student_attitude_report by wanghonghx

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									          A Survey
              of
      Student Attitudes,
       Experiences and
        Expectations
          on selected vocational courses
                        at
         the University of Northumbria

                    April 2005


                   Anna Round
Student Retention Project, University of Northumbria
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                                  PART ONE: BACKGROUND

Section One:     Introduction

1:1      Background                                          1

1:2      Literature survey                                   2

1:3      Primary research                                    4

1:3:1    Student questionnaire                               4
1:3:2    Staff questionnaire                                 6
1:3:3    Interviews                                          6


Section Two: Literature survey

2:1      Student perceptions and the
                       student experience                    7

2:1:1    Holistic approaches                                  7
2:1:2    Academic preparedness and study skills               9
2:1:3    Student attitudes to feedback                       11
2:1:4    Student attitudes to teaching and learning          13
2:1:5    Tutor-student relations                             15
2:1:6    Accommodation and retention                         16

2:2      Student Characteristics                             18

2:2:1    Views of students                                   18
2:2:2    Student self-perceptions: skills                    19
2:2:3    Student self-perceptions: workload                   21

2:3      Transformation                                      22

2:4      Widening participation: some further issues         26

2:4:1    Non-traditional students and the
                         student experience                  26
2:4:2    Support and access to support                       27

2:5      Students and motivation                             28

2:5:1    Types of student motivation                         28
2:5:2    Retention and motivation                            29
2:5:3    Motivations for entering higher education           30
2:5:4    Goals and values (Mäkinen et al)                    31
2:5:6    Motivation and satisfaction                         33
2:5:7    Psychological theories of motivation                34
2:5:8    Motivation and the „meaning‟ of work                36
2:5:9    Motivation and examinations                         38
2:5:10   Capability and motivation                           38
2:5:11   Motivation and effort                               39
2:5:12   Strategies for building student motivation          42
2:5:13   Challenges to motivation: the „strategic student‟   43


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2:6     Academic staff dissatisfaction            47

2:7     Culture and higher education              49

2:7:1   The purpose of higher education           49
2:7:2   Social stereotypes                        51
2:7:3   The culture of the university             52


PART TWO: EXPERIMENTAL FINDINGS


Section Three: Research findings: student characteristics

3:1     Demographics                              55

3:1:1   Age, sex and programme of study           55
3:1:2   Entry qualifications                      56
3:1:3   Accommodation                             56
3:1:4   Student generation and parental
                         occupation               56

3:2     Student study behaviours                  59

3:2:1   Timetabled hours                          59
3:2:2   Private study                             59
3:2:3   Attendance at timetabled sessions         61
3:2:4   Part-time work                            62
3:2:5   Commuting and college days                63


Section Four: Entry and progression               64

4:1     Entry decisions                           64

4:1:1   Reasons for choosing to
               go to university                   64
4:1:2   Reasons for choosing the
               University of Northumbria          65
4:1:3   Reasons for choice of
               degree programme                   66

4:2     Persistence                               68


Section Five:   Adjustment, expectations and attitudes

5:1     Adjustment                                69

5:1:1   Academic adjustment                       69
5:1:2   Relations with lecturers                  70
5:1:3   Time management and
                independent learning              71
5:1:4   Social adjustment                         72
5:1:5   Financial pressures                       73


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5:2     Expectations                            74

5:2:1   Academic issues                         74
5:2:2   Support                                 74
5:2:3   Social expectations                     75
5:2:4   General expectations                    75
5:2:5   Discussion                              75

5:3     Attitudes                               77

5:3:1   Interest                                77
5:3:2   Study approaches                        77
5:3:3   Motivation                              78
5:3:4   Integration                             78


Section Six:     Study behaviours

6:1     Introduction                            79

6:1:1   Items used in defining
                „study behaviours‟              79
6:1:2   Student study behaviours                80

6:2     Study behaviours and
               entry decisions                  82

6:3     Adjustment and study behaviours         84

6:3:1   Academic adjustment
                and study behaviours            84
6:3:2   Social adjustment                       85

6:4     Expectations and study
               behaviours                       85

6:5     Attitudes to university and
               study behaviours                 87


Section Seven:          Student expectations

7:1     Expectations of academic demands        88

7:2     Expectations of workload                90

7:3     Other expectations                      91




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Section Eight:           Motivation              93

8:1     Study behaviours and motivation          93

8:2     Motivation and satisfaction              93

8:3     Sources of motivation                    94

8:4     Motivation and adjustment                95

8:5     Motivation and entry decisions           96


Section Nine: Demographic factors

9:1     Sex                                      97

9:2     Generation                               99

9:3     Social class based on occupation         101

9:4     Entry qualifications                     102

9:5     Accommodation                            103

9:5:1   Study behaviours and accommodation       103
9:5:2   Entry and expectations                   104
9:5:3   Adjustment and attitudes                 104


Section Ten:     Expressed reasons for entry and student characteristics

10:1    Academic reasons                         106

10:2    Career reasons                           108

10:3    Reputation                               109

10:4    Family and school:
               ‘reactive’ entry reasons          110



Section Eleven:          Who considers leaving?

11:1    Demographic factors and withdrawal 111

11:2    Entry decisions and withdrawal           112

11:3    Study behaviours and withdrawal          113

11:4    Attitudes, experiences
               and withdrawal                    114




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Section Twelve:          Student interviews

12:1     General characteristics of
               student interviewees                 116

12:2     Preparation and transition                 117

12:2:1 Course choice                                117
12:2:2 What came as a surprise?
               Academic factors                     118
12:2:3 What came as a surprise?
               Non-academic factors                 119
12:2:4 Transition                                   119
12:2:5 Financial reality                            120

12:3     Experience of university                   122

12:3:1 Study behaviours                             122
12:3:2 Academic staff                               124
12:3:3 Social experiences                           124

12:4     Student attitudes                          126

12:4:1   Motivation                                 126
12:4:2   What is university for?                    127
12:4:3   Responsibilities                           127
12:4:4   Future goals                               128


Section Thirteen:        Staff perspectives

13:1     Methodology                                130

13:2     Staff characteristics                      130

13:3     Staff responses: quantitative sections 131

13:3:1   Staff impressions of students              131
13:3:2   Staff perspectives on student retention    134
13:3:3   Staff perspectives on entry decisions      136
13:3:4   Staff perspectives on the
                 purpose of the university          137

13:4     Staff responses: student lifestyles
                 and characteristics                138

13:4:1 Staff knowledge of student lifestyles        138
13:4:2 Staff narratives of student lifestyles       139
13:4:3 Staff impressions of student study
               skills and academic orientation      140
13:4:4 Staff impressions of student
               attitudes to university              141
13:4:5 Staff impressions of
               student motivation                   142



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Section Fourteen:       Staff interview feedback

14:1     Staff interviews                           145

14:2     Staff perceptions of students              145

14:2:1   Student study habits                       145
14:2:2   Student preparation for university         146
14:2:3   Student attitudes to academic work         148
14:2:4   Student motivation                         150

14:3     Staff perspectives on
                 university culture                 152

14:3:1 The impact of fees on
              student attitudes                     152
14:3:2 University mission                           152

Conclusion                                          155

Bibliography                                        161

Appendix One: Questionnaire                         164




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                                    EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Introduction

This project attempted to investigate aspects of the lifestyles, expectations and attitudes of
first year undergraduates on a sample of vocational courses at the University of Northumbria.
These emerged as under-researched areas during the earlier survey of literature on student
retention which was carried out for the Student Affairs Committee. In addition, they were not
currently the subject of extensive investigation elsewhere within the university.

The objectives of the project were to present a realistic and up-to-date of student
characteristics, to identify aspects of these which might make students vulnerable to
withdrawal or failure, and to identify the sort of student „best practice‟ which fosters success
and which could form the basis of efforts to support students who are at risk of dropping out.

A questionnaire was sent to students, requesting information about their family background,
accommodation, part-time work, study habits, attitudes, expectations of university and
experiences during their first year. A 21% return was received. A small number of students
were also interviewed in greater depth on these topics. In order to compare staff perceptions
of students with the picture that emerged from the students themselves, a questionnaire was
circulated to staff and several staff were interviewed about their view of students.


Literature review: central topics

A literature review was undertaken to provide context for the experimental findings. This
indicated that it is important to consider the whole student experience when investigating
student satisfaction and retention. Studies of student retention rarely identify one single factor
as explaining withdrawal, and where such simplistic answers are proposed, they are rarely
reliable. A recent development in the retention literature is a focus on „what goes right‟ for
successful students, and on ways of building this information into retention activities.

Two conflicting strands of argument emerge over the discussion of „student‟ rather than
„institutional‟ factors in explaining student withdrawal. One states that students with similar
personal circumstances and academic experiences can show radically different levels of
satisfaction and retention, and that therefore it is wise to look at „individual‟ factors such as
preparation and motivation. The other condemns this sort of approach as „victim blaming‟,
convenient only for the institutions which can then evade their responsibilities. Instead,
institutions should examine themselves in order to explain retention rates. Most realistic
studies of retention, not surprisingly, combine these approaches.

One „individual factors‟ which has been identified is academic preparedness for university.
Well-prepared students have realistic expectations about course content, required study skills,
teaching methods and aspects of non-academic life, such as social contacts and finance. In
particular, an appreciation of the need for independent learning skills and good personal time
management seem to be important. Where students are badly prepared, it is possible to
overcome this through induction activities and study support. However, these efforts require
individual contact and a willingness on the part of the student to engage with the process.
Both of this require institutional resources and a basic level of student motivation.

Feedback and „student centred learning approaches‟ are also valuable in supporting student
satisfaction and retention. For these to work well it is essential that students and staff agree on
academic values and on the definition and purpose of activities and assignments. Dialogue
and mutual respect between students and staff are needed. This academic integration is
essential, but also resource-intensive, especially with current staff:student ratios.


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A number of practical factors in the student experience are identified as crucial to retention.
One of these is accommodation, with several studies noting that students who live in
university accommodation show better levels of achievement, satisfaction and persistence
than those who live at home or in privately rented housing. This is presumably because Halls
of Residence offer an opportunity to build an academic and social community where the
university experience is central to most members.

The literature on student characteristics and attitudes is small. One important point which
emerges from this is the enormous diversity of the student population, and the unreality of
talking about „students‟ as if they were a uniform group. Many authors suggest that the range
of beliefs about university among students has increased in recent years, with some showing a
high level of academic orientation and motivation, and others feeling disengaged and
alienated, or attempting to get as many marks as possible for as little effort.

Student self-perceptions have been investigated in a number of studies. Again, these are very
diverse. In general, students tend to lack a discourse around skills and education in general; it
can be difficult for them to reflect effectively on their educational experience. Often student
perceptions of their university experience are influenced as much by their expectations and
beliefs as by what they actually do or encounter. This is particularly true of workload.

Some work on the experience of non-traditional students has been undertaken in relation to
widening participation efforts. Again, an enormous diversity emerges here. Some studies find
that non-traditional students are more likely to thrive in universities where elements of their
social integration have been effectively addressed, inside and outside the classroom. Others
proposed that teaching methods and even course content may need to be modified to make
universities truly inclusive. First-generation students are identified as being especially
vulnerable because they lack the informal support and information networks offered by
graduate parents, siblings and friends.

Student motivation is mentioned in several studies as a key factor in retention. It has been
investigated by several researchers, who have examined both „long term‟ motivations for
university entry (e.g. career aspirations) and „short term‟ motivations which will determine
the effort put in to day to day tasks on a course. Both carer prospects and subject interest are
important in motivating students to go to university in the first place, although the former
seems to be named by more students. Overall, motivations which might be paraphrased as
„learning for learning‟s sake‟ are rarer, although many student state these.

Motivation, on a day to day basis, will be determined by the „meaning‟ which students attach
to individual tasks and to the academic enterprise as a whole. It will also be influenced by
their levels of satisfaction with all aspects of the course, from inherent interest in the subject
through relations with lecturers to satisfaction with teaching methods and facilities. Types and
timing of assessment can also have an effect on motivation. In general, students who have
confidence in their own abilities will show higher levels of motivation.

One of the biggest challenges to student retention is the emergence of the „strategic student‟,
who sets out to minimise effort and maximise results. This attitude, and the need to cater for
this group of students in an age of quality management and performance evaluation, may
contribute to reportedly rising levels of academic staff dissatisfaction. Work in the UK and
overseas suggest that many staff are dismayed at levels of student preparation and motivation,
and at the problems of addressing these as opportunities for individual interactions with
students are reduced by modern funding constraints.

Interaction with students, and the resultant student integration, is made even more difficult
where there are gaps in „culture‟ between staff and students, or where staff and students have
different underlying but unspoken assumptions about HE.


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Experimental findings

Demographics

Respondents were all first-year full-time students on large-intake courses in NBS and the
School of Informatics; around half came from each school. The vast majority were „young‟
rather than mature-age, and slightly more men than women returned the questionnaire.
Almost all of the students who responded held A-levels as their primary entry qualification.
Just over 40% lived at home, and around the same number in University of Northumbria-
owned Halls of Residence or shared flats.

The majority (almost two thirds) were first-generation students, i.e. neither parent had
attended university. Around 35% came from family backgrounds which were professional or
managerial, 13.8% from skilled non-manual backgrounds, and 30% from skilled manual,
semi-skilled or unskilled backgrounds (the latter group was very small). Second-generation
students with older siblings were far more likely than first-generation students with older
siblings to state that these siblings had participated in higher education.

Women tend to report lower levels of social and, to a lesser extent, academic confidence than
men, despite their slightly higher levels of academic adjustment and satisfaction.

First generation students report slightly higher levels of academic orientation and subject
interest than second generation. There is some evidence that they are less likely than first
generation students to enter reactively. However, first generation students feel considerably
less well-prepared for university by their schools/colleges than second generation students.

Students who live in Halls of Residence are better attenders than students who live at home,
and show considerably stronger academic adjustment.


Study behaviours

Although students on all of these courses had been given advice on a „sensible‟ number of
hours to spend in private study, over 25% stated that they had received no such advice.
Among students who stated that they had received advice, the vast majority (over 4/5) stated
that they had not followed it. The average number of private study hours reported was just
over 8 hours a week, although individual reports varied enormously. More than 50% of
students claim to spend less than 10 hours a week in private study, but 8% claim to spend
over 20 hours a week working independently.

Women spend slightly longer in private study than men, averaging 8.45 hours as opposed to
7.32. All of the students who report no study at all in a normal week were male, and far more
men than women do less than 5 hours in a normal week. However, all of the students who do
20 or more hours a week are male. 72.2% of students who do ten hours a week are female.

The most common reason for not studying was believing that one was doing enough,
followed by lack of motivation (both named by over 50% of students who did not do the
recommended number of hours). Part-time work was named by around 20% of students.

Attendance among these students was generally good, but falls off through the academic year.
At the beginning of the academic year 91.9% claim to attend over 75% of timetabled sessions.
This falls gradually to 53.2% of students at the end of the second semester. The main reason
for non-attendance was „long gaps between classes‟ (named by more than 2/3 of students).




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Responses cluster in this section. Students who disagree with the item „in general, I only did
the minimum amount of work that was required of me‟ were likely to report higher private
study hours and attendance; the reverse was also the case. Overall study behaviours and
measures of adjustment tend to be related, with students who report more effective study
behaviours also showing higher levels of academic and social adjustment. They also tend to
have had more accurate expectations of university and stronger academic orientation.


Part-time work

Just under half of the students (49.2%) stated that they had had a part-time job during term-
time. The average working week during term-time was 14.4 hours, and most jobs occupied
between 10 and 20 hours each week. 60% of women worked, compared with 45% of men, but
women with jobs worked slightly shorter hours, with an average working week of just over 12
hours as opposed to 16.5. Students living at home, first-generation students and student from
lower social classes (based on occupation) were significantly more likely to have a part-time
job. Students with part-time jobs tended to be either very good or very poor attenders.


Entry and progression

Students were asked to separate the reasons why they decided to go to university, reasons for
choosing the University of Northumbria, and reasons for applying to their particular course.

Reasons for going to university
General job prospects were the most frequently named reason (85.9%), closely followed by
the „self esteem‟ reason of simply wanting to achieve a degree. Subject interest was named by
53.8%, and general enjoyment of studying by 37.5%. Just over 25% named family influence.
Around 20% said that no one reason had been most important; for those who named a
particular reason as paramount, the most common was job prospects.

First-generation students were significantly more likely than second generation students to
name subject interest, and second-generation students were significantly more likely than
second-generation to name family influence. Students who agree that the wishes of their
family were important in their decision are less likely to agree that subject interest played a
part, suggesting that they may be reactive entrants.

Reasons for choosing the University of Northumbria
The fact that the university offered a particular course was the main reason (65.6%). This was
followed by a cluster of reasons named by between 30% and 45% of students, including the
reputation of a particular School or course, the reputation of the city, the reputation of the
university, and a desire either to leave home or to live at home.

More women name school or course reputation; more students from professional/managerial
and semi-skilled or unskilled backgrounds state that they chose Northumbria partly because
they wanted to leave home. All of the students from lower social class backgrounds who state
that they chose the Northumbria in order to live away from home are in part-time work.

Reasons for choice of degree programme
Subject interest is named by 83.3% of students, followed by the desire for a well-paid job
(68.3%) and/or a particular kind of job (50.8%). Almost 50% of students stated that no one
reason was most important; where a primary reason was mentioned, subject interest was most
frequently cited (23.8%), followed by the prospect of high earnings (14.3%).




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Persistence

All of these students have progressed to their second year, but 25% state that at some point in
the first year they seriously considered dropping out, and 31.3% considered transferring to a
different course. Poor attenders, those from backgrounds other than professional/managerial,
and students living at home are all more likely to have considered leaving.


Adjustment

Students generally feel that they have adjusted well to the academic demands of university,
although only 25% „strongly agree‟. 70.8% feel that the level of academic demand on their
course is „about right‟, and just under 20% believe it was „too hard‟. Judgement of academic
demand levels associates significantly with feelings of adjustment to the academic demands
of university. Students who feel that they have adjusted well to the academic demands are
more likely to feel that they can understand the rationale for the content of their course. Social
adjustment is very high, and there is a significant association between social integration and
academic integration. Strong social integration was significantly related to good time
management. Feelings of belonging and overall enjoyment were high among these students.

High satisfaction with teaching quality also emerges, and the majority feel that lecturers are
approachable. Students who are satisfied with one of these factors are significantly more
likely to be satisfied with the other. Judgement of „academic demands‟ is also significantly
related to judgement of „approachability‟. Students‟ feelings about their lecturers relate
closely to their feelings about their studies.

Students generally believe they have acquired good time-management skills, but are less
likely to express confidence about their consistency of work throughout the first year,
although a large minority state that they did work consistently. Most feel that they have
become good at working independently, and that their workload is „about right‟. Assessment
of the level of academic demands is significantly related only to independent working skills,
and not to either consistent work habits or time management. Estimates of the appropriateness
of workload correlated significantly with perceptions of workload and academic demands.
Students who found it difficult to see a clear rationale for course content were also more
likely to perceive their workload as being too heavy.

Over half agree that they „sometimes felt pressurised by financial worries‟. Students who feel
well adjusted to their social life are significantly less likely to agree, and students who feel
that they are under financial pressure are significantly less likely to agree strongly that their
lecturers are approachable and to show other signs of poor academic integration.


Expectations

University workloads were a surprise to the majority of students surveyed. Expectations about
academic demands were slightly more accurate, and expectations of course content were
generally good. Students had a fairly realistic picture of academic staff, and a reasonable
picture of the teaching methods they would encounter. In general, only very small numbers
had had „very accurate‟ or „very mistaken‟ expectations.

Students had reasonably accurate expectations of the amount of academic support they would
encounter at university, but expectations of non-academic support were more accurate.
Students had, however, rather over-estimated the amount of contact with individual academic
staff. Most felt fairly well-prepared for the need to be independent learners at university.
Almost a third of students find that their course is more interesting than they had anticipated.


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Ease of making friends was the area in which their previous perceptions had been least
accurate. Just 36.9% found that making friends was about as easy as they had expected before
they arrived. 18.5% found it a bit harder, and 9.2% found it much harder. By contrast, 24.6%
found that it was easier, and 10.8% found that it was much easier. The levels of social anxiety
among incoming students appear to be quite high.

A large minority of students are very satisfied with school or college as a preparation for
university. 12.3% feel their previous institution was a „very good‟ preparation for HE, and
32.3% feel it was „good‟. A less satisfied 32.3% feel it was „about adequate‟, and 20% state
that it was „poor‟. Just 3.1% feel they had „very poor‟ preparation from their previous studies.

Overall, accurate expectations are consistently associated with good adjustment and
satisfaction. Expectations and satisfaction with experience show correlations in specific areas,
such as workload, time management, social adjustment and teaching methods. However,
students‟ expectations of academic interactions with staff, rather than of the personal qualities
of staff, seem to determine their perceptions of staff approachability. Students generally feel
quite well prepared for university, although the majority feel that their preparation was
acceptable or adequate rather than very good.


Attitudes

Students express very high levels of interest in their courses; few are bored. Responses to
items designed to measure intellectual orientation and satisfaction are high, but a high number
also agree that they would prefer to study „only‟ topics which they believe to be relevant to
their future careers, suggesting preference for „just in time‟ rather than „just in case‟ learning.
Around 45% agree that their usual working pattern involves doing „the minimum amount of
work which is required of me‟, but almost 40% reject this „strategic‟ position.


Motivation

The majority report some problems with motivation. Over 50% agreed/strongly agreed with
the item „I often found it difficult to get motivated to work on my course‟. 20% disagreed/
strongly disagreed. Gaining high marks, as opposed to just passing, emerged as extremely
important, and under 10% disagreed or felt non-committal about the statement „I need to
know how well I‟m doing in order to feel motivated to work‟. Surprisingly, in the light of the
high levels of subject interest expressed elsewhere in the responses, the item „I often find my
course boring but will stick with it because I want a good job‟ elicited agreement from almost
50%. Around 35% disagreed. More students agreed than disagreed that „inherent ability is the
biggest factor in academic success at university‟, but the majority preferred not to express an
opinion on this item.

Motivation appears to have different sources for different students. The main source of strong
motivation to engage in day-to-day academic tasks is subject interest. Many students state that
they are motivated to „stick with‟ their course, even if they find it dull, in order to get „a good
job‟. However, this does not seem to translate to hard work on a day-to-day basis for many
students. The vast majority state that they need to know „how they are doing‟ in order to feel
motivated to work. Students who achieve high day-to-day motivation seem to have higher
levels of subject interest, academic orientation and confidence. They also show better
adjustment and more realistic expectations of university.

There is no association between agreement that getting high marks, rather than just passing, is
important (nearly all students agreed with this item) and doing more than the minimum
amount of work required. Many students seem to want high marks on the minimum of effort.


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Student characteristics and entry choices

Students who state that they make the decision to go to university because they are interested
in studying a particular subject show overall more effective study behaviours, levels of
academic orientation and adjustment, and higher motivation and satisfaction. All of these
relate to subject interest at the point of the decision to enter HE rather than just at the point of
choosing a course. Students who mention academic reasons (e.g. an enjoyment of studying
and learning) at the point of HE entry have higher academic orientation and motivation.

Instrumental reasons for course/university entry do not correlate with poor study behaviours,
motivation or adjustment unless this is the most important reason. Students who enter the
university or course because of its reputation seem to work harder and to feel more strongly
committed to the institution.

Students who are influenced by their teachers to enter HE or to enter a particular course are
not particularly likely to show the problematic characteristics of reactive entrants. However,
students who state that family influence was important in their decision may exhibit some of
these, especially if their older siblings have entered university as well.


Students who consider leaving

Students with the following characteristics were more likely to have considered leaving university:
     living at home
     parental occupation in a lower socioeconomic category (possibly relating to financial
        hardship, see below)
     gender (women were more likely to consider leaving, although this correlation was
        not significant)
     generation (first generation students were more likely to consider leaving, although
        this correlation was not significant)
     absence of subject interest at the point of entering HE
     absence of subject interest at the point of course choice
     unclear career aims
     course choice on the basis of attraction to the course title
     desire for a well-paid job as the most important reason for course choice
     poor attendance, low private study time
     low motivation
     poor academic adjustment/integration
     poor social adjustment/integration
     low academic orientation


Student interview feedback

Interviews were carried out with a small number of highly motivated and satisfied students. It
was possible to glean from these interviews some of the characteristics which had helped
them gain a very positive experience of university:
     thorough research before choosing their course
     research and preparation for the experience of university, building realistic expectations
     willingness to reflect on their own academic and social experience at university.
     excellent academic and pastoral support from tutors, including use of electronic resources
     excellent teaching; enjoyment of both traditional lectures and interactive sessions
     strong and consistent independent study habits and excellent time management
     proactive and outgoing approach to building their social lives at university

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Sources of dissatisfaction for these students included:
    lack of course-based social activities (some students only)
    presence of „strategic students‟
    financial hardship, especially unexpected financial hardship

These students were all highly motivated to work. Some of the sources of their motivation were:
    high levels of subject interest
    career aspirations
    growing confidence in their academic ability („worry‟ was an initial problem for some)
    personal satisfaction and „bettering‟ one‟s own performance
    intellectual growth and learning new things
    excellent teaching and good relations with lecturers

These students expressed very similar ideas about the purpose of a university. This was
regarded as a combination of vocational preparation for work, intellectual stimulation and
growth, and personal development and the chance of a „university experience‟.


