Identifying common thresholds in learning for students working in the 'hard' discipline of Science

Rebecca LeBard, Rachel Thompson, Adam Micolich, Rosanne Quinnell


Biglan (1973) divides academic disciplines into hard and soft, with subcategories of pure and applied, and life and non-life. We have conducted a study spanning these sub-categories in the ‘hard’ discipline of science, focused on looking for common factors that impede student learning. A survey of second year undergraduate courses in Thermal Physics, Quality of Medical Practice and Molecular Biology was conducted. A common theme identified was the students’ struggle with numeracy skills. Our survey results suggest this has less to do with a real weakness in mathematics, the students in these courses generally have strong mathematical backgrounds, and is more related to two factors – lack of relevance, which reduces their willingness to engage with the challenging aspects of the mathematics, and difficulties in transforming their ‘pure’ mathematical training into a form that allows them to use it effectively in their chosen courses.

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