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Learning or doing? Science degrees need reform and students can help

Students learning the skills to ‘do’ science could be under threat. Science image from

Science is as much about knowing, as it is about having the skills to learn.

But with time in the lab shrinking as universities try to tighten their budgets, students may be getting the opportunity to learn more about the products of science, and not enough time getting the skills essential for doing science.

But what do the students themselves think?

The student perspective

We recently surveyed 400 graduating science students from two research-intensive universities in Australia. We focused on five kinds of learning outcomes: teamwork skills, quantitative skills, oral communication skills, writing skills and content knowledge.

When asked whether they thought content knowledge or skills were more important, students expressed value for both, but content knowledge edged out over skills. And not all skills were seen as equal.

All of the students agreed that content knowledge was important in a science degree program as were writing skills (98%), oral communication (96%), teamwork skills (90%) quantitative skills (89%) and ethical thinking (83%).

Beyond importance, 98% of students indicated that opportunities to build content knowledge were substantially included in the curriculum. This is compared to 90% for writing skills, followed by teamwork (88%) and oral communication (81%).

When asked about how much their knowledge and skills had improved after their studies, content knowledge was identified by 98% of students as substantially improved. Skills, such as writing (88%), oral communication (79%) and teamwork (76%) followed.

As for quantitative skills and ethical thinking, while the vast majority of students acknowledged these as important, just 65% of students felt they were given the opportunity to gain quantitative skills and only 41% said the same for ethical thinking. Furthermore, 67% of students felt they improved their quantitative skills while 63% suggested improvement of their ethical thinking.

If you ask students (and we did), where they thought they developed their content knowledge and skills, they saw lectures as the main way to gain scientific knowledge, but they thought skills and content knowledge were predominantly developed in laboratory classes.

The good news first

Science students are reporting tremendous gains in their acquisition of scientific knowledge. Along with knowing science content, the vast majority of students also reported gains in communication skills, both written and oral, and working with others.

Now, here’s the bad news.

In the 21st century, with scientific inquiry outpacing textbooks, there are concerns that students’ are placing too much stock in science content, and not enough in the skills needed to do science.

Modern science is dominated by data. Data analysis, interpretation and predictions require mathematical and statistical thinking and reasoning (quantitative skills). Collecting data, particularly from living beings, should be underpinned by ethical thinking, which also feeds into how data are interpreted and communicated.

So are we developing good science content knowledge in our graduates and leaving some vital skills behind?

More focus on skills

Students identified laboratory classes, or practicals, as the main place where skills and knowledge were developed. This suggests that reform efforts in science should focus on enhancing and potentially increasing the practical components of subjects.

But practical classes are under threat. As resources dwindle, student time in costly laboratory classes is being cut along with budgets to train properly laboratory tutors.

While lectures are relatively cheap to deliver, science students are saying they have a narrow focus on content knowledge.

Students are uniquely placed to comment on the learning outcomes of a university degree program. They have experienced the curriculum. And as efforts to reform science degree programs continue, students’ perception of their learning gains can greatly inform this.

Universities help students learn. But students can help universities learn too.

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