Scholarly Technical Education Publication Series (STEPS) Vol. 2
Interest Development and Influence on Study Success in Engineering: Case Studies of Malaysia and Australia
Aini Nazura Paimin
Faculty,Technical and Vocational Education
Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia, Batu Pahat, Malaysia
Ensuring tertiary technical and vocational education students graduate on time is highly desirable as study extension can be very costly to the stakeholders. Interest has been found in some studies to be a key contributing factor towards students’ success in higher education while culture can play a major role in interest development. This paper aims to highlight the differences in intrinsic interest of students in Malaysia and Australia that are attributable to cultural variations. This study was conducted on 132 Malaysian and 135 Australian final year engineering students who completed the Study Process Questionnaire (R-SPQ-2F) scale. Correlation coefficient analysis based on the quantitative data indicated positive correlation between intrinsic interest and academic performance for Australian but not for Malaysian students. Interview data provided some explanations for the outcomes that relates to cultural differences. Findings of the current study indicated more similarities rather than differences between interest characteristics of the students in Malaysia and Australia.
Keywords: interest, performance, cultural diversity
Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) provision incurs high financial cost to a developed as well as a developing nation that strives to meet the technical and vocational workforce needs of its nation. It is therefore, crucial to get as many students in any given TVET programs to graduate on time. Thus, high students’ attrition rates in tertiary TVET related programs has been of great concern worldwide for the past 15 years (Davis, Clara, & Sullivan, 2007; Godfrey, Aubrey, & King, 2010; Seymour, 1995). Especially for the engineering discipline, Godfrey (2010) has raised several concerns in Australia such as the higher attrition rate in engineering compared to other science disciplines (e.g., medicine and veterinary science); lower number of migration into engineering from other disciplines than out of engineering to other disciplines; higher attrition rate among locals compared to international students; higher attrition and failure rates for male compared to female students (male are dominant in the course which is about 15% higher than female). With the retention rate at about 85% per year, this situation has led to 52% active enrolment or eligible to graduate after four years.
Similarly in Malaysia, the situation is also in need of much effort to ensure engineering students graduate on time at the polytechnic and university level. A number of studies have shown that higher-education students are at a risk of dropping out if they lack self-confidence, interest and motivation to achieve success (Lotkowski, Robbins, & Noeth, 2004; Seymour, 1995). In the theory of involvement, Astin (1984) suggested interest as one important indicator for students to be deeply involved in their course of study. Since lack of interest and poor academic results have been consistently cited as one of the primary reasons why students leave a program (Caroline & Fitzgerald, 2000; Godfrey et al., 2010; Veenstra, Dey, & Herrin, 2009) with similar scenario being observed in engineering, focusing on how to promote learning involvement among engineering students is of critical importance. Engineering courses, however, pose unique challenges to students as it requires the integration of theoretical and practical knowledge of the sciences and mathematics as well as the assimilations of the non-technical skills. The comment made by one student who was enrolled in both engineering and a commerce course illustrates the point.
“I think the one thing engineering had taught me was definitely teamwork because if I compare it to commerce again there is no teamwork skill, it was not taught in commerce at all. It was like delegating tasks, doing that and bringing them all together. We interact in a quite different way like, listening to other people, not just your own point of view or how you think it would be.”
The comments also highlight the importance of social interaction in the engineering learning. The current study investigates interest development in learning at a Malaysian and Australian university. The way interest is developed and its role towards success is expected to be different between Australian and Malaysian students are due to cultural differences in learning (Hofstede,1986). The most noticeable attribute is that Malaysians possesses the largest power distance while Australian possesses the highest individualism based on the survey among over forty countries. Such a large gap is likely to influence the way interest is developed among the students at both countries. Consistent with this assumption, interest has been found to be a contributing factor towards success among Australian students in the past (Niles, 1995). While in Malaysia, the situation is expected to be different because students’ motivation to study has been shown to be highly driven by external factors (Alias & Abu Bakar, 2010).
Thus, to begin the exploration, the current study will focus on seeking a better understanding of students’ interest, as a contributing factor towards success in engineering studies in the two countries. The findings from this study will provide a greater understanding on interest development and its influence on study success within diverse cultural contexts which will promote the effectiveness of engineering education in particular and TVET in general.
