Although the jury is still out regarding best predictors of tertiary outcomes, there is a mountain of evidence suggesting that the way students view the tertiary climate matters. International research findings including those of Barry Fraser in Australia, Herbert Marsh in the UK and Myint Khine in Singapore support my own research that suggests that students’ rating of the university learning environment is a strong predictor of their academic achievement gains, perceived workload pressure, expectations of success, motivation to aim for ‘excellence’ versus ‘pass’, as well as attendance.
I recently completed a research project where I collected data from 30 university courses located in four faculties within one large university. There were 3,867 students enrolled across these courses who did not know when I was going to visit their classes. I was shocked to note that 2,135 students across these courses were absent – that’s a 55 per cent truancy rate. I wondered: Where are these students? Are they okay? Are they getting that ‘outstanding’ tertiary learning experience somewhere else, if at all? Don’t they benefit from attending classes and interacting with university staff?
What some people might take away from this observation is an ugly truth: Whereas some students religiously attend all classes, some strategically choose which classes to attend, and others do not bother attending at all. In fact, students are generally able to articulate the decision-making process involved with choosing to attend certain classes at certain points of the academic semester, or enrolling in certain courses at certain points of their academic programmes.
One of my research participants explained this phenomenon very bluntly to me: “Why should I drive one hour in traffic to sit through a 2-hour boring class where the lecturer is disinterested in teaching us, reading from their slides after they spent 20 minutes trying to turn the projector on?”
Another student added: “I have actually been in some of these classes where you are kind of scared of answering the question … in some cases, the tutor might have even been a bit intimidating. So you don’t want to answer because you’d be worried their reply might be a bit condescending. It kind of forces you to stay silent.”
Truthfully, I would not bother attending either.
Are these views representative of truths and realities? Or are they simply preferences and delusions?
Regardless, if students’ rating of their learning environment is in fact a strong predictor of their academic learning outcomes, the question becomes: How might we improve this rating?
Indeed, challenges around improving the tertiary climate were addressed in OECD countries like Singapore and Finland who continue to invest strategically in maintaining a diverse, sustainable, and quality tertiary profile that prepares students to reach lifetime goals – however these goals might look like – but never dead ends. Singapore’s and Finland’s tertiary education systems were described as two of the most advanced among the OECD countries.
Although the focus of my research is on the New Zealand tertiary context, some lessons from Finland and Singapore are hard to ignore: strong partnerships with the government and labour market; a strong calibre of high performing staff; high status for teaching and learning; clear connections between undergraduate studies, research, and work experience; a strong equity stance that positions tertiary education as a ‘place for everyone’; and an outstanding tertiary learning experience that is endorsed by students themselves.
In other words, while some academics are still fixated, if not fixed, on questions like “Should I really care about how students perceive my teaching?” and “Am I really responsible for my students’ learning outcomes?” Finland and Singapore have already responded with “Yes.”
Therefore, it is safe to argue that improving student views of the tertiary environment cannot happen without expert staff who are reflective, passionate, and visionary.
It is also safe to conclude that improving such views is a challenge that requires us to move from asking “who is” to “who are” responsible for producing tomorrow’s generation.
Dr Mohamed Alansari is a research fellow at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Auckland. His professional interests include learning environments research, teacher and student beliefs, and predictors of student academic achievement.