How do you measure and understand the impact of work-based learning on students' career readiness? This project sought to do just that with physics undergraduates at five universities…
The flow of high-quality graduates into technical careers is a key limiting factor for the UK to become one of the world's most innovative economies. Ensuring that STEM students develop the necessary skills for the jobs of the future is therefore central to the government's Industrial Strategy and its ambition to increase total R&D expenditure to 2.4% by 2027.
We recently conducted a cohort analysis to evaluate the impact of WRIPA activities and work-based learning on undergraduate physics students' level of career readiness.1 It considered how confident physics students felt during their degree related to aspects of study and employment. The research also investigated the effect of work-based learning on 'skills for the future' or 'work-ready skills'. In this summary, we provide a set of key points from our findings.
Key quantitative findings
The research used a five-point Likert-type scale where 1 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree, and mean scores (m) are reported below.
- Academic confidence is greater than employability confidence - it is statistically significant that as a whole, across all years of study, students were more confident in matters relating to study ('self-motivated to study' m = 4.38) than for employment-related aspects. Employment-related aspects included 'ready to be a professional physicist' m = 3.16, 'ready to apply what was learned at university to the world of work' m = 3.66 and 'confident in employment prospects' m = 3.69.
- Students become more 'work-ready' as they progress through a physics degree - while study-readiness outranks work-readiness at all stages, it is statistically significant that students become more confident in their ability to enter the world of work as they progress through their degree. For example, after two years of study their mean score for 'ready to be a professional physicist' had risen from 2.74 to 3.42, while after three years it had risen to 3.75. In contrast, no statistically significant change was observed in aspects of study e.g. 'I am self-motivated to study'.
- Work placements boost students' 'skills for the future' - principal component analysis revealed three key factors: 'work-readiness', 'self-efficacy' and 'engagement/motivation'. The cohort analysis revealed that physics students who had undertaken a work placement had a statistically significant higher level of 'work readiness' (m = 4.03) and 'self-efficacy' (m = 4.28) compared to students that had not done a work placement (m = 3.47 and 4.01 respectively). There was no statistically significant advantage of work placement on students' 'engagement/motivation'.
Personal tailored advice and support are extremely valued. Blanket emails are less successful and students report feeling overwhelmed.
Key qualitative findings
- WRIPA - students' experience of WRIPA are commonly positive and appreciative. 'He (WRIPA staff) was incredibly supportive. I don't think I would have quite got through the process without him, to be honest.'
- Targeted communications - the right information to the right students at the right time is a challenge. Personal tailored advice and support are extremely valued. Blanket emails are less successful and students report feeling overwhelmed by all the emails and opportunities ('It just feels like a tremendous amount of pressure and then it doesn't help') to the point of causing mental health issues.
- 'Sought-after skills - the skills most in demand from industry are resilience, self-reliance, curiosity and proactivity. An employer commented that 'they got that [self-reliance] through tenacity but also through asking the right questions, interacting at the appropriate times with all the supervisors, organising meetings'. A student commented that 'the most valuable lesson is definitely to be more proactive'.
WRIPA will develop the 'employability capital' (i.e., skills for the future) of students by offering a broader range of work experience opportunities and reducing the financial barriers to accessing work. In addition, WRIPA will conduct further research to factor analyse the personal resilience of physics undergraduate students and to deeper analyse how work-based learning impacts on resilience.
Methodology of evaluation
This research used in-depth quantitative and qualitative enquiry with a cohort of 303 undergraduate students undertaking physics degrees across the 'WRIPA university physics departments'. Students were surveyed across four years (2015/16 to 2018/19). 83 of these physics students had specific placement experience during their degree (either as a year-in-industry placement or through shorter internships). Interviews were conducted with a subset of survey students and industrial placement supervisors.
The survey consisted of six open-ended questions about placement experience and career readiness, along with 12 attitudinal statements with an agreement scale. This approach helped to develop a profile of students' disposition and confidence regarding study, career and self-management (adapted from Lock et al. 2009).
- The White Rose Industrial Physics Academy (WRIPA) is a collaboration between five university physics departments (University of Hull, University of Leeds, The University of Nottingham, The University of Sheffield and University of York). WRIPA aims to increase the number of physics graduates that pursue technical careers via curriculum development.
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