First year Undergraduate Pharmacy Students’ and Academics’ views of and Preferences for Learning and Teaching. A Preliminary Investigation
Saleh Alrakaf1*, Erica Sainsbury2, Lorraine Smith3
1PhD. Candidate, Faculty of Pharmacy, The University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.
2Lecturer, Faculty of Pharmacy, The University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.
3Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Pharmacy, The University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.
*Corresponding Author E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the activities of any university faculty is the education of their students. Therefore, understanding not only students’ preferences for learning and teaching, but their academics’ views as well is essential. The aim of this paper is to conduct a preliminary investigation into first-year undergraduate pharmacy students and their academics’ views of and preferences for learning and teaching. Focus groups interviews were conducted with a sample of first-year students. Individual interviews were conducted with a sample of academics. All interviews were audio taped, transcribed verbatim and underwent thematic, comparative analysis. Four key themes emerged regarding students’ preferences: teacher characteristics (enthusiasm); communication (face-to-face); transition to tertiary environment (independence); and study strategies (YouTube). Analysis of the academic interviews revealed two key themes: student characteristics (independence); and communication (face-to-face). In conclusion, there are some points of difference between students and academics’ preferences that are worthy of further investigation.
One of the most fundamental activities of any university faculty is the education of their undergraduate students. Pharmacy as a profession has changed significantly over the past two decades,1 therefore understanding not only students’ preferences for learning and teaching, but their academics’ views as well, is essential.
Determining first year students’ preferences for learning and teaching is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, research shows there is a relationship between students’ unmet preferences for, and expectations of, learning and teaching, and attrition.2, 3 Secondly, first year undergraduate students may have unrealistic preferences and expectations about the course they are enrolled in, such as the kind of help they receive from their academics and the number of hours dedicated to study.4 It would be beneficial for both students and academics if those preferences and expectations were more realistic.5 Thirdly, having a good understanding of university students’ preferences for and expectations of their learning environment should enable educators to deliver a course to their students that is both educationally sound and satisfying.6
In general, university educators assume that they already know students’ preferences and expectations regarding teaching and learning.7, 8. An example of this is self-directed learning which is expected to be mastered by university students 9. However, students perceive this as challenging and stressful 9-14. The reasons behind such negative feelings towards self-directed learning include difficulties with time-management 9, being unaccustomed to self-directed learning before starting university 12 and lack of self-confidence in deciding what to study 14. In Australia, most enrolling students begin their 4-year undergraduate pharmacy degree immediately following graduation from high school. There is evidence that these students do not commence their pharmacy studies with strengths in self-directed learning; a study investigating Australian undergraduate pharmacy students’ approaches to learning 15 has shown low levels of self-regulated learning in first year, which declined over time.
It is well known that student learning and academic performance is also influenced by their motivation, and students’ motivational level can be affected by academics’ attitudes and behaviours 16-22. For example, teachers who are perceived as boring, lacking knowledge, unhelpful, and unenthusiastic act as demotivators for their students 23. In contrast, research has shown that students taught by an enthusiastic and encouraging teacher show higher motivation compared with students who were taught the same class by an unenthusiastic and discouraging teacher 19.
Although a number of studies have been conducted into undergraduate students’ preferences for learning (see for example 24-30 ), very few have been conducted in the field of pharmacy. To our knowledge, only one study has investigated both students’ and academics’ views, and this study focused on perceptions of study strategies 31 rather than preferences for learning and teaching. Given this lack of research in the pharmacy field, a preliminary study was undertaken to explore the first year learning environment from the perspective of both pharmacy students and their academics, in an Australian university setting.
There have been concerns regarding the unrealistic preferences and expectations that might first year undergraduate pharmacy students have regarding learning and teaching in the faculty. In addition, some concerns regarding the teacher expectations from there students and whether these expectation can be met by first year students or not.
The overall aims of this project were to (i) investigate first year undergraduate pharmacy students’ preferences regarding their pharmacy teaching and learning environment, and (ii) investigate pharmacy teaching academics’ views regarding their first year undergraduate pharmacy students learning attributes, and their preferred methods of teaching and assessment.
A qualitative, exploratory study was undertaken, comprising focus group and individual interviews. After obtaining approval from the Human Research Ethics Committee, University of Sydney, (Protocol No: 13420/ 19-01-2011), NSW Australia, first year students enrolled in the Bachelor of Pharmacy degree were invited to volunteer for the study via an email posted on the Faculty’s e-learning site. Academics were recruited via an email sent to their university email address.
