How students choose which subjects to study

We’re at Research Conference and I’m joined
by Tracey-Ann Palmer. She has a poster presentation for this year’s conference and it’s all
about some research she’s done into student subject selection.
What I did is I was interested particularly in how students chose their subjects with
the idea that maybe there was something in the way they were choosing their subjects
– the environment, I suppose the marketplace that was affecting their choice of Science.
What I found out is that students seem to go through this two-stage process of choosing
their subjects. So the first stage sounded really emotive. I’d get comments like ‘I
never want to see that subject again’ and they would throw subjects out that they didn’t
like and they’d take subjects that they really liked.
And then they’d look at subjects that they needed, so if they were going to do a course
then they would do that. Then after they went over that first emotional level, the second
level became quite rational. They’d start asking advice from parents – interestingly
not so much from teachers, but I’ll get back to that – and they would look at job
prospects and things like that, and then they’d start having a look at that next layer.
So that was, I suppose, the main finding coming out of it, but I can tell you some more about
what that means for Science. It wasn’t good. And the reason it wasn’t good is that they
told me that Science was a subject that was only useful if you wanted to be an engineer,
or you wanted to do maths, or something really stereotypically scientific.
They also said to me that they would, I said them ‘who would you ask for advice?’ – and
I said I’d get back to this – who they’d ask for advice, and I said teachers and so
forth, and they said, oh, well, teachers … and I probed into that, and they told me that
they thought teachers recommending their own subject were bias. And they were very resistant
to being marketed to. And this is interesting too because there was actually some research
that supports that very modern teenagers – and, of course, these people, these young people
are 16 years old – very resistant to that, being told what to do.
So all of this came together to mean that we want to tell them that Science is useful
going forward and perhaps they should keep it to keep their doors open, and the one person
who knows the most about that, their school teacher, is someone they’re not going to
listen to. What I did find out, and what I think we can
do, is we can impact the choice of Science at that moment in time that Science is being
considered as a future subject for Years 11 and 12. So, for me, that would be having people
come into the school who are not teachers, but people who the students will identify.
Maybe students from previous years, coming back, who said ‘oh, I wasn’t sure about
Science, but I took it and look where I am now’. Maybe people in industry saying ‘look,
I actually work in a big, an engineering company and it’s useful for us’, but then someone
else comes in who works for a modelling company, whatever’s for the students, what interests
them. So that’s one thing we can do. We can be very careful about the language
we can use when we have subject selection events. To talk about Science as being if
you’re ambivalent, it’s really not a good idea to throw science out.
Also that students are going to feel that the teachers will support them in the subject.
The students believed the subject was more difficult, and when I talked to the teachers
in the schools, they, by and large, agreed that it was a more cognitively challenging
subject for the students. So, to tell these, to help these students
to know that they will be supported in this, and that good things take a little extra work
and if we want critical thinking skills, if we want kids to live in a world we don’t
understand, this is a great subject for them to keep doing.

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