Interest is one of the affective attributes that has become the focus in this research since it has been acknowledged as one of the critical indicators of success in higher education. Interest in general is defined as positive feelings or emotions such as pleasure or happiness (Dewey, 1913) resulting from active interaction with environmental factors. Hidi and Renninger (2006) defined interest as a psychological state of engaging or the predisposition to reengage with particular classes of objects, event, or ideas over time (p.2). The same concept can also be linked to an individual’s disposition, preferences or enthusiasm (Renninger, Hidi, & Krapp, 1992).
Interest in learning could emerge before, during or after a learning process as a result of interactions between the student and the learning environment (e.g., learning activity and learning material). According to Renninger et al. (1992), interest is created when an individual experiences one of the following three situations: (i) increased knowledge, (ii) positive emotions, and (iii) increased reference value. A lecturer who has the ability to deliver a good lecture and interact well with students could engage students’ attention, which could be due to the positive feeling from the experiences. The presence of interest can be observed through the way students behave such as paying attention or through an emotional expression such as excitement (Hidi & Renninger, 2006).
Interest is a dynamic feeling that can be inculcated or reduced naturally. The level of interest is normally different from one person to another depending on the level of motivation generated during the learning processes. The motivation can be either intrinsically or extrinsically motivated (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Interest that are intrinsically motivated is sometimes called intrinsic interest and is often intention or goal driven (Bandura & Skunk,1981). When people achieve a goal that they aimed for such as mastering a desired skill or achieving a desired level of performance, they feel satisfied. The feeling of satisfaction could enhance greater level of intrinsic interest which can eventually develop into personal interest. Personal interest indicates the highest level of intrinsic interest or a well-developed interest and is linked to an individual’s dispositions, preferences, and enthusiasm. It is not automatically activated (Bandura & Skunk, 1981), is developed over time and is usually sustained for a long period of time (Dewey, 1913; Pintrich, 1999; Renninger et al., 1992). If a student has a personal interest in a typical subject, he/she will create their own learning activity or find extra learning material that is not related to their subject syllabus. Learning in this situation is more self-directed, and students are often willing to spend extra time exploring more about the topic of interest. Also, if students approach learning with personal interest, any new information is easier to be absorbed. According to Bandura and Skunk (1981), research on intrinsic interest focused primarily on interest that is already present and finding ways to maintain the interest.
Interest that is extrinsically motivated often generates situational interest. Situational interest, can be observed through emotional expression, such as “I like” or “I enjoy”. Any object or learning material that is attractive (e.g., colourful) can foster situational interest (Pintrich, 2003). This type of interest is usually temporary in nature but such interest is likely to be maintained if the situational interest becomes a personal interest. Research on situational interest focuses primarily on investigating motivational sources of interest. Situational interest has been shown to influence learning and performance through better engagement in class (Deci, 1992) and conceptual change (Kang, Scharmann, Kang, & Noh, 2010).
As discussed, there are two different categories of interest, personal interest and situational interest. Based on these two categories, Hidi and Renninger (2006) propose four categories of interest development: (i) a triggered situational interest (ii) a maintained situational interest (iii) an emerging individual interest and (iv) a well-developed individual interest, which resulted from a short-term and long-term effect of motivation received in class. The development process can also be linked to the Krathwohl’s taxonomy of affective domain (Krathwohl, Bloom, & Masia, 1964) as shown in Figure 1. Hidi and Renninger, (2006) further discussed interest development in details via four cascades of steps which can be linked to interest development in a learning process. The first stage is a triggered situational interest or situational interest which refers to a short term interest that may be triggered when a student experiencing a surprising information, an exciting learning process or increasing of knowledge. The second stage is a maintained situational interest which could involve better engagement and establishment of a self-directed learning activity to sustain the situational interest. The third stage, on the other hand, is an emerging individual interest. This could be established after the students have started to value the experiences and knowledge gathered from the learning process. Students might be volunteered to participate again if they have the opportunity to participate again in the learning activity. The final stage is a well-developed individual interest (also called personal interest or individual interest). Students who possess this level of interest are expected to be self-independent in learning, highly engaged and focus efforts on learning. Students of this category may also establish multiple learning strategies and develop resourcefulness to accomplish their goal even facing obstacles in the learning process.