As focus groups can provide some kind of security for people who might feel intimidated,32 the researchers decided to use this type of interview to seek first year undergraduate students views of and expectation for learning and teaching. Academics’ interviews were conducted individually. All interviews were conducted in person and were audio-taped. Two semi-structured interview guides (Appendix 1) were constructed based on a review of the literature 17, 33-38 and comprised eight open-ended questions for the focus groups and six open-ended questions for the academics’ interviews. The questions were designed to seek students’ and academics’ views regarding a range of issues that the literature suggests are important to the first year university student experience. Interviews were conducted at a time that was convenient to the participants, and took place at The University of Sydney. Each interview took 30 to 60 minutes. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and the transcripts analysed for content by two researchers and verified with one co-researcher using the interview guide as a framework.
1. Student focus groups - preferences for learning and teaching
Two focus groups comprising seven first year undergraduate students, (four female and three male), were conducted during the first half of the university semester in 2011. All students were Australians except one international student from Canada.
(i) Teacher characteristics – the ‘engaging’ teacher
When asked what they thought makes a ‘good’ teacher, participants’ responses reflected a pre-occupation with the practical or face-to-face aspects of teaching, and how this influenced their experience as a student. For example, a good teacher was described as a motivating and enthusiastic lecturer so that the lectures were more enjoyable.
And like for example, for a professor (X), like you know, walk around, discuss things, be more out there than just sit in one spot and just read out. (S1-1).
Participants also drew on the negative experiences of the teaching they had experienced to describe a ‘good’ teacher. For example, dry or boring lectures, and lecture notes read out rather than explained were viewed as a ‘turn off’.
Like, not like some of my lectures that I have at the moment who are just really dry, like they just don’t engage you. (S2-2).
(ii) Communicating with teachers
The students’ most preferred mode of communication was reported as face-to-face with their instructors. They expressed a preference for this type of communication over email communication as they found it difficult to articulate their questions using emails, particularly for certain subjects that required drawing, such as chemistry.
Of course face to face. In email, I mean sometimes the structure of the molecule is very hard to describe”. (S2-2).
Face-to-face because if you need to draw diagrams or if you still can’t understand what they’re saying by email ........, you don’t want to send another email ..., so face-to-face you can say that and sound polite. (S1-1).
Students expressed a preference for certain types of assessment such as multiple choice or short answer, and an almost equal dislike for other types, such as essays. For some, their responses appeared to be based on avoiding any possible demonstration of what they didn’t know, whereas for others, their preferred assessment task was one where they could demonstrate what they did know.
Multiple choice questions.
The participants’ preference for multiple choice style assessments appeared to be influenced by the clearly defined parameters typical of this type of question. In addition, some viewed this assessment task as presenting an opportunity for further learning through their mistakes.
I prefer multiple choice only because there is a definite structure to it and you know what to expect. ...when you get it wrong you can learn from that. (S3-2)
I prefer multiple choice. No essays. (S2-1)
Short answer questions.
Other participants preferred short answer questions, believing that such questions gave them more scope to demonstrate their knowledge; multiple choice questions were viewed by some as limiting one’s options.
I prefer short answer because in multiple choice, you’re always between two ....whereas short answer you can just write lots of stuff. (S1-1).
Short answers like you can actually put your knowledge down you know (S1-2)
(iv) Transition to tertiary education
All participants viewed the transition from high school to university as challenging, and found university completely different from what they had been used to in high school. Two key themes emerged – independence and volume of information.
Participants’ experiences regarding their first year pharmacy studies compared to their previous high school studies showed clear differences in teacher expectations, with university study requiring more independence. This kind of independence was challenging for them because most of them were not accustomed to such a way of studying in high school.
In high school, we were spoon fed with everything, they keep reminding you about assessments,....,whereas here it’s basically you know independent learning. (S1-1)
I feel study at uni is like independent learning. We have to learn ourselves …. And so because I’m from an Asian country, so normally the lecturers will prepare everything for us and we just had to study. You don’t have to find extra materials or whatever there, but here it’s totally different. (S2-2)
The majority of participants expressed that the volume and speed with which material was covered in their pharmacy studies was much greater compared to high school.
