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Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 [ Refereed papers ]
Student engagement in human biology practical sessions

Kasie Mearns, Jan Meyer and Avinash Bharadwaj
School of Anatomy and Human Biology
The University of Western Australia

Student engagement in their studies is a crucial influence on their academic achievement. When a unit is restructured, opportunities for this engagement may be lost. Human Structure and Development 2212 was created in 2004, an amalgamation of two smaller units. It is heavily practically based and it was determined that formal feedback was needed, in the form of questionnaires, to determine whether practical components of this unit were reaching their targets. It was discovered in this study that the students' perception of their tutors approachability and sensitivity, along with their perception of class organisation, was vital to their participation in the sessions. It was also found that the time of day or week that the survey was implemented had significant effects on student attitudes. Findings from this study have important implications both on the future direction of this unit and on the future implementation of Student Perception of Teaching (SPOT) surveys conducted in universities.


Introduction

Restructuring is a central concept of teaching within the university setting. Growth and development of units, to incorporate new learning methods, technology and theories is crucial to maintain the relevance and importance of the given course. Such a scenario evolved in Human Structure and Development 2212 (HSD 2212), a restructured second year Human Biology unit at the University of Western Australia. It was decided, three years after the unit's implementation that a formal method of feedback, namely this study, was required to determine whether the components of this new unit, particularly the practical sessions, were running smoothly and to identify areas that could be modified to maximise student engagement.

HSD 2212 was first taught in 2004, replacing an anatomy and a histology unit. HSD 2212 has two one hour lectures per week and three one hour practical sessions per week which are taken over a single day. The practical sessions consist of a one hour anatomy laboratory, where students examine human cadaveric material and anatomical images and models, a one hour histology laboratory, where students examine cells and tissues microscopically and in computer lead tutorials, and a one hour tutorial with minimal physical resources and set questions to discuss. Six sessions of each are run simultaneously over six hours in a single day. Practical session material reinforces that covered in the lectures. Demonstrators teach either four histology or four anatomy laboratories on the given day, depending on their expertise, and also conduct two tutorials. Attendance at all three practical sessions is compulsory each week, though students select their attendance times at the beginning of the semester. In 2006, 310 students were enrolled in the unit and 12 demonstrators were employed for the practical sessions. Demonstrators are supplied with student laboratory manuals and were given worked answers for the majority of questions within the manual, with attention paid to difficult concepts. Professional development or experience other than having completed a similar unit in undergraduate studies was not a requirement of employment as a demonstrator.

It has been noted, in previous studies, that there are several key characteristics that contribute to being perceived as a "good" educator (McLean, 2001; Sander, Stevenson, King, & Coats, 2000).These include approachability, good communication skills, knowledge of the topic, relatedness to the students and having a good guide in the teaching environment. McLean (2001) also noted some characteristics of "good" students, such as assuming responsibility, being motivated and interacting with other students and the teachers. These factors were all addressed in this study.

Methods

The questionnaire was based of the UWA SPOT surveys. Questions addressed students' opinion on the organisation of the unit, the assistance of the tutors and the suitability of the course material, both during the week when the questionnaire was distributed and across the semester. This was answered on a 5-point Likert scale. There was also space for written feedback on the best aspects of the unit and those that needed improvement. The questionnaires only addressed the practical session.

A trial questionnaire was distributed to a single class of 25 students during week 11 of Semester One, 2006. Comments from this group were used to modify the questionnaire structure. The edited version was distributed to all attending students (n=310) during their practical session in weeks 12 and 13 and were collected at the end of the class or returned to a sealed box. Week 13 questionnaires also included questions addressing the practical sessions across the semester. Questionnaires were allocated a letter to distinguish their tutorial group and a number to distinguish between returned questionnaires. Students were not identifiable from their responses and their future course directions were not recorded. Attendance in individual sessions across these weeks ranged from 21-49 students in Anatomy Practicals, 19-59 students in Histology Practicals and 17-56 students in Tutorials.

Frequencies and cross-tabulations of data were undertaken using GENSTAT (VSN International Ltd.) and SPSS (SPSS Inc.). A p-value of 0.05 or less was used to indicate statistical significance. p-values stated throughout the results are from chi squared analysis, unless otherwise indicated. Pearson Correlations were performed to determine the relationship between a variety of student responses. For the purpose of significance testing in this paper, answers on the 5 point Likert scale were converted to a 3 point Likert scale, combining positive and negative responses into single variables for the ease of initial analysis. The response scale was then "disagree", "neutral" and "agree", creating a single positive statement.

