UniServe€Science News, Vol. 4, July 1996

Survival skills for first year science students

Robert Loss & Marjan G Zadnik are with the Department of Applied Physics, Curtin University

This project originated from our observation of declining yearly retention rates, higher rates of withdrawal during semesters and an increase in the amount of time taken by many Science and Engineering students to complete their degrees.

As instructors in physics we identified that many students simply "drop out" or did not appear to achieve to their full potential. The causes of these are highly complex but several comprehensive surveys of our students identified factors such as the significant difference between the teaching and learning environments of secondary school and those at university, and a lack of sufficient personal organisational, motivation and other study and technical skills. Many instructors are often so busy dealing with content that they have little time to continually teach learning skills to students. Although many universities run short adjunct programs on study skills (typically 1 to 3 hours), research has shown that most of these are ineffective in the long term unless the skills are tied to specific courses.

In view of this situation we designed as a part of this project an innovative new unit (`Science Study Skills 101') to assist new students to develop appropriate work and study skills to enable them to improve their overall performance in their first year at university.

The unit was designed to:

* ease new student anxiety caused by differences between school and university;

* expose new students to a bigger picture and potential future directions in their discipline;

* develop skills for life long learning;

* improve new students' learning skills in all subjects;

* reduce student withdrawal rates;

* reduce the time taken by students to complete science degrees.

Now known formally as Science Study Skills 101 (SSS101), this unit is now a general elective at Curtin University and has been made a core unit in the Physics degree program. Science Study Skills 101 classes operate in small group workshop/ tutorial/ seminar mode and covers topics such as:

* familiarisation with university facilities, procedures, and structures;

* time management (e.g. work and study time tabling);

* effective learning techniques;

* written and verbal communication (report writing, seminar presentations);

* computer awareness (use of word processors, spreadsheets, graphics);

* examination preparation and techniques.

An important aspect of this unit is the contextual treatment of these topics whereby students use examples from concurrent science units. Student workload was minimised by having students submit assignments already being done for other units but prepared using the ideas and skills studied in SSS101.

A comparative study of the grades obtained in other Science and Engineering units by students taking SSS101 with students who have not taken SSS101 has not shown any significant differences in student grades. However, there does appear to be a small but significant improvement in pass rates and a reduction in withdrawal rates compared with previous years cohorts.

Robert Loss

The SSS101 Unit Outline and samples of the materials developed for the unit during the project can be obtained directly from the authors.