Oh there is so much more content. And it’s like if you don’t keep up with one week then you’re behind. Whereas with high school it’s like everything’s brushed over many times. (S3-2)
(v) Class attendance
When asked their preferences regarding attendance at classes, most participants preferred to attend every laboratory and tutorial class but not every lecture.
I find tutorials very helpful. Lectures you can listen to them online, you know. Like I honestly prefer listening to them online .... ‘cos I can concentrate better. (S1-1)
I feel that I’m not learning as much if I’m sitting there [in lectures], so I stay at home and read it myself and go through it as best I can. (S3-2)
It should be noted that a minimum level of student attendance is required at labs and tutorials, and this is recorded, whereas attendance at lectures is not recorded. Nevertheless, participants’ views regarding lecture attendance suggests a preference for utilising any online opportunities for learning, citing benefits for time management as well as enhanced learning.
(vi) Challenging subjects
Most of the participants reported the same subject (biology) as the most difficult subject they were studying. They viewed the subject as too condensed in content, with more than they could easily digest, as well as containing principles that were difficult to understand.
I think human biology is so many words (S1-1)
There are so many concepts to understand (S1-1)
A chapter in my high school I may be learned it in... few weeks …but now the lecturer can come... and complete one chapter in the lecture (S2-2)
(vii) Study strategies
When asked for their views regarding the best way to study for a subject, many of the participants cited YouTube. YouTube was described as a good source of information that could help them either understand the topic more deeply or clarify those aspects they did not understand. They argued that YouTube has many varieties and ways of delivering the knowledge they need in a specific subject.
I like to research stuff on the Internet, like what I don’t understand. So then I actually go to YouTube and find videos on the concepts they teach. (S2-1)
Oh yeah, oh yeah, definitely. That’s how I survived last year. (S1-1)
2. Academic interviews - preferences for learning and teaching
Four academics teaching first year undergraduate pharmacy students were interviewed regarding their views and preferences for their students’ approaches to learning. When asked their views regarding the characteristics of a ‘good’ student, a key theme of motivation emerged.
(i) Student characteristics – the ‘motivated’ student
Interest in the subject matter, engagement in the material at hand, a level of curiosity, and the desire to learn were attributes cited by academics as representative of the ‘good’ student. One academic valued students who were motivated to think about what they are learning, and to read and talk about the topic.
Yeah, basically someone who shows interest, interest and curiosity are the two main things. Engagement, interest, curiosity and diligence. (A4)
Persistence was also cited as a preferred quality, for example not giving up in the face of difficult problems.
... if they do reach some sort of problem that they don’t just give up. So there needs to be some ... a certain amount of determination on the part of the student in order to solve a particular problem. (A3)
Not surprisingly, the capacity for independent learning and for diligence and hard work were also viewed as preferred attributes in first year students. [(cf. Discussion - students’ difficulties with independent learning)]
Someone who is an independent learner and able to grasp or able to work on concepts ... if they don’t quite grasp the first time, say a lecture or a lab, they can go back, do their research ... (A2)
A good student is someone who completes their work on time ... who’s interested in their work ... (A1)
In contrast, a ‘poor’ student was described as overly dependent on their teacher, possessing few resources for independent learning, expecting to be ‘spoon fed’, not actively engaged in their learning and lacking interest, inattentive, lacking diligence, poor attendance at classes, and conducting themselves in a disrespectful and disruptive manner.
That it’s a case of just memorising and not actively engaging with the material (A4)
A poor student is really somebody who doesn’t want to be there, who doesn’t pay attention in class, who’s disrespectful, who’s disruptive. (A1)
...very dependent on the teacher, so just .. if an assessment task is given they need to know exactly what they’ve got to do and they’ll bug the teacher ... And they haven’t got the resources to be able to learn by themselves (A2)
When asked about their preferred mode of communication with their students there was a clear preference was for face to face communication. Whilst this mode of communication matches that preferred by the students, the reasons the academics gave were different. For example, the academics saw face to face communication as time saving and an opportunity to review and clarify lecture material.
Certainly face to face. With large classes like in pharmacy communicating with a large number of students via email is very time consuming. (A3)
I try to set aside five minutes at the end of the lecture for them to come up and ask me questions. I don’t mind emails. But I find emails are usually quite specific. (A2)
In contrast to the students, academics preferred to assess their students’ learning through long answer/written exam questions, by assessments that require applying knowledge to novel situations or tasks, or problem solving.