Results

Variation with type of session

Overall, Anatomy and Tutorial sessions were regarded in a similar way and more positively than Histology sessions. When examining the data as a whole, a greater percentage of students "strongly agreed" to positive statements regarding Tutorial practical sessions than for other classes (see Figure 1). Student responses to positive statements regarding Histology practical sessions were most common in the "Strongly Disagree", "Disagree" and "Neutral" categories, while responses to Tutorial sessions were most commonly "Agree" or "Strongly Agree".

Figure 1

Figure 1: Overall levels of Student agreement to positive statements regarding practical Sessions (n=516)

Variation with week

Students' assessment of the quality of teaching varied from week to week. Student perceptions of Tutorial organisation, of Tutor preparation and of their own understanding of learning expectations was higher in week 12 than in weeks 11 and 13 (see Figure 2, 3, and 4 respectively). In contrast, the students' rating of their motivation to do their best work in Histology was at its lowest in week 12 (see Figure 5). The students' perception that the week's practical topic fitted logically into the progression of the course also varied from week to week (see Figure 6). Students were more likely to rate the anatomy laboratory manual as appropriate to their learning style in the later weeks (see Figure 7).

Figure 2

Figure 2: Percentage of Students reporting that Practical Sessions were organised by Week
(week 11 n=25, week 12 n= 171, week 13 n=160, semester n=160)
Tutorial: p<0.001, chi squared (3)=22.251

Figure 3

Figure 3: Percentage of Students reporting that Tutors were prepared by Week
(week 11 n=25, week 12 n= 171, week 13 n=160, semester n=160)
Tutorial: p=0.030, chi squared (3)=8.919

Figure 4

Figure 4: Percentage of Students reporting that they understood what they were expected
to learn by Week (week 11 n=25, week 12 n= 171, week 13 n=160, semester n=160)
Tutorial: p<0.001, chi squared (2)=23.588

Figure 5

Figure 5: Percentage of students who were motivated to do their best work by Week
(week 11 n=25, week 12 n= 171, week 13 n=160, semester n=160)
Histology: p=0.022, chi squared (3)=9.642

Figure 6

Figure 6: Percentage of Students reporting that Practical Sessions were presented in a
logical order by Week (week 11 n=25, week 12 n= 171, week 13 n=160, semester n=160)
Anatomy: p<0.001, chi squared (3)=23.800 Histology: p=0.003, chi squared (3)=14.231
Tutorial: p=0.008, chi squared (3)=11.817

Figure 7

Figure 7: Percentage of Students reporting that the laboratory manual was appropriate
to their learning style by Week (week 11 n=25, week 12 n= 171, week 13 n=160)
Anatomy: p=0.001, chi squared (2)=12.105,

Variation with time of day

Student responses in the study also varied depending on the time of day that they attended their practical classes, irrespective of week. Student perception of the practical session organisation of was lowest in the early morning classes in Anatomy and Tutorial sessions and significantly higher at the end of the day (see Figure 8). A similar pattern was seen in their perception of the approachability (see Figure 11) and preparedness of teaching staff (see Figure 12). This variation in the perception of classes was not seen in relation to Histology classes. Their view of the quality of classes and tutors was mirrored in their attested motivation to do their best work (see Figure 9) and to contribute to their classes more often in the afternoon (see Figure 10).

Figure 8

Figure 8: Percentage of Students reporting that Practical Sessions were organised by
Time of Day (8am n=57, 9am n=89, 10am n=95, 11am n=95, 12pm n=67 1pm n=40)
Anatomy: p<0.001, chi squared (6)=40.767, Tutorial: p<0.001, chi squared (6)=34.544

Figure 9

Figure 9: Percentage of students who were motivated to do their best work by
Time of Day (8am n=57, 9am n=89, 10am n=95, 11am n=95, 12pm n=67 1pm n=40)
Anatomy: p<0.001, chi squared (6)=34.541 Tutorial: p<0.001, chi squared (6)=28.488

Figure 10

Figure 10: Percentage of Students who were willing to offer opinions and ask questions in their
Practical Sessions by Time of Day (8am n=57, 9am n=89, 10am n=95, 11am n=95, 12pm n=67 1pm n=40)
Anatomy: p=0.002, chi squared (6)=21.115, Tutorial: p=0.026, chi squared (6)=14.345

Figure 11

Figure 11: Percentage of Students reporting that their Tutors were approachable by
Time of Day (8am n=57, 9am n=89, 10am n=95, 11am n=95, 12pm n=67 1pm n=40)
Anatomy: p=0.001, chi squared (6)=21.715, Tutorial: p=0.006, chi squared (6)=18.166