Academic staff perspectives

A questionnaire was circulated to academic staff in order to measure perceptions of student
characteristics alongside the findings from the student questionnaire. In addition, a small
number of interviews were carried out with lecturers. The following impressions emerged:

          staff are aware of an enormous diversity among their students in terms of motivation
           levels, preparation for university, attitudes and other factors.
          overall staff feel very positively towards their students and in particular towards the
           progress which they make over the whole of their course.
          staff feel that many students are poorly prepared for HE study when they arrive
          staff feel that students find it difficult to handle conceptual or abstract work
          staff are worried about a substantial number of students who expect teaching methods
           which „spoon feed‟ them academically
          staff slightly overestimate student motivation levels
          staff generally underestimate the extent to which high marks (rather than just
           passing) are important to students.
          staff generally underestimate the extent to which continual feedback on progress is
           important in motivating students.
          staff slightly underestimate the number of students who take a „strategic‟ approach to
           work, but have a fairly accurate picture of student private study habits.
          staff are aware of a small number of students who expect to „dictate terms‟
          staff are aware of the importance of good course choice to student retention and of
           financial hardship.
          staff are aware of the problem of reactive entry to university and its implications for
           retention, satisfaction and motivation
          staff are aware of the importance of poor motivation in student retention, but overall
           this is probably underestimated.
          staff are aware of the importance of career aims in university entry decisions but
           somewhat underestimate the importance of subject interest
          staff and the student interviewees had similar views about the mission of the
           university; however, this group of students may have been somewhat untypical.




                                                viii
ix


Some staff seem to have an accurate perspective on student part-time working habits, but the
majority somewhat underestimate the number who work, and slightly underestimate the
typical length of the working week. Staff have a very accurate picture of student study
behaviours. Many staff feel that attendance has sharply declined in the past year or two.

When asked about their knowledge of student lifestyles, staff stressed that they had observed
a huge diversity. Students on smaller, very specific vocational courses were recognised as
having generally high levels of motivation and excellent study habits. Staff also spoke very
positively about the motivation and study habits of some non-traditional student groups such
as mature-age students, part-time students and first-generation students.

Time pressures caused by balancing very diverse elements, in particular the need to earn
money, social life and academic workloads, was noted by many. For some students academic
work appears to be the lowest priority and for others it is paramount.

Tutors felt that most students do not gain a useful set of study skills for HE from their
previous educational experience. Problems were noted with areas such as:
     time management and identification of priorities
     independent working
     problem-solving skills
     logical and conceptual work, structuring arguments
     communication skills, in particular sustained writing and report writing
     reading, note-taking and listening
     some aspects of social and interpersonal skills

While students can improve their generic skills, most staff found that the single most
important factor in this area was the placement year, after which students learnt to treat their
university course in a „professional‟ way.

Overall, students who took a „transactional‟ approach to their studies were identified as a
particular source of frustration. These are students whose approach to higher education might
be summed up as „you give us the information, we give it back to you and you give us the
marks‟. They do not wish to engage with the subject or undergo any kind of intellectual
„transformation‟.

Some staff were aware of the presence of „strategic students‟, and also of a small number of
students who feel that if they are „paying‟ they have „a right to pass‟.

Staff felt that levels of motivation vary enormously. Most had observed an improvement in
motivation as the course continues. Sources of motivation were identified as subject interest,
career goals (which were seen as motivation to pass rather than to work hard for most
students), fear of failure and desire to perform well, and good relations with tutors. Lack of
confidence was mentioned as a demotivator by a few staff, but was generally underestimated.
Feedback was not mentioned as a motivator.

Overall, staff felt that it was difficult to encourage students to engage in the „personal
development‟ aspect of their university experience, although this is probably the most
valuable element both for students and for employers of graduates.




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Reflections

       most students are very satisfied and have enjoyed their university experience
       staff like their students and are strongly committed to providing excellent teaching
        and learning
       students feel fairly well adjusted to their academic and social lives at university
       students do relatively little private study, and attendance falls through the academic year
       poor attendance relates to low motivation, lack of integration and risk of withdrawal
       staff have a fairly accurate awareness of student lifestyles but would like more
        information and more accurate information about these
       a relatively high number of students state that they sometimes lack motivation
       demotivators include: lack of interest, a failure to connect employment goals with
        current tasks (especially where future goals themselves lack clarity), „worry‟, lack of
        confidence in one‟s abilities, time pressures, unclear or undefined priorities and poor
        study habits.
       low motivation is in a vicious cycle with poor study habits, lack of enjoyment and
        integration, and a failure to engage with personal development aspects of the course
       a number of students are „reactive‟ entrants to university; they are vulnerable to
        failure and/or withdrawal
       a number of students take a „strategic‟ approach to their course; this puts them at risk
        of failure/withdrawal and disrupts the learning of other students, in particular making
        it difficult to use „student centred‟ teaching methods
       reasons for entry shape student behaviour; students who decide to go to university
        because of interest in a particular subject are more likely to persist and be satisfied
       realistic expectations lead to a more satisfying experience and better adjustment
       perceptions of university are shaped by the relationship of expectations to experience
       many non-traditional students are highly motivated and have strong study habits
       staff feel positive towards non-traditional students
       female students are in general less confident (academically and socially) than males
       students who live in halls of residence have better adjustment, attendance and
        persistence than students who live at home
       student perceptions of staff approachability relate at least partly to the academic
        support available
       the „financial reality‟ of student life surprises many students
       staff and at least some students share a view that the mission of the university is to
        offer both vocational training and intellectual growth through personal development
       staff worry that some students do not engage with personal development activities
        and favour a „transactional‟ approach to learning
       staff are aware of enormous diversity in the attitudes and lifestyles of students self-
        management, prioritisation, note-taking, listening and directed reading, written and
        verbal communication, problem-solving, conceptual work, and reflection and report
        on their own learning. Staff also worry about the development of „transactional‟
        approaches to learning
       staff note that generic skills improve throughout the course and especially during or
        after work placements.
       student confidence is often low and students would benefit from more feedback on
        their progress and interaction with staff
       staff and students may bring different „unspoken‟ assumptions to the university; a
        lack of „communication‟ may be responsible for some difficulties




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Recommendations

        strong support for more small-group and/or one-to-one staff/student contact,
         including tracking of individual student progress
        formal routes to individual academic support
        address issues of poor motivation
        consider introducing activities similar to those of work placements early in the course
        consider ways of discouraging transactional approaches to learning and engaging
         students with generic skills and personal development activities
        examine „good practice‟ among students and look at ways to extend this through the
         student population
        attempt to engage all students in subject interest early on, including those for whom
         this is not a high priority at entry
        encourage students to develop clear personal goals throughout the course
        actively relate future employment to current studies, again early on in the course
        help staff gain clear picture of student lives
        integrate realistic information about student lives into planning of administrative
         procedures such as timetabling
        build in ongoing feedback early in the course
        make staff aware of „underlying‟ demographic factors, e.g. gender differences and
         „class‟ differences in part-time work take-up.
        attempt to reproduce some of the „hall of residence experience‟ for students living at
         home (e.g. facilitating and accommodating study groups, offering „out of class‟
         spaces, etc)
        manage student expectations before entry and during the course
        recognise and manage the specific difficulties of „reactive‟ and „strategic‟ students,
         including their impact on the learning experience of other students
        note that these latter groups are defined by attitude/approach, not demographics
        facilitate dialogue between staff and students as a central activity of the course;
         ensure that all students participate in this




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1


                                   PART ONE: BACKGROUND

Section One:      Introduction

1:1       Background

The plan for this Survey of Student Attitudes, Experiences and Expectations arose out of the
Survey of Background Literature on Student Retention which was presented to the SAC in
March 2004, and out of my work with students in the School of Informatics between 2001
and 2003. From this work, three crucial issues for student retention emerged. These are as
follows:

         Student expectations of university. Several studies argue that students may leave
          university if their expectations are unmet, or turn out to have been unrealistic. This
          was a common theme in the „exit interviews‟ carried out in the School of Informatics,
          and researchers at a wide range of institutions report similar findings. It is also
          proposed that students‟ reported experiences of university may relate at least as
          closely to how it compares to their expectations as to what they actually encounter.
         Student motivation. The word „motivation‟ arises in many discussions of student
          retention and student life, but there is surprisingly little research on how motivation
          can be supported. There is even some confusion over precisely what is meant by the
          term. However, it is almost certainly true that this is an important factor in
          determining student experiences and decisions about whether or not to continue with
          a course. In the first place, low motivation is frequently cited by students who are
          opting out of coursework or attendance, or considering withdrawal. In addition, a
          repeated finding in the literature is that withdrawing students include many „reactive
          entrants‟ to higher education, who can be assumed to have relatively low levels of
          certain kinds of motivation. A key task may be the differentiation of different types of
          motivation, and of the ways in which these can be fostered among students.
         Student lifestyles and student experiences. Both of the above issues can be seen as
          closely related to Tinto‟s well-established thesis that students who achieve a good
          degree of academic and social integration (or an exceptionally high degree of one or
          the other of these) are the least likely to withdraw from higher education unless they
          are affected by a serious external crisis.

I have explored these in relation to the notion of „culture‟ around higher education, both
within the institution and in the wider society in which individual universities and the higher
education system exist. This can be seen to underlie the three central concerns of this project.
Student expectations will be shaped by the complex and conflicting cultural status of
universities in modern British society. Their experience when confronted with the reality of a
particular institution will form their decisions about how to proceed with their higher
education, and the same is probably true of their levels and types of motivation. And if we are
to examine their involvement and integration with an institution, it is essential that the culture
of that institution is understood. It is inevitable, even desirable, that staff and students in a
changing and diverse institution such as the University of Northumbria will have different
ideas about what a university is and what it should offer to, and expect from, its students and
staff. However, underlying cultural beliefs are rarely articulated, and differences which are
not recognised, acknowledged and managed can lead to problems of communication and
practice. This report attempts to provide some framework for discussion of this matter.

I did not investigate any of the following matters in detail, because they are the subject of
extensive work by other groups within the university: guidance tutoring, orientation and
induction, recruitment and pre-entry activities, student finance, part-time employment,
diversity issues. Inevitably, however, many of them have arisen „in passing‟.


                                                 1
2


1:2         Literature survey

A substantial quantity of literature on the topics considered in this study was surveyed in the
first report submitted to the SAC, and this has not, for reasons of space, been re-examined
here. However, I have included references where parts of that report are particularly relevant.

There is a large literature on student retention, but writings student expectations of HE are
surprisingly few. This is noted by some of the authors cited in the first report, e.g. Ozga and
Sukhnandan 1998, Martinez 2001, Roddan 2002. Many students who withdraw state that „the
course isn‟t what I expected‟ or draw attention aspects of their academic or social lives which
come as a surprise. However, it is difficult to find much work on precisely what students do
expect. Where this exists, it may relate only to particular sections of the student community
(e.g. mature-age students, students from low-participation neighbourhoods), or even to young
people who have decided not to enter higher education (e.g. Payne 2003), sometimes on the
basis of very mistaken beliefs.

Student attitudes and experiences, however, are reasonably well documented by the many
surveys of student satisfaction which are now established. Students are asked to report on
[their perceptions of] teaching quality, their workload, levels of difficulty, availability of
academic and non-academic support, their interest in the subject, the teaching methods and
materials they encounter, and their experience of assessment. Their views on accommodation,
student union facilities, ICT and library provision and of their financial welfare are also
sought. All of these are now examined in a national student survey, but they have long been a
key part of departmental and institutional reviews in many institutions. There is already a
substantial project of this type underway at the University of Northumbria, in relation to the
forthcoming National Student Survey.

It is, therefore, relatively easy to find „percentage scores‟ indicating the proportion of students
in an institution who are „very satisfied‟, „satisfied‟, „neither satisfied nor dissatisfied‟ etc.
with the elements of university life considered salient within the standard survey design, and
this information is, of course, invaluable in setting policy within an HEI or the HE system.
However, it is far harder to find information about precisely what a student means when s/he
evaluates aspects of their university experience. Is a „good‟ seminar session one which
students will be unable to appreciate fully without some preliminary reading, and in which
they are required to take part in activities where they engage with the tutor and their peers? Or
is it one where they can exercise their personal choice to turn up entirely unprepared and
write down an occasional sentence without having to think too hard? Is a „good‟ lecture one
in which the student learns only things which s/he believes are directly relevant to a future
career, or one in which potentially interesting concepts or skills of which s/he has never even
heard are introduced? The growing literature on „excellence‟ and „professionalism‟ in HE
teaching defines these qualities, but students may not always share their criteria1.

There is a small but growing literature, however, which takes a more discursive approach to
student lifestyles and the „student experience‟2, and to student attitudes towards their role and
their universities. The relative rarity of such studies may arise partly because, if they are to
include sufficiently exploratory interviews, they risk either being prohibitively expensive to
undertake, or of using too small a sample to qualify their conclusions as truly representative.
However, I have examined some of the work which does exist.

1
  I was brought up forcibly against this sort of question during my last years as a lecturer, when one student graded
my lectures as „unsatisfactory‟ and explained that this was because „the lecturer was too enthusiastic‟. A colleague
at another institution, who regularly received an aggregate assessment from her students indicating that she was an
outstanding teacher, received poor assessments from two students who said she „didn‟t tell us enough and expected
us to do too much for ourselves‟ in seminars.
2
    Andrew Shipton‟s work, at the University of Northumbria, is an outstanding example.

                                                         2
3


One fact which emerges clearly from this work is that it is almost completely meaningless to
talk about „students‟ as a uniform group. The student body is now so large and diverse that
even among the apparently homogenous „young post-A-level‟ group there is an enormous
variety of aspiration, interest and attitude to almost every aspect of student life. „Diversity‟
exists not only between groups such as UK and overseas, able-bodied students and students
with disabilities, students from different ethnic groups, „young‟ and „mature-age‟ students or
even „advantaged‟ students and those from low participation neighbourhoods and/or poor
homes. A rich complexity of factors determines what an individual brings to university and
what she or he will get out of it. Two dimensions of diversity which I decided to examine in
the questionnaire are „student generation‟ and choice of academic subject; one which emerged
as more important than I had anticipated was gender.

The exception to my complaint about the paucity of materials is in the area of finance, where
a number of extensive studies on students‟ financial attitudes as well as their circumstances
have been carried out in recent years. This is reported in a separate report presented today.

Another area where it proved difficult to find a great deal of secondary reading was student
motivation. This is partly because the literature on human motivation in general is fairly
small. Where it does exist it relates largely to „compelled‟ activities such as paid work (there
is a large literature on employee motivation), which does not translate particularly easily to
the case of students whose work is largely unsupervised and essentially elective. The work on
student motivation is also problematic because of the special complexity in this area with
regard to motivations which may be distant (e.g. future employment prospects) and/or vague
(e.g. „a good job‟ or „a well-paid job‟). However, what is essential for student retention and
satisfaction is a way of motivating students immediately to take a full part in their course of
study. In addition, the motivation of students to work hard is perhaps uniquely subject to
factors which are outside the control of their tutors.

Many theorists, from Aquinas on, have written about what the „culture‟ of a university is, and
what it should be. A full survey of this literature would be far beyond my remit or ability, but
I have addressed three of the issues which are particularly important for student retention.

The first is the potential for mismatches, largely tacit, in the beliefs of [some] students and
[some] HEIs, or sections within these, about what a university is and/or should be. Where
these arise, it is unlikely that students will engage in behaviours which foster their success
within the institution, and it may be difficult for the institution to offer appropriate support to
the student. The literature on this topic includes a discussion of ways in which there may be a
particular danger of such mismatches in the era of „widening participation‟. In fact, the
findings of my primary research at University of Northumbria often contradict the impression
given by work at other UK HEIs in this area.

A second concern is the status of fee-paying students as „customers‟ of the university. This is
a highly controversial piece of terminology, which Sir Howard Newby described as „extreme‟
in 2001 but which by 2003 was used with little qualification in the White Paper The Future of
Higher Education. In the USA, a strident debate continues over whether students should be
called, and treated as, customers, and there are signs that a similar situation may arise in the
UK. My concern was to examine some of the implications of this language and the
expectations which its use may engender in students, administrators and academics.

The third issue, related to both of the above, is the way in which the wider UK society regards
higher education and helps to shape the expectations which students bring to university. Like
the previous ones, this is potentially controversial. It is also difficult to find „hard evidence‟,
because the problem is rather precisely that uninformed opinions rather than hard evidence
are what is under discussion. Nevertheless this is an important matter because it is at the root
of many student attitudes, and also attitudes among the general public to HE policy.


                                                3
4


1:3       Primary research

The primary research for this project took place in three phases.

1:3:1     Student questionnaire

During the summer of 2004, a questionnaire was posted to 306 UK students who had enrolled
as first years in September 2003 on selected courses in Newcastle Business School and the
School of Informatics. Both continuing and withdrawn students received the questionnaire
and were invited to complete and return it. It was accompanied by a pre-paid envelope and a
letter explaining the project and the conditions of anonymity for students who chose to
participate. A total of 65 returns were received, all of which were usable. This represents a
response rate of just over 21%. While hardly overwhelming, this is similar to the rate received
in a number of DfES studies and published articles which have used survey instruments of a
similar size to the one employed here. A shorter questionnaire might have yielded more
responses, but it would not have been possible to obtain the range of information and
correlations which were available. Therefore, the decision to use a relatively long
questionnaire seems to be justified.

The questionnaire, of which a copy is included in Appendix One of this report, was six pages
long. It was designed to elicit four sets of information: basic demographics, a picture of day-
to-day student lifestyle (e.g. attendance and study habits, part-time employment patterns),
reasons for entering the University of Northumbria and a profile of the student‟s experience,
expectations and attitudes regarding higher education. The questions used a multiple choice
format, with the option of one-word or very brief answers in a few cases. Subjects were
invited to make „additional comments‟ on a final page, but very few in fact decided to do this.

The demographic questions sought the following information:

         Subject of study
         Transfer status: did the student initially enter University of Northumbria on the
          course which they were studying at the end of the first year?
         Age
         Sex
         Type of entry qualification (e.g. A-levels, VCE, HEF ect)
         Accommodation during the first year
         Student generation: did the student‟s father, mother, sibling[s] or other close relatives
          and/or close friends from school/college attend university
         Occupation of both parents

The questions on student lifestyle sought the following information:

         Number of hours in different study activities
         Did tutors suggest a sensible number of hours for students to spend in private study,
          and if so, how long was this?
         How much private study did the student undertake in a typical term-time week?
         Reasons why the student either did or did not follow tutors‟ advice on private study.
         Attendance levels in each semester
         Reasons for non-attendance if attendance fell below 75% at any point
         Part-time work status
         Hours spent in part-time work in a typical term-time week
         Type of part-time work undertaken
         Average number of days on which student attended at their campus in term-time
         Length of typical commute to campus

                                                 4
5


The questions on reasons for entry sought the following information:

       motivations for choosing to enter higher education
       motivations for choosing to attend University of Northumbria
       motivations for choosing the particular course on which student was studying
       did student consider withdrawing or transferring at any point?
       if student did not withdraw or transfer after considering doing so, why was this?

In all cases where students were asked to nominate reasons for their choices or habits, they
were invited to tick „all which apply‟, although in the case of reasons for entering HE/the
University of Northumbria/their course they were asked to nominate one of these reasons as
the most important.

The next section measured student adjustment and satisfaction with the first year of their
course. Students were invited to indicate their adjustment to the academic demands of their
course in general, and then to indicate their adjustment to specific aspects of this such as
managing one‟s own time and working independently, understanding course rationale, and
working consistently. They were also asked to indicate their level of social adjustment, their
feelings about the physical environment of the university, and the level of pressure which they
felt over financial matters. In addition, the questionnaire measured their satisfaction with the
rate at which they were expected to become „independent learners‟ and university timetables.
Four final questions asked about how well they felt lecturers explained topics on their
courses, how „approachable‟ they felt lecturers to be, and required students to judge whether
academic demands and workloads on their courses were too hard, too easy or „about right‟.
The aim here was to compare student judgements with the behaviours and expectations
reported elsewhere on the questionnaire.

The section on expectations examined the extent to which students felt that school or college
had prepared them for university, and asked specifically about the extent to which their
expectations had been accurate or otherwise in the following areas:

       workload
       academic demands
       making friends
       interest in the course
       academic and non-academic support
       contact with individual staff
       study habits required at university, including independent learning
       course content
       academic staff and teaching methods

The final section attempted to measure more general student beliefs and attitudes, e.g.:

       interest in the subject and „academic orientation‟
       motivation and willingness to study
       student identity
       „instrumentality‟ of approach
       enjoyment of the course and the university experience

The results of the questionnaire were analysed using SPSS software.




                                               5
6


1:3:2   Staff questionnaire

A questionnaire was circulated by email early in the autumn semester to members of staff in
NBS, the School of Informatics, and the School of the Built Environment. The response to
this questionnaire was again relatively low, with only 20 out of over 100 staff sending returns.
Unfortunately the results may not be genuinely representative, as it is likely that only staff
who have an interest in student welfare or student retention would take the time to complete a
questionnaire of this sort. Staff who feel resistant to student retention initiatives might well
argue that they do not have time to waste on yet another peripheral activity.

The questionnaire, which is reproduced in Appendix One, was four pages long and requested
brief information about the staff member‟s subject specialisms and professional background,
their beliefs about the attitudes, skills and motivations of their students, their perceptions of
student attitudes, motivations and lifestyles and their beliefs about the defining characteristics
of a „university‟. The attempt was to find out how staff perceive their students. It was not
assumed that staff would, for example, offer the most accurate picture of their students part-
time employment schedules.

The staff questionnaire was designed after the bulk of the data from the student one had been
analysed. Because of the extreme diversity which had emerged from this work, a slightly
unusual format was used in the latter instrument. Where staff were asked to respond to items
about the characteristics of their students, they were invited to estimate the proportion of their
current undergraduate students to which a particular statement applied. This turned out to be a
very useful practice.

The sections on staff background and general impressions used a multiple choice format.
Staff were invited to give short written answers to questions about their views on why
students drop out of university and why they apply in the first place, and about student skills,
motivations, attitudes and lifestyles.


1:3:3   Interviews

Students and staff were invited to take part in interviews over the telephone or face-to-face.
These were semi-structured interviews which addressed the main themes of the
questionnaires. Interviews were tape recorded and subjected to a discourse analysis. No
attempt was made to re-code the interviews for analysis with SPSS, as the aim here was to
gather more subtle impressions and narratives.

The student response to the request for interviewees was poor, and in the end only six
interviews were possible. By coincidence, the students involved were all academically
successful and reported a high level of satisfaction with their academic and personal
experience at university. The interviews proved exceedingly helpful to the project, because it
was in each case possible to identify the approaches to university entry and first year study
contributed to this satisfaction, and possibly also to excellent academic performance. In other
words, these are students from whom we can learn „what went right‟ – especially because all
of them stated that at some point in their first year they had seriously considered withdrawing
from university.

Seven interviews were carried out with members of academic staff. These also provided some
helpful materials, in particular with regard to the issues of widening participation and the
extent to which students undergo „transformation‟ while at university.




                                                6
7


Section Two: Literature survey

2:1     Student perceptions and the student experience

2:1:1   Holistic approaches to the student experience

Elements of the student experience –teaching quality, social relationships, satisfaction with
the physical environment, practical details of organisation etc. – are often discussed as if they
are quite distinct from one another. Such a separation is a practical necessity in the
management of a university or department, but it does not reflect the reality of student life. A
common perception among researchers who work with the narratives of individual students is
that apparently discrete aspects of their experience actually bleed into one another. Where the
student is considering withdrawal, this may mean that the reasons for leaving are unclear to
the researcher and possibly also to the student him/herself. Different – sometimes radically
different – rationalisations can emerge on different occasions, or in conversations with
different people, and the outcome of a „tick box‟ questionnaire can contradict entirely the
account offered in an interview. For example, one student who had gone into great detail
about his dislike of course content and of his privately rented accommodation concluded the
discussion by saying „of course, it would all have been fine if I hadn‟t been so worried about
money all the time‟. Another realised that her unhappiness with the physical environment of
the university diminished her enjoyment of lectures whose content she in fact considered
„fascinating‟, while a third identified his reason for „not making friends‟ as being rooted in an
unwillingness to commit to a subject about which he felt highly ambivalent.

In addition to this, students have been shown to evaluate their overall experience, and to make
their decision about whether to stay or to leave, on the basis of a complex „cost-benefit
analysis‟ (LS1, 20). Some of the factors involved will be extremely practical ones, such as
quality of organisation on a particular course, ease of commuting to campus, and using
university facilities such as IT and libraries. Others will be harder to define, such as „teaching
quality‟, coherence of curriculum, and social integration. Most importantly, both of these
groups will be mediated by the attitudes and expectations brought to university by the
individual student, as well as their personal interests, tastes, and stage of development. For
students who decide to leave, something arguably „goes wrong‟ in the balance between these
disparate elements, while it can be assumed that those who stay find a path through the
complexity that in some way „works‟ for them. It may work exceedingly well, as it did at the
end of the first year for the students interviewed in this project, or it may just about come out
alright, as seemed to be the case at some earlier stage of their careers.