The illustrations in Figure 1 below illustrate the stages in the affective development of Krathwohl’s taxonomy (Krathwohl, Bloom, & Masia, 1964) and the possible linkage with the aforementioned stages of interest development (Hidi & Renninger, 2006). Progression from Stage 1 to Stage 5 of Krathwohl’s taxonomy represents an increment in the internalization of interest, attitudes, and value. Based on this taxonomy, interest can presumably be generated in line with the development of affective attributes beginning from receiving information when acquiring new knowledge (e.g., while listening to discussion or seeing a demonstration) to a well-developed interest which is expected to form a personal characterization accompanying engagement in learning. Having inquiries in mind that need answers can encourage students to respond in class, or to find more information on the topics outside of class. Satisfaction in response could generate enjoyment and leads to greater level of interest (Bandura & Schunk, 1981; Krathwohl et al., 1964). If students find that the information is useful, they might begin valuing, or appreciate the new knowledge, show greater curiosity and commitment to or having deep interest in developing understanding about the knowledge. Students may start to create their own learning schedule out of formal learning (organizing), presumably, this is also a sign of interest development towards personal interest (well-developed interest). Interest that is well-developed becomes personal interest. At this level, students are expected to possess greater selfefficacy (Bandura & Schunk, 1981), feel autonomous and self-determined in learning (Pintrich, 2003), all of which are believed important behaviors to succeed in engineering.
Observations made on the educational objectives revealed that the current engineering syllabus only covers the first three levels of the internalization process, namely receiving, responding, and valuing. By linking the development process with the four phase model of interest development (Hidi & Renninger, 2006), these three stages are expected to be devoted to the formation of individual interest (stage three) as demonstrated in Figure 1. At this stage, students begin to generate curiosity, positive feelings, and stored value, all of which can generate deeper interest in studying (Hidi & Renninger, 2006), perhaps better engagement in the course.
Participants and Study Location: This study was conducted among Civil, Electrical and Mechanical Engineering undergraduates studying in an institution in Malaysia and Australia. Questionnaire surveys were distributed to final year students, with 267 respondents to the questionnaires (NMY=135, NAU = 132). Final year engineering undergraduates were selected as these students have completed approximately 80% of the engineering program. They are assumed to have developed a particular interest attributes towards learning in engineering. Semi-structured interview sessions were conducted simultaneously with the similar participants. There were sixteen volunteers participated, and were interviewed to share their learning experiences throughout the study.
Only one institution was selected in each country due to practical and resource considerations that limit breadth of selection. This study involved the use of two sets of questionnaire that contain measures of the other learning factors. One of the questionnaires is charged according to the number of respondents thus only a limited numbers of engineering courses could be selected in the absence of research grant or subsidy. Furthermore, the courses from which students were selected must also be offered at both institutions which put another constraint on the selection of institutions. Nevertheless, the numbers of participants are still within the acceptable range (more than 85) to perform the Pearson correlation analysis as recommended by Chuan (2006).
Measures and Process: The revised version of the Study Process Questionnaire (R-SPQ-2F) (Biggs, Kember, & Leung, 2001) was distributed to the participants. With the purpose of understanding the intrinsic interest of the students, only five items relevant to intrinsic interest over twenty items were used. The other items were excluded as they are measuring learning strategy and are linked to an external driving factor. These five items were matched with the three early phases of interest development (Hidi & Renninger, 2006) and were labelled as TI (triggered interest), MI (maintained interest), and EI (emerging individual interest).
A good internal consistency was derived for the interest construct with a Cronbach alpha coefficient of 0.70. The participants were asked to state their level of agreements towards given statements (Table 1) on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being strongly agreed and 5 strongly disagreed.
The performance of the students was measured by the average results to represent success. Thus, the Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) (for Malaysian students) and marks (for Australian students) throughout the program were obtained from university records. Descriptive statistics and correlation coefficient analysis were conducted on the quantitative data with the aid of SPSS Version 19 software. The strength of relationships between intrinsic interest measures and performance were examined using the Pearson Product Moment correlation method – a suitable method as suggested by Pallant (2007)- upon determining that the data met the assumptions of linearity in associations and normality in distributions.