Figure 12

Figure 12: Percentage of Students reporting that Tutors were well prepared by
Time of Day (8am n=57, 9am n=89, 10am n=95, 11am n=95, 12pm n=67 1pm n=40)
Anatomy: p=0.004, chi squared (6)=19.273, Tutorial: p=0.038, chi squared (6)=13.356

The students' perception that tutors were sensitive to their difficulties also varied with time of day in each of the types of practical sessions, though in a slightly different pattern (see Figure 13). Again, students saw Anatomy tutors in the 8am classes as less perceptive of their difficulties, while those at 1pm were most perceptive (p<0.001, chi squared (6)=41.898). There was, however, a mid-morning low point not seen when examining other measures. Perceptions of tutor sensitivity in Histology decreased from a maximum at 8am, to a minimum at 11am, bouncing back at 12pm and 1pm (p=0.007, chi squared (6)=17.633). In tutorials, tutors were most frequently seen as perceptive at 11am and 12pm, and to be least perceptive at 9am and 1pm (p=0.002, chi squared (6)=21.244).

Figure 13

Figure 13: Percentage of Students reporting that their Tutors are sensitive to their difficulties
with Time of Day (8am n=57, 9am n=89, 10am n=95, 11am n=95, 12pm n=67 1pm n=40)

A similar pattern was seen in the Students' enjoyment of the Anatomy practical sessions. Again, there was a low point for Students attending at 8am, slumping further in mid morning and improving again by the afternoon (p=0.013, chi squared (6)=16.093, see Figure 14)

Figure 14

Figure 14: Percentage of Students reporting that they enjoyed their Practical Session
with Time of Day (8am n=57, 9am n=89, 10am n=95, 11am n=95, 12pm n=67 1pm n=40)

Relationships between student responses

A strong correlation exists between responses given in relation to the three elements of the practical session (see Table 3). That is, students reporting positive experiences in an Anatomy session were also likely to report positive experiences in Tutorial or Histology sessions. While there is significance in the consistency of ratings across the different sessions, it is not an overwhelming trend. That is, the students are discriminating between the classes and are not entirely influenced by a previous experience when making a new evaluation.

Table 1: Pearson Correlations of Student Responses between Practical Classes


HistologyTutorial
AnatomyResponsible for Own Learning
(n=150)
0.727**0.707**
Motivated to do Best work
(n=485 and 486 respectively)
0.398**0.484**
Perception of Session Importance
(n=151)
0.371**0.379**
Expression of Opinions
(n=484 and 488 Respectively)
0.246**0.345**
Enjoy Sessions
(n=149 and 148 Respectively)
0.244*0.298**
TutorialResponsible for Own Learning
(n=151)
0.554**
Motivated to do Best work
(n=490)
0.338**
Perception of Session Importance
(n=152)
0.332**
Expression of Opinions
(n=146)
0.146*
Enjoy Sessions
(n=150)
0.125
* Correlation is significant at the p<0.05 level
** Correlation is significant at the p<0.001level

When examining the relationship between responses, it can be seen that students' reported feelings about their learning vary with both their ratings of their tutor and general class issues (see Tables 2 and 3). Having a tutor perceived to be approachable, well prepared and sensitive to their needs appears to make the student committed at least to the idea of working harder and getting more out of the practical session. A well structured set of sessions also positively influences the students' enjoyment of and engagement with their learning. It does appear, on the basis of the strengths of the correlations however, that in general the perception of the tutor has a greater influence on the students' work than the class structure.

When examining these correlations more closely, the greatest influence on the students' engagement can be determined. Tutor preparation for class and the perceived organisation for the session are of the greatest influence to the students' feeling of responsibility for their own learning and for their perception of the session importance. Perceived session organisation is also important to the students' reported motivation to do their best work and their enjoyment of their sessions, along with tutor sensitivity to student difficulties. Students were most likely to report that they were able to express their own opinions in class if they believed the tutor to be approachable and that the tutor was, again, sensitive to their problems.