One solution to this complexity which emerges in recent work on student retention is to
research students who do not withdraw alongside those who depart. In other words,
researchers have increasingly chosen to look at the range of factors which make up the
student experience for all students, in an attempt to see „what goes right‟. For a long time, the
potential of a strong retention strategy to improve the experience and achievement of all
students has been noted by organisations such as Noel-Levitz. Rather less positively, many
student advisers who work in this field have noted that the extent of their success is very
difficult to measure, because it is impossible to know whether a particular individual actually
would have dropped out.

Where „stayers‟ are investigated alongside „leavers‟, their characteristics turn out to be
remarkably similar. This approach is remarkably new in the field of student retention, as
Christie et al (2004) note in their article comparing students at two very different Scottish
institutions, Heriot Watt and Glasgow Caledonian Universities. They suggest that the reasons
for withdrawal should be sought as much in the way students experience their circumstances
as in the circumstances themselves, because „similar circumstances [may] become unbearable
for one student but not for another‟ (2004, 618).


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In this report, I have borrowed extensively from the methodology used in this study.

Christie et al (2004) found that among their subjects, no single reason emerged as being
particularly important in tipping the scales towards a decision to leave. The most common
factor named was the rather vague „problems with course‟, although this was cited by less
than a quarter of students who withdrew. The physical environment of the university ranked
surprisingly high, although this may relate to the rather unusual situation at the two
institutions surveyed: one is situated on a small and isolated campus, while the other occupies
several large, somewhat anonymous buildings in one of the shabbier parts of a busy city
centre. After this came „lack of motivation‟ (see below), financial pressures and family
problems. Fewer than 10% of students mentioned health or housing issues, and the offer of a
job proved crucial for a only a very small number3 (Christie et al 2004, 622). Christie et al
(2004) note that students will usually under-represent their own academic difficulties (623),
which can also be assumed to play a part.

In an earlier work, Thomas (2002, 423) describes many of her subjects as having external
circumstances (financial hardship and long part-time working hours) appear to make them
extremely vulnerable to withdrawal. However, their interviews show them to be satisfied and
committed students who are unlikely to leave university. A similar group are described by
Winn (2:5:11, below).

There appear to be two crucial (and related) ingredients which operate as an antidote to a
potentially poisonous mixture of external forces. Neither of these is entirely within the
control of the university, but neither is entirely outside it. One – the more difficult of the two
to describe and to foster – is undoubtedly student motivation, which is discussed in 2:5
below. The other is the oldest chestnut of all in student retention literature, the extent to
which the student feels that s/he belongs within their university, their course, and higher
education itself. If a student feels comfortable, welcome and happy in these places, then s/he
is unlikely to elect to leave them. If external circumstances threaten that sense of belonging,
then the student‟s first response will probably be to protect it rather than to hasten its loss.
Additionally, s/he is likely to engage in a set of behaviours which match and support their
identity as a student, such as effective study and regular attendance.

Christie et al (2004) highlight the importance of this latter type of factor:

      … the extent to which the decision to continue in the face of financial (and other)
      difficulties is intrinsically related to the quality of relationships with other
      students, tutors and support staff, and the extent to which students feel they
      “belong” to the university.
                                                                 Christie et al 2004, 633

They suggest that if relationships are good and the student‟s feeling of belonging is strong,
practically any „bad‟ circumstance can be ameliorated. Christie et al also point out that their
work reinforces Tinto‟s view that curriculum and social life are inextricably linked in the
experience of students. Breen (1999, 3), identifies four dimensions of „quality‟ in teaching
and learning (curricula coherence and sequencing, development of critical perspective in
students, connecting learning material to other disciplines and levels of „inclusiveness‟ of


3
  Christie et al noted some interesting differences between „advantaged‟ and „disadvantaged‟ students
who left, with the former group citing course or motivational problems more frequently than the latter
(25% as opposed to 18% for course problems, and 17% rather than 15% for motivation). This
contradicts some „standard approaches‟ to the characteristics of widening participation students (LS1,
34-6), although it is similar to the findings of both the questionnaire and the staff interviews used in
this project.

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student minorities), but also points out that the „attitudes, beliefs and values‟ of students are
essential. These will themselves be among the elements of the student which undergo
„transformation‟ at university („… in addition to “pure knowledge”, social norms and values
are an important part of the conceptual framework of academic disciplines,‟ Breen 199, 3). In
other words, for student identification to be truly achieved, they need to engage with these
internal aspects of higher education as well as the more obvious externals.

Grayson (2003) suggests that a similarly holistic approach underlies effective induction,
describing the assumptions underlying successful American first year curricula as follows:

        „… with student pre-college traits (e.g. high-school grades) held constant,
        coursework and curricular patterns, positive classroom experiences, and positive
        out-of-class experiences (that collectively can be viewed as institutional
        experiences) contribute to various learning outcomes such as the development of
        analytic, communication, personal, organising, math and computer skills; and the
        acquisition of subject matter expertise‟
                                                                 Grayson 2003, 411-412

Many writers link this strand in the retention literature to Tinto‟s work. Braxton et al (2000,
p.570) quote his view that social integration must occur in the classroom, which operates as
the „gateway‟ to the college. Similarly, Jansen (2004, p. 413) points out that curriculum
organisation is given relatively little attention in discussions of retention, despite Tinto‟s
insistence on its importance. This strand of argument strengthens the case made in LS1 that it
is important to integrate social and academic experiences for students, a position which is also
supported by the student interviews reported below.

In this project, I have used the experiences of ‘retained’ students to investigate factors
relating to student retention. I have also examined correlations between aspects of the
academic and non-academic experiences of students.


2:1:2     Academic preparedness and study skills

Many writers stress that this is one area in which the expectations which students bring to
university are absolutely key. Breen suggests that the problem is widespread, and that it
relates both to general study skills and to the student‟s relationship with the culture of the
particular academic discipline which s/he enters:

        It is plausible that many students enter Higher Education with ill-conceived
        ideas of what it really means to study their discipline in their chosen university. If
        this is taken to be true, then a discrepancy exists between expectations (and
        motivations) and experiences, this will undoubtedly lead to withdrawal, failure or
        the development of inappropriate approaches to learning.
                                                                              Breen 1999, 13

This is a useful restatement of the importance of a good level of student preparedness for
university (LS1, 17, 56-8, 93). Perhaps this factor explains the high levels of retention among
Thomas‟ subjects, despite the relatively high levels of disadvantage experienced by some of
them. Thomas found that among her interviewees, „… the majority… felt academically either
“quite well” or “very well” prepared to study in HE‟ (2002, 434).

Thomas suggests that this is an area in which the university can address uncertainties:




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      Even students who were not well prepared for HE in a traditional sense (i.e. with
      high A level scores) seemed to feel supported by inclusive teaching and learning
      approaches, which is responsive to the varying levels of academic preparedness.
                                                                    Thomas 2002, 434

The key terms here are „inclusive‟ and „varying‟. Several authors, including Andrew Shipton
in his work at the University of Northumbria, note that when lectures are perceived as being
„too easy‟ or as repeating material or techniques which students had encountered at A-level,
there is a danger that the more knowledgeable, confident or able individuals may get bored.

A related trend was noted in the School of Informatics. Here, students took a first year course
which was intended to allow them to learn computer science even if they had no former
experience whatsoever in this field. In practice, while some undergraduates were in this
position, a number had previously studied in the field at levels from GCSE to A-level or even
HND. A few of these students elected to miss lectures during the first semester because they
felt that they had „already done‟ the work covered in these. This sounds reasonable, but
during the second semester they began to miss lectures in subjects which were new to them,
and several of these apparently well-qualified students later withdrew or failed units. Students
who feel that the course is going „too slowly‟ for them may cease to attend and thus develop
poor study habits, or fail to integrate.

Thomas‟ equation of „preparedness‟ with A-level score is not unquestionable. A student who
does well at A-level may have acquired excellent study skills. Alternatively, s/he may have
been very effectively prepared by a highly supportive secondary school, without having
acquired a strong ability to learn independently. The willingness to take responsibility for
one‟s own learning is an essential part of university study, and helping students to acquire the
skills and confidence to do this is key to both satisfaction and retention.

In this project, I examined student expectations and beliefs about independent learning.

Approaches to teaching which encourage students to undertake „active learning‟ are often
recommended as increasing student satisfaction, and also promoting a good understanding of
subject material. Braxton et al (2000, 571) quote evidence that „active learning enhances
student knowledge and understanding of course content‟. Their caution against identifying
„academic integration‟ with „active learning‟ is wise; it is easy to imagine a student who feels
„academically integrated‟ but whose approaches to learning are actually quite passive
(consider the analogy of an avid viewer of Match of the Day who has not kicked a football for
a decade). However, the reverse is probably a much safer position to adopt. A student who is
encouraged to participate in classes which use „active learning‟ techniques will almost per
force encounter a degree of academic integration.

The problem with trying to get students to be proactive about their studies, inside and outside
the classroom, is that both students and staff need to „buy into‟ this approach. Chan discusses
ways of fostering „autonomous‟ learning approaches in language students, and suggests that
for these to be adopted, students need to understand what needs to be learnt and why (Chan
2001, 286). In other words, they need not just to know that they need to do „loads of study‟.
They need to have a sense of what it would be like to be able to do something, or have a
strong knowledge of a subject. They also need to grasp the components of learning this.

Chan (2001) suggests that is only achieved via an explicit, and ongoing, dialogue about what
actually constitutes learning, so that students understand what they are supposed to be doing,
in a very precise and subject-specific way, as well as how they are to do it. On their own:

      autonomous learning experiences do not automatically turn dependent learners
      into autonomous ones. Frequent consultations with the students over the


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        approach to their autonomous study are thus necessary… [and] … regular
        student-teacher dialogue
                                                                 Chan 2001, 294

One difficulty here is the lack of a register in which to discuss ways of learning4. Stephenson
2003 (LS1, 89-90) found that the school pupils with whom she worked were more or less
unaware that study itself requires techniques. When asked „how do you learn?‟, they either
offered very concrete responses („I go to school,‟ „my teacher tells me things,‟), or they
repeated the content of lessons which they had attended. Nevertheless, they found the
subsequent exploration of actual learning techniques and processes fascinating.

The common element in both Chan‟s and Stephenson‟s approaches is small-scale contact and
discussion between students and teachers. The „individual‟ element in Chan‟s description,
below, indicates that this may well be something that can only be developed if there is at least
some element of one-to-one contact while the discourse itself is being developed. As with
many other measures which have the potential to increase student satisfaction and retention,
this could prove quite unrealistic to implement given current levels of resource.

Nevertheless, there are ways in which this discourse can be initiated within the existing
imperatives for higher education. Chan‟s account of learner autonomy is as follows:

        Learner autonomy is essentially concerned with decision making on the learner‟s
        part… the locus of control and responsibility lies in the hands of the individual
        learner… the autonomous learner accepts responsibility for his/her own learning,
        is able to take charge of the learning, determine objectives, select methods and
        techniques and evaluate what has been acquired. He/she is expected to be able to
        make significant decisions about what is to be learnt, how and when… assuming
        greater responsibility for his/her learning… the autonomous learner establishes a
        personal agenda for learning… He/she (with or without the teacher‟s help) is
        expected to be actively involved in the setting of goals, defining content and
        working out evaluation mechanisms for assessing achievement and progress
                                                                          Chan 2001, 285

This is a specific and individual account of a specific and individual process, but the skills
described are actually very similar to some of those whose importance is stressed in works on
the development of employability among undergraduates, and in related discussions of
lifelong learning. The PDP is a particular case where such reflection is required.

This might be a site where students could be encouraged to reflect on their own learning
behaviours, and also to value these for their potential contribution to future employment and
promotion prospects.


2:1:3     Student attitudes to feedback

One area of students‟ academic experience where there is a potential for dialogue with
academic staff is in the feedback which they receive on their assignments. The questionnaire
results demonstrated the enormous importance of feedback to students, but it is also a highly
problematic issue.

In the first place, the actual reference of the term is rather ambiguous. Feedback might be
little more than a mark, an indication of the level of performance attained by a student at one

4
 Writers on students in ICT disciplines have observed a similar absence of a discourse around „skills‟
among sixth-formers, who tend to confuse skills with knowledge.

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particular point in their course. Students certainly use do grades as feedback, or an indication
of „how I‟m doing,‟ and as such the grade constitutes a powerful means of communication
between the student and the university. Treating grades in this way is one way in which a
student can use an assessment as a tool in their learning. There is a stronger, and more
satisfactory, element of feedback where the student is offered some discussion of grades with
a personal tutor or the lecturer who marked their work.

Feedback becomes a more practical part of the learning experience when it involves some
discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of assessed work, perhaps with advice about how
the student can improve their performance, and hence their grade, in subsequent assignments.
Finally, there is formative feedback, where a piece of work is undertaken primarily in order to
obtain the tutor‟s comments and a grade is either purely indicative, or entirely absent. Less
formal „formative feedback‟ might include a discussion of how well the student demonstrates
his or her skills and knowledge in tutorials, seminars or practicals.

There is also the problem of precisely what feedback is meant to do. In a study at my previous
institution, a high number of students agreed with tutors that the comments written on essays
(including formative ones) were intended to help students to develop skills in analysis,
expression and argumentation. A small number, however, voiced the opinion that writing an
essay which would not be allocated a mark was „a waste of time when you could be doing
something you get a mark for‟. One of these students described her understanding of the
purpose of comments on an essay as follows:

      … you do what the tutor tells you, and then if you can hand in a second draft you
      get more comments, and then you can use those to perfect that essay even further,
      and then you‟re sure you‟ll get the best mark you can.

The student‟s focus in her course was simply on gaining marks, rather than on gaining the
skills which would allow her to achieve better marks. This is not an unusual confusion (see
2:5:8 below), but it makes it extremely difficult to encourage students – and by extension,
staff – to „buy into‟ the process of formative feedback.

Higgins et al (2002) note that tutors may disagree on what constitutes feedback, and may also
be cynical about whether students actually use it (2002, 56). Offering full and useful feedback
to all the students in a seminar group is time-consuming, and it would be unreasonable to
expect lecturers to put a lot of time into this if students seem unlikely to use the feedback well
– or at all. The depressing experience of handing carefully marked essays back to a group of
undergraduates who glance at the grade and then stuff the papers into a folder is all too
common among academics.

It will surprise few lecturers to read that the students interviewed by Higgins et al had a
reasonable concept of what constituted „good feedback‟. Most of them wanted tutors to offer
comments as well as grades, and they were aware that these comments should refer to the
„strengths and weaknesses‟ demonstrated in their work (2002, 58). However, they were less
clear about how they could use this feedback. The attitudes and behaviours reported in the
study show a marked contradiction; while 97% read their tutor‟s comments, and 82%
maintained that they „“paid close attention”‟ to the feedback they receive, the majority said
they spent less than fifteen minutes on it. This might arise because students believe that the
marks for these particular assignments are already fixed. If so, then what is missing is once
again a discourse around the usefulness of feedback in gaining generic subject or learning
skills, and in building up a sound knowledge of one‟s subject area as well as performing well
in one particular task.

Formative feedback is recognised as an extremely valuable learning tool, and there is an
exciting strand of research, led by Mantz Yorke (LS1, 114-5), which argues that it can


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contribute very effectively to student retention. Higgins et al note various practical
difficulties; it is difficult to deliver where tutors have heavy workloads, in order to be
effective it requires a „fast turnaround‟ of student assignments, and where comments are too
vague or too negative it may be of little use or even counter-productive (2002, 55). In
addition, the methods which are most quickly delivered (e.g. number grids or tick-box pro
formas) are often the ones to which students respond least readily, or find hardest to interpret.

Ridley (2004, 99) also interviewed tutors who found that their students did not respond well
to these methods. One of the difficulties is that by their very nature, such documents use
rather vague wording; Ridley‟s example is an item which assesses students‟ ability to „access,
interpret and evaluate information from electronic sources‟ (2004, 101). Students may find it
difficult to relate such general points to the particular piece of work which they have
submitted, or to their own assessment of their abilities.

Here too, dialogue seems to be essential. Specifically, students who have progressed through
the school system in an atmosphere where „getting marks‟ is a priority may need some time
and support to adjust to a setting in which submitted work is regarded as a tool to be used in a
learning process, rather than an end in itself (informal discussion with several tutors suggests
that mature-age students who have experience of Access courses are often more receptive to
the idea of formative feedback than students who enter directly from school).

Formative feedback will work best were students feel that they are developing their own
learning in partnership with the university, a situation which is similar to the one which will
support independence in learning. Its benefits are least likely to be felt where students adopt
an essentially transactional approach, in which they provide the „right‟ answers and in return
are given the „right‟ marks.

Again, students should be engaged in an explicit discourse about the purpose of feedback
within their development as subject specialists and skilled graduates. Formative feedback
should be used where possible.


2:1:4   Student attitudes to teaching and learning

Teaching and learning, more than any other part of the student experience, is an area where
the university can control the input to the student experience. A great deal of discussion in the
student retention literature suggests that if students are offered „student centred‟ approaches in
the classroom and other aspects of their academic course, they will enjoy it more and prove
less likely to withdraw. However, once again the attitudes of students to the experience
offered to them is crucial. Johnson (LS1, 17) discusses the problem that „student centred‟
teaching can be unpopular with certain students who lack motivation or confidence, because
students who are placed at the „centre‟ of their learning experience need to work hard and
consistently. Even very willing students can have difficulties with the transition from school
teaching methods and assumptions to the ones they encounter at university.

It would be a mistake to assume that „student centred‟ approaches have only become
widespread in higher education since the introduction of teacher training for university
lecturers and a discourse around teaching methods in the tertiary sector. Despite the tone of
some discussions of this subject, in many departments the lecture has formed only a part of
the teaching strategy. Seminars and tutorials, where students are encouraged to discuss,
analyse and engage with concepts, have always been at least as important if not more so (in
other words, in their day-to-day jobs „lecturers‟ might more appropriately have been termed
„tutors‟). Often such teaching methods incorporated oral and written formative feedback on
student work.



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These sessions provided the type of individual, concept-driven instruction which is essential
to higher education (and which many employers of graduates expect their recruits to have
experienced). They were a practical reality while student numbers were relatively small, but
as staff:student ratios become similar to those found in secondary schools it may be difficult
to maintain characteristic university teaching methods, and ways of reproducing these for
larger number will need to be found.

Prosser et al examined a substantial body of research on „the relation between student
perceptions of the learning context, approaches to study in that context and the quality of the
learning outcomes…‟ (2003, 35). Unsurprisingly, they found a consensus that exposure to a
particular type of teaching methods can, over a period of time, shape student approaches to
learning:

      Student-focussed conceptual change approaches to teaching are associated with
      deeper approaches to learning and teacher-focussed information transfer
      approaches to teaching are associated with surface approaches to learning…
      consonant and coherent patterns of relationships (surface approaches with
      perceptions supporting surface approaches, and deep approaches with
      perceptions supporting deep approaches) were related to lower and higher quality
      learning outcomes respectively.
                                                                 Prosser et al 2003, 38

This is good news for lecturers who adopt „student focussed conceptual change approaches‟
in their classes and lectures. However, students do not arrive at university as blank slates; they
may have surface approaches to learning which are strongly engrained because of, or despite,
the learning environments they have previously experienced. Changing these in the twelve
weeks of the first semester is a considerable challenge for the university, especially in the
absence of a well-defined discourse around how teaching and learning happen.

A further problem is indicated by Prosser et al‟s research; students who report surface
approaches are likely to have a whole cluster of negative experiences around their university
studies. In the same classes:

      students who reported adopting surface approaches… perceive the teaching to be
      poorer, the goals and standards to be less clear, the workload to be too high and
      the assessment to be testing reproduction… [they] were shown to have poorer
      quality understanding of key concepts and to be performing less well on tests of
      achievement. On the other hand, students who reported adopting deeper
      approaches and who perceive the teaching to be better, the goals and standards to
      be clearer, the workload to be not too high and the assessment to be testing
      understanding were shown to have higher quality understanding of key concepts
      and to be performing better on tests of achievement.
                                                                  Prosser et al 2003, 38

Such students are therefore likely to be relatively unwilling to engage with the university‟s
attempts to support their transition to more useful learning patterns. The research carried out
by Dooley backs up the view that prior learning experiences are „salient‟ for student
behaviours once in higher education (2004, 232). He found that students were capable of
learning to learn in „ways that are considered conducive to quality outcomes‟ but that they
will often prefer low quality approaches if they have learnt that these bring rewards.

Once again, the establishing a discourse around learning and demonstrating the value of this
to students emerges as a priority.




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Some of the characteristics of „low quality approaches‟ include a strong focus on the
acquisition of information rather than of concepts, a nervousness about learning to read or
reproduce „academic language‟, and a dislike of handling ambiguity. Ridley (2004, 98 – 102)
addresses some of these issues, which can be regarded as additional aspects of student
integration. A student who feels that they do not „belong‟ in a university or a particular
subject may well feel uncomfortable – like a foreigner who has not yet acquired fluency in a
second language – interpreting or adopting the register of the institution or the discipline.
Providing an environment in which such learning is supported, and where students realise that
these are things which can be learnt, is an important part of integration. (This issue returns in
the discussion of widening participation below, 2:4).


2:1:5     Tutor-student relations and the student experience

There is ample evidence that regular contact between staff and students is absolutely
fundamental to student retention: one-to-one interactions in teaching situations, organised
social contact and guidance tutoring are all elements of this. LS1 contains detailed discussion
of the literature on this point, which is reiterated throughout the work on the student
experience; for example, Thomas points out that student motivation rises when tutors appear
to „care about‟ students and their learning (2002, 432), while Taylor and Bedford list „student-
teaching staff interaction‟ factors (2004, 384). Thomas gives several examples of the sort of
interaction which is valuable outside the classroom:

        Students seem to be more likely to feel that they are accepted and valued by staff
        if lecturers and tutors know their names and exhibit other signs of friendship, are
        interested in their work and treat students as equals… [they appreciate] “the fact
        that you can call staff by their first name is a major thing”… “we can get hold of
        lecturers at any time”.
                                                                        Thomas 2002, 432

Students who are accepted on „first name‟ terms by their lecturers, and who have easy and
informal access to staff, are likely to be well integrated into their department, and it is
unquestionable that this sort of atmosphere will be conducive to both satisfaction and
retention among students. The difficulty in achieving it, however, is less likely to come from
the attitude of some academic staff members and more likely to arise from the reality of
modern staff-student ratios. This point is rarely made in the literature, and where it appears it
is often dismissed because „we cannot change the economic reality of modern staff-student
ratios‟. And yet, it is difficult to remember the names of all the students in several first year
seminars of twenty or more as well as those in senior years, to be in a position where any of
the many students one teaches can „get hold of [one] at any time‟, or indeed to treat a group of
a hundred or more students collectively as „equals‟.

This commentary is not intended to add to the hand-wringing over the state of higher
education, but it is important that the immovable reality of current student numbers is factored
into the search for ways to provide satisfactory personal contacts and support for students.
UFNE (2001, 12) quotes the statistics on retention and staff:student ratios which were put
forward by NATFHE, and stresses that these need to be taken seriously (see LS1, 31, 73-4).




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2:1:6     Accommodation and retention

The correlations between type of accommodation and student retention which were observed
in this project (9:5) are by no means unusual. Practically every study which has examined this
variable has come to a similar conclusion. In the North East, UFNE noted that students at
Newcastle University had experienced particular problems with integrating students living at
home, and that at the University of Sunderland, retention rates for students living at home are
lower than those for students living in Halls of Residence (2001, 42). Thomas (2002) also
regards student space as crucial to both satisfaction and retention.

By contrast, retention is highest in the collegiate system of Durham University, and a great
deal of this may be attributable to the high levels of integration and „belonging‟ offered by
this. It is certainly true that Durham found little or no variation in retention rates between
students from different social classes or with different A-level scores who lived in the
colleges in the city. Supporting this point even more strongly, UFNE describes a project at
Durham which included a „symbolic handover‟ of students from their parents to their
colleges. Where this was used, retention rates rose even further (2001, 25).

To some extent, it is possible that factors which mean a student chooses to live in university
accommodation will themselves dispose that student to remain at university. These students
have had, at some point, to choose between their home and their university, and could be
argued thus to have shown at least some degree of commitment to entering higher education.
They will probably experience more practical difficulties if they choose to drop out than
students living at home. In addition, university accommodation tends to be favoured by the
„young‟ students who are more likely to have reasonably standard funding circumstances and
few external responsibilities. However, the accommodation itself is undoubtedly a positive
factor. Living in a community which is defined by the university may well support „student
behaviours‟ which at best will foster all aspects of student life including successful study and
at least will provide a strong sense of integration. Students at Northumbria report „getting
together‟ to study, and this activity may foster a sense of belonging within their subject
community, either because they are talking to other students with whom they have this in
common, or because a part of their identity within a peer group is as „the computer scientist‟
or „the business studies person‟. Even if the study is unpleasant or difficult, the group may
help build confidence by helping students to realise that „it‟s not just [me]‟.

Chatterton suggests that „student spaces‟ may function as:

        the basis for the development of a common set of student dispositions, or something
        like a “student habitus”… the unique residential tradition of the British university,
        although decreasing in importance, is a framework which nurtures and perpetuates
        these specific student dispositions. This framework, extending to shared student
        housing, halls, the library, the laboratory and the lecture theatre creates, a “special time
        and place” with its atmosphere of deference and inquiry which, temporarily, sets
        students apart from the non-student world…
                                                                      Chatterton 1999, 117

What measures can reproduce some of the experience of the Halls of Residence for students
living at home or in privately rented accommodation? One possibility is the provision of
dedicated social spaces on campus which are suitable for different groups of students:
common rooms where students can spend time without having to purchase food or drink,
areas which are easily accessible by physically disabled students, areas where alcohol is not
served. And if such spaces are to feel like some sort of „home‟, then they need to be
reasonably pleasant to look at, clean, warm and safe. Needless to say, support for Halls of
Residence to provide spaces which are distinctly appropriate for students is also important.



