don't. Research Corporation. Arizona.

Please cite as: Mathews, A. (1999). Insights into undergraduate learning by first year science students. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 262-266. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/mathews.html

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