Table 2: Pearson Correlations of Student related and Tutor related responses


Tutor approachabilityTutor preparationTutor sensitivity to
student difficulty
Student variablesAHTAHTAHT
Responsible for own learning0.392**
(n=150)
0.318**
(n=151)
0.357**
(n=152)
0.564**
(n=150)
0.329**
(n=151)
0.387**
(n=152)
0.355**
(n=150)
0.284**
(n=151)
0.449**
(n=152)
Motivation to do best work0.361**
(n=485)
0.264**
(n=489)
0.397**
(n=498)
0.396**
(n=483)
0.340**
(n=488)
0.369**
(n=501)
0.482**
(n=482)
0.404**
(n=488)
0.418**
(n=499)
Perception of session importance0.438**
(n=150)
0.409**
(n=151)
0.490**
(n=152)
0.367**
(n=150)
0.348**
(n=151)
0.572**
(n=152)
0.428**
(n=150)
0.406**
(n=151)
0.493**
(n=152)
Expression of opinions0.500**
(n=485)
0.414**
(n=487)
0.580**
(n=499)
0.353**
(n=485)
0.295**
(n=487)
0.384**
(n=502)
0.429**
(n=482)
0.426**
(n=486)
0.441**
(n=499)
Enjoyment of session0.413**
(n=148)
0.282**
(n=150)
0.451**
(n=150)
0.349**
(n=148)
0.363**
(n=150)
0.453**
(n=150)
0.448**
(n=148)
0.480**
(n=150)
0.462**
(n=150)
A = Anatomy, H = Histology, T = Tutorial
** Correlation is significant at the p<0.001 level

Table 3: Pearson Correlations of Student related and Class related responses


Organisation of sessionConnection between
theory and practical
Logical sequence of practical sessions
Student variablesAHTAHTAHT
Responsible for own learning0.483**
(n=150)
0.340**
(n=151)
0.342**
(n=152)
0.470**
(n=150)
0.368**
(n=151)
0.411**
(n=151)
0.339**
(n=150)
0.260**
(n=151)
0.333**
(n=152)
Motivation to do best work0.459**
(n=482)
0.425**
(n=491)
0.403**
(n=499)
0.364**
(n=481)
0.296**
(n=486)
0.347**
(n=495)
0.297**
(n=479)
0.230**
(n=481)
0.315**
(n=490)
Perception of session importance0.487**
(n=151)
0.214*
(n=152)
0.560**
(n=153)
0.440**
(n=150)
0.322**
(n=151)
0.465**
(n=151)
0.322**
(n=150)
0.316**
(n=151)
0.337**
(n=152)
Expression of opinions0.423**
(n=485)
0.334**
(n=490)
0.397**
(n=500)
0.303**
(n=481)
0.301**
(n=484)
0.284**
(n=497)
0.258**
(n=479)
0.155*
(n=480)
0.308**
(n=491)
Enjoyment of session0.557**
(n=149)
0.447**
(n=151)
0.662**
(n=151)
0.299**
(n=148)
0.316**
(n=150)
0.406**
(n=149)
0.286**
(n=148)
0.352**
(n=150)
0.442**
(n=150)
A = Anatomy, H = Histology, T = Tutorial
* Correlation is significant at the p<0.05 level
** Correlation is significant at the p<0.001 level

Discussion

This study aimed to better clarify students' perception of practical session teaching HSD2212, a second year Human Biology unit, by use of a series of questionnaires. This information would be used to identify areas of strength and weakness and to allow for improvement of the practical sessions. It was found that, in general, Tutorial sessions were rated the most positively, followed by Anatomy practical sessions and Histology practical sessions. There was consistency between the classes in some areas, with approachability of tutors being rated similarly and at a high level across the practical sessions.

Motivation for students to do their best work was below 20% in some classes (see Figure 5), while students' responsibility for their own learning was lower than 50%. This may be due to a student perception that being an independent learner is not important to being a "good" student (McLean, 2001). This perception could be changed by implementing the "Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education" (Chickering & Gamson, 1987), which encourage active learning to "make what they are learning a part of themselves". Finding their own way to apply their new knowledge to their own lives may provide the motivation they need for academic achievement.

Interesting trends were seen when responses were correlated. Student perception of Tutor approachability was significantly correlated with a wide range of variables, such as enjoyment of the sessions and perception of session importance, further emphasising the importance of approachability of teaching staff in a practical setting. This finding supports that by Mclean (2001) who found that medical students ranked approachability as the second most important attribute of a "good educator", behind being a good communicator. Tutor quality has also been shown to by Bennett (2003) to be crucial to student motivation and, in turn, to student retention and thus must be prioritised in co-ordinating practical sessions.