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Space suitable for group study (an activity which could usefully be supported, at least
informally, by academic departments) would also be very useful. The traditional library is not
suitable for this because group study by its very nature involves interaction and discussion – it
is unlikely to be entirely quiet. It may also proceed more fluently if students are able to drink
coffee while they work!

The accommodation issue links directly to widening participation, because students from
poorer families, disabled students and other non-traditional groups are most likely to live in
the parental home. Thomas found that this latter option many of the „local‟ students in her
study felt they would have been better-integrated and advantaged for university life if they‟d
been able to „go away‟ to college, but were unable to do so for financial reasons:

      those students who do not live in “student” accommodation… are more likely to
      feel marginalised from their peers, and thus that they occupy a lower position.
                                                                    Thomas 2002, 436-7

Living in university accommodation also helps integration because it can contribute to the
process of personal development and „transformation‟ which students undergo at university.
Thomas notes that „friends and social networks‟ encountered through the university can
challenge the powerful „family habitus‟ which may be conflicting or disruptive especially for
first generation students (2002, 434). A student living away from home will still have to deal
with these issues, but the transition will probably be less stark. In her study, she found that
students in halls of residence actually used the word „family‟ to refer to their new living
arrangements (Thomas 2002, 436), indicating their level of integration there.

Christie et al make a similar point, stating that:

      to the extent that living at home may be primarily a strategy of risk reduction
      adopted by relatively disadvantaged students, this suggests that living at home
      constitutes another mechanism creating class differences or inequalities
                                                                Christie et al 2004, 626

Both integration and the presence of an easy „get out clause‟ are raised by this observation.
Christie et al also argue that the specific problems facing students who live at home should be
addresses in a university retention strategy (2004, 627). They did find that at Glasgow
Caledonian University, where the majority of students live at home, problems with the
university environment and travel arrangements were not noted as often as at Heriot Watt
University, possibly because the university campus is central both to the city and to local
public transport provision. A further factor here may that living at home is „normalised‟, and
so students evolve a culture in which a balance between university and home is easily struck.

Interviews in the earlier School of Informatics project at the University of Northumbria
uncovered both practical and cultural problems for students living at home, some of which are
discussed in LS1 (16, 37, 46-50). Commuting distance was a frequent difficulty, as was
finding a place to study quietly and comfortably in the family home. A significant number of
students also reported that their family regarded them as „available‟ for household or caring
duties because „they were the one without a proper job‟.

UFNE notes the importance of the community to student integration:

      With regard to friends and peers… research found that these were often the first
      source of advice and support for students that were considering leaving
      university. Local students that continued to reside at home felt that they missed
      out on being able to access this type of advice
                                                                        UFNE 2002, 12


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2:2       Student Characteristics

2:2:1     Views of students

The literature reviewed in LS1 indicated that it is naïve to talk about „students‟ as if they were
a uniform group. In a yearly intake now numbering several hundred thousand, extreme
diversity of attitude, experience and interest is the only realistic possibility. The
accompanying paper on students and money discusses some work on the range of financial
circumstances and values which students bring to university, and it is reasonable to assume
that this range will be just as wide in other aspects of their student lives. In Sections 13 and 14
below, I examine some of the attitudes towards students expressed by my interviewees among
academic staff at the University of Northumbria, but here I will make a very brief attempt to
put some of this in context.

Studies of student attitudes and cultures are in relatively short supply, but one distinctly
gloomy perspective from the USA is offered by Taylor (2004), some of whose observations
may ring true in relation to at least a minority of UK students. He quotes the research of the
UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, who have been tracking student behaviour since
1966. According to this body, the current group of undergraduates in the USA are:

        the most academically disengaged, or even compliant college students with all-
        time low measures for time spent studying and all-time high measures for
        boredom and tardiness, grade inflation notwithstanding.
                                                                       Taylor 2004, 1

Taylor uses the popular device of generational definition to contrast „traditional‟ students
(who may now be parents or lecturers) with the current generation of undergraduates. Typical
members of the current late teen/early twenties group, which he terms „Generation NeXt‟, are:

        Consumer oriented… [desiring] instant gratification… entertainment oriented…
        value free… adaptable and pragmatic… self-interested… sceptical…
        cynical/distrustful… commitment reluctant… safety conscious… uncivil and
        unwilling to appear caring… intellectually disengaged [with] reduced self-
        efficacy… selective risk-takers (with notoriously short event horizons‟)… [with]
        parent issues (parents are more involved and are “doing it” for their children like
        never before…)… diverse and comfortable with this but more „class separate‟
        and technoliterate
                                                                        Taylor 2004, 3 - 6

He relates the focus on „knowledge‟ rather than skills, described above, to an attitude in
which:

        “Knowledge” is not a major goal for many students, with information that
        directly relates to their career goals the only thing worth learning… much more
        information available, but woefully little ability to separate the meaningful from
        the meaningless. They do show a distinct interest in exactly what they will be
        graded on and what will be necessary to achieve their specific grade goals
                                                                            Taylor 2004, 5

This latter set of attitudes was certainly found among some of the students surveyed at
Northumbria. Taylor‟s point that this reduces the commitment of students to core classes,
generic skills training and courses which concentrate on the theoretical underpinnings of a
subject is important, not least because it relates to students‟ willingness to engage with some
key employability skills. It will also make them unable to „fit in‟ with some of the
assumptions about higher education which underlie many standard course designs, being:


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        a remarkably poor fit to the expectations and values of college faculty and staff,
        and what schools intend to offer
                                                                          Taylor 2004, 5

Even if one does not follow Taylor‟s latter points about social values and postmodern
sensibilities, it would be difficult to argue that a sensible course for a university would be to
remodel its teaching to fit in with the desires of this [minority] group of students. Not only
would this make it difficult to deliver established – and probably important – curricula in
many subjects, it would significantly reduce the experience of higher education which is
being offered to students. By giving the „Generation NeXt‟ group „what they want‟, all
students – including these ones – would be seriously „sold short‟, a point which will be
addressed at greater length below (12 and 13).

Corcoran (2002) looks at the ways in which shifts in the size of the higher education sector
have affected student attitudes towards university:

        Originally the student viewed the university as a finishing school, then later as a
        source of social control, instrument of government policy, provider of education
        services, and recently supplier of education services under contract. The
        university… has seen the student as a member of the social elite, a child (running
        the spectrum from wilful brats through to everything that a parent would want), a
        citizen, a recipient/customer of educational services and recently as a client or
        customer of those services. The challenge for universities has always been to
        reconcile its view with that of the students to ensure that both get something from
        the relationship
                                                                           Corcoran 2002, 1

It has to be said that, if either of these is the norm, then Northumbria is a good place to be for
both staff and students. One of the findings of this project was that staff and students here by
and large like one another. Some students, enough to come to the attention of all the tutors
interviewed, certainly do bring the assumptions of Generation NeXt to their first year studies,
but the less helpful elements of these seem to diminish as they progress. None of the tutors I
spoke to, however, expressed any sentiment which could be interpreted as betraying a view of
students as „children‟, wilful brats or goody two-shoes. The overwhelming commitment was
to an institution in which students are citizens, and citizens who enjoy as much maturity and
equality as they can.

This is an area in which the university should be aware of what we are doing right and make
sure that this is maintained and nurtured.


2:2:2     Student self-perceptions: skills

In the following section, I shall look briefly at some work on the ways in which student self-
perceptions relate to their academic and social behaviour within the institution, because an
attempt to measure this is key to the primary research reported in Part Two.

Students, like any other group of people, do not always have entirely reliable self-perceptions,
and their reports of experiences at university can relate more to their expectations and
dispositions than to the reality they describe; this commonsense observation explains why a
group of students who have taken precisely the same course can have widely different views
even on apparently concrete matters such as workload and difficulty.




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Lindblom-Ylänne (2003) examines the „study approaches‟ adopted by students, and suggests
that these can be grouped into „consonant‟ and „dissonant‟ orchestrations of study. She
suggests that the student‟s approach makes a considerable difference to how they learn, what
they learn and how they feel about it. „Dissonant‟ organisations occur where students adapt
poorly to the learning environment and do not match their study approaches to the teaching
methods which they are offered. An example would be the „surface oriented‟ student
described in 2:1:4 above who encounters teaching methods intended to foster deep learning.
By contrast, students with „coherent study orchestrations‟ scored high on „deep scales‟

      „seemed to be conscious of themselves as students… had good metacognitive
      skills… very certain that their way of studying was functional and successful in
      their learning environment… continued to seek for understanding even though
      their learning materials were sometimes very factual in nature.‟
                                                             Lindblom-Ylänne 2003, 71

Lindblom-Ylänne (2003) quotes a very consonant student who described her studying thus:

      “It is simply that when you understand what you are studying… when yo uhave a
      context, then details “stick” to the general picture almost by themselves. You
      don‟t have to concentrate on memorising them.”
                                                            Lindblom-Ylänne 2003, 71

She also found that „… students who express coherent study orchestrations seem to be
“immune” to the demands of the learning environment‟ (2002, 76) such as stress or heavy
workloads. Once again this research supports the case for a discourse around ways of learning
as a key part of the student experience.

The lack of an existing discourse is mentioned above. Lizzio and Wilson (2004) point out that
while academics and employers have well-developed discourses on skills, we know very little
about how students view them (2004, 110). Where such a discourse does exist, their student
subjects tended to „perceive the “world of work” as demanding a greater range of skills than
academic study‟ (2004, 124). They evaluated skills – and were motivated to acquire them – as
they perceive them to be relevant to future employment.

One reason for the belief that university does not require skills – and the consequent
resistance of some first years to either discussing them or valuing their acquisition above the
acquisition of marks or knowledge – may be the sense that university is „just another three
years of school‟. A student who has achieved the grades which ensure entry to university is
confident that she or he can „already do all that‟. A challenge for higher education is to find
ways of articulating its difference from secondary schooling in ways which do not devalue the
latter. One theme which arose in several exit interviews in the School of Informatics was the
loss of confidence that hit students who had done well at school with very little effort; this
group can be at real risk of withdrawing if the transition is not well handled.




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2:2:3   Student self-perceptions: workload

In this project, student perceptions of workload were found to relate far more closely to theire
expectations than to how much work they actually did. Similar results arise in other studies.
Kember (2004, 166) notes that student perception and actual hours may not always relate
 closely: the workload perceptions of his students did not show a significant correlation with
either hours spent in class or typical hours spent in private study.

In fact, the student who spent least time in class and independent study had the highest
workload perception score and complained most about being overworked. Kember‟s
observation was that this student put in „as little work as possible, while just getting by‟. The
student also described himself as unmotivated and bored (Kember 2003, 173).

Kember (2004) argues that class environment is crucial, and that an over-reliance on
summative assessment and low staff-student interaction can lead to low morale among
students, accompanied by the perception that they are „overworked‟. However, when he
interviewed students who studied in the same classes their workload perceptions turned out to
be very different (2004, 177), which indicates that student approach is actually more
influential. Once again, Kember found that students who had not managed the school-
university transition well perceived their workloads as „too high‟ (2004, 178), and that good
relationships with other students and with staff led to low perceptions (2004, 179).




                                               21
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2:3     Transformation

Thus far, discussion has focussed on ways in which the university can boost the likelihood of
a student‟s persisting in higher education by helping them to develop skills and attitudes
which will allow them to feel „included‟, and to benefit from teaching, feedback etc. which
encourage them to become active and involved learners. All of these are ways in which the
university can change students who enter its courses, although they also involve changes in
the institution itself. It is assumed that students will undergo some degree of „transformation‟
during their time at university. However, is it really desirable, or even ethical, for an
institution to require this? Should universities set out to „transform‟ their students?

Thomas (2002) suggests that it is not desirable. She states that a truly inclusive higher
education institution would be one in which:

        students are allowed to be themselves, and not expected to change to fit in with
        institutional expectations which are very different to their own habitus
                                                                       Thomas 2002, 440

She suggests that, for working-class students in particular, an institution which requires
entrants to change in any way is threatening and possibly also illiberal. Her proposal is that
the university itself should change in order to accommodate students who enter from a variety
of backgrounds, and that to privilege certain aspects of university practice and culture
„because they work for their purpose‟ is simply to perpetuate social inequalities.

It would be difficult to argue against this position in principle. Thomas‟ discussion, however,
is unclear about precisely which elements of „institutional habitus‟ should change, and which
ones are actively implicated in the perpetration of a „white, male, middle class, able bodied‟
(Thomas 2003, 433) culture. Without such a boundary, or at least discussion about a
boundary, the danger of ejecting the baby along with the bathwater is considerable.
Historically, universities have been implicated in a genuine social elitism, most of which has
nothing whatsoever to do with genuine academic and intellectual activity. It is essential that
such social elitism should not be confused with intellectual complexity and conceptual or
practical work which is essentially difficult, but nevertheless important.

For example, it is (one hopes) unequivocal to suggest that all regional or national accents
should be accepted without ridicule or comment in the classroom; how a person pronounces
words has no bearing on their content. Similarly, the lecturer who told a class including the
young Diane Reay that northern English families kept coal in the bath clearly displayed an
extremely unhelpful habitus (and a cavalier approach to the accurate of observational data, at
least as serious a charge in a university). Some cases, however, are less clear-cut.

Thomas quotes one of her subjects as finding the language used in textbooks and classrooms
as „too academic‟, and therefore unwelcoming. And it is true that incoming students can have
difficulty interpreting and reproducing standard academic discourse. Informal discussion with
several experienced lecturers suggested that the most common problem was not the much-
mentioned use or otherwise of the first person, but with essay and argument structure and
precision of expression. Crucially, widening participation students were not regarded as
displaying these weaknesses any more than the student body as a whole, or as being any less
able to become fluent in this discourse.

It is not difficult to see how a strong argument can be made that students who want to gain a
university level of education should be supported in reading and writing in a register which
does the work of a fairly traditional academic language. A mature academic discipline does
require clear and precise expression of ideas which may be complex and/or abstract. It does
require dispassionate and logical argumentation to reach or support conclusion, and it does


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require an understanding of particular concepts and knowledge, along with the ability to
express and discuss this with fellow practitioners. Students should certainly be supported in
acquiring these aptitudes, and not discouraged or ridiculed if they arrive at university in need
of help with this acquisition. And where vocational disciplines which have been brought into
the higher education system have their own distinct and effective modes of discourse, these
need to be recognised and respected. A reduction of the opportunities for students to learn
„how to do‟ kinds of discourse which will enhance their intellectual exploration (and almost
certainly their confidence as well) would not constitute widening participation.

Thomas‟ point is essentially about „transformation‟; essentially she argues that students
should not be required to change to fit in with higher education. To promise that a student can
enter university and not change, however, would be foolish if not dishonest. It would be
practically impossible to participate fully in a degree course and not change in some ways,
and it is likely that those ways will feel highly personal to many students. One of the defining
characteristics of an higher education course is that it requires the student to engage with
particular ways of thinking and acting, and in most cases these will be different from the ones
which the student has encountered previously. It would be limiting not to give students this
opportunity, but is it actually illiberal to require them to take it if they are to achieve high
marks and possibly also their desired employment on graduation?

This question could be answered with a statement that they are required to make intellectual
changes, and not social ones. Essentially, however, most university courses will include an
element of encouraging students to look at the world in different ways; this is one of the ways
in which they are essentially distinct from much short-term training. Breen quotes work
which suggests that students from different disciplines may eventually display different
„conceptual ecologies‟ (Breen 1999, 4). For example,

      physics students tend to see the world as rational and objective, have distinctive
      motivational features such as low intrinsic motivation and high competence
      motivation
                                                                          Breen 1999, 5

Setting boundaries on precisely which elements of the world are appropriate for new or
extended modes of consideration would be impractical (and probably just as illiberal as
encouraging such changes in the first place). Skeggs (LS1 46-7) points out that experience of
the social and cultural context of education often brings changes in tastes and behaviours; are
these to be regarded as impositions or opportunities? Has a student who changes his or her
preferred reading matter from a tabloid to a broadsheet been empowered or brainwashed?

In addition, higher education tends to enter the lives of individuals at a stage when they are
particularly open for personal transformation. „Young‟ students arrive at university during the
adolescent years, when they are already undergoing substantial personal changes, and mature-
age students often arrive either because they have recently experienced major internal or
external life-changes, or because they wish to do so. Arguably, many students may actually be
seeking some degree of transformation, and a genuine transformation by definition includes
an element of the unknown. Universities might be better advised to concentrate on helping
students to articulate and manage transformative processes.

Boulton-Lewis et al, working with a group of widening participation students in Australia
(their subjects were Australian aboriginals, whose participation rates are historically very
low), discuss a model of learning in which the academic learning process is regarded as
inseparable from personal transformation. Learning consists of:

      (a) increasing one‟s knowledge, (b) memorising, (c) applying, (d) understanding,
      (e) seeing something in a different way and (f) changing as a person… a


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      hierarchy, with the first three focussing on qualitative dimensions of learning
      while the latter three are characteristically qualitative
                                                               Boulton-Lewis et al 2003, 80

Their subjects, however, did not expect to change „as people‟ during their course (2003, 88).
Archer et al found that dislike of the idea of personal change discouraged some of their
British white and black working-class male subjects from entering higher education. For this
group, going to university would only be acceptable if you were guaranteed that you would
„“stay the same as you were before”‟ (2001, 441). One successful student friend was praised
because she „“hasn‟t changed a bit”… she‟s exactly the same as she was”‟ (2001, 442). For
their white interviewees, not „getting above your station‟ was crucial; their black subjects
identified elements of black male culture as vulnerable within higher education5.

Jackson also argues that transformation is probably inherent in entering higher education:

      all students will experience the transition into higher education in different ways,
      for almost all students it will entail significant life changes. Such changes and
      discontinuity can pose threats to their sense of who they are
                                                                       Jackson 2003, 342

Ahmad describes a similar inevitability, but while she acknowledges that it may be
unexpected or unsettling she writes of transformation as an empowering process:

      Whilst the ultimate goal is the attainment of a piece of paper, a qualification
      signifying a certain academic speciality, few of us leave higher education the
      same person that we entered… we are “transformed”… Our knowledge base is
      greater, our employment prospects improve (so we are led to believe) and our
      social and personal experiences are richer.
                                                                   Ahmad 2003, 137

Her subjects (female, first-generation student British Muslim women) included many who felt
that education „broadened their horizons‟ and enhanced both their general confidence and
their sense of assurance about their identity, culture and religion (Ahmad 2003, 146).

Mann actually describes „transformative‟ activity as crucial to reducing the problems of
student alienation in the higher education experience:

      the development of the capacity to become aware of the conditions in which we
      work, and the responses which we make to them… the capacity to act on that
      awareness must arise out of criticality – the capacity and opportunity to question,
      examine, uncover, reframe, make visible and interpret.
                                                                         Mann 2001, 13

Essentially, she suggests that if students are encouraged to develop an enhanced range of
articulacy and critical awareness, they can turn this on their own experience in order to make
sense of it and to cope with the changes involved. Encouragement to use this capacity to focus

5
  Such changes in „social class culture‟ are almost always assumed to be from being working-class to
being middle-class, because the dominant social culture among students (and probably also academic
staff) in UK universities is a middle-class one. However, it is important to note that other changes are
possible. Middle-class students can emulate upper-class ones, and my own experience of teaching in a
university with a very broad class mixture suggests that some middle-class students can experience
cultural change towards working-class norms. The latter kind of change, however, is relatively unlikely
to be „enforced‟ by perceived availability of opportunity in the way that becoming middle/upper class
might be, and it is easy to imagine scenarios in which it could be regarded as a patronising or
unpleasant kind of „class tourism‟ (although this is certainly not inevitable).

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on one‟s own life could also help students avoid some of the less desirable elements of
exposure to a new social setting. A critically aware student, for example, can understand
precisely why accent does not indicate intelligence; a student who has been encouraged to use
language effectively and to have confidence in their ability and their right to use an academic
discourse can reject the suggestion that their Geordie speech patterns show that they are „a bit
thick‟. Promoting one of the oldest functions of the university can at least help to break down
some of its rather newer social associations.




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2:4       Widening participation: some further issues

2:4:1     Non-traditional students and the student experience

Several aspects of the student experience which are particularly relevant to non-traditional
students (e.g. accommodation) have already been discussed in this paper and in LS1. Authors
such as Rhodes and Nevill highlight one factor which is highly relevant to non-traditional
students: they are still under-represented in UK higher education (Rhodes and Nevill 2004,
180), and their concerns are therefore in some danger of being overlooked. Archer et al note
that men and women from „working-class‟ homes „participate in roughly equal (but very
small) numbers‟, and also note that there are important racial differences in participation
rates; for example, African-Caribbean men and Bengali men fare far worse than other groups
(Archer et al 2001, 433). Chatterton (1999, 120) discusses a number of issues which may
mean that the recent expansion in higher education may do little to address the existing class
divide, with the emergence of different „tiers‟ of higher education, and persistent differences
in financial welfare.

UFNE (2002) quotes Thomas‟ (2001) work, which suggests that were widening participation
students are in a minority their particular needs may not come to the attention of the
institution, or may be poorly understood, or that these students may simply be very isolated:

       students from a low socio-economic group are more likely to succeed in a
       university that reflects their own socio-economic and cultural experiences and
       expectations… the attitudes of staff, learning experience and the existence of
       good peer support networks also contribute to the retention of non-traditional
       students… staff need to be aware of the different social, cultural and academic
       backgrounds of students, to accept and respect students and develop an inclusive
       model of teaching, learning and assessment…
                                                                         UFNE 2001, 11
Thomas (2002) lists „specific characteristics‟ of institutional habitus which might help non-
traditional students to feel welcome and to persist. These include staff attitudes and
relationships with students „which minimise the social and academic distance between them
and enable students to feel valued and sufficiently confident to seek guidance when they
require it‟ (Thomas 2002, 440), as well as „inclusive‟ teaching and learning strategies „which
do not assume that the habitus of “traditional” higher education students should be the habitus
of new cohorts‟ (Thomas 2002, 441). Some of the difficulties with this latter suggestion, in
the absence of more concrete discussion by its author, are discussed above.

Chatterton suggests that some of the other roles performed by many non-traditional students
may make it difficult for them to identify as students:

        Non-traditional student lifestyles are not “framed” in the same way as traditional
        students, largely because of other roles which they perform such as “parent-
        student” or “worker-student” which renders their identity as students less visible
                                                                     Chatterton 1999, 119

Chatterton writes about cultural awareness, but there is a more practical issue here too. These
non-student roles may leave individuals with little time to engage in the behaviours which
would help them to fit in with the wider „student life‟ or to spend as much time as might be
desirable on their studies.

There is evidence that practical matters are at least as important as cultural ones for non-
traditional students (not least in the findings of this project, see below). Christie et al
examined stated reasons for withdrawal alongside measures of „advantage‟ or „disadvantage‟.
They found that disadvantaged students actually appeared to have a slightly higher academic


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orientation than their advantaged classmates. Only 16% of disadvantaged leavers cited
„problems with course‟, compared to 25% of advantaged ones. On other items the trend was
less marked but still present; a lack of motivation was cited by 17% of advantaged leavers and
15% of disadvantaged, while the university environment was mentioned by 18% advantaged
and 14% of disadvantaged. The only item on which disadvantaged students scored more
highly was „financial pressure‟, although only 12% cited this compared with 10% of
advantaged students (Christie et al 2004, 622).

A useful reminder of the difficulties with examining this issue is given by Haque, who points
out that differences exist both between and within different groups of non-traditional students.
She also notes that it is very difficult for universities to identify these reliably, especially as
these relate to religion and ethnicity (Haque 2001, 13).

Finally, in looking at the attitudes and experiences of non-traditional students, the importance
of levels of confidence should not underestimated. One of Jackson‟s informants also noted the
much higher confidence levels of public school pupils (2003, 337), and many staff can offer
anecdotal evidence that mature-age and first generation students (especially women) often
articulate a sense that they „shouldn‟t really be here‟. Finding a balance between building
confidence and encouraging students to take on challenges is an important task for tutors and
those involved in student support.

This is one area where Haque‟s advice may be particularly salient. For example, Archer et al
(2001) found that non-white men believed that higher education culture contains both racism
and a genuine meritocracy which will allow high achievers to overcome this. Their white
working-class subjects, however, believed strongly in the „system‟ which works against
them. Mirza interviewed women students who recognised structural barriers of race class and
gender, and because they see the problems are better at surmounting these (1992, 442). This
latter is an example of precisely the kind of application of critical thinking skills to individual
social situations which is described above.


2:4:2   Support and access to support

One common finding is that non-traditional students show different patterns of advice-seeking
from those of the traditional group (e.g. UFNE 23, 44). Brown and Piatt (2001, 15-16) say
that systems of support for non-traditional students should be simplified if this group are to be
encouraged to enter and stay in HE. This does not imply that non-traditional students are
unable to understand „complex‟ arrangements, but shows an acknowledgement that if support
is hard to access there will be an additional barrier for students who may already lack
confidence. The lack of a social group from whom to gain informal and non-threatening
advice is important here. It is much easier to ask a parent or friend who has been to university
about something potentially embarrassing, such as means-testing, than to admit ignorance or
possible failure to a member of university staff. A surprise for many academics who feel
supportive towards widening participation students is that such students still worry that they
may be „judgemental‟. And non-traditional student may not wish to be identified as such; they
naturally want to „fit in‟.