Long answer assessments in exams do really show the understanding or lack of understanding (A1).
I would rather have them write assignments or give presentations ‘cause I don’t think you can assess too much the depth of knowledge in an exam. (A4)
However, a short-coming of long answer assessments was identified by one academic, who commented that they take a long time to mark.
(iv) Teaching method
Academics’ preferred to teach in small group settings. They viewed small group settings as a way of enhancing cooperative learning and giving each student an opportunity to participate in active way.
I like students to work together in small groups where they have tasks or topics to discuss, where they have to work together, where they collaborate because I think that’s where they learn is in the context of a relatively small group where they all have the option of making contributions, to participate. (A4)
The laboratory setting was also cited as a preferred teaching method. This is seen as beneficial in that it enables the students to engage in hands-on tasks which encourage them to explore topics and acquire knowledge and understanding.
If I had my way we’d learn everything in laboratories. (A2)
The lecture format remains a necessary component of the Bachelor of Pharmacy program, given the size of the cohort (N=~300 per year), but academics try to incorporate a variety of resources, such as movies, animations and games, to maintain student interest and engagement.
I try and include lots of pictures, lots of diagrams. I’ve started including movies and animations in my lecture notes, things which would try to visually stimulate the student. (A3)
(v) Increasing student engagement
Academics were also asked for suggestions on how first year pharmacy student engagement could be facilitated. An energised and enthusiastic teacher was cited as important, which was mirrored in students’ preferences for teaching style.
I found through my experience that you have to be energised. And it’s almost like you’re an entertainer in a way ...and if you’re excited and enthusiastic about the work ... they’re more likely to listen to you (A1)
In addition, linking what students learn to their discipline area, by showing the relevance of material to their profession was seen as a useful mechanism for increasing student engagement.
I also try wherever I can to make things that might not at first glance seem relevant to show the relevance to pharmacy, to their profession, to their career, to their professional life (A4)
Online recorded lectures were also valued, but for different reasons to those articulated by students. Whereas the students viewed online lectures as beneficial because it enabled them to study at home, academics viewed them as a gatekeeper to attendance at lectures.
I have to say Lectopia (online recorded lectures) has been very good, in that the students who don’t want to come now don’t have to come. So you get the interested students ... or enough interested students that it feeds the rest of them. (A2)
This study aimed to conduct a preliminary investigation into first year undergraduate pharmacy students’ and teachers’ preferences for learning and teaching. Views sought included the ‘ideal’ student/teacher, preferred assessments, channels of communication and self-directed learning. This study is novel in that it takes a qualitative exploratory approach, focussing solely on the first year experience of both students and their teachers, and is conducted in an Australian higher education setting.
Interestingly, both students and their teachers valued motivation and engagement in each other. These attributes featured strongly in both groups’ accounts of what they saw as being a ‘good’ student or teacher. Students’ views about ‘boring’ teachers and ‘dry’ lectures supports previous research suggesting that these attributes may act as demotivators.19, 39 Attributing positive motivational qualities to what makes a ‘good’ teacher suggests that their teachers’ motivation and interest can be a source of motivation and interest for themselves. Furthermore, the academics acknowledged this when asked for their suggestions for how to facilitate student engagement. But the extent to which academics understand that their own behaviours and attributes may influence the motivation of their first year students is open to conjecture and may be a useful source of further enquiry.
Another issue raised by academics as a valued student attribute emerged as a point of tension between academics’ expectations and students’ experiences. This was the capacity for self-directed or independent learning. Academics clearly valued this attribute and saw it as key to successful learning. The flip-side of independent learning, such as students who are overly dependent on their teachers, was also cited as an example of a ‘poor student’. From the students’ perspective, however, whilst independent learning was acknowledged as a skill expected by their teachers, it was viewed as challenging and foreign, and the challenge was compounded by the sheer volume and pace of the material covered in their classes. This combination may have influenced students’ views regarding their most difficult subject.
