Using intervention strategies to engage tertiary biology students in their development of numeric skills

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Tertiary Biology students are expected to calculate parameters from their experimental data gathered in practical classes, interpret the meaning(s) of these biological parameters and then discuss their findings in the context of the published literature. As teachers we expect students to have developed sound numeracy skills from their previous studies and be able to transfer these numeracy skills into their studies in Biology. However, Biology students are less than confident about performing calculations. Using research on student anxiety of learning mathematical skills (Meece , Wigfield and Eccles 1990; Boyd, Cullen, Bass, Pittman and Regan 1998; Klinger 2004) and self-efficacy intervention strategies (Hattie, Biggs and Purdie 1996; Pajares, Miller and Johnson 1999; Phan and Walker 2000; Schulz 2005), a numeric skills task was designed for second year plant science students and has been implemented since 2001. The numeric skills task allows each student to determine their confidence in: (a) their understanding of numeric concepts; (b) their understanding of quantities used in plant physiology; and, (c) their ability to calculate and convert between units of measure. An evaluation of the task shows that although all students were able to demonstrate their understanding of a physical parameter (e.g., volume), 32% of students were not confident with applying this understanding to estimating volumes, e.g., the volume of the tutorial room. A high proportion of students (47%) lacked confidence with converting between cubic metres and litres. Feedback from open-ended responses was categorised to measure student engagement with the task. Students who were the least confident with their answers had high levels of engagement with the numeracy task compared with those students who were more confident with their numeracy skills, indicating that students most likely to benefit from the task had been successfully targeted. Enabling students to engage in their own skills development appears to be a useful approach, particularly for students lacking confidence. This work is an analysis of a current assessment practice, and is being extended into a research project to help define the numeracy threshold of students in the Life Sciences.
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Quinnell, Rosanne
Wong, Eunice
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UNSW Faculty