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2:5       Students and motivation

2:5:1     Types of student motivation

As I suggested above, it is very clear that the „motivation‟ of the student to engage with their
academic work and their university experience is crucial in determining whether that student
persists at university. Where correlations with demographic and academic factors break down,
this intractable and individual quality may well be the most important factor in determining
retention rates. A motivated student can overcome many negative circumstances, while for an
unmotivated individual even excellent lectures and a supportive peer-group may do nothing to
enhance their experience of university. A student‟s level of motivation will colour his or her
attitude towards the institution and course, but it is also essential because it determines how
much time they put into their student activities; attending classes, studying, reading, working
on assignments, talking to and socialising with other students, sitting around and thinking
about their subject and the changes in their lives. Motivation will thus directly affect
academic success and proficiency, confidence and integration.

The term „motivation‟ is used rather loosely in reference to students. It is possible to
distinguish three important areas in which students have different types and degrees of
motivation:

1) Motivation for entering higher education, and for choosing a particular institution and
   course („entry motivation‟)
2) Motivation for engaging with day-to-day coursework tasks, contact hours and student
   activities („daily motivation‟)
3) Motivation to gain something at the end of their course, e.g. a degree, a particular kind of
   job or rate of pay, a particular social position or self esteem („future motivation‟)

Making a separation between these is quite important, although they are clearly interlinked. In
particular, separating daily motivation from the other two is necessary because a student can
have an abundance of entry motivation and future motivation, but these may simply not
translate into the willingness to perform the relatively small daily tasks which will fulfil them.
Winn acknowledges that while most studies of the student experience concentrate on
teaching, learning and assessment strategies, „little attention has been paid to the impact on
student motivation of recent changes in the social and economic context of higher education‟
(2002, 445). This is partly because of the difficulties which students have in articulating their
own motivations, and because of the intangible nature of motivation itself.

Breen offers a working definition of motivation as:

        the nature of an individual‟s internal forces and the extent to which they define
        external goals and direct the individual towards them… a problem is encountered
        when attempting to characterise the learning environment within which the
        student is oriented in order to establish towards what they are oriented
                                                                              Breen 1999, 1

Breen notes that many students may be somewhat unclear about their external goals, even
where they state them very strongly. Similarly, a student who states that s/he has a very strong
future motivation may exhibit behaviours which show a distinct lack of daily motivation.

Despaul et al (2004) point out rather gloomily that a great deal of student motivation is simply
outside the control of the institution in which a student is studying. Levels and directions of
student motivation are to a great extent determined before students arrive, and in addition,
external factors will continue to impact on this characteristic of the student:



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        Current emotions and context complement the perception of an activity and
        regulate the level of engagement… engagement in study is not intrinsically
        motivating and will be minimised to maximise social activities and pursue more
        motivating activities
                                                        Despaul et al 2004, 140 – 141

Mäkinen et al caution against taking student motivation at university for granted, or indeed
blaming HEIs for squandering a boundless „natural‟ resource:

        Due to the voluntary nature of higher education, one might imagine that
        motivational problems would not exist among university students. It sometimes
        happens, however, that students whose study orientation is not clear gain access
        to university… because of their ambiguous orientation, they are unable to follow
        the typical course of studying… often the first signals of these kinds of problems
        are very implicit and students‟ intentions to drop out surprise their fellow
        students, family members, and even close friends‟
                                                                   Mäkinen et al 2004, 173

People enter university for all kinds of reasons other than „study orientation‟, and non-
academic reasons are just as likely to be found among traditional as non-traditional students.
Archer et al make the important but rarely heard point that middle class students may be just
as „instrumental‟ in their motives as first-generation students, using higher education to
reproduce privilege (Archer et al 2001, 438). Any student who lacks study orientation is
vulnerable, however. Spending thirty to forty self-directed hours on an activity, for a period of
several years, will be difficult for anyone who is not essentially motivated to do so.


2:5:2     Retention and motivation

Mäkinen et al measured the level of „commitment‟ felt by their subjects to their subject major,
to socialising within the university, and to a particular future career as indices of motivation.
They also asked students if they had considered changing their „major‟ during the first year.
Almost a fifth of students had, but this was far more common among „non-committed‟
students than among those who expressed strong commitment either to the core activities of
being a student (studying and/or socialising in a university context) or to a specific future
career. More than one third of students without either of these expressed commitments were
considering a change of major; five per cent considered quitting altogether. This is reflected
in the proportion who actually did change subjects or withdraw (Mäkinen et al 2004, 182).
In addition, Mäkinen et al found that over 40% of students who had left by the third year
belonged to the non-committed group in the first year. Only around a quarter of those still
present had been classified as „non-committed‟ in the first year. A reported lack of interest
proved to be a strong indicator of future withdrawal, as did a belief that one‟s studies were
largely „irrelevant‟. However, as commitment improved so did grades, which supports the
notion that motivated students work harder.


2:5:3     Motivations for entering higher education

Student motivations for entering higher education in the first place will to some extent
determine both student expectations, and student motivation to engage in their coursework.
Several studies have surveyed students in order to identify the reasons why they choose to go
to university.




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Higgins et al (2002, 53) asked students to indicate all of the reasons behind their decision.
They found that for 92%, „gaining qualifications‟ was important, a result which is not in itself
surprising; most students who go to university will expect to come out with a degree.
Worryingly, only 71% of their informants said that their enjoyment of learning was a factor.
This means that almost three quarters of entering students expect to spend the next few years
in an activity which they find pleasurable. However, almost 30% will not. Winn (2002)
quotes a NCIHE study which found that only 15% of full-time students said „interest in the
subject‟ was their most important reason for entering higher education. 23% said they did not
want „to experience intellectual growth and stimulation‟ and 32% did not want „to learn about
and discuss new ideas‟ (Winn 2002, 448).

Some of these will be students who want the qualification in order to get a job which brings
them a high salary, or social kudos, or both. Others will undoubtedly be among the „reactive
entrants‟ discussed in LS1 (54-5), who are among the most vulnerable to withdrawal. Winn
(2002) argues that this group will only grow with:

      near universal middle-class participation, which means that most students now
      enter higher education because they experience little choice in the matter,
      [which] estranges students from the possibility of experiencing a meaningful
      personal purpose in engaging in higher education
                                                                    Winn 2002, 447

The presence of a high number of such students may contribute to a resistance among some
students to the idea of transformation.

Rhodes and Nevill (2004, 184) found that in their sample the majority of entrants to
university were „self motivated‟. Like the students surveyed by Higgins et al, their priorities
combined study and instrumental orientation, with the most frequently mentioned being
„knowledge acquisition‟ and „empowerment in the job market‟.

Among the non-entrants interviewed by Archer et al (2001), higher education was seen
almost solely as a route to a higher salary. Many made no connection between the skills
gained on a university course and those which would be rewarded by this salary in jobs
requiring graduate-level education. The following is quoted as a typical comment:

      “I wouldn‟t ask for a degree I‟d just ask for money… that‟s what you‟re going to
      get at the end of the degree, the money, so you might as well ask for the money
      straightaway”
                                                                Archer et al 2001, 437

Personal growth, the intrinsic merits of study, or interest in a particular subject are completely
disregarded. There is a minor discourse which sees HE as offering an „opportunity‟ for these
things, but it is minimal and resentful and its tone is essentially resentful (Archer et al 2001,
439). It is important to note that these opinions are held by non-participants. Some students
may enter university with these attitudes, but where such individuals persist they will often
change their orientation entirely from an instrumental to an academic one (Leathwood and
O‟Connell 2003, 615).

Ahmad, by contrast, found that the Muslim women whom she interviewed voiced a
completely different set of reasons. Some wanted to emulate their older sisters (rather than
male family members), to „do something‟ with their lives, to prove themselves to their family,
overcome racial discrimination in the labour market, or to achieve „a better life‟ (Ahmad
2001, 147). Parental expectation was influential, but „an individual desire to achieve at a
certain level for purely personal development…‟ was very often found 2001, 148).



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The current project found correlations between student satisfaction and commitment, and
stated reasons for entry.

Peer pressure seems to operate as an important factor for all social groups of students. Reay et
al (2001, 7.5) found that it operated in all of the institutions they surveyed, from the FE
college to the private schools. In the latter, indeed, one student was delighted when he failed
to achieve the grades required to enter medical because it „liberated‟ him to go to Art School
instead. Schools are very powerful in building the student self-images which then determine
HE choices. The problem for retention arises when the student enrols on a course which fitted
other people’s image of them, but finds that their self-image changes when their old peer-
group is no longer present.

The availability and quality of careers advice is also crucial in helping students to make
choices of course and university in which they are likely to persist. Reay et al (2001) describe
very different practices and resources in careers advice at different schools. This is another
issue which relates to widening participation because of the different levels of resource
available to different social groups. In Reay et al‟s study, the students who attended large,
diverse state institutions suggested that:

        careers advice was largely uninfluential or… actively unhelpful. Students most
        commonly commented that advice had simply reiterated what they already knew
        or else had been so inconsequential they had difficulty recalling what advice had
        actually been given… institutions in the state sector had far lower levels of
        resourcing. They were also responding to very different student needs. For
        example, at both [state schools] advice and support is rooted in a recognition of
        the considerable financial and geographical constraints many of the students are
        operating under
                                                                Reay et al 2001, 3.1 – 3.3

In addition, school careers services felt that they were often pulling in the opposite direction
from the parents. The situation at the private schools was completely different, with students
being offered several careers consultations over a period of time, better training for careers
staff, better material resources and a longer period of time being allocated to discussion with
individual students.

Christie et al similarly note a „social class gradient in access to information‟ (2004, 624), and
point out that given the complexity of factors involved in making an HE decision (see LS1,
55), retention rates are actually rather good. (Christie et al 2004, 627).


2:5:4     Goals and values (Mäkinen et al)

Mäkinen et al (2004) suggest that different beliefs about the meaning of study relate to
different kinds of motivation. They use the term study orientation to refer to:

        … how students see the meaning of and how they locate themselves in relation to
        their university studies as a whole… i.e. what is their general study orientation
                                                                   Mäkinen et al 2004, 175

In addition, they look at student self-concept in relation to the social life of university, and the
extent to which they identify socially as students.

Four groups of students are distinguished on the basis of „study orientation‟ (Mäkinen et al
2004, 174 – 177). These are as follows:



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Theory oriented students, who enjoy exploring theoretical problems and accomplishing their
own learning goals. These students have a set of attitudes towards learning which are most in
tune with those of a humanistic university culture. They will feel at home within a traditional
university ethos and will benefit most from courses which make fairly standard assumptions
about student goals and ways of learning. This is the group who are likely to employ „deep
learning‟ practices, and also the one most likely to thrive in traditional graduate employment.

Profession-oriented students, who seek training for a particular career. Potentially, this group
will experience a discrepancy between the exchange value of their study and its and practical
value in preparing them for their chosen profession. In practice, many of these students will
be similar to the „theory oriented‟ ones, especially if the career for which they aim is a
profession with a substantial theoretical underpinning. Medical students with a strong
scientific interest, lawyers fascinated by the way the law works, social work students
concerned about why society is the way it is or midwifery students who find the variety of
birth experiences amazing would all show characteristics of both types. A particular
profession may, for these students, be an instrument in pursuing their theoretical goals.

Curriculum oriented aim to meet demands of their study programme in order to finish
successfully and gain their „piece of paper‟. This group exhibit a highly instrumental
orientation, and may well adopt „surface‟ approaches to learning. Of course, students in the
first two categories would almost certainly report that they want to gain their degrees, and to
gain good ones. However, grades or qualifications in themselves are not the primary
motivation, as they are for the curriculum oriented group.

Practice oriented students emphasise the practical value of their course, and state that they
consistently attempt to find something personal in their studies. What motivates them is
finding something „relevant to me‟ in their course. In a sense they regard university study as a
personal development tool, and for that reason may be willing to learn. The key to building
their motivation is to help them develop their concept of „relevance‟.

In addition, Mäkinen et al (2004, 178 - 180) label three groups of students according to they
way they approach their „day to day‟ studies. These are:

Study oriented students, who „place genuine importance on the contents of studying‟ but „…
also appreciate the social elements of studying, such as student parties and peer interaction‟
(2004, 178). Interestingly, only in the faculties of Law and Education do the majority of
students belong to this group (although they are well-represented in minority numbers
elsewhere). This finding is surprising because these are by definition vocational courses.

Work-life oriented students, who „have already taken a mental step toward their future work
career… they belittle the meaning of student life and highlight the importance of careful
planning of studying in order to graduate fast‟ (2004, 178). This group contains a high
number of medical students, although it is suggested that this may be because these students
have a long course, and believe that they are in touch with „the real world‟ because of the
nature of their work.

Non-committed students, who display „unclear study orientation. High anxiety also
distinguishes these students who are still clarifying the personal meaning of studying‟. This
group lacks study-related goals, and its members often attach low importance to social
relationships within the university. The majority of its members come from the humanities
and the natural sciences; in other words, the non-vocational subjects. This does not, of course,
imply that most of the students in these subjects are non-committed, but simply that a lack of
study orientation is often coupled to a lack of clarity about future career goals. This is in
agreement with the finding reported in LS1 (53,67) that a lack of clear goals can predict
withdrawal.


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Miller et al (1999) point out a similar relation between the value which students place on
study, and motivation. They found that for the students in their study:

         learning goal scores were positively related to intrinsic valuing scores…
         individuals interested in increasing competence and knowledge tended to
         experience enjoyment and satisfaction in their learning. However… experiencing
         enjoyment and satisfaction from school tasks was also related to perceiving those
         school tasks as instrumental to personally valued future goals, despite the
         substantial amount of shared variance between learning goals and perceived
         instrumentality… experiencing intrinsic satisfaction depends in part on
         perceiving the activity as instrumental to attaining personally valued future goals.
                                                                       Miller et al 1999, 258

In other words, instrumentality and a focus on future goals does not diminish intrinsic
satisfaction with a task or learning motivation. Indeed, making the link between a long-term
aim and an immediate task has a positive affect on motivation to perform the immediate task.
What seems to be the case is that the lack of such a link diminishes motivation. It is also
possible that a focus on a „symbolic‟ goal (e.g. a mark or a large salary) provides weak
immediate motivation, while focus on a long-term goal which constitutes a particular kind of
activity (e.g. a career as a lawyer or computer scientist) boosts daily motivation. To put it
rather more simply, focus on doing in the future makes a student more likely to do things
now. Focus on having things in the future is less effective.

This may be simply because the activities involved in gaining future and immediate goals
(getting a particular sort of job and attending a lecture or writing an essay) are quite similar.
Miller et al (1999) point out that:

         future goals represent important incentives for present action, but only when
         current tasks are perceived as instrumental to attainment of those future goals
                                                                       Miller et al 1999, 250


2:5:6      Motivation and satisfaction

Rhodes and Nevill (2004), rather than examining the „end goal‟, look at what they call
„satisfiers‟ and „dissatisfiers‟ which may operate for students. Students in their study reported
that the following factors affected their satisfaction or otherwise with university:

Satisfiers

          desire to achieve academic success (100%)
          desire to secure good career prospects (85%)
          feeling stimulated to learn (69%)
          friendliness of teaching staff (75%)
          high level of control over own work (55%)
          feeling able to cope with degree level work (47%)
          friendliness of other students (68%)
          intellectual challenge (65%)
          support from family/partner (60%)
          feeling able to show initiative (39%)




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Dissatisfiers

           Study/personal life balance (76%)
           availability of learning resources (71%)
           society‟s view of students (95%)
           feel able to cope with the workload (54%)
           physical conditions (72%)
           feeling able to get financial advice (65%)
           variety of assessment techniques (40%)
           other students‟ views of university life (33%)

They found that students were equally motivated by „knowledge acquisition‟ and
„empowerment in the job market‟ (2004, 184), or in other words, a balance of instrumental
and academic orientations. What is interesting about their study is the wide range of different
factors which may operate in determining student satisfaction, and thus motivation.


2:5:7   Psychological theories of motivation

Seifert (2004, 137 – 147) discusses four psychological theories of motivation which may be
relevant in an academic context.

Self-efficacy theory essentially locates motivation in an individual‟s level of confidence.
This chimes with the experience of many academics that a student who believes that s/he can
perform a particular task and has the ability to meet its challenges is likely to engage in that
task. Confidence is particularly related to the motivation to attend timetabled sessions.
According to Seifert, „self-efficacy‟ refers to a person‟s belief about whether s/he is
able/unable to perform the task at hand. Students who are efficacious (those who perceive
themselves as essentially capable) are more likely to be self-regulating, and to participate in
study activities, including those which they feel may be difficult. They believe that they have
the ability to meet challenges with success. Those who feel themselves less capable will avoid
difficult tasks, and to take a performance-oriented approach (see below).

One difficulty with this theory in relation to students is that students who are unmotivated
don‟t always see themselves as incapable. A familiar case is that of the „bright but bored‟
underachieving student who does just enough to get by. She or he may well feel capable
while attaching no value to effort beyond the minimum. Some may also perceive themselves
to lack capability and use this as self-protection. Others – perhaps mature-age students are
frequently in this position – may believe strongly in their lack of capability but even more
strongly in their capacity to overcome this by hard work.
Attribution theory examines the ways in which individuals attribute perceived causes to
outcomes, or provide individual explanations of why particular events turn out as they do. For
example, different people might decide that they passed a test because they worked hard, or
because they were „lucky‟, or because in this case the teacher just happened to get it right, etc.
The attributions made give rise to positive or negative emotions, which in turn act as
determinants for future behaviours. The particular attributions made, and characteristic
patterns of attribution, will be determined by a complex of issues: personal history,
characteristics, circumstances etc. In addition, levels of self-efficacy may also be relevant.
Highly efficacious people are generally more inclined to ascribe both good and bad outcomes
to own agency, while those who are less confident tend to prefer „external‟ explanations.




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Seifert separates three elements in attribution:

        the locus of causality: does the cause originate within the individual, e.g. inherent
         ability or effort, or outside them, e.g. difficulty of a task set by others, disruptions, etc
        the stability of the cause: is the cause stable, e.g. level of intelligence, or will it
         change, e.g. temporary minor illness
        the controllability of the cause: can the individual affect the cause, e.g. amount of
         study, or is it beyond their control, e.g. whether a tutor likes them or not

Crucially, student perceptions of causes operate here, rather than accurate observation and
assessment of situations. One student may tend to see grades as the result of an individual,
stable and uncontrollable cause („I‟m clever‟/ „I‟m stupid‟) while another sees them as the
result of changeable and controllable factors („I worked hard‟/ „I didn‟t work hard enough‟).

Failure which is attributed to stable causes may lead to expectations of continued failure or
success. Students who attribute outcomes to internal, controllable causes are more likely to
feel pride, satisfaction, confidence and to have higher self-esteem; typically, they are inclined
to work on harder tasks, persist longer, and engage more with their subjects.

In the related self-worth theory, motivation is characterised as arising from attempts to
maintain or enhance self-worth. In this framework, it is assumes a sense of self-worth is
critical to every-day functioning. Self-worth is defined as a „judgement one makes about
one‟s sense of worth and dignity as a person‟; in Western culture at least, this is inherently
connected to performance. In the self-worth theory of motivation, students gain their self-
worth from their perception of their performance in tasks. Success which is perceived as
coming from high ability leads to pride and self-esteem; if this was accompanied by low
effort, a sense of high ability is also gained. Failure which is attributed to low effort leads to
guilt, while failure from high effort is linked to feelings of shame and humiliation.

Many students are essentially „failure avoidant‟; they want to look neither lazy nor foolish.
For failure-avoidant students, performance is the source of self-worth and ability is the source
of performance. Failure-avoidant students strive to look competent, or alternatively to avoid
looking competent as a way of protecting self-worth. Perceived effort is important because
the „failure-avoidant‟ student believes effort is an index of ability: „smart people do not have
to try hard and people who try hard are not smart… like ability perceptions, effort perceptions
are important.‟ (Seifert 2004, 141). For many, „… given the choice between feeling guilty by
not working and feeling shamed by working hard and failing, students would rather feel guilty
than shamed‟ (Seifert 2004, 141). „Failure avoiding strategies‟, i.e. excuses to protect ability
perceptions, may include effort withdrawal (not trying), procrastination, maintaining a state of
disorganisation, setting goals too high, setting goals too low, cheating or asking for help
(Seifert 2004, 141-2). These offer an „excuse‟ other than inability for failure.

Achievement goal theory is similar to the framework put forward by Mäkinen et al, in that it
describes academic motivation is an attempt to achieve goals, and specific student behaviours
are a function of desires to achieve particular goals. Research in this area focuses primarily on
two dominant goals: learning (mastery or task goals) and performance (ego-oriented goals).

Students pursuing mastery goals are similar to Mäkinen et al‟s „theory oriented‟ students.
This group are „self regulating‟ and „self determining‟, with dispositions that foster cognitive
development. Essentially, they are students who welcome, even seek, transformation; they
want to become able to do things. They believe that effort (i.e. something internal and
controllable) causes success or failure, and they intelligence is regarded as malleable. Even if
they start out believing that they are already intelligent, they see this as a quantity to which
they can add through hard work. They like challenge, and engage in strategy and positive self-
statements. In general, they are more likely to take responsibility for both success and failure.

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Students pursuing performance goals are similar to the curriculum-oriented students described
above, and are „preoccupied with ability concerns‟. Their primary interest is in their
performance relative to others, and in the way they are perceived by others. Ability and
intelligence, which they view as fixed qualities, are regarded as the causes of success and
failure by this group, and they also tend to view difficulty as failure. They attribute outcomes
to uncontrollable factors, and are less likely to process information relative to previous
success; in other, they are less willing to reflect on their experiences. They will display
adaptive behaviours if their confidence is high, but will display maladaptive behaviours if
confidence is low.

Among the latter group, work avoidance goals are sometimes observed. Where these operate,
students do the minimum to get by, and avoid challenge. Possibly because they view the
purpose of their academic work as a performance which is rewarded with grades or praise, or
some other external index, they tend to perceive it as lacking inherent meaning. Not
surprisingly, „failure avoidance‟ is often a motivation for the behaviours of this group.

Seifert suggests that elements of all of these frameworks may interact. For example, beliefs
about self-worth may interact with performance goals, and students who are pursuing
performance goals are very similar to failure avoidant students in their desire to protect ability
perceptions by proving oneself or avoiding appearing incompetent. What drives the mastery
pattern is a strong sense of self . Students who believe that they are „masters of their fate‟
have a strong sense also of control and probably also of responsibility.

The „bright but bored‟ student described above can be seen as having a greater externality
than a mastery student. Essentially, this student has decided to take a low degree of control
over his or her learning (which may in turn contribute to boredom). Mastery students try to
make academic content meaningful, but „… the bright but bored work-avoidant student
expects the content to be made meaningful for them‟ (Seifert 2004, 147).

Seifert suggests that what links all of these approaches is the importance of the student‟s
willingness to take responsibility for their own learning, and the confidence both required to
achieve this, and generated by it. Yet again, this can most easily be influenced by the
university via tutor-student interactions:

        For students to develop into healthy, adaptive and constructive individuals, it is
        imperative to foster feelings of competence and control. Previous research has
        suggested that the teacher-student interaction is the critical factor in fostering a
        sense of competence and autonomy
                                                                          Seifert 2004, 147


2:5:8     Motivation and the ‘meaning’ of work

Two common factors emerge as important from all of the approaches discussed above: the
role of an individual‟s goals, and their awareness of their capability in achieving these. These
can be linked via the notion of meaning. A task derives its meaning for an individual from the
goals which they have in mind when they undertake it, and from their beliefs about why and
how the task can be completed. A university which attempts to increase the motivation levels
of its students can guide them towards finding meaning in their academic activities. However,
they can be encouraged to attribute different sorts of meaning to particular activities. For
example, is it more desirable to motivate students to pass, or to motivate them to value their
work because of its contribution to their future professionalism (and as a by-product of this, to
pass)? Finding ways to enhance a sense of capability, responsibility etc. will probably help
students both to be more successful, and more highly satisfied according to the typology
quoted in 3:2:2.


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Miller et al quote work which suggests that only if students perceive the link between their
academic behaviour and their future goals will they be truly motivated, and that shorter-term
rewards and punishments, or „guilt‟, are not effective motivators (1999, 252). The difficulty
with this is that these are very difficult links to make. In the first place, many students do not
have clear goals in relation to their careers when they enter university. What is a relatively
simple link for law, medicine or nursing students is far more difficult in subjects which
deliver the generic skills and knowledge backgrounds which are valued by many employers.
Student goals may be in flux, or may change. Engaging students in a process of reflection on
their long-term aims is one possible solution, but it is unlikely to work in all cases, especially
for young students who are still at a stage of rapid personal development.

