Students just don't have the maths anymore, that's why we have such high failure rates. We are accepting too many students with low university entranceA scores. Not enough students have done physics in high school.
These assertions will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever attended some sort of undergraduate engineering curriculum meeting, but how accurate are they? This is what the team of an Australian Learning and Teaching Council funded project to investigate and address high failure rates in engineering mechanics courses intended to find out, among other commonly cited causes of poor performance. Academics at the University of Wollongong, the University of Tasmania, the University of Technology Sydney and the Australian
Maritime College investigated the students' high school academic history and subsequent performance in first-year mechanics courses to determine the extent to which achievement at the end of year 12 is an indicator of performance in first-year engineering mechanics, and whether the lack of high-level maths or physics at year 12 are contributing factors to failing mechanics courses.
Previous work by Dwight & Carew (2006) and Tumen et al (2008) has shown limited correlations between academic history and university performance. A federal government study by Urban et al (1999) also showed that while tertiary entry scores are good predictors of performance (in terms of degree completion) between high and low scores, no significant differences exist between the top four entry score deciles, where the majority of engineering students lie. Interestingly, Tumen et al (2008) also singled out engineering students as more likely to leave after first-year than other students, indicating that engineering could indeed be a special case with its own set of difficulties. This current study examines the correlation between student performances in entrance exams and first-year mechanics courses, as well as the use of the university entrance score (UES) as a predictor for failure.
The engineering mechanics courses at the centre of this study covered the fundamentals of statics and dynamics at three of the participating institutions (A, C and D) and statics only at institution B, though to a more advanced level than the other three. The content of these courses, their organisation, teaching approaches and assessment are typical of many Australian first-year mechanics courses with weekly lectures and tutorials, practical laboratory work, in session quizzes, and a final examination worth approximately half the total assessment for the course. A more complete outline of typical content and assessment methods can be found in Goldfinch et al (2008). The student group represented in the statistics presented throughout the paper are high school leavers who make up the majority of undergraduate engineering enrolments at the four institutions, and importantly, the majority of students who fail these mechanics courses.
2 CORRELATION OF ENTRANCE SCORES AND MECHANICS RESULTS
UESs, which are used as key eligibility criteria for university applicants, were collated from the four participating universities--the University of Wollongong, the University of Tasmania, the University of Technology Sydney and the Australian Maritime College--for students who had completed a first-year mechanics course. (All four universities provide 4-year engineering degrees accredited by Engineers Australia. Their degrees are therefore covered by the Washington Accord.) Each of the institutions has a nominal UES cut off for normal enrolments. In most instances, students with a UES below the high 70s will have entered the engineering degree program through a different pathway such as an individual interview process, or articulation from vocational training in an engineering-related field. The entrance scores were available for nearly …