Qualitative data were gathered through semi-structured interviews to support and further explain the quantitative data. Eight Malaysian and eight Australian students volunteered to be interviewed. The semi-structured interview was carried out to provide a free-flowing discussion and allow participants to share their learning experiences throughout the course. This type of interview offers great flexibility in obtaining information about interest attributes of the participants. The first stage of the interview analysis involved the extraction of intrinsic interest related behaviors. The interest attributes identified for the two country groups were then combined and compared to capture any similarities and differences. The semi structured interview data were analyzed with the aid of the NVIVO 9.0 software.
Results and Discussions
Results of means and correlation coefficient analysis are shown in Table 2. Findings of means in the Table 2 showed that Malaysian students tended to rate interest items as more applicable to them than the Australians did (MMY ==3.75; MAU = 3.06). The findings also revealed that intrinsic interest was not significantly correlated with performance for the Malaysian participants (rMY=.137, p>0.05). Only one of the items had a statistically significant and positive correlation with performance which is “studying gives me a feeling of deep personal satisfaction”, (rMY = 0.185*, p>0.05). It is apparent that correlation does not exist (almost zero) for items related to a triggered interest (TI). The results seem to suggest that the learning process may not help foster the development of situational interest and only a higher level of interest can contribute to higher achievement of the Malaysian students. The sensitivity of the language used is another concern. Since Malaysian students tend to be bounded by a high power distance (Hofstede, 1986), not relating interest feeling with external factors (e.g.. family, friends or lecturer) may have caused the insignificant relationship between the interest measures and study performance.
Even though the Australian students indicated a low of intrinsic interest based on the means, this construct is strongly correlated with their performance (rAU=.212**, p<0.01). Only two of the items correlated significantly with performance. The items were “I find that studying academic topics can at times be as exciting as a good novel or movie” (rAU=.204*, p<0.05) and “I work hard at my studies because I find the material interesting” (rAU=.246**, p<0.01). The results also suggest that students who possess lower level of interest (TI and MI) might have a potential to succeed but, higher level of interest does not guarantee success. This finding also lends support to Niles (1995) whose research revealed that Australian students exhibited strong interest in the way they approach learning. This study found that getting an understanding can help foster their interest and possessing stronger interest can potentially influence their study performance.
Finding of this study might support previous notion that engineering curriculum only emphasize on the first three level of affective development (Krathwohl et al., 1964). Undoubtedly, assisting students to develop these early phases of interest is still crucial to foster the emergence of intrinsic interest. Participants from both countries rated “deep enquiry in mind” of emerging intrinsic interest (EI) category as the least applicable to them (MMY ==3.43; MAU = 2.57). This finding reflects that engineering students could be more inclined to study topics as suggested in class with less intention to gain further knowledge about the topics. Based on this finding, we could assume that the current engineering curriculum only foster the development of situational interest but not personal interest. Since there is only one item representing the EI category, this notion is not fully supported.
Table 2: Means and correlation coefficients
Note: MI- maintained interest; TI – triggered interest; EI- emerging individual interest
MMY- Means of Malaysian data MAU - Means of Australian data, r = correlation coefficient
Note: MI- maintained interest; TI – triggered interest; EI- emerging individual interest
As shown in Table 2, most of the interest measures did not significantly correlate with student performance of the two groups. Possessing interest in studying engineering topics might only encourage greater involvement and engagement in studying (Astin, 1984) but less influence on performance. This result may be explained by the fact that a mere interest without other successful characteristic behaviors (i.e., commitment, effort or meaningful understanding) have no influence on engineering student performance (Rotgans, 2009). The outcomes of the interviews and the discussions provide a detailed explanation of each interest attribute to further understand the participants’ behaviors.
