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The influence of first-year chemistry students' learning experiences on their educational choices

The research presented in this thesis examined the influence students' learning experiences in their first year chemistry classes had on their enrolment choices. Students enrolled in first-year chemistry were surveyed three times throughout their academic year using a purpose designed questionnaire – at the start of the year (n=l26), the end of the first semester (n=l09) and the end of the second semester (n=84). Additionally, a cohort of 19 students were interviewed at the same stages throughout the year. The research involved investigating students' learning experiences, attitude-towards-chemistry and chemistry self-efficacy. Additionally, students attitude-towards-enrolling in chemistry, perceived control over enrolling in chemistry and normative beliefs (perception of associates' beliefs) about enrolling in chemistry were examined. Finally, all of these aspects were related to students' enrolment intentions. The structure of the research was guided by the Modified Theory of Planned Behaviour (MTPB), which relates behaviour directly to intention to carry out the behaviour (Ajzen, 1989). The MTPB suggests that students' enrolment in second-year chemistry is directly related to their intention to enrol in second-year chemistry. Furthermore, the MTPB suggests that students' enrolment intentions are influenced by their attitude-towards-enrolling in second-year chemistry, their perceived control over enrolling in second-year chemistry and subjective norm about enrolling in second-year chemistry. The MTPB also suggests that attitude-towards-enrolling in second-year chemistry is influenced by students' attitude-towards-chemistry, chemistry self-efficacy and first-year chemistry learning experiences. The MTPB was used to inform the methodology of the inquiry. The research involved following students throughout their first-year of chemistry study. Students were interviewed at key stages using a semi-structured interview protocol developed to include questions on all key areas of the MTPB. Furthermore, students were surveyed at three stages using the Chemistry Attitudes and Experiences Questionnaire (CAEQ). The CAEQ was developed to examine chemistry learning experiences, attitude-towards-chemistry and chemistry self-efficacy - using the MTPB as a guiding framework. The instrument was designed in a manner that maximised construct validity and piloted with a cohort of science and technology students (n=129) at the end of their first-year. Based on statistical analysis the instrument was modified and subsequently administered on two occasions at two tertiary institutions (n = 669). Statistical data along with additional data gathered from interviews suggests that the CAEQ possess good construct validity and will prove a useful tool for tertiary level educators who wish to gain an understanding of factors that influence student choice of chemistry enrolment. The findings from this research suggest that learning experiences have some impact on students' enrolment intentions. Students who drop out of chemistry at some stage of their first-year cited experiences in their classes as a reason for this. There is also a cohort of students' who drop out of university entirely during their first semester of study. Chemistry self-efficacy also impacted upon students' enrolment choices with students who had perceived they had achieved in their first-year of chemistry study likely to intend to continue to on and study chemistry at second-year level. Other factors that influenced students' enrolment intentions included a desire to have a broad spectrum of courses in their degree, and an interest in the subject from secondary schooling. A number of students enrolled in first-year chemistry as a compulsory part of another degree programme, consequently their decisions to study second-year chemistry were dependent on whether a course was compulsory or not. Students perceived their associates to have a wide range of beliefs about chemistry including stereotypical images such as mad scientists and laboratory-based images. Additionally, students thought their peers would think chemists did not consider society when designing research, whereas their parents and mentors - typically employed in a science related field – would hold more positive conceptions. It appears that reduced number of enrolments at the second-year level are contributed to by students' dropping chemistry at some stage throughout their first-year. Additionally there were no corresponding cohort of students that choose to pick-up a chemistry course courses. The salient beliefs that directly influenced students' enrolment intentions were negative learning experiences in laboratory classes and students' chemistry self-efficacy beliefs. Additionally, students who enrolled in first-year chemistry as a compulsory paper often made their decision about enrolling in second-year chemistry based whether they had any compulsory second-year chemistry courses. Normative beliefs appeared to have little direct impact on students' enrolment intentions, however, they had some indirect effect with students who had associates in a science related field more likely to enrol in second-year chemistry than those that did not. The findings from this research suggest that academic staff need to modify their teaching practice, especially in laboratory classes. Students need to be taught study skills and skills for coping at university in order to reduce the drop-out rate from university entirely. Additionally the relationship between self-efficacy and enrolment intentions suggests that tasks designed to improve students' self-efficacy should be incorporated into the curriculum. Another potential method of improving student retention is to introduce a mentoring scheme so that students have positive social reinforcement encouraging them to study chemistry.
Type of thesis
Dalgety, J. (2003). The influence of first-year chemistry students’ learning experiences on their educational choices (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/13489
The University of Waikato
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