22 SES 10 A, Teaching, Learning and Assessment in Higher Education
In the UK, various reports have highlighted the lack of suitably trained social science students with the quantitative skills required either for the workplace or for higher levels of study, and this problem is evident in many countries across Europe. The problem begins in schools and is compounded by recent trends away from quantitative social science in Universities (with the exception of economics and psychology departments) (ESRC et al., 2010; Hodgen et al., 2010; MacInnes, 2010; ACME, 2011).
As part of a coordinated response to this skills shortage, funding councils in the UK supported a curriculum initiative programme to improve numeracy, statistical literacy and students’ engagement with quantitative methods. The ‘Convincing Stories? Numbers as Evidence in the Social Sciences’ unit about which we report here was set up as part of the initiative. The unit was run over 12 weeks, for 2 hours per week. It was available to all first year undergraduates across the university, but was specifically aimed at social science students. Seventy-five students signed up for the unit, from a range of disciplines including Geography, Childhood Studies, Social Policy, Sociology, and Psychology. Each week, the unit aimed to introduce a statistical concept to students, through the use of a contemporary story or problem. Examples included an overview of the manipulation of data and charts in newspaper stories, consideration to whether the reform of University finance in England (the introduction of the £9000 per year fees) were quite as ‘progressive’ as the Government White Paper claimed, the introduction of ideas around sampling and measurement, through discussion of community cohesion, and regression analysis through different conceptualisations of good parenting.
Teaching quantitative methods to students in the sciences and social sciences brings a number of potential problems to the fore. Many students in the social sciences are anxious about their ability to work quantitatively, and do not enjoy it (e.g. Bridges et al, 1998; Jackson and Johnson, 2013), or struggle to see its relevance (Hannover and Kessels, 2004). These factors can affect the students’ level of engagement, motivation and success in their learning (Murtonen et al, 2008; Ramos and Carvalho, 2011).
Teaching across disciplinary divides is also widely acknowledged in the research literature as potentially problematic. Academic disciplines can be seen as different cultures, with their own epistemologies, languages, assumptions, and methods of teaching (Bradbeer, 1999; Nikitina, 2005; Spelt et al, 2009). Universities are usually structured according to subjects (Eisen et al, 2009), with little opportunities to work in a cross-disciplinary way. As students become inculcated in their “home” discipline (and English education becomes specialised at a relatively early stage), transgressing disciplinary boundaries and working with students from other departments can become extremely difficult (Woods, 2007).
The range of students taking the Convincing Stories unit, therefore, creates an interesting dynamic. They are from different disciplines, each with their own disciplinary interests, and are in the process of being enculturated into very different ways of thinking about quantitative methods. Teaching such a range of students presents an exciting challenge.
In their study in a Portuguese university, Ramos and Carvalho (2011) highlighted the range of abilities and attitudes towards quantitative methods that can exist among undergraduate students. There is still much to explore, however, about how this relates to the teaching of quantitative methods, particularly to a cohort from across a range of disciplines. The current study provides a deeper understanding of first-year undergraduates’ attitudes towards and confidence in quantitative methods, and how this underpins their engagement with the field.
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