Deep Personal Satisfaction
The first interest item, “studying gives me a feeling of deep personal satisfaction”, was the only item that predicts academic performance of the Malaysian participants. Although this item does not predict performance of the Australian participants, analysis of the interview data indicate that slightly more Australians discussed getting a satisfied feeling during or after going through the learning process. The Malaysian participants discussed the feeling of satisfaction when they achieve success in their studies. One of the participants mentioned that he feels satisfied when he has succeeded after putting worthwhile effort in studying:
“For certain subjects like Geomatics, we need to work outside of campus like…do a measurement of building. It was a long and very tiring process. But when I got A for that subject, it was like a deep satisfying feeling. I never regretted taking this course. It was worthwhile to be in this course.” [Malaysian, Civil engineering]
Comments made by the Australian participants revealed that students feel satisfied after going through a learning process. Getting an understanding after putting high effort in studying, acquiring new knowledge and skills and, having sufficient learning materials to facilitate readings, were regarded as some of the situations that have triggered the feelings. According to one participant:
“They taught us a topic in a lecture and I will go through the lecture notes. If I do not understand, I will go to other resources to try and find answers to what I don’t understand from the lecture notes. So I would go to online resources or I will go to the uni library to get the books out and look for answers there. And if not, I would go to my classmates and ask for their opinion on the topic and then if I am happy with all the information that I have gathered, I’ll be satisfied.” [Australian, Electrical engineering]
Another substantial difference seen between the two country groups was that the Malaysian students expressed their feeling of satisfaction about personal achievements or achieving success after studying while Australian students reflected on the feeling of satisfaction that are involved during studying. This variation may reflect the difference in their personal goal achievements in which the Malaysians only “feel enough” when they have succeeded while the Australian feels overly satisfied when valuing the benefits gained while studying.
Understanding Leads to Interest
The second interest item asked if the students feel that “virtually any topics can be highly interesting once I get into it”, which conveys the first level of interest development. The interest feelings are triggered after they managed to get the understanding about the topic. Although the item did not statistically predict the study performance of the Malaysians and Australians, ten participants discussed situations that could explain this behavior. A sample response from the two participants indicated that:
“When I enrolled in Satellite course last semester, I found that the way it was being taught quite different as compared to the other classes. During the lecture, the lecturer actually taught us to use imagination as if we were in the satellite. To begin the course with that kind of exposure has made the learning process became interesting.”[Malaysian, Mechanical engineering]
“I did one subject, it was a great feeling when they teach you and you can get it the first time. Information is flowing into you. That is really a great feeling, as opposed to normally, when you attend a lecture, and you do not know what they are talking about. Then there’s a huge amount of study required to try and understand it.” [Australian, Electrical engineering]
Their experiences are consistent with Renninger et al.’s (1992) assumption which says that interest can be possibly inculcated naturally when an individual is experiencing increment in his/her knowledge. Students who have developed interest are willing to put higher commitment to learning more about the topics as demonstrated by the Australian participant.
The interview analysis also revealed that there were four participants who shared their exciting feeling which can explain the item “I find that studying academic topics can at times be as exciting as a good novel or movie”. This item was significantly correlated with performance of the Australian participants only. Being excited or enthusiastic is considered a positive emotion of energetic interest in a particular subject or activity and it is functioning as a driving or motivational factor to perform behaviors (Barkle, 2010). Examples of comments made by the participants:
“I constantly feel enthusiastic when it comes to learning engineering topics. When I am being scolded or criticized, I would accept and continue learning until I achieve my target.” [Malaysian, Civil engineering]
“It seems to me that all the physics related topics are really exciting. It is not easy, it is definitely not easy, but when I go to the class, everyone’s enthusiastic, the lecturer is enthusiastic, and they do demonstrations. I have seen it a million times, they still bring it out so every time you see it, they seem enthusiastic, to be enthusiastic to teach. It is just enthusiastic.” [Australian, Electrical engineering]
There is no predictive correlation found between this item and academic performance for the Malaysian participants. One possible reason is because the question asked was culturally biased. Hobbies like reading novels and watching movie can be considered as exciting activities for people in a certain culture but such hobbies may be slightly mismatched with Malaysians hobbies. In Malaysia, students are more likely to visit a shopping mall and do social activities with friends (Ahmed, Ghingold, & Dahari, 2007).