The contrast between academics’ expectations for independent learning and students’ capacity to fulfill those expectations is understandable because one of the major differences between high school and university is that independent learning is both expected, and require of success at tertiary level. These results also lend qualitative support to previous pharmacy research showing that undergraduate students were not particularly well self-regulated in their approaches to learning.40 To help address this, academics’ expectations, particularly for first year students, could be modified to a more realistic level, and their learning materials could include more scaffolding to support the development of skills in independent learning. 9, 41 Consideration should also be paid to the subject area; if a subject area is experienced by students as being particularly difficult, academics could modify the volume and pace of material covered. Given that problem based learning has been found to foster the transition of students from dependent to independent learning,42-44 some critical elements from this model of learning and teaching could also be adopted to help support first year students as they develop this highly important skill.
Assessment type was another area of difference between students’ and academics’ preferences. Whilst students preferred either multiple-choice or short answer, academics typically preferred to assess their students’ understanding through long answer methods. Although attempts to modify first year pharmacy students’ preferences in this area may be unrealistic, finding ways of closing the gap between students’ and academics’ preferences would be another step towards supporting the first year learning experience of students. For example, providing students with practice written exams, formative marking and assessment marking criteria could provide guidance and reduce uncertainty.38, 45
Views regarding the type of learning environment were shared between students and academics, with small classes and laboratories as the preferred setting. Both students and academics intimated that learning is enhanced in smaller, interactional group settings. Direct access to one’s teacher may also be an advantage here, and this is reflected in the preferences expressed by both students and academics for communicating in person rather than via email. Although the higher education learning environment is changing rapidly, lectures remain a common method of imparting information to large groups of students. Academics who would like to increase their students’ attendance at lecture could keep some time at the end of the lectures for students to ask questions. If question time is offered as one-on-one at the end of the lecture more students may be encouraged not only to attend the lectures but also ask questions. Utilizing engaging instructional methods, such as multi-media, might also facilitate attendance, engagement and interest.
The use of online and internet technology by students and academics was viewed as beneficial for both, whether it be for allowing students to study from home, or improving lecture behaviour. The students’ assertion that using YouTube was the best way to understand a difficult subject was an interesting finding. Although there are a myriad of educational materials on YouTube, the accuracy of such materials is questionable.46 In addition, the presence of the material itself is not guaranteed to be on the internet all the time.47 Despite these drawbacks, it is unlikely that students will stop using this medium if they face a difficult concept or subject. Therefore, academics could take the initiative and recommend some reliable and evidence based clips on YouTube, or produce their own and either upload them to YouTube or their university’s online facility.
The results of this exploratory study are preliminary as data saturation was not reached prior to the close of the project. However, strength of the study is the comparative analysis of data collected contemporaneously from both students and their teachers, and the findings suggest that there are some key issues worthy of further investigation. These could include student motivation and engagement, academics’ expectations, independent learning skills and the use of multi-media. The next steps could include (i) a study which more comprehensively identifies the needs and challenges facing first year pharmacy students, and (ii) building an effective transition-to-university pathway so that academics’ and students’ expectations and preferences are more closely aligned. This alignment should then facilitate student learning and the overall enhancement of their university experience, and also lead to greater satisfaction levels for the academics engaged in teaching them.
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Students’ focus groups
Thank you for agreeing to take part in this study. I am interested in hearing your personal views about your expectations of the pharmacy as profession and the teaching you will receive during your degree. Please bear in mind that there are no right or wrong answers.
1) What do you think makes a good teacher?
2) What do you think makes a poor teacher?
3) How would you expect to communicate with your teacher outside of class time? (e.g. face to face, e-mails, phone, etc.).
4) What forms of assessments do you hope for?
5) How would you expect your study at The Faculty of Pharmacy to be different from your high school study?
6) How do you expect your attendance to be? (e.g. attend most lectures, few lectures, etc)
7) What is the most difficult subject you have faced so far? Why?
8) What do you think is the best way to study for a subject?
Interviews with academic staff
Thank you very much for agreeing to take part in my study. Could we start by you telling me a little about your professional background?
1) What do you think makes a good student?
2) What do you think makes a poor student?
3) In what forms do you prefer to communicate with your students outside classes’ time?
4) How you differentiate between a good and poor student? (e.g. marks, depth of knowledge)
5) How do you assist the depth of knowledge?
6) What is your preferred type of assessments to assess this knowledge?
Received on 25.11.2013 Modified on 10.12.2013
Accepted on 15.01.2014 © RJPT All right reserved