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The student experience

What’s it like to be a 3rd level student?  Every now and again, large scale surveys are released promising to tell us what life is like from the other side of the desk. The latest such study comes from the Times  Higher Education.

By and large, these studies tend to tell us more or less the same thing every time they are carried out.  In essence, students need to feel they belong.  They need to fit with campus life, or at least the aspects of it that are important to them. This might be provision of a well-stocked library, a vibrant students union/ society, an accessible program director, a top-class sports arena, or a chess club. Whatever it is, it contributes to students feeling that they are part of a community. All the criteria THE mention concern sense of community and sense of belonging to that community, or some aspect of it.

I find it interesting that the report mentions a distinction between full time students, part-time students and international students. From my experience, these are three very different collectives, with very different priorities, and looking for very different things from their chosen academic community.  Part-timers come in the evening time when the facilities tend to be limited. They tend to have less time to explore them anyhow. They are more likely that the other groups to turn to each other and their lecturers for assistance needed. Full timers have more time to immerse themselves in the wider aspects of campuslife.

International students, unfortunately, have GNIB (that’s the Garda National Immigration Bureau), language and cultural barriers to deal with before they can even begin to think about the more relaxing and social side of academic life. This group have the biggest challenge. The academic and social/cultural life they find themselves in can differ radically from what they are used to in their home countries and can take some getting used to. As an example, I know the Indian students have settled when they stop calling me ma’am and call me by my first name.  This dilemma of how to address a lecturer is something that’s not even on the table as an issue for domestic students.  The international students are the group most in need of the safe-environs of a supportive community where they can relax and let their guard down.

I would like to see a large scale study that looks at the breakdown of factors contributing to “the student experience” from the perspectives of these 3 groups. I imagine they are very different, even with students in the same class or studying the same course. One student’s positive experience is another student’s nightmare.  Take, for example, the “class discussion”.  Unless they are feeling very secure in the class environment Asian students are slow to get involved in class discussion. American students tend to get bored unless there is something to talk about, regardless of whether they barely know their classmates or not.  Having a combination of both groups in a classroom poses some interesting challenges for the lecturer.

The quality of lecturers / lecturers featured as a criterion in the THE study.  There was a time when being a good lecturer meant showing up to class in time, “standing & delivering”, and marking your essays and exams. This is no longer the case. There are so many competing strands to the “good lecturer” these days that keeping up is a fun challenge. This is a topic more deserving of a whole set of postings on its own …. one I will come back to later.

I reckon that knowing and having passionate views on your subject matter, and then getting that across to those for whom this content is new is no longer the key challenge.  The more critical make-or-break component is engagement, engagement and more engagement.  Given the wealth of domain content information available today, reaching out to students is more important than providing them with that information.  It makes my day when a student complements me.  The reasoning behind the complement almost always arises from engaging with the student(s) in a positive way. This can be anything from an encouraging smile to taking 10 minutes out to explain a concept, or even a firm “why were you not in class yesterday”.

Recently I had a student come into my office, start talking about a problem he was having.  He talked about the problem, then he begin to sort out his dilemma, followed this by identifying holes in his solution, then plugging those holes, and then he left.  He gave me little opportunity to do anything more than say “hmmmm”.  He called back later in the day to thank me for listening.

Talking, listening, engaging, it’s all part of the lecturer’s experience as much as it is the student experience.

And a little humour doesn’t hurt…

Mr Bean asks why - from Zaidlearn's blogspot

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The old vs. the new

Back in the olden days of the last century when I was an undergraduate the lecturing process was very specific. 

  • The lecturer talked.
  • The students listened, processed, and wrote down as much of it as they could.
  • The lecturer departed.

There were smaller group tutorials where students had the opportunity to discuss and interact with the lecturer and each other.

Where in these two formats did the learning actually take place?

Now that I’m on the other side of the desk, I find that the lecturing process is not much different. However, being on the other side of the desk, literally facing the students I see a different perspective.

Take the large group lecture format, for example. The larger the group of students, the more variety there is in student attention spans, cognitive ability, English language ability, general behaviour, motivation and interest. The larger the group the harder it is to cater for such variety. Here’s a typical scenario – lecturer is explaining a concept –

  • A group of students in corner A pick up the meaning very quickly and understand the concept
  • A group of students in corner B have absolutely no idea of what has been said and are looking blankly at the lecturer
  • A group of students in corner C are having linguistic difficulties and have turned to the student in front of / beside / behind them to ask for a translation in their native language. They now have disturbed all students in that zone.
  • A group of students in corner D have ‘kind of’ understood the concept but  really need it explained again to be sure

What does the lecturer do – re-explain the concept. Result –

  • Students in corner A are quickly bored and begin talking among themselves
  • Students in corner B still haven’t understood the concept
  • Students in corner C are still typically linguistically challenged to some extent, even if the lecturer’s re-explanation is slow in delivery and cuts the jargon
  • Students in corner D now likely understand the concept

What does the lecturer do – move on, not re-explaining the concept. Result –

  • Students in corner A remain tuned in, following the lecture
  • Students in corner B still haven’t understood the concept
  • Students in corner C still haven’t understood the concept
  • Students in corner D still likely haven’t understood the concept

Agreed, the above is generalised and simplified but it begs the question. What’s the point of the traditional lecture? Would the students not be better off with a video recording of the lecturer giving the class? They can re-play it again and again as and when they want. Possible result – students in all corners understand the concepts being presented.

This is something that I discuss on a regular basis with both students and fellow colleagues. All are agreed that the videoed lecture would facilitate students being able to pace themselves. Modern technology means the process should be relatively easy to do. However, most are agreed that the discipline of physically coming to class carries a lot of weight. If students could delay attending their lecture, very allowable in the video version, would they do so indefinitely?

Whoever said lecturing is easy?