These correlations highlight the need to increase student engagement in HSD2212. It was shown that the style of the tutor and the students' perception of session organisation were highly influential to student engagement in these practical classes. The students appear to need greater support in the practical sessions to better commit themselves to their learning. This may be achieved by increasing student-teacher contact, one of the "Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education" (Chickering & Gamson, 1987). The knowledge that staff members are there to support their educational experience, rather than being viewed as textbooks, may increase student motivation and enhance their engagement in classes. The importance of the interaction between the teaching style of the tutor and the structure of the practical session needs to be acknowledged. A class structure such as that in 2212 Histology practical sessions does not allow the opportunity for warmth and engagement between student and tutor offered in Tutorial and Anatomy sessions.

Also evident from the correlations was the trend for a student to judge the different elements of the practical class similarly. Therefore, if a student rates Histology sessions as well organised, they are likely to also rank Anatomy and Tutorial sessions as well organised. This has important implications to the further development of this unit as it indicates that if a student has a negative experience in one part of the practical class, it will negatively influence their experiences in other parts. This may be an example of a self fulfilling prophecy, where an individual's expectations will influence an outcome (Merton, 1957). Though this theory is normally reserved for teachers' expectations of students, in this case it appears to be relevant for students' expectations of teaching. To avoid this from occurring, the practical session teaching must be viewed as a single unit, rather than three separate sessions, to maximise the learning experience of the students.

Conclusions

It is clear from this study that there are many opportunities that can be taken to improve student engagement in HSD2212. Histology sessions in particular would benefit from restructuring. The traditional style of Histology sessions is structured around individual and independent learning, with minimal interaction with teaching staff. From this research, it can be seen that the practical sessions with more student-teacher interaction are regarded positively. In future years, Histology classes may need to move away from the conventional and include more group related and tutor structured activities. This move would be supported by the "Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education" (Chickering & Gamson, 1987), which names student-faculty interaction and co-operation between students as vital for high levels of academic achievement.

Organisation of practical sessions was revealed to be highly influential to student engagement. Though the same sessions are run throughout the day and are highly co-ordinated with an experienced support team, it may be that the pace at which the classes are run creates a feeling of insecurity and disorganisation in the students. Steps can be made to ease these feelings, by maintaining a more relaxed atmosphere in the sessions and ensuring that all resources are fully prepared prior to the first class beginning.

Creating a team environment amongst teaching staff may further improve the learning experience of the student. Regular meetings to discuss the day-to-day aspects of the unit and enabling tutors and other support staff to share their opinions and experiences with senior staff may also improve the student perception of unit organisation. Discussions within these meetings, perhaps combined with professional development, could create new strategies to improve the perception of tutor approachability and sensitivity towards the students and create a more flexible learning environment, able to adapt to changing student needs.

This study has also had implications for the execution of SPOT surveys. The time of day and week that surveys were implemented had a marked effect on student responses, therefore formal SPOT testing may paint an inaccurate picture of students' perceptions based on when the questionnaires were taken. It may be that, in the future, time of day should be taken into account when analysing SPOTs, especially at unpopular class times such as 8am or around lunchtime. It may also be worth asking students explicitly about how they feel time of day influences their affects experiences.

References

Bennett, R. (2003). Determinants of undergraduate student drop out rates in a university business studies department. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 27(2), 123-141.

Chickering, A. W. & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 39(7), 3-7.

McLean, M. (2001). Qualities attributed to an ideal educator by medical students: Should faculty take cognizance? Medical Teacher, 23(4), 367-370.

Merton, R. K. (1957). Social theory and social structure. Free Press.

Sander, P., Stevenson, K., King, M. & Coats, D. (2000). University students' expectations of teaching. Studies in Higher Education, 25(3), 309.

Authors: Kasie Mearns is currently completing her PhD in Anatomy and Human Biology, focussing on viruses in Chiroptera. Her interests include infectious diseases, biological anthropology and human physiology at altitude. Postal: School of Anatomy and Human Biology, Mail Delivery Point 309, The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley WA 6009. Email: kmearns@anhb.uwa.edu.au

Dr Jan Meyer is from the School of Anatomy and Human Biology and teaches in biological anthropology. Her main research interests are studying the biomorphometrics of human shape as part of the National Sizing Survey and in relation to stress, health and menopause.

Dr Avinash Bharadwaj is a senior lecturer in the School of Anatomy and Human Biology and coordinator of Human Structure and Development 2212.

Please cite as: Mearns, K., Meyer, K. and Bharadwaj, A. (2007). Student engagement in human biology practical sessions. In Student Engagement. Proceedings of the 16th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2007. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2007/refereed/mearns.html

Copyright 2007 Kasie Mearns, Jan Meyer and Avinash Bharadwaj. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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