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University students' subject combinations may affect their performance

19 October 2020
Diverse subject range could affect some students' performance
Many university students enrol in a diverse combination of subjects from various disciplines. A new analysis suggests that outcomes for such students tend to vary, depending on how they perform generally.

A new analysis by researchers from the Faculty of Engineering’s Core Education team at the University of Sydney found that if low-performing students choose a diverse mix of subjects, their performance further deteriorates.

However well-performing students – those with an average mark of 70 and above – appear unaffected and are able to choose wide-ranging subjects without any deterioration of their grades.

“We found that student performance varied more among students studying a diverse range of subjects," said lead author and Master of Complex Systems student, Sooraj Sekhar.

"Students who were already treading water tended to become submerged with deteriorating grades when they chose atypical subject combinations, such as legal studies, civil engineering and biology.

“I started looking into this topic because of my own experience at university.

"I personally like taking a variety of units from different schools and departments because it is interesting to see the differences in perspectives and subject matters."

Dr Petr Matous, a network analysis expert from the School of Project Management, said that the study made use of data that he hoped in future would be better utilised by universities.

“By applying methods of network science to ten years’ worth of students’ enrolment and performance data, we managed to better understand the patterns of students’ subject choices," said Dr Matous.

We were particularly interested in how students’ choice of subjects relates to their performance over time.

"The university has moved from a one-size fits all education model and is constantly trying to improve the offering of diverse combined degrees and multi-disciplinary initiatives tailored to students’ particular interests.

"This study can help inform that process going forward.

“Our preliminary findings suggest that although accessing a unique combination of courses from distant disciplines can be enriching, there may be some students who might be better advised not to spread their bandwidth too widely, and stick to the more mainstream choices of the majority of their peers.”

Professor David Lowe, who was the Associate Dean (Education) for the Faculty of Engineering when the study was designed, commented on the need for engineering graduates to acquire a diverse skillset, despite the challenges highlighted by the analysis.

"As society’s challenges become more complex, it is increasingly important that our engineering graduates – who are at the forefront of developing solutions to those challenges – are able to draw on increasingly diverse perspectives and skills," said Professor Lowe.

"This means that finding ways to encourage diversity – and ensuring that our students benefit from it – is of real importance to us,."


The researchers, Mr Sooraj Sekhar, Dr Petr Matous, Professor David Lowe, and Associate Professor Tim Wilkinson calculated the relative similarity of all pairs of courses in terms of University of Sydney students’ enrolments by quantifying the proportion of students who took both of the courses among those who took at least one of them.

This allowed them to construct and visualise a network of courses connected through links of relatively high overlap.

The closer a student’s set of selected subjects are in this network, the more mainstream their subject combination is.

The more unconventional choices they make relative to their peers, the farther apart their units are.

The data used in this study was anonymised, with a focus on Faculty of Engineering students.

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