Contemporary service course students: Who are they?

Margaret Wegener


It’s unusual for a physics course to have large enrolment increases in recent years. However, in The Physical Basis of Biological Systems - a service course for students with interests in the biomedical and life sciences - total annual enrolment has more than doubled over the period 2000 – 2005. At the same time there has been a surge of academic interest in biology and biological physics (note the recent cover story of Physics Today by Goldstein, Nelson and Powers (2005)). This could have contributed to increasing student numbers, and could mean a different type of student is enrolling in physics. Changing academic advice to students, and changing requirements to enter some in-demand degrees, may also be affecting enrolments. In this environment, with the increasing diversity of students at university a common theme, the aim to provide appropriate learning experiences prompts the question: ‘Who are these students?’ This is important because as Sharma, Mills, Mendez and Pollard ((ed) 2005) note,

In order to teach more effectively, we need to have a clear understanding of who our students are, what motivates them to study physics, … their backgrounds and … their plans.

This study investigates the composition of the audience for this course and how the students are coping, in order to inform future course development.

The course is offered at first-year level. It consists of lectures (delivered to hundreds of students), small-group tutorials and laboratory activities, with support from a course website. It is offered twice per year, with some variation in course material according to the different student audiences expected historically. Major client groups have been students aiming to enter Medicine and Dentistry (in Semester I), and those enrolled in Human Movement Studies (Semester II).

Findings reported below draw on several sources of information - enrolment data, student surveys, and assessment results over recent years. Student types have been investigated according to their ambitions for university coursework and future careers, background - outside exposure to physics, cultural influences, including gender, and their hopes and expectations for the course.

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