Interest Leads to Hard Work
The other reflection on intrinsic interest was related to the item “I work hard at my work because I find the material interesting”. Students exhibited an intermediate level of interest and are willingly to do extra activities which consequently helped them maintaining the interest. This item significantly predicted academic performance of Australians but not Malaysians. As commented by an Australian participant:
“I am always interested in seeing how things work, doing things as much as practical application and science stuff. That was why I chose engineering. I used to always get out all the appliances, whenever we upgraded appliances I always take the old appliances into my study room and rip them apart and try to find how it is actually working”. [Australian, Mechanical engineering]
He further shared the most valuable experience he had while accomplishing his final year group project. His deep interest on the practical side of engineering has motivated him to put in more effort and to be more actively engaged with the project.
“The formula SAE team, was by far the best thing I have ever done. It was fully hands on. Like, at first half of the year you design a car and then second half you ended up building it. So it was actually the manufacturing stage that I really enjoyed and constructing this car and taking it out to the competition yeah, just the hands on aspect of it…You get something tangible and at the end you know how to play around with it and you have to deal with the actual work problem. This is real engineering. This is what I feel deeply interested in and I want to get into.”
In a similar vein, a Malaysian participant did comment that he was willing to spend his free time to explore more about a learning activity that is of interest.
“I always spend my free time going to the site because I am attracted to see the real working environment. One of my friends work at the site, so I went there so that I can see how he does some work, for example, build column and handle workers.” [Malaysian, Civil engineering]
Both of the reflections lend support to Pintrich’s (2003) study which explained that interest in a particular learning activity or topic can lead students’ intention to learn more about it. In both cases, the students put extra effort on the learning activity in order to maintain their interest. Therefore, having an interest in a particular topic or task is seen as important to increase students’ intention and effort to learn effectively.
Deep Query in Mind
Although there was no correlation found between this item and students’ performance at both locations, a reflection made by a Malaysian participant could explain the situation.
“Before the next topic is taught, I will read it beforehand. If I do not understand, I will ask the lecturer. Not in class, but after class. I will ask even if it is a simple question, just to make sure that I have the correct understanding. If the lecturer can’t give satisfactory answer, I will ask other lecturers. I would love to hear from the experts in the field, which I often do in class. I will ask questions even though it is not interesting enough.” [Malaysian, Mechanical engineering]
The reflection made by the participant conveyed that this item might not purely relate to interest. This situation describes that even though the topics learned are not interesting, she used several strategies to get deeper understanding of the topics such as read topics before lecture or ask lecturer and experts in the field. Curiosity in this context might be closely related to the intention to get the understanding.
In general, the identification of intrinsic interest behaviors related to satisfaction and excitement, as well as sustaining interest through understanding and extra work verified the quantitative findings. Although the findings of the quantitative study revealed contrasting results between Malaysia and Australia, there was no major difference found for the interview outcomes. Interestingly, participants in the two countries did also reflect on interest behaviors that were not significantly correlated with performance. This result may be explained by the fact that a mere interest without other successful characteristic behaviors (e.g., commitment, initiative or meaningful understanding) may have no influence on students’ performance in technical related field (Rotgans, 2009).
It is also important to highlight that, participants in both countries were not merely experiencing interest through enjoyment and satisfaction in the learning process, but they also developed interest after managing to understand the content. The participants also maintained their interest through effort (hard work) and active involvement in learning. Findings of the qualitative study revealed that interest might complement cognitive ability of the students to influence their success. Additionally, having interest could also motivate students towards the establishment of other positive attitude such as putting extra time, acquiring more knowledge, in depth exploration and knowledge sharing on topics.
This study sets out to investigate similarities and differences between Malaysian and Australian engineering students with respect to their intrinsic interest in the hope to better understand how success in engineering program can be enhanced. Findings of the current study indicate more similarities rather than differences between the two engineering students’ population, Malaysia and Australia. Overall, the data provide support on the importance of interest as an indicator of success for engineering undergraduates. Since study success is also closely linked to study persistence, there is an urgent need for educators to better understand how they can help and nurture interest development - which support persistence - in their classes in order to retain more students in their programs. Although, the population under study were specifically on engineering students, the findings are expected to be applicable to students enrolled in TVET programs of similar nature.
Keeping in mind that the interest attributes explored in this study were not comprehensive enough to provide a detailed overview on students’ intrinsic interest, it is suggested that future research on interest consider additional information of other interest related behaviors to enable a meaningful conclusion being made on the role of interest towards success in engineering programs.
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