In addition, many students are quite unaware of what elements of their course will be useful
to them in their future careers, or of the precise value of current learning. As discussed above,
many tend to value knowledge most highly, while employers think more in terms of skills.
What is relevant to one sort of job will not be relevant to another, and mass HE cannot really
cater for individual goals, or even interests. Seifert articulates these difficulties:

      Perceived meaning is important in motivated behaviour. The mastery student is
      able to find meaning in the work. If students do not find the work meaningful and
      tend to make external attributions, then work avoidance may develop. To this
      point, however, little attention has been paid to meaning in studies of academic
      motivation… If students do not understand what it is they are supposed to do,
      then they may not be able to find meaning in their work. If the topic does not
      make sense, they may not be able to discern the relevance of the topic. Likewise,
      if students do not feel capable of understanding the topic, they may not find the
      work meaningful
                                                                       Seifert 2004, 147

A clear curriculum organisation, and an ongoing discourse around this with students, seems
to be crucial here. Lecturers need the time and space, and the contact with students, to engage
in this sort of meta-discourse around the courses which they teach. In this way, even where
long-term goals are relatively nebulous, short-term ones can be strengthened and rendered
more concrete, and students‟ awareness of an interest in the immediate tasks can be fostered.
While „incentive values‟ such as grades are important, reminding students that these are most
readily achieved by a deep engagement with the work will also be a motivating factor.
However, none of this can be done unless students have a basic level of motivation which is
high enough to ensure that they attend, and that they pay attention to the interactions
facilitated by their university.

Breen (1999, 8 - 9) found that motivation was linked to two factors: a desire to gain high
marks, and interest in the subject, with marks being explicitly linked to perceived
employment prospects. However, another important factor was student „camaraderie‟. Breen
suggests, therefore, that a feeling of involvement in the „culture‟ of the subject being studied
is influential in determining motivation. A student who feels involved and included in their
subject is likely to adopt its social and academic values, and therefore to engage in activities
which support these. In this way, the goals of the student and the goals of the institution (both
the particular university and the whole subject discipline) are very similar:

      The acquisition of a disciplinary way of thinking and knowing is the goal that
      Higher Education seeks to facilitate and by virtue of having made the choice to
      specialise in one or two disciplines, it is reasonable to assert that the student is
      also oriented toward that goal… however the objective existence of the academic
      environment is no guarantee that students perceive it objectively…
                                                                            Breen 1999, 2



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Choice of a particular subject, though, is not enough. Students may enter reactively, or on the
basis of poor advice, or with a mistaken impression of what the subject involves; a student
who enters with a strong genuine interest and accurate expectations may become detached if
local factors in their department lead to disappointment with their particular course. The
institution needs to provide a strong and coherent environment which reinforces subject
culture in the classroom, and preferably outside it for each cohort of students.


2:5:9     Motivation and examinations

Macdonald (2002) provides an extremely interesting discussion of the function of
examinations in building student motivation. Examinations are being used less and less in
higher education assessment, and many practitioners would argue that their motivational
impact is low or even counter-productive, operating as the most blatant case of marks being
privileged over learning outcomes. However, Macdonald suggests that the problem with
exams „… may not be the examination… but rather, the perceptions which students have of
its role‟ (2002, 330). If examinations are presented to students as a learning tool, and
preparation and the exams themselves are placed within a supportive context, they can
actually boost both subject understanding and motivation.

Macdonald discusses the sense among at least some lecturers and students that examinations
can be helpful in these ways, and quotes research which indicates that students develop a
„synoptic understanding‟ during exam revision (2002, 330). The following quotations from
students support this view:

        “When I was revising, it all started to come together. Revision was just the icing
        on the cake. I reread some of the articles with interest, they were much more
        interesting the second time round. It started putting everything into perspective”
        “I found that there is a post-course period when the information taken up during
        the course seems to reorganise itself in my mind and reappears later, making
        even more sense…”
        “I have been rereading it and have been quite encouraged by the fact that some of
        the things I struggled with at the time, and gave up on, actually make some sense
        now. I must have learnt something during the year”
                                                                      Macdonald 2002, 332

Other students mentioned „the challenge, the need to put in more effort, and to study more
seriously than they might otherwise‟ (2004, 333).


If the stress surrounding the examination itself can be reduced, then the revision period can
operate as a very helpful part of learning. Macdonald‟s subjects are all mature-age Open
University candidates, who may well have been sitting only one or two examinations, rather
than the eight or nine which formed a traditional „finals‟ period.


2:5:10 Capability and motivation

There is general agreement that students who believe in their own capability are more likely
to work hard and embrace challenges than students who lack confidence. Breen makes the
link between perceived lack of competence and a lack of motivation. Jackson found that
students self-evaluate partly on the basis of the marks they get (2003, 339). Where they feel
that they have „done badly‟, they are likely to continue to underachieve and to put in less
effort, creating a vicious cycle.



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Jackson also found that many students believe that for everyone, there are „things you‟re
naturally good at‟, and that a „natural hierarchy‟ of ability exists. In other words, they believe
more in inherent qualities than in their own capacity to learn and to build skills and
knowledge. Students who do not hold this belief, or who reject it, are likely to work harder
(Jackson 2003, 337).

Both of these factors emerged as important in the research carried out as part of this project.
Once again, feedback and interactions between tutors and students appear to be essential.


2:5:11 Motivation and effort

P. G. Wodehouse‟s advice to aspiring writers („apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the
chair…‟), is also valuable for students who wish to succeed at university. Motivation has two
essential functions for the successful student; it makes their course enjoyable, and it ensures
that they do enough work to pass. Winn (2002) looked at „motivation‟ as the „black box‟
factor which meant that students who had classic „personal problem‟ circumstances
nevertheless worked extremely hard. In her study, students were grouped according to their
levels of external commitments (such as part-time work or childcare and domestic duties)
alongside their levels of motivation and hours spent on academic work.

Winn identified one group of students with very high levels of external commitments (jobs,
childcare, domestic responsibilities), who nevertheless put in long hours on their coursework,
attended well, and were „highly motivated‟. Qualitative data relating to their day-to-day
schedules revealed „hectic‟ lifestyles, and ingenuity in finding time (and space) to study:

      it is clear that these students are all highly motivated. They appear to have an
      intrinsic motivation, valuing their academic experience to such an extent that
      they go to great lengths to fit their studies into lives which are already
      demanding. They variously employed the accommodation mechanisms of
      sacrifice (of social activities or time with family), support (e.g. from a partner)
      and negotiation (e.g. of periods of time to study).
                                                                         Winn 2002, 450

A second group had very similar personal and/or domestic circumstances, but „… experienced
their daily lives as highly stressful and… simply could not fit any more academic work into
their lives‟ (Winn 2002, 451). When asked whether they had considered studying part-time
rather than attempting to fit a full-time course around their other commitments, they tended to
reply that part-time study is more difficult to manage financially.

The main difference between these two groups appeared to lie in their perception of the
relationship between external pressures and the possibility of committing a substantial amount
of their time to study, because the size and nature of the obstacles involved was so similar.
This could be seen as an issue of „motivation‟, and possibly also of „confidence‟. However,
Winn found that these groups did not articulate their situation in these terms, but talked about
their difficulties, either as things which prevented their studying or as things which they
succeeded in overcoming on a regular basis.

For the students who have few external time pressures, however, motivation emerges as the
central issue both on an external examination of their lives and in their own narratives. This
„low external commitments, low academic working time‟ group talk relatively little about
issues which can be grouped as „teaching, learning and assessment‟. Where these arise, their
interest tends to be in „playing the system‟ in order to pass. They have little motivation that
relates to an interest in the subject, or indeed in personal development. The typologies
evolved above would describe them as „curriculum‟ or „performance‟ oriented.


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Winn identified a substantial third group of this type. All were „young‟ and had few
responsibilities (only a minority had jobs, and only one perceived herself as having financial
difficulties) but did little academic work (Winn 2002, 452). This group were poor attenders at
timetabled sessions, and in general they organised their work in a very assessment-driven
way. What stopped them working, primarily, was „sitting around‟, although „social life‟ also
emerged as a popular alternative to working, and they had a strong social orientation.

When asked why they didn‟t do more work, the content of their classes and the type of
teaching they encountered were not mentioned. The only learning issue which emerged was
the fact that they were unwilling to put in any work on aspects of the course which they
believed would not be tested. As one student put it, „“I only prepare for seminars if I think
they‟re going to ask us”‟ (Winn 2002, 453). Because they were poor attenders, of course, the
possibility of their being „asked‟ was reduced, and poor attendance and low workload entered
a vicious cycle.

Interestingly, while these students showed very low daily motivation, their levels of future
motivation emerge as quite high in their narratives. The following is a typical statement:

      “I suppose I haven‟t got the motivation. Well, I am motivated, I‟m focussed on
      what I want to do, and I‟m going to get my degree, I want to get a first, but I‟m
      not motivated from day to day. I don‟t think we have enough hours of teaching.
      We‟re only in here for 10 hours a week and then it‟s supposed to be 30 hours
      independent study! They give you independent study to do, and reading to do,
      but nobody actually checks whether you‟ve done it. They don‟t‟ know if you
      haven‟t done it, so it‟s easy not to do it”
                                                                     Winn 2002, 453

For this student, the disjunction between goals and classroom work has reached a point of
complete unreality; it is extremely likely that she will gain the first she desires with these
working patterns. However it is likely that she, and other students with this approach, will
actually pass if they persist in higher education. This is because at least some of these students
put a certain amount of ingenuity into „playing the system‟ and getting by on as little work as
possible. They will come to the attention of staff involved in retention when one part of their
strategies unravels. Research with „strategic students‟ in School of Informatics indicates that
these students are vulnerable to withdrawal as their strategies are inherently quite risky.

Interestingly – and encouragingly – Winn found that about a quarter of the students who
completed the initial questionnaire for her study showed a very „studenty‟ lifestyle. This
group have „few external commitments‟ alongside high levels of academic work, with an
average of about thirty hours a week of independent study (2002, 454). None of these
students, however, volunteered to be interviewed, possibly they did not see why their working
habits could be of interest because this is simply „what they do‟. Interestingly, all of the
students interviewed in the project reported here would fall into this latter group.

Motivating students to engage with their subject so that they put in enough time to succeed is
essential for student retention. Jansen makes this link explicit:

      Students have considerable free time to plan their own study time and they can
      choose whether to spend their time on study or other activities. Therefore
      progress in higher education depends on students‟ discipline to study regularly
                                                                       Jansen 2004, 416

The best programme of study skills and self-management training in the world will not be
effective if students do not put in the time and effort required to use it.

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Jansen also suggests that „the organisation of the curriculum can contribute to student
motivation and study progress‟(2004, 417), and that „… dedication, planning behaviour and
the way time is spent do affect academic success… it goes without saying that the amount of
time students spend on their study is an important factor.‟ (Jansen 2004, 415). She proposes
the following practices:

          spreading tests throughout the semester
          avoid parallel courses where possible
          avoid having two tests in one week
          where re-tests are offered, do not spread these through the year
          avoid organising re-tests and normal exams in the same week
          pay attention to feedback from students
          offer students sufficient opportunities to practice tests
                                                                          Jansen 2004, 427

Jansen also proposes that spending too much time on student orientation at the beginning of a
course may actually reduce students‟ progress, because it „leads to a less active study attitude
and a delay attitude‟ (Jansen 2004, 427). Effective instruction for increasing student
motivation would include clarity in explaining course aims, interaction and expressiveness
between staff and students, and ample opportunities for students to receive feedback on their
work (Jansen 2004, 415 – 416).

Despaul et al (2004) also examine how motivation determines actual „time spend‟ on different
activities, and conclude that the amount of time spent on study is crucial to achievement and
retention. Their „flow model‟ of motivation, based on the emotional response of individuals to
tasks, assumes that:

         emotional profiles are not related to the objective nature of the activities but to its
         subjective assessment – how an individual feels challenged by, and perceives the
         availability of skills to successfully perform the activity
                                                                     Despaul et al 2004, 131

Once again, it appears that in assessing workload and the capacity to fulfil it, perception is at
least as important as the actual levels of work required.

Despaul et al suggest that the „Flow state‟, where „optimal experiences‟ are achieved, is
defined by „high challenge and high skill‟ [requirements]. Boredom is observed where low
challenge meets high skills, apathy with low challenge and low skills, and anxiety with high
challenge and low skills (Despaul et al 2004, 131). However, motivation is determined not
only by the individual and the particular task which they are set. Contextual factors „… such
as place, the social environment [and] alternative activities are continually weighed against
subjective mental states such as motivation‟ (Despaul et al 2004, 130).




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2:5:12 Strategies for building student motivation

Despaul et al found that for the „high achieving‟ student population they studied, „challenges,
but not skills, drive activation‟ (2004, 139). However, while „…raising challenges increased
activation but this increase was significantly attenuated for studying‟ (2004, 140). Students
who are already study-oriented and confident will respond to tasks which stretch them, but
not all students will fall into this group, and not all of this group will be highly motivated in
this way. Where students perceive their skills as low, activities aimed at raising these skills
may themselves be perceived as too challenging, and the result may be anxiety rather than
enhanced motivation. How can one course cater for students whose levels of skill and
perceptions of this may vary? Thomas‟ plea, discussed above, for flexible teaching methods is
relevant here, but this is resource-intensive and requires a high level of sympathetic
interaction between tutors and their students. Helping students to understand their skill levels,
and how to improve these where necessary, once again may be a useful strategy.

Again following Despaul et al, paying attention to the context of study is important. They
suggest that:

      while activation was highest at home and alone, the optimal mental states were
      reached in social situations… engagement in study is not intrinsically motivating
      and will be minimised to maximise social activities and pursue more motivating
      activities
                                                        Despaul et al 2004, 140 – 141

This again provides an argument for measures to increase student integration, so that their
academic and social lives are to some extent fused, and at least some of their social identity
relates to their academic activities. The discussion of informal „study groups‟ above is
relevant here, as is the relationship of student motivation to clarity of career goals. Arguably a
student who thoroughly enjoys their work to the extent that they would say it partially defines
them, or a student who self-identifies as a [future] doctor, lawyer, nurse, teacher, etc., has
linked their social and academic lives, and is thus extending the highly motivating social
context into their academic work.

Miller et al reiterate the importance of linking future goals to current activities, so that the
disjunction observed among some students between long-term goals and current work
patterns can be avoided. This, they argue, will help to engage the highly „instrumental‟
students who may see their coursework solely in terms of fulfilling course requirements and
doing the minimum to „get the marks‟, leaving them vulnerable to using only surface
approaches to learning and „high risk‟ strategies for getting by:

      Past research… has shown that perceptions of instrumentality are related to
      cognitive engagement and achievement. If students do not perceive current
      academic activities as instrumental to attaining personally relevant future goals,
      we question whether those activities will have sufficient incentive value to foster
      the level of student cognitive engagement necessary to produce meaningful
      learning… we believe subsequent research should examine interventions that not
      only help create learning oriented environment… but also help students clarify
      realistic future goals and the paths needed to reach them. Such an intervention
      would have students identify self-relevant future goals and develop self-
      regulatory skills needed to construct a path to those future goals. By doing so we
      believe students will be more likely to perceive school learning as instrumental to
      their personal futures, thus increasing the incentive value for engaging in school-
      related work.
                                                                    Miller et al 1999, 259



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One way of doing this is to encourage students to identify the link between employability
skills and the skills which they need to succeed on their course (and, indeed, which will help
them to enjoy it). In this way the link between the course and the job is given more content
than would be the case if students operate on an assumption of crude credentialism, in which
simply getting your „piece of paper‟ is seen as a route to a well-paid job.

Lizzio and Wilson also argue that skills are a key element of motivation. They pick up on the
work which relates perceptions of causality to motivation, and argue that „… the value students
place on capabilities is the key factor in influencing their level of motivation for further
development‟ (Lizzio and Wilson 2004, 109). While academics and employers have well-
developed discourses on skills, we know very little about how they are viewed by students
(2004, 110). Lizzio and Wilson found that student beliefs about skills vary with subject, gender,
anticipated profession, age and life experience (Lizzio and Wilson 2004, 112).

Students were able to identify various kinds of skill: most were in agreement that „skills‟
could be grouped into six areas. These were as follows:

         disciplinary/professional
         written communication and information literacy
         problem-solving
         communication and leadership
         conceptual thinking and organisational membership
         personal responsibility

                                                            Lizzio and Wilson 2004, 124

However, students generally did not see their university course as a site where these skills
would be used or developed:

      students rated all skill areas (except written communication) as more relevant to
      their future work than their present course of study. Students appear to perceive
      the “world of work” as demanding a greater range of skills than academic study
                                                           Lizzio and Wilson 2004, 124

Instead, students evaluate and value skills according to their perception of how relevant these
will be to their future employment. This also predicts their motivation for learning different
skills. Therefore, making the links between the skills which can be practiced or developed on
the course and those which are valued and sought by employers will be a useful way of
building student motivation to work hard.


2:5:13 Challenges to motivation: the ‘strategic student’

The vast majority of students do not drop out of university. This project, and various national
surveys (e.g. Unite/HEPI 2005), indicate that a substantial majority are actually very satisfied
with most aspects of their experience, and it is important to remember while reading this
section that the problematic group under discussion are by no means representative of the
whole student population.

However, there is considerable evidence that a particular problem for student retention and
satisfaction is the existence of a group of students who are distinctly unmotivated, and whose
primary consideration is to do as little academic work as possible at university while still
gaining some sort of paper qualification. They are sometimes termed as „strategic‟ students
because their primary characteristic is the adoption of a „strategy‟ which will allow them to
„get by‟. Interest in their subject is sparse among this group; attendance is poor, and they will

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do little or no work which does not achieve a mark which contributes to their final degree
qualification. This is the group who, if they are only required to pass a certain number of
module in order to progress, will ignore one unit altogether and accept that they are going to
miss out on the skills and content of that part of the course.

While Winn does not use the term „strategic‟, she identifies a group of precisely this type in
her study and links their behaviours to the government strategy of encouraging students to
enter higher education largely on the basis of its potential for boosting their future earnings:

      These interviewees had an instrumental approach to their studies, aiming to do
      the minimum of academic work required. The experiences of these students raise
      issues about the nature of student motivation. These students are motivated to
      pass their assessments and attain a degree; indeed, one student says she is
      motivated to achieve a first. If, as is the case in much recent higher education
      policy, economic outcomes in terms of a degree which will lead to employment
      are prioritised over the process of learning and intellectual development, then
      these students may be considered to be motivated
                                                                       Winn 2002, 453

Many of the „curriculum-oriented‟ students described by Mäkinen et al would fall into this
group. Students who enter reactively, because they want to enhance their earning potential
(whether that involves improving on or reproducing their family‟s social position), are likely
to be among them, and as numbers expand with many students concentrating on financial
goals, there is a good chance that their numbers will expand.

They are a difficult group to teach, and are likely to be most resistant to attempts to introduce
student-centred and „active learning‟ approaches in the classroom. Higgins et al characterise
their views as essentially „consumerist‟, and suggest that they are likely to be resistant to
initiatives such as formative feedback because they „… conceive assessment tasks as
obstacles to overcome in the pursuit of grades‟ (Higgins et al 2002, 59). Similarly, Mann
argues that student „alienation‟ leads to an instrumental approach to assessment:

      the work that is undertaken by students is not usually done for the good of the
      group of learners or other community, but in order to satisfy the requirement of
      the teacher and the institution, and for the mark that may be obtained. Thus,
      assessed work that a student produces can be seen as part of a system of
      exchange
                                                                        Mann 2001, 13

These are basically the „strategic students‟ described by Kneale (1997).

Kneale explains that these students are „out of step‟ with the fundamental culture of the
university, which is based on an assumption that „students want to be at university… [and] …
are interested in the degree subjects they are studying‟. However, „these two statements are
less true than many colleagues think‟ (Kneale 1997, 119). „Strategic students‟ will not fit
either a traditional model of the student who „reads for a degree‟, or into the modern one of a
student who is encouraged to „own their own learning‟, engage in an interactive classroom
environment where the teaching and learning is student-centred, and gain a range of skills
which prepare them for graduate employment. If students enter the classroom unwillingly, it
is difficult to put them at its centre.

Dooley draws attention to the same trend: („in this context of dramatic demographic shift and
rising pedagogic expectation, timeworn assumptions about university students qua learners
are decreasingly valid‟ Dooley 2004, 231), and Winn (2002) also found a worrying lack of
interest in things which are pretty fundamental to being a student.


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The study in School of Informatics at the University of Northumbria identified a substantial
minority of students who might well be described as strategic, including a number who were
quite happy to describe their strategic attitudes on the assumption that as the „customers‟ of
the university they had every right to adopt these and still to gain a good degree.
Unsurprisingly, many of these students had failed units and were at risk of withdrawal, and
they accounted for a high number of leavers. This was usually because their lack of
commitment had led to poor attendance and performance, and they had fallen too far behind
to progress. Often they had fallen on the „wrong side‟ of the risk involved in their strategies.
A student who aims for the pass mark of 40% may miss this and get 42%, but the same
margin of error will get them a mark of 38%. Getting the balance wrong on more than one
module will land the student in very hot water indeed. Similarly, a strategy of failing one
module only works if the marks on all one‟s other modules are satisfactory.

One very important reason why it would be foolish for a university to attempt to cater for this
group of students, rather than encourage them to change their approach, is that they are
definitely in a minority. It would be extremely unfair on the majority of students who enter
HE because they enjoy their subjects, and to those who are at least open to enjoying their
subjects; it would diminish the experience, and rewards, available to those students who want
to work hard and gain the full benefit which HE can bring. And of course, it would be
disastrous for the economy and the employers who need highly-skilled graduates.

Kneale (1997, 123 – 4) quotes tutors who found that the strategies adopted by these students
led to poor results and/or higher than average levels of withdrawal. They refuse to contribute
when there is no mark assigned to the particular assignment or class, enjoy „no exam‟
modules and fail to attend on essay-based modules, submit work late, attend only until the
assessment point, fail as much as they are allowed to fail, do not sit exams if they have
already attained a pass mark on continuous assessment, and will actually admit that they are
being strategic. Kneale argues that it is unfair both to staff and industrious students to blame
the university for failures among this group, or to make it easy for them to pass or progress.

Strategy among students is extremely unlikely to be a new phenomenon. This sort of
behaviour has probably always accounted for a number of the bare passes awarded, and for
some of the 14% of students who dropped out in the era of the Robbins Report; the recipients
of „Gentleman‟s Thirds‟ and the Fourths and Specials attained by the Bertie Wooster set
would probably have met most of the criteria for a „strategist‟. Kneale (1997, 125) suggests
that these students have been present in our universities, but that they only emerged as a cause
for concern as retention and achievement rates were subjected to greater scrutiny, and as
students began to demand higher „value for money‟, whose definition by strategic students
may be different from that either of the institution or of their more academically-oriented
peers.

Perhaps because of this, Kneale encountered enormous resistance among some of the
academic staff whom she surveyed to the idea that they might have admitted any such
students. Three of the fifty-two departments whom she approached responded with an
extremely defensive refusal to participate in her study, along with a strong statement that they
did not believe any of their students fitted this description. Interestingly, in several cases she
obtained a very different reaction from Heads of Department and from lecturers who actually
had daily contact with students, the latter accepting that a minority of their students were
definitely „strategic‟ (Kneale 1997, 120 – 121).

Nevertheless, staff in forty-three departments admitted that they had some strategic students.
More of them were studying „mainstream‟ subjects than offbeat or specialist ones, and staff
found that this group tended to describe their reasons for entry as instrumental or reactive.
Strategic students were overwhelmingly male, and invariably „young‟ (Kneale 1997, 126).


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The following statements, characteristic of „strategic students‟, were presented to students and
staff, with responses as follows:

Statement                                                         % of depts      % of depts
                                                                  where           where
                                                                  students        students
                                                                  agreed          agreed
I‟m not interested in any part of the subject                     8               19
I‟d rather be in a job but there aren‟t any jobs                  5               13
A degree is just what you do after school                         13              30
I just found x easiest at school & don‟t care much what I study   9               21
The teacher just handed round UCAS forms…                         2               5
I made a random choice based on the local football teams          4               10
I never read a prospectus                                         9               21

                                                                              Kneale 1997, 122

Motivating and retaining this group of students is difficult, but it is important for general
student morale and retention rates, as well as staff satisfaction.




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2:6      Academic staff dissatisfaction

A number of studies, like the one carried out here, examine the attitudes of academic staff to
the current generation of students. A consensus emerges from these that many staff are
dissatisfied with some of the attributes and attitudes of the students they teach. LS1 discussed
some of these issues, and while the staff surveyed for this project were in general fairly
positive, some serious concerns were also voiced.

Discussing staff dissatisfaction is problematic, because the issues involved are emotive.
Criticism of the levels of „preparation‟ among students can be confused with criticism of
those students, or of their intelligence, or indeed of their social class. Legitimate staff
concerns can too easily be dismissed as the moaning of „other worldly‟ academics who are
„out of touch‟ with the „real world‟, despite the fact that anyone who is in day-to-day contact
with students at a modern university is unlikely to be in this position. And retention is a
particularly difficult issue to raise because many staff feel that they are being „blamed‟ for
losing any students at all. Comments like the (unattributed) quotation on the HEA website
that „retention is a measure of how valued and respected your students feel on campus‟ 6 do
not make this discourse any easier. There is surprisingly little academic research on how
academics feel about students.

However, various institutional studies in the UK (LS1, 74) do indicate a high level of concern
about student preparation among academics. Halbesleben et al (2003) suggest that many
tutors have a sense that a number of their students do not do allocate enough of their time to
academic work, although it is quite likely that this has been the case for a very long time
indeed.

