The relationship between breadth of previous academic study and engineering students' performance

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Conference Proceeding
Proceedings - Frontiers in Education Conference, FIE, 2019, 2018-October
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© 2018 IEEE. Research into indicators that guide the selection of students for admission into Engineering degree programs is important in terms of identifying those students who are most likely to be successful and to tune these indicators to maximise the potential of all students entering universities to study engineering. In this paper we consider the impact that diversity of prior (secondary/high school) academic experience can have on the outcomes achieved by students in engineering degree programs. Whilst there is some research into this aspect in other disciplines, such as health sciences by Shulruf et al. [1], this has yet to receive appropriate attention by Engineering. We report on an analysis of the academic performance of approximately 3700 engineering students, comparing their performance in a range of subject areas (including mathematical and science foundations, advanced technical subjects, and broader professionally-focused subjects) and how this performance correlates with the breadth of their previous (secondary school) subject choices and student performances. This breadth is assessed using Schafer's measure of dispersion in categorical data [2] and secondary school subjects are categorized using the New South Wales Board of Studies subject clusters [3]. The results show a significant difference due to the greater dispersion in subject choice for students with different levels of previous academic performance at secondary schools. For students with lower secondary school performance results, an increase in diversity of secondary school subject choices leads to poorer performance in their Engineering degree programs. Conversely, for students with relatively strong secondary school performance results an increase in diversity of secondary school subject choices leads to higher performance in their Engineering degree programs. This may suggest that higher performing students benefit from broader challenges, whereas lower performing students benefit from remaining relatively narrowly focused in their secondary school studies.
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