Maintaining connections: An investigation of the factors that influence student participation in health science classes

James Dollman, Sharron King, Elizabeth Hemphill


There is a growing number and diversity of students in Australian universities. A disturbingly high proportion of students adopt passive roles in structured classes, thereby forfeiting the opportunity to engage actively in the learning process. A clearer understanding of factors influencing active participation is likely to encourage re-evaluation of how the classroom setting is structured. In 2008, a questionnaire was administered on-line across the Division of Health Sciences in an Australian university. Survey items represented: self-reported participation in classes; fear of teacher and peer criticisms; peer support; family and school background; confidence; informal contact with teachers; and expectations of students’ roles at university. Path analysis assessed independence and interdependence of pathways linking participation with hypothesised predictors.

764 respondents (559 females) provided complete responses (29% response rate). Among males and females there was a relatively strong pathway linking fear of teachers, confidence and participation, with higher levels of fear predicting lower confidence and participation. In turn, students’ perceptions of their role in the learning process was strongly associated with fear of teachers, indicating that undergraduate students’ belief that it is inappropriate to ask questions indirectly reduces their confidence to participate through fear of teacher criticisms. A direct association was seen between students’ perceptions of their role in the learning process and fear of peer criticism, suggesting that the pressure to play a passive role is reinforced by peer pressure. Students’ perceptions of their role was associated with school and family background, suggesting that earlier encouragement to communicate influences students’ perceived role and status at university.

These findings underscore the importance of teaching strategies that diminish students’ concerns related to the perceived consequences of participation. With expanding classes and shrinking contact time, the challenge before the tertiary learning community is to foster a sense of connectedness among its members.

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