One of the most comprehensive surveys of staff opinion is the ongoing work of McInnis and
James (1995 and 2000), from whose methodology I have borrowed heavily. In their
Australian study, „dissatisfaction with the academic quality of students more than doubled
between 1978 and 1993‟ (McInnis and James 1995, 5) and up to 50% by 2000 (McInnis and
James 2000, 6). Taylor and Bedford found similar levels of staff dissatisfaction reported by
other Australian studies (2004, 376).

For the UK, NCIHE (1997) found that a quarter of staff in pre-1992 universities and 35% in
post-1992 universities said they needed to teach basic competencies that should have been
covered before entry into higher education.

This could be taken as evidence that students in many countries really are entering higher
education with high expectations and poor levels of preparation. However, some writers
suggest that staff should not complain about their students, and should instead adjust their
attitudes, their teaching practices, or both. Taylor and Bedford (2004, 389) state that a „deficit
discourse‟ is adopted by staff, and argue that their:

      attitudes about students‟ deficiencies reinforce an assumption that there is one
      mainstream academic culture, with one mainstream discourse, operating within
      an unchanging, static and consistent organisational context… students who do
      not succeed or who have difficulties in accessing and mastering the mainstream
      academic discourses are labelled as being under-prepared or “intellectually
      deficient” and a sink or swim approach to non-completion is accepted…
                                                         Taylor and Bedford 2004, 390


6
 With respect to the HEA, the lack of an attribution is not surprising. This statement is an astonishing
over-simplification of an extremely complex subject, and it would be difficult to argue that even the
balance of the research evidence supports it.

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They suggest that rather than a „focus on helping students to change‟, staff should look at
ways to change „course design, teaching, or institutional practices‟ (2004, 390). Similarly,
Thomas (2002, 424) accuses academic staff of „victim blaming‟ in their complaints about
student preparation and commitment.

Taylor and Bedford‟s view that „this essentially student-centred view of non-completion runs
counter to the current research findings on this topic‟ (2004, 391) is contentious. In the first
place, if withdrawal were primarily the fault of the lecturers, then rates would presumably be
considerably higher than they are on many courses, because one factor which is common to
all students is the academic experience which they are offered. The discussion of motivation
in the previous section also indicates that we ignore „student factors‟ at our peril, as do many
students‟ accounts of their own preparation for university. Many staff may talk in terms of a
lack of preparation among their students, but it is quite possible that this is because such a
lack is actually found, and not because they are clinging to a convenient „deficit discourse‟.




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2:7        Culture and higher education

2:7:1      The purpose of higher education

This section is intended to give a very brief introduction to some discussions of the attitudes
to higher education which students are likely to encounter as they apply to university and
during their careers. It is an extremely brief account of an extremely complex area, and as
such will undoubtedly suffer from some omissions or simplifications.

One crucial connection which has become important in recent years is between economic
prosperity and higher education. This applies both nationally and personally. The proposed
expansion in student participation is justified partly because on the basis of research which
suggests that a country whose populations have higher education will deliver competitiveness
in the economic field. Another strand of justification, the „equality of opportunity‟ agenda, is
also rooted in the link between HE and financial gain. The opportunity which is more
frequently discussed is the opportunity to earn a higher salary than the ones available for most
non-graduate work. And this is the basis on which the expansion in higher education is
funded. Students who reach a threshold of earnings which is judged to reflect their
educational advantage will be expected to repay the loans which they have taken out in order
to attain the degrees which win them this earnings differential.

It would be possible to speak, idealistically, of another sort of „opportunity‟, and to suggest
that people from all sectors of society should have access to the quality of life and the range
of intellectual opportunities offered by a university education. However, this is a relatively
infrequent stance. It can be seen as illiberal and elitist, suggesting that the intellectual life of
social groups who have historically not participated in HE in any considerable numbers is in
some way „inferior‟ or less interesting and liberating than that found in universities. Or it can
be regarded as old fashioned in the age of the global market.

For whatever reason, students are likely to encounter attitudes which present university as
offering financial rather than intellectual opportunities. In other words, the external culture
focuses on „instrumental‟, and possibly also „performance-orientated‟ approaches to higher
education, while both individuals and employers may be more satisfied by the outcomes of
more traditional attitudes. Most students will probably continue to choose university courses
on the basis of personal interest and directed career goals, but it is possible that the new
market-based discourse around HE may shift the balance to some extent, at least until this
„version‟ of HE matures in the UK (as it has done in the USA). It will be easier for students to
agree with Charles Clarke‟s much-quoted warning that „Education for education‟s sake is a
bit dodgy‟ rather than with Kim Howells‟ view that:

         Learning for learning‟s sake is something we should criticise very warily. People
         want to learn simply because learning is wonderful… You get a taste for learning
         and then you want to learn even more7.

The discussion in the previous section suggests that this possibility may have serious
consequences for the content of HE. Students whose orientation is strongly weighted towards
instrumentality and a preoccupation with performance are likely to lack daily motivation, to
employ „surface‟ modes of learning, and to reject the student-centred classroom.

Where this occurs, it will doubtless lead to more discontent among academic staff, and
possibly also have consequences outside the universities themselves. Dooley (2004) notes that
the desired economic prosperity actually relies upon the development of „deep knowledge and
high level thinking skills‟:

7
    Both this and the quotation from Charles Clarke are taken from Smithers 2004.

                                                   49
50



      current expectation… has important origins in contemporary business and
      political imperatives. According to a pervasive rhetoric on lifelong learning and
      innovation, competitiveness in globalising knowledge economies requires a
      substantial corps of workers who not only comprehend theoretical principles, but
      also solve problems independently through flexible and creative thinking
                                                                      Dooley 2004, 231

Winn describes the ways in which the focus on individual gain from graduate status has
changed the emphasis in higher education experiences. Even though employers may seek
students with rather „traditional‟ HE, there is a danger that the university system may be being
given less chance than before to deliver these:

      while changes in the size and characteristics of the student population and in
      funding arrangements have greatly altered the student experience, changes in the
      understanding of the nature and purpose of higher education have perhaps had
      more fundamental consequences for students. The drive to make higher
      education relevant to national economic needs placed the emphasis on
      vocationalism and the extrinsic value of education in terms of its employment
      outcomes
                                                                      Winn 2002, 447

This approach is very effective for motivating students to enter university, but not necessarily
for motivating them to work while they are there.

Interestingly, the issue of increased status or cultural capital as a result of going to university
is discussed relatively little, possibly as the overall numbers of graduates rise. To some extent
this has been replaced by a focus on the outcomes of attending a „prestigious‟ university such
as a Russell Group member. It is accepted that some employers and many social elites do rank
universities in this way, and there are also attempts underway to avoid or criticise
„discrimination‟ on the basis of which university someone attended rather than whether they
attended at all. Recently, for example, certain postgraduate courses at Oxford were castigated
in the press for using the institution from which entrants had graduated as one of their
selection criteria.

Silver quotes a study of American colleges in the early twentieth Century which describs a
„“culture of aspiration” – not that of the institutions but that of parents seeking access to
privilege for their children‟ (Silver 2003, 159). This can still be found in the UK, especially
among first-generation and/or mature-age students. The idea of the clever young working-
class student who finds intellectual and economic empowerment through higher education
(alongside painful alienation from their family) was a powerful motif in UK culture and
indeed in British literature: this is the theme of How Green Was My Valley, The Stars Look
Down, Gorbals Boy, The Corn is Green and later, and with a less-characteristic female lead,
Educating Rita. None of the hero[ine]s of these works see their aspiration as being towards a
higher social position or salary; they seek a different inner life and a personal
„transformation‟, although none of them do their employment prospects any harm.

The literary device is less common in contemporary writing, although it does still emerge
(education offers both economic gain and an inherent benefit from learning to the characters
in Roddy Doyle‟s The Van, for example). Likewise, the belief in this function of higher
education is articulated relatively rarely, perhaps because it may sound anti-egalitarian or
perhaps because it is difficult to justify within the pervasive market framework.

Mann (2001) suggests that education has been separated from transformation for students of
all social classes, and not only those whose class status might have been transformed:


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        [research] shows how the meaning of education has in society, and thus for
        individuals, changed over time, influencing individuals‟ motivation towards
        education and thus their educational experience… most students nowadays go to
        university… because they experience no real choice in the matter… for most
        interviewees, the timing of education followed a cultural script typical of their
        particular generation, gender and social class
                                                                           Mann 2001, 9

Reactive entrants will often arrive at university because of their family expectations, which
are themselves rooted in a degree of social privilege. This group will often arrive with vague
goals for the future and a low academic orientation, both of which can lead to dissatisfaction
with the course and withdrawal.


2:7:2     Social stereotypes

Surprisingly, despite the modest success of widening participation initiatives, particularly at
new and urban universities, very old-fashioned social stereotypes of students and universities
persist. Many of these are discussed in LS1 (34-50). Archer et al (2001) found that among the
non-participant men in their working class sample:

        university students were (unfavourably) conceptualised as middle-class men,
        against whom respondents positioned themselves as Other…. many agreed that
        “it is always rich people going into uni”… it is rich, white middle-class men who
        participate (the “Richard Branson” people, as one black Caribbean young man
        put it…
                                                                     Archer et al 2001, 436

An alternative conception was that male students were all:

        “boffins” or “bods”… bookish, unattractive men: “There‟s a general stereotype,
        isn‟t there? Someone who needs glasses… participation in HE was largely
        associated with negative, undesirable images of masculinity
                                                                   Archer et al 2001, 436

This latter belief relates partly to the perception that all students are „broke‟, and therefore
risible (the contradiction of this with the belief that all students are rich and enjoy a luxurious
lifestyle funded by their families is not noted). Some of Archer et al‟s subjects also
commented that students were people somehow unfit for „man‟s work‟, and said that if they
were wasting their time going to university they could not „“be out grafting”‟ like a proper
man (2001, 436). In addition, many non-participants believe that university is very hard work,
boring, „doesn‟t get you anywhere‟, and „no fun‟ (Archer et al 2001, 436).


Thomas (2002) found that her participant subjects believed in a clear hierarchy of
universities, and associated particular characteristics with different institutions. In interviews:

        the students brought up and discussed class bias at Oxbridge and one student
        commented: “I don‟t want to go somewhere that treats people like that. I‟d rather
        go somewhere where I‟m allowed to be who I am and do what I want to do”
                                                                    Thomas 2002, 437




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52


This latter comment is interesting because it shows how powerfully media images and stories
shape student beliefs. It would be easy to find places in Oxford or Cambridge where class bias
is rife, and equally easy to find places where student diversity is respected and valued. The
student whom Thomas interviewed has never been to either university and has no friends
there, but is confident that she knows what they are like. Similarly, students with a family
tradition of public school and elite university education would probably hold entirely
erroneous beliefs about the University of Stafford (where Thomas‟ research was carried out),
on the basis of newspaper stories, received wisdom and no experience whatsoever.

These stereotypes are relevant to student expectations, because they can lead to a lack of
confidence among entrants. This may relate to confidence in their academic abilities, which
will not be increased by the widespread, but deeply erroneous, assumption that social class
and intelligence are usually linked8. Or the social assurance of students from historically non-
participant backgrounds may be diminished because they believe they may be rejected or
stigmatised within the university. Particularly in the first term, this can gravely damage their
chances of forging vital social networks, especially around their department and subject.


2:7:3     The culture of the university

Bourdieu‟s work on HE assumes that HE in general, and each individual university, have very
powerful cultures. The „habitus‟ of university consists of a powerful set of beliefs,
assumptions, attitudes and behaviours in which an individual needs to be fluent in order to fit
in, and which are rarely made explicit. Much of the work on student retention discussed in
LS1 assumes the existence of a „habitus‟ of this type. This assumption underlies many
mentoring programmes, for example, where it is assumed that senior students will be able to
help new ones to become fluent in the culture of their institution and department.

Similarly in management theory the notion of „organisational cultures‟ has become popular,
and several writers have applied this to universities. Silver (2003) reviews some of this
literature, but suggests that the idea of one unitary culture within HE or within a particular
university is unhelpful because:

        the fact that the parts of the “collection” can be defined as “subcultures” in some
        sort of proximity does not enable them to be aggregated as a culture. Asserting
        that there is a dominant culture simply bypasses the issues of conflict and lack of
        coherence
                                                                           Silver 2003, 167

He argues that for most academics, the distinctive culture and values of their workplace are
located in their subject discipline, the academic profession, and the values of scholarship
(Silver 2003, 162). Breen (1999) makes a similar argument, suggesting that students will
often choose subjects because of an affinity for both the content and the culture of a particular
subject, and that tapping into this can be extremely valuable in building their motivation.
Again, some initiatives for retention (and recruitment) are founded in the notion of subject
cultures. A case in point is the attempt to increase the number of women who choose to study

8
  It occasionally gains a new twist: for example, at present it has been glossed in the language of
popular science with arguments about genetics which will mean certain families have only ever been fit
for unskilled and/or manual occupations. The pervasive discourses about the „end of the class system‟
and the „fact‟ that educational opportunities are today determined strictly by a meritocratic system are
also useful in bolstering this view, which is rejected by most researchers. Sullivan, for example, states
that „… despite the fact that lower-class pupils are seriously disadvantaged in the competition for
educational credentials, the results of this competition are seen as meritocratic and therefore legitimate‟
(Sullivan 2001, 894)


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and to persist with study in certain science disciplines, where the „subject culture‟ includes
assumptions and even behaviours which are essentially sexist.

Sharrock (2000) suggests that external pressures on aspects of the established culture of „the
academic profession‟ and of many subjects within that to a large extent underlie the
unhappiness with their working lives voiced by some academics:

      what Said… called the “utopian space” afforded by universities has shrunk, and
      the balance of power between the faculty and the administration, has shifted. This
      shift entails an encroachment on the assumed freedoms of academic life, and
      fuels resentment towards institutional authority
                                                                   Sharrock 2000, 154

With marketisation and expansion, cultural change in HE is inevitable. Taylor and Bedford
identify as characteristic of university culture not Said‟s „utopian space‟, but a system of
social privilege and an enshrinement of this in academic practice. Their description of the
situation in Australia could also be applied to that of the UK:

      the culture of higher education… has changed significantly… the growing
      legitimacy of flexible pathways for university entry‟ the expansion of teaching
      strategies available, particularly flexible delivery initiatives; and the shrinking
      financial support from government and increasing trends towards user pays
                                                           Taylor and Bedford 2004, 375

However, it would be possible to argue that these are changes in the circumstances of higher
education which impact on its culture, rather than changes in the culture itself.

Where do students fit into this picture? If subject disciplines and particular institutions have
distinctive cultures, then so do student bodies. Shipton‟s work at the University of
Northumbria offers an invaluable picture of this, as do a handful of other „case studies‟ of
student cohorts. One theme which emerges from several recent accounts is the sense of
„alienation‟ described by Mann. She suggests that this is felt by many students who enter
„reactively‟, either because of family expectations or because they can think of nothing else to
do. In her account, this alienation and the sort of entry decisions which foster it arises from
the current social position of higher education and the „particular social conditions in which
students now find themselves‟ (Mann 2001, 9).

These conditions affect student attitudes both to the purpose of their university education and
to its content: she suggests that there is „a greater focus on efficiency and effectiveness at the
expense of complexity and ambiguity‟ (Mann 2001, 9). Ridley (2004, 99) also notes that
students are increasingly uncomfortable when asked to handle ambiguity. She suggests that
the traditional, humanistic and „transformative‟ aims of HE are diminished in this context,
where entry into university is itself no longer „transformative‟ but pre-determined, with a:

      sense of the life course, and especially the educational life course, as
      institutionalised, following normatively and inexorably the same “prescribed”
      path. From this perspective, the students is estranged from the possibility of a
      meaningful personal purpose in engaging in higher education, and from an
      intrinsic pursuit of knowledge, understanding or justice through such an
      education.
                                                                       Mann 2001, 9

Mann proposes that such „alienated‟ students will be unmotivated, strategic and likely to
adopt poor learning strategies:



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     Recent writing on higher education has called for a focus on the development of
     critical being as a prime purpose for higher education… However, a consistent
     finding in research on student learning is that many learners at different times
     tend to adopt either a surface approach to their study, characterised by a focus on
     rote learning, memorisation and reproduction, a lack of reflection, and a
     preoccupation with completing the task… or a strategic approach, characterised
     by a focus on assessment requirements and lecturer expectations, and a careful
     management of time and effort, with the aim of achieving high grades… In both
     cases, the approaches could be described as expressing an alienation from the
     subject and the process of study itself.
                                                                          Mann 2001, 7

Alienation is likely to arise when staff and students attempt to use the systems of higher
education to communicate and collaborate, but attach different „meanings‟ to the elements of
this system. Something akin to the „cross cultural communicative failure‟ described by
linguists such as John Gumperz can arise. „Cross cultural communicative failure‟ is found
where speakers of the same language, or users of the same non-verbal communication
systems bring fundamentally different meanings or associations to this, which are themselves
never explicitly articulated. Such miscommunications in the university setting can lead to
student withdrawal or failure.




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                             PART TWO: EXPERIMENTAL FINDINGS

Section Three: Research findings: student characteristics

3:1      Demographics

3:1:1    Age, sex and programme of study

The 65 students who responded to the questionnaire were all full-time first-year „home‟
students on the Computing, Business Studies and Business and Economics courses. These are
courses with a strong vocational element which may be taken either by students who have
studied similar subjects at school or college, or which may be chosen by students with
academic backgrounds in other areas. Perhaps because only full-time courses were
considered, the age profile of the students was skewed strongly towards „young‟ students. The
results of this survey, therefore, should be taken as relating primarily to this age group.

               Age range              Percentage of students
                 17 – 18                       6.2
                 19 – 20                      83.1
                 21 – 24                       4.6
                 25 – 30                       4.6
               31 and over                     1.5
         Table 1: Age of students in the survey

Because Computing students made up a high number of the respondents, a higher percentage
were male than female. Coincidentally, the proportion of male and female respondents from
the Computing programme mirrored almost perfectly the proportions for this subject
nationally. However, a slightly higher proportion of the Business Studies students who
responded were female. Identical numbers of male and female students responded from
Business and Economics, although the response from this cohort was small.


                           Business           Business &       Computing              All
                            studies           Economics                           respondents

      Female               62.5%                 50%             18.2%              38.5%


        Male               37.5%                 50%             81.8%              61.5%

Table 2: Sex of students in the survey

Several writers (e.g. Kneale 1997, Jansen 2003) have noted that women students generally
show higher levels of motivation, and this was the case in the current study. It is possible that
several of the items relating to motivation and academic orientation have been weighted
because of the gender balance of the group surveyed.

By sheer coincidence, 32 respondents were on the NBS courses and 33 studied Computing.




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3:1:2   Entry qualifications

The vast majority of respondents (80%) held A-levels as their primary entry qualification.
9.2% had vocational A-levels, and the rest held diplomas, HEF qualifications or other
qualifications. All but one of the Business Studies students had traditional A-levels, but this
was the qualification of only 75% of Business and Economics students, and 69.7% of
Computing students.


3:1:3   Accommodation

41.5% of the students lived in their own home or (more likely, given their age) the home of
their immediate family. 32.3% lived in University of Northumbria-owned halls of residence,
and 9.2% in University of Northumbria-owned shared houses or flats. 10.8% lived in shared
housing which they were renting on the private market. This number seems low, but first year
students are the least likely group to share private rental accommodation. 6.2% of the students
lived in private halls of residence.

There was no correlation between type of accommodation and programme of study, or
between sex and type of accommodation. Had more mature-age students been included, a
correlation with age might have emerged (mature-age students are considerably more likely to
live „at home‟), but their numbers were too small to gain a meaningful statistic on this point.


3:1:4   Student generation and parental occupation

Two related variables were used as „proxies‟ for social class. Students were asked to indicate
whether either of their parents had attended university, and to indicate their parents‟
occupations. Unsurprisingly, the association between these factors was statistically
significant; all but one of the parents in professional or higher managerial occupations had
attended university. These variables were used in preference to postcode analysis partly
because the latter would have compromised the promised anonymity of the study, and also
because I was specifically interested in the experience of students whose parents were
graduates. A relatively high level of refusal to answer these questions was anticipated, but in
practice only two students withheld information.

The majority (63.1%) of students in the study were „first generation‟ university students, i.e.
neither of their parents had attended university. Among the second generation students, 13.8%
had two graduate parents, 12.3% had a father but not a mother who was a graduate, and 9.2%
stated that their mother had been to university but that their father had not. 26.6% of graduate
mothers and 29.4% of graduate fathers had attended university as mature-age students. These
parents were no less likely to hold professional or higher managerial roles than parents who
had attended university at a traditional age, although the numbers involved are too small to
provide really reliable statistics.

Tables three and four present the occupational classifications of students‟ fathers and mothers
respectively. Table five represents an attempt to characterise the occupational classification of
a student‟s household where the parents are in similar occupations.




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     Father’s occupational                Percentage of students
          classification
 Professional/higher managerial                      21.5
           Managerial                                20.0
      Skilled, non-manual                            13.8
         Skilled manual                              13.8
           Semi-skilled                              12.3
       Unskilled/routine                             4.6
         Self-employed                               4.6
   Other/chose not to answer                         9.2
Table 3: Father’s occupational classification



    Mother’s occupational                 Percentage of students
          classification
 Professional/higher managerial                      18.5
           Managerial                                6.2
      Skilled, non-manual                            38.5
         Skilled manual                              1.5
           Semi-skilled                              4.6
       Unskilled/routine                             10.8
         Self-employed                               3.1
   Other/chose not to answer                         15.3
Table 4: Mother’s occupational classification


      Parental occupational               Percentage of students
          classification
     Professional/ managerial                        35.5
              Skilled                                23.1
     Semi-skilled or unskilled                       20.0
              Mixed                                  15.4
     Insufficient information                        6.2
Table 5: Household occupational classification

According to HESA statistics, the University of Northumbria draws around 27% of its
students from Social Classes IIIm, IV and V. The figures presented here suggest that the
sample in this survey contained a slightly higher percentage of students from these classes,
around 33.8%. This may be because the courses examined are vocational in nature;
nationally, subjects with a strong vocational element tend to attract a higher number of
widening participation students than non-vocational (e.g. traditional humanities subjects) or
„professional‟ courses (e.g. medicine or law).

Students were also asked to indicate whether an older or younger sibling had attended
university. Because of the age of most of the students in the sample, very few stated that a
younger sibling had been in HE, and this statistic was disregarded (had more mature-age
students responded, it could have been of use). However, for students who had an older
sibling, the figures on participation were striking. Only 44% of older students with older
siblings stated that one of more of these had attended university.




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There was no correlation between parental occupation and participation in HE by an older
sibling, but parental participation in higher education is strongly related to participation by
more than one child. Among first generation students with an older sibling, only 25.8% of
these siblings had attended university. Among second generation students with an older
sibling, however, 85.7% of siblings had also gone to university. It appears from this that
parental education does determine the likelihood of participation in higher education.

The only demographic variable which approaches a significant correlation with student
generation is accommodation type. Second generation students are more likely to live in halls
of residence (47.8% as opposed to 24.4%), and slightly less likely to live in the parental home
(30.4% as opposed to 46.3%). This may be because parents who have attended university
encourage these students either to choose a university which is outside their home town, or to
engage in the „total student experience‟ offered by living in university accommodation, or
both. It is also possible that these families are in a better financial position to help their
children live away from home and pay hall fees.




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3:2     Student study behaviours

3:2:1   Timetabled hours

Students were asked to indicate the number of hours of formal study which appeared on their
first year timetables. In order to make it easier to add up different kinds of activity, they were
asked to separate this into lectures, seminars or classes, small group tutorial, lab sessions,
study groups and other activities. Some variation was inevitable, because students filled in the
questionnaire after the end of term, and it is very unlikely that many (any?) of them consulted
their old timetables. Nevertheless, the variation is surprisingly wide. The lowest number of
„contact hours‟ listed was eight, and the highest was 26.

Reassuringly, there were clusters around the „correct‟ number of hours. 38.7% of Computing
students recalled 18 hours of formal study (the correct number), and a further 22.6% recalled
19, so almost two-thirds of students had an accurate memory of their timetables. The lowest
figure given was 16 hours (9.7% of students). Business and Economics students varied rather
more, with estimates from 10 hours to 18 hours, although there was a cluster around 14 hours.
Business Studies students vary a great deal, with estimates from 8 to 25 hours. There is a
small cluster, with 39% of students stating that they spent between 14 and 16 hours in class.

The average amount of contact time reported by students on all courses in 17, with a standard
deviation of 3.9.


3:2:2   Private study

The variation in the amount of time spent in private study was enormous. Students were asked
how much private study they did „in a typical term-time week‟, and some of the figures
reported are so low that a high level of truthfulness can be assumed. All of the students
surveyed are students who expect to progress into their second year on the basis of their
actual first year performance.

The average number of hours for all students was just over eight hours, but there was an
enormous standard deviation of 7.185 hours. The highest number of hours reported by any
student was 40 (one student), and 8.1% of the sample stated that in a normal week they did no
private study at all. Almost 20% normally do 3 hours or less, and 16.1% do just five hours in
a normal week. There was a cluster of 17.7% at 10 hours a week. Table Six shows the
patterns of private study reported by students.


        Number of hours spent                     Percentage of students
          in private study


                0–4                                        32.3

                5–9                                        24.1

               10 – 14                                     22.5

               15 – 19                                     6.4

             20 or more                                     8



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Table six: Number of hours spent in private study
No association was found between hours spent in private study and programme of study.

