Academic journal article Australian Journal of Adult Learning

Enabling Learners Starts with Knowing Them: Student Attitudes, Aspiration and Anxiety towards Science and Maths Learning in an Australian Pre-University Enabling Program

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Adult Learning

Enabling Learners Starts with Knowing Them: Student Attitudes, Aspiration and Anxiety towards Science and Maths Learning in an Australian Pre-University Enabling Program

Article excerpt

Introduction

Background

Over the past several decades, Australian universities have undergone significant transformation. Historically, a university education was reserved for the elite minority, however contemporary universities now provide more accessible tertiary qualifications for an increased proportion of the community and from a broader socio-cultural spectrum. This was, in part, driven by the Federal Government's widening participation agenda (Bradley, Noonan, Nugent & Scales, 2008) and the rise of non-traditional pathways to access university, including government-assisted enabling programs (Gale & Tranter, 2011). The Higher Education Support Act (2003), defines an enabling course as 'a course of instruction provided to a person for the purpose of enabling the person to undertake a course leading to a higher education award (DotAG, 2003, p. 215). For universities, this describes pre-university courses originally designed to prepare mature-age and disadvantaged student groups for degree-level courses. However, an increasing number of students of school-leaving age are now also entering universities via enabling programs. Interestingly, these younger people include those who have not completed secondary schooling due to socio-cultural reasons (Ross & Gray, 2005), and those that Hodges, Bedford, Hartley, Klinger, Murray, O'Rourke and Schofield (2013, p. 16) suggest are 'becoming somewhat strategic and selecting enabling programs as a legitimate pathway for Higher Education'. Indeed, enrolments in OnTrack, the principal enabling program at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia, have increased steadily and considerably since its inception in 2008 (Lisciandro & Gibbs, 2016).

In parallel with increasing enrolments, the aspirations and undergraduate study choices of OnTrack pathway students also diversified over time, with a higher proportion of students choosing to undertake undergraduate study in a variety of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, instead of predominantly the arts and social sciences (Lisciandro & Gibbs, 2014). This is paradoxical given recent national trends indicating declining numbers of students pursuing STEM-related careers and tertiary study more broadly (Dobson, 2006). Similarly, the number of students taking non-compulsory secondary school science has also fallen in recent decades (Hassan, 2008). According to the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report on scientific literacy in Australia, 'fewer students reported that they will use science when they are an adult' or believe that science has applications in their everyday lives (Thomson & De Bortoli, 2008). Mathematics is intimately entwined in science and technology, yet for years concerns have been raised about Australia's diminishing ability in maths and statistics, and there have been desperate calls for action to reverse a 'fatal course' for mathematical sciences in this country (Hughes & Rubenstein, 2006, p. 1). Indeed, the number of secondary school students choosing to study maths in their senior years has fallen over the last 20 years, and pre-requisite subjects have been removed as a barrier to degree choice at many Australian universities (Nicholas, Poladian, Mack & Wilson, 2015, p. 38).

It is incumbent that enabling programs prepare students for their chosen undergraduate studies, including STEM related courses. However, in order to adequately prepare students for the tertiary curriculum ahead, as well as design engaging and effective learning experiences during the enabling program, it is crucial that educators first know and understand their learners, and their learning needs (Hattie, 2009; Jones, Olds & Lisciandro, 2016b). Recognising and fulfilling the needs of learners may be complicated by large differences in student demographics, educational background, aspirations, interests and motivations (Hodges et al. …

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