The OU centre for STEM pedagogy
The literature suggests that students want more from academic staff, from desiring to be treated with explicit respect [[i]] to being co-creators of their teaching and learning material [[ii]] [[iii]]. However, the latest National Student Survey (NSS) results indicate that only 69% of full-time students and 58% of part-time students in England, “feel part of a community of staff and students” [[iv]]. This is one of the lowest results across the survey, indicating that there is potential to improve student satisfaction through the relationship that they have with staff and other students, in the creation of a learning community.
Recent debates on whether or not a student is a customer of the academic service that they are receiving may indicate some of the reasons why students feel dissatisfied. In 2017, it was described that, “Around a half of students now see themselves as customers of their university” [[v]]. While a student might be considered to be a customer from the perspective of paying for a service received, it may be considered to be impossible to treat them as a customer in relation to their University education. If they were to be treated as a customer in this scenario, they may not be challenged beyond what they are comfortable with. If they perceive themselves as customers, they will want to get the service they are paying for, in the sense of their degree. This is clearly not an acceptable situation. However, recognition of this notion of a student as a customer is important: Even if, as academics, we do not agree this [[vi]], it is a situation that we need to work with and respond to.
Taking this idea forward, the NSS survey result may be considered to be a general indicator of dissatisfaction, and was somewhat confirmed in an experience by the Project Lead in a previous academic year, when there was a particularly high drop-out rate of Level 3 students of Software Engineering. Module deferrals generally take place without communication with the tutor in advance of their occurrence, therefore the reasons for deferral are therefore largely unknown. The deferrals were, however, an indicator of students being unable to progress with their study.
The goal of this project, ‘Personalised Student Support Plans: Examining the Effectiveness of Support Recommendations made by Students’, has therefore been to empower students through the support which I provide to them as their tutor, to respond to potential dissatisfaction with their study situation, and to help them feel part of a community of staff and students. As a consequence of creating an environment in which aspects of this potentially desired student experience are facilitated, it has been possible to examine the extent to which students in fact want increased support, their desire to be part of a learning community, and the impact which this has, firstly, on overall module retention, and secondly, on student performance and satisfaction. Essentially, the aim of this programme has been to examine what students think they want and, if given what they think they want, to understand if this in fact responds to their needs.
It was found during this study that the students who engage more regularly and routinely with increased levels of support are the naturally stronger and more competent students. The students who may benefit the most from more support and from a supportive learning environment were found to not engage. Overall engagement with the support on offer during the programme was therefore on a lesser scale than anticipated. However, it is significant to note that retention on the module during the academic year when the programme was running was significantly improved in comparison to the previous academic year. This finding is an interesting one, given who and how many students engaged. The finding may provide evidence that not all students wish to be part of a learning community, but that the fact of knowing that the support is available is enough to encourage students to continue with their study in a way which is satisfying to them.
[[i]] The Guardian, “What do students want the most? To be treated with respect,” Online, Mar. 2018. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2018/mar/16/students-want-most-treated-with-respect-academics-anonymous [Accessed 27 January 2021].
[[ii]]QS Quacquarelli Symonds, “What Students want from their University,” Online, n.d. Available: https://www.qs.com/what-students-want-from-their-university/ [Accessed 27 January 2021].
[[iii]] A. Cook-Sather, “Respecting Voices: How the Co-creation of Teaching and Learning can Support Academic Staff, Underrepresented Students, and Equitable Practices,” The International Journal of Education Research, Vol. 79, No. 5, May 2020, pp. 885-901.
[[iv]] Office for Students, “National Student Survey – NSS,” Online, Dec. 2020. Available: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/student-information-and-data/national-student-survey-nss/get-the-nss-data/#datafiles [Accessed 27 January 2021].
[[v]] Universities UK, “Around a half of students now see themselves as customers of their university – new ComRes survey,” Online, 2017. Available: https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/news/Pages/Around-a-half-of-students-now-see-themselves-as-customers-of-their-university.aspx [Accessed 27 January 2021].
[[vi]] M. Guilbault, “Students as Customers in Higher Education: The (Controversial) Debate needs to End,” Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services 40, 2018, pp. 295-298.