Women appear to spend slightly longer in private study than men, with an average of 8.45
hours as opposed to 7.32. All of the students who claim to do no study at all in a normal week
were male, and far more men than women do less than five hours in a normal week. However,
all of the students who do 20 or more hours a week are also male. 72.2% of students who do
ten hours a week are female.

Students were asked whether they had received advice from their tutors about a sensible
number of hours to spend in private study each week. Although students on all courses were
advised about this, 27.4% of respondents said that they had received no such advice.
However, there was considerable variation in their report of how much study they had been
told to do. This may be because advice had been received from different sources at different
times, or possibly because the advice had been received at induction which was a very long
time ago. Reports varied from 1 hour per week to 80 hours per week, although there are
clusters at 10 hours per week (14.5% of students) and 20 hours per week (19.4% of students),
with the majority recalling a figure somewhere between these two. This suggests a reasonably
accurate recollection by most of the students surveyed.

However, of students who stated that they had received advice, only 17.8% said that they
usually followed it.

Students who rarely did the „advised‟ amount of study were asked to indicate the reasons why
they did not follow their tutors‟ advice. In practice a response to this item was offered by a
slightly higher number of students than stated that they had received advice but failed to
follow it. This indicates that the question was interpreted as „why did you not do a great deal
of private study?‟ by some respondents. It is probably sensible, therefore, to regard the
responses to this item as relating to students‟ perceptions of their own study habits rather than
of their willingness to follow the advice of their tutors.

The responses to this item are as follows:

I felt that I was doing enough study – 53.7%
I lacked motivation – 51.2%
I felt that I understood the subject well enough – 34.1%
I found private study boring – 34.1%
My social life was too busy – 26.8%
I was too busy earning money – 19.5%
Personal or medical problems – 7.3%
Family commitments – 4.9%

Not sure/other – 17.3%

Students who felt they were „doing enough‟ were significantly more likely to state that they
also felt that they understood the subject well enough. They were also significantly more
likely to state that they lacked motivation. However, students who felt they understood the
subject well enough tended not to report a lack of motivation, or boredom with their studies.

This suggests that different students have interpreted the word „enough‟ in different ways.
One group appear to judge that „enough‟ study is the amount that will allow them to gain a
good grasp of their subject; in other words, they make an academic judgement about their
work. These students are unlikely to be „bored‟ or „unmotivated‟ when faced with private
study. However, a second group judge „enough‟ study to be „enough for me‟. They simply



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lack motivation to do any more. Unsurprisingly, there is a significant association between the
statement that one lacks motivation and that one finds private study boring.
Only a very small number of students state that they usually do the recommended amount of
private study. Around two thirds of these state that they do so because they enjoy their
subject, while just over half state that they felt that they needed to work hard to keep up.
Nearly 90% state that they want to gain good marks, and self-esteem reasons seem very
important for this group: 78% state that they do not want to let themselves down. Other
reasons named by two or three students include „my friends were all working hard‟, „I have
made sacrifices to come to university‟, „I do not want to let my tutors down‟ and „I did not
want to let my family down‟.


3:2:3   Attendance at timetabled sessions

Students were asked to indicate their normal levels of attendance at timetabled sessions in
each semester of their first year. Table Seven shows overall patterns of attendance:


                      Semester 1,         Semester 1,         Semester 2,        Semester 2,
                      weeks 1 - 6         weeks 7 - 12        weeks 1 - 6        weeks 7 - 12

 75% – 100%             91.9%               77.4%               66.1%               53.2%

  50% – 74%              6.5%               17.7%               29.0%               25.8%

  25% – 49%              1.6%                3.2%                3.2%               16.1%

     1% – 24%              0                 1.6%                1.6%               3.2%

 Did not attend          0                   0                   0                 1.6%
Table Seven: Percentage of students reporting their attendance levels for time period

The „falling off‟ in attendance observed informally by many members of staff is clearly
observed from this table. Interestingly, among these students who have persisted throughout
the first year, very low attendance is extremely rare. Only one student reports that s/he does
not attend at all at any point, and this is only for one half-semester. Attendance at less than
25% of sessions is almost as rare, and only a tiny minority of students attend less than half of
timetabled sessions at any point. There may be an element of self-selection among students
who are willing to take the time to fill in a questionnaire and return it to the university, but
what emerges from these figures is that students who persist are likely to be good attenders.
The comparable figures for withdrawing students which would prove the link between
attendance and persistence are not available from this study, but the earlier work in the School
of Informatics showed a very clear correlation between poor attendance and drop-out.

Students who at any point attended less than 75% of timetabled sessions were asked to
indicate why they had typically been absent. Responses to this question were as follows:

I had long gaps between classes – 69.2%
Personal or medical problems – 19.2%
I felt that I understood the subject well enough – 42.3%
I found the sessions boring – 42.3
I found the tutors unapproachable – 34.6%
I disliked a particular topic or module – 34.6%
I didn‟t feel motivated to attend – 30.8%
I was too tired to attend – 19.2%


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I found it difficult to relate to other students – 19.2%
Part-time work commitments – 19.2%

No significant associations between reasons for not attending were found. Students who felt
that they understood the subject well enough already were more likely to state that they
lacked motivation to go to classes, although this association was not statistically significant.

By far the most important reason for non-attendance at timetabled sessions was „long gaps
between classes‟. The message about the importance of timetabling in determining student
experiences and behaviours is clear. Timetable factors were reported as a reason for non-
attendance by a very high number of students who later dropped out in the School of
Informatics study, and long gaps were a very frequent complaint.

I found no relationship between attendance levels and course, gender or generational status.
However, there is a statistically significant relationship between attendance and type of
accommodation. Students who live in UNN halls of residence are far more likely to be good
attenders (61.9%) or to have mixed attendance (28.6%) than to be poor attenders (9.5%).
Those living at home show lower levels of good attendance (55.6%) and mixed attendance
(22.2%), but higher levels of poor attendance (22.2%).


3:2:4   Part-time work

Just under half of the students in the survey (49.2%) stated that they had had a part-time job at
some point during term-time in their first year. For the vast majority (90.9%), this job had
continued for the entire first year, and most of these students (72.7% of working students) had
started their jobs at or before the very beginning of the first semester.

The number of students with part-time jobs seems low, especially when compared with the
figure presented in the accompanying report on student finance. This is probably because all
of the students surveyed here were first-years, the group which is least likely to take part-time
work. In the other study, which looked at the experience of students from all years, first years
still emerged as less likely to have jobs.

The average working week during term-time was 14.4 hours (standard deviation 5), although
variations were quite wide, with the shortest reported working week standing at three hours (1
student) and the longest at 27 (1 student). Most jobs occupied between 10 and 20 hours each
week.

The working week in most part-time jobs varied very little. Only three students reported that
their highest ever number of hours in a part-time job was different from their regular number
of hours, and in only one case was this difference large (a student who normally worked 20
hours but occasionally worked 40).

Students accept a surprisingly small range of kinds of work. Over half of working students
(54.5%) are in retail. 12.1% work as waiting staff in bars or clubs, and 9.1% have other
hospitality or waiting jobs. Very small numbers are employed in clerical, unskilled manual or
professional work.

Students in the Business School were slightly more likely to work than students in
Computing, but this difference was not statistically significant. It did not relate to the nature
of part-time work undertaken (i.e. NBS students were not taking jobs which were particularly
relevant to their studies).




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60% of women worked, compared with 45% of men, but the women who had jobs worked
slightly shorter hours, with an average working week of just over 12 hours as opposed to 16.5.

There was a significant association between accommodation and part-time work status. Over
three-quarters of students who lived in at home had jobs (77.8%), compared to only 14.3% of
those who lived in UNN halls of residence. Students who rented privately were also more
likely to work. In many cases, students who live at home will keep a part-time job which they
have held while they were at school or in which they worked full-time before their studies
began. It appears that students living in university accommodation tend not, as yet, to have
found themselves requiring additional funds in order to support themselves.

58.5% of second-generation students have jobs, as opposed to 34.8% of first-generation
students, a correlation which on these numbers just misses statistical significance at the 0.05
level. However, there is a statistically significant association between parental occupation and
part-time work. Only 34.8% of students with parents in professional or managerial
occupations have jobs, compared with 80% of those whose parents are in „skilled non-
manual‟ or „skilled manual‟ occupations and 69.2% of parents in semi-skilled or unskilled
work. These difference may emerge because of the level of financial support which is
available from parents in different occupations, or because of the influence of family culture
and advice, or both.

The relationship between part-time work and attendance is a rather strange one. Students who
had part-time jobs were slightly better attenders than those who did not: 54.4% fell into the
„good attendance‟ category, as opposed to 46.9% of students without jobs. However, a
slightly higher percentage also fell into the „poor‟ attendance category (27.3% as opposed to
21.9%). The „mixed‟ attendance category accounted for 31.3% of students without jobs and
18.2% of those in part-time work. These correlations are not statistically significant, but it is
possible that they arise because students with jobs either achieve a higher than average level
of personal organisation in order to balance work and study, or fail to do so altogether.


3:2:5   Commuting and college days

Students in the School of Informatics survey frequently stated that the length of their
commute to college was sometimes caused difficulties with their attendance. The number of
students living in university accommodation in this study meant that the average length of
commute reported was relatively low, at just over half an hour. The maximum length reported
by any student in this survey was 1.5 hours. The majority of students who lived at home
reported a commute of between half an hour and one hour.

Most of the students in the study were required by their timetable to be on campus for five
working days in each week.




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Section Four: Entry and progression

4:1     Entry decisions

Students were asked in this section to separate the reasons why they decided to go to
university at all from their reasons for choosing the University of Northumbria, and their
decision to take the particular course on which they were studying. The rationale here was
partly to tease out the relationship between „instrumental‟, „self-esteem‟ and „subject interest‟
reasons, which might be assumed to play a different role in each „level‟ of decision, and also
to identify the extent to which external factors (e.g. the desire to leave home or to stay at
home, the reputation of Newcastle as a city alongside the reputation of the university itself)
influenced the choice of institution.

In each section, students were asked to tick all of the reasons which applied to their choice,
and then to nominate one „main reason‟ if this was relevant to them.


4:1:1   Reasons for choosing to go to university

Students indicated their reasons for deciding to enter higher education as follows:

I wanted to improve my general job prospects – 85.9%
I wanted to achieve a degree – 85.9%
I want to study a subject that really interests me – 53.8%
I enjoy studying and learning – 37.5%
I wanted to train for a specific type of job – 29.2%
My teachers advised me to go to university – 26.6%
My family wanted me to go to university – 26.6%
All my friends were going to university – 20.3%
I didn‟t want to get a job right away – 20.0%

For 21.9% of students, no one reason had been the most important. However, for 34.3%, the
desire to improve one‟s general job prospects had been paramount, and for 15.6% the most
important factor had been subject interest, while 10.9% said that achieving a degree was their
main motivation. 7.8% said that they had been most influenced by the desire to train for a
specific kind of job, indicating a very clear goal direction at a very early stage. Other reasons
which were named by small numbers of students were family influence and an enjoyment of
studying and learning for their own sake.

Although by coincidence the same number of students stated that they wished to improve
their general job prospects and that the „self-esteem‟ reason of wanting to gain a degree was
important to them, the relationship between these two items was not significantly significant.
From these figures, it appears that the main reasons for entering HE in the first place relate to
future job prospects and to self-esteem. Subject interest, however, is important for over half of
the students on these courses, and a general „academic orientation‟, even from the start, is
present for more than one-third. These indicate a healthy balance between the more
instrumental „future goals‟ and personal interests which will help students to engage in the
day-to-day work needed to achieve these.

The future goals of almost one-third of students on these vocational courses are already clear.
Slightly more Computing than NBS students stated that training for a specific type of job was
important to them, but the difference was not significant. While parental and school
encouragement was important to a number of students, these were not the primary reason in
more than a handful of cases, which suggests that the levels of reactive entry among these
students at least are reasonably low.


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Few differences emerged in the reasons expressed by men and women for deciding to enter
higher education. One significant difference was in the percentage who wanted to improve
their general job prospects. This was high for both sexes, but while only 79% of men stated
that it was in important factor, nearly all the women (96.7%) named it. This may be because
female students are aware (formally or informally) of the considerably larger earnings gap
between women who are graduates and women without a degree.

Student generation was significantly associated with two reasons for entering higher
education in the first place. First-generation students were significantly more likely than
second generation students to state that they had chosen to enter higher education in order to
study a subject which really interests them, with 65% of first-generation students naming this
reason as opposed to 39.1% of second generation students. This, contradicting some views
quoted in LS1 (43) suggests that students with no family tradition of higher education are just
as likely if not more so to enter university for academic as well as instrumental reasons.

Perhaps surprisingly, parental aspiration is significantly less frequently a factor for these
students than for second generation students. 47.8% of second-generation students said that
the fact that their family wanted them to go to university had been important in their decision
to enter higher education, but only 15% of first-generation students mentioned this influence.
It would appear from this that reactive entry is more of a danger for second- than for first-
generation students. The fact that a student names their family‟s wishes as a reason for
entering HE seems also to relate to their not deciding to name interest in the subject as a
reason: among those who mention family wishes only 35.5% state that subject interest was
important. Of course, students of all generations who are motivated by subject interest may
have families who want them to attend university and support their decision. However, they
are less likely to feel that this influenced their decision.

Interestingly, correlations were found only with student generation and not with the related
variable of parental occupation. The latter relates significantly to the „self esteem‟ reason of
wanting to achieve a degree. This is high throughout the survey, with around 80% of students
from professional or managerial and skilled non-manual or manual homes. However, 100% of
students from homes where the primary parental occupational category is semi-skilled or
unskilled state that this is an important reason for them. Valuing a degree in itself is a
powerful motivation, but it seems more important for students who are aware of the
difference which having access to a different range of employment will make to their lives.

Where students agree that the wishes of their family were important in their decision, they are
less likely to agree that subject interest played a part (this correlation is close but just misses
statistical significance). It suggests that these students may to some extent be entering
university in a „reactive‟ pattern.


4:1:2   Reasons for choosing the University of Northumbria

Students stated that they had chosen the University of Northumbria for the following reasons:

The university offered a course which I wanted to do – 65.6%
Reputation of a particular School or course – 43.8%
Reputation of the city – 43.8%
Reputation of the university – 40.6%
I wanted to live at home – 34.4%
I wanted to leave home – 32.8%
Recommendation of a friend or relative – 20.3%
All my friends were going to this university – 9.4%


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Only one student stated that this was the only university which had offered them a place.

40% said that no one reason was most important in their choice of university. For 15.4%, the
primary reason was the fact that this university offered a course which appealed to them, and
for 13.8% the opportunity to study while living at home was key (leaving home was the most
important reason for only 4.6% of students). The reputation of the university and of a
particular school or course were the most important factors for 9.2% of students each.

Course availability in these two strong vocational areas seems to have been the main factor
for the majority of students. Interestingly, the reputation of particular courses or schools is
something of which a large minority of students take notice; research on recruitment might
examine precisely what students mean by „reputation‟ and precisely where they learn about
this (e.g. from careers teachers, other students, „hearsay‟, etc.). Leaving home and living at
home seem to be of about equal importance for different groups of students. Encouragingly,
„peer pressure‟ seems to operate only for a small number of students.

Reputation emerges as more important for women than for men, with a significant correlation
between gender and the responses to both „reputation of the university‟ and „reputation of the
School/course‟. 64% of women, but only 25% of men mention the former, while 40% of
women and only 10.5% of men mention the latter. However, men and women give similar
answers on all of the other topics, including whether or not they wish to live at home.

This latter item is also related to social class, with high correlations which just miss statistical
significance. Perhaps not surprisingly, students from professional or managerial backgrounds
are more likely to want to leave home (72.2%) than students from skilled non-manual or
skilled manual backgrounds (40%). This could be because the former group have a longer
family tradition of higher education and students are aware of the „whole university
experience‟, and confident about moving away in order to participate in this. It may also be
the case that parents with professional or managerial occupations are in a better position of
help their children with the greater financial costs of leaving home.

However, 69.2% of students from semi-skilled or unskilled backgrounds also state that they
chose Northumbria partly because they wanted to leave home. Do these students aspire to
„leave behind‟ what they perceive as their life chances without education? Or is moving away
part of the whole „aspirational‟ mindset which leads this group of students also to value the
gain of a degree so highly?

All of the students from lower social class backgrounds who state that they chose the
Northumbria in order to live away from home are in part-time work. Again, it is possible that
they have chosen to take a job in order to increase their financial independence from the
parental home, or that they simply cannot finance living in halls or rental accommodation
unless they work, or that they regard having a part-time job as part of the student experience.


4:1:3   Reasons for choice of degree programme

Students indicate that the following factors were influential in choosing their course:

I am interested in this subject – 82.5%
I want to get a well-paid job – 68.3%
I want to get a particular type of job – 50.8%
I was attracted by the course title – 30.2%
This course has a good reputation – 22.2%
A teacher/careers adviser recommended this course – 20.6%
Advice from family or friends – 7.9%


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For almost half the students (49.2%), no one reason was the most important. Where a primary
reason was mentioned, subject interest emerged as the most popular (23.8%), followed by the
prospect of high earnings (14.3%). Other reasons mentioned by a small minority of students
were course title, desire to get a particular kind of job, and the reputation of the course.

The most interesting factor in this case is the extent to which interest in the subject emerges as
important in choosing programme. While subject interest is a reason for entering higher
education only for just over half of these students, it directs programme choice for a very high
number. The statistically significant correlation between stating subject interest as a reason
for going to university and as a reason for choice of programme is unsurprising. However,
65% of students who do not consider this factor important in deciding to go to university do
believe that it is important in helping them to select their course.

Overall, women are guided by subject interest more than are men. Almost all female students
(96%) stated that this was important to them as opposed to 73.3% of men. This difference
does not operate when the decision to enter HE in the first place is examined.

Surprisingly, students who state that they want a particular kind of job are no more likely to
name subject interest as a reason for either entering university or for choosing their particular
course. And students who do name subject interest as a reason either for entering university or
choosing their course are just as likely to name future earnings prospects as a reason for
course choice as students who do not express these academic orientations. High pay is slightly
more important among students who enter HE because they „enjoy studying and learning‟
than among those who do not, although this difference is not statistically significant.

Students who felt family influenced their decision to go to university are as likely as those
who did not to follow their own interests in subject choice. However, they are significantly
less likely to choose their course because they believe it will lead to a highly-paid job: only
53.9% of these students state that this is a factor, while 76.1% of those whose family did not
influence their university entry decision are motivated by the prospect of high earnings in
choosing course. This may be because the former group are more reactive entrants whose
focus on their future in general is weaker. Or it may reflect a level of family affluence which
is not picked up by any of the measures used here, but which gives the student confidence in
the idea that they will be able to get well-paid work anyway. The argument that background is
at the root of this correlation is supported by the significant correlation between importance of
future earnings in course choice and peer group influence on the HE entry decision. Students
who decided to go to university because „all their friends‟ were doing so are less likely
(38.5%) to say that future earnings guided their course choice. Students for whom peer group
did not influence university entry do find future earnings important in course choice (76%).

Students who had been advised to go to university by their teachers were significantly more
likely to follow teachers‟ advice in choosing their course (41.2% as opposed to 13% of
students who felt that their teachers‟ advice had not been strong in their decision to enter HE).




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4:2     Persistence

All of the students in this survey completed their first year and intend to continue with their
course. However, 25% state that at some point in the first year they did seriously consider
dropping out of their course, and 31.3% considered transferring to a different course. These
figures confirm the link between attendance and persistence. There is a significant
relationship between attendance patterns and thinking about leaving; only 15.2% of „good‟
attenders and 18.8% of students with „mixed‟ attendance have considered dropping out. By
contrast, 53.3% of students whose attendance is poor have considered withdrawal.

Fewer students whose parental occupational classification is „professional or managerial‟
considered dropping out or transferring, and these figures approach statistical significance.
Only 9% of the children of professional or managerial parents have considered leaving, but
around 40% of those from skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled occupational backgrounds have.
There is a statistically significant relationship between accommodation type and consideration
of withdrawal. 25.9% of students who live in their own or their parents‟ home have
considered leaving, as opposed to only 4.8% of students living in university accommodation.
42.9% of those living in private rented accommodation have also considered leaving.

Students were asked to indicate their reasons for staying with their original course after all.
Every available option was named by at least some students, but no single option was named
by more than 36% of those who had considered leaving or transferring.

Reasons for staying were as follows:

I began to enjoy my course more – 36.4%
I got some support from my family/friends – 36.4%
I couldn‟t decide on a different course to take – 27.3%
My career aims have not changed – 22.7%
I got some support from the student services centre – 13.6%
I got some support from my tutors – 13.6%
I began to enjoy university more – 9.1%

Numbers are so small that correlations between student characteristics or reasons for entry
and reasons for staying should be treated with caution. Nevertheless, several correlations do
emerge. These could be used in determining ways of targeting support to different groups of
students, or at least of encouraging different groups to use this.

Men are more likely than women to stay with their course simply because they cannot decide
on another one; 46.2% of men who have considered leaving state that this was a factor in their
decision to stay, but no women mentioned this.

A cluster emerges around students who entered for reasons which might be grouped under
„academic orientation‟. Students who name subject interest as a reason to enter HE are
unlikely to state that they stay because they „start to enjoy their course more‟ (none of them
select this option). This may well be because they are enjoying the course already, and had
considered leaving for other reasons. These students are also the most likely to seek support
from the Student Services Centre; 49.9% of those who considered leaving state that this
helped them decide to stay, but none of the other students did. Students who do not have a
part-time job are more likely to find support from their tutors helpful (30% vs. 0%).

„Enjoying the course more‟ is found more often among students who „wanted to live at
home‟. However, this group is significantly less likely to be helped by support from family/
friends. Those who wanted to leave home are significantly less likely to be stay because of
enjoying the course more, but more likely to benefit from Student Services support.


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Section Five:   Adjustment, expectations and attitudes

5:1     Adjustment

Students were asked to respond to items which measure their adjustment to the academic and
social environment which they encountered at university. The questions were designed to
measure aspects of adjustment which emerge from the literature as being particularly
important in student retention. These were academic demands, social life, time management
and independent learning, relations with lecturers and financial management. The outcomes
of this section are useful in two ways: they can be used in their own right to examine the
academic adjustment of students, and they can be compared with other items in order to
examine some of the patterns which may determine that adjustment. This latter will be dealt
with in later sections; here, simple adjustment will be discussed.

Overall, the outcomes are very positive, with students showing good overall adjustment by
the end of their first year. No item emerges as a particular area for concern at this university,
and in several areas the vast majority of students are clearly making a very smooth transition.
However, in several cases a significant minority of students show a poor level of adjustment
in relation to one particular aspect of student life.

5:1:1   Academic adjustment

25.4% of students „strongly agreed‟ with the statement „I have adjusted well to the academic
demands of university life‟, and 50.8% „agreed‟. Only 3.2% stated disagreed. Over three
quarters of students, therefore, show a strong degree of academic confidence at the end of
their first year. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that they have all persisted at university
and completed their first year.

In response to the item „It was easy to understand the rationale for the content of my course‟,
strong agreement was indicated by 9.4% of students, and agreement by 53.1%. About a
quarter state that they „neither agree nor disagree‟, and 9.4% disagree. Course rationale seems
to be something which comes to students, but which may do so relatively slowly.

Students were also asked to indicate how they felt about the level of academic demands on
their course. Adjustment is high again here, with 70.8% feeling that the level of academic
demand is „about right‟ for them. 15.4% felt that these were „too difficult‟, and 3.1% that they
were „far too difficult‟, making a total of just under 20% who believed that too much of them
was being asked of them academically.

Not surprisingly, judgement of academic demand levels associates significantly with feelings
of adjustment to the academic demands of university. Here, a contrast appears between
students who agree that they have adjusted well and students who strongly agree that they
have adjusted well. The former agree that the demands of the course are „about right‟, with
78.1% choosing this option, 15.6% suggesting that demands are a little too high, and 6.3%
suggesting that they are too easy. However, while students who strongly agree that they have
adjusted well are mostly (68.8%) in agreement that the level of demand is „about right‟, 25%
believe it was „too easy‟. Among those who neither agreed nor disagreed with the item about
academic adjustment, the majority felt that academic demand levels were „too hard‟ (53.8%).

Students who feel that they have adjusted well to the academic demands of university are also
more likely to feel that they can understand the rationale for the content of their course,
although this relationship just misses statistical significance.




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5:1:2   Relations with lecturers

Students were asked to indicate whether they found that „in general, the lecturers on the
course were good at explaining things‟. There is a high level of satisfaction once again, with
13.8% strongly agreeing and 55.4% agreeing. 15.4% neither agreed nor disagree.

When asked to state whether „in general, lecturers on the course were approachable‟, students
respond in very similar numbers. 12.3% strongly agree, and 52.2% agree, with 16.9% neither
agreeing nor disagreeing.

Satisfaction with one of these points is very closely related to satisfaction with the other:
88.1% of students who strongly agreed or agreed with the statement „in general, lecturers on
the course were approachable‟ also agreed with „in general, lecturers on the course were good
at explaining things‟. Only 25% of those who disagreed with the „approachability‟ item
agreed or strongly agreed with the „good at explaining‟ item; 41.7% of those who disagreed
with the „approachability‟ item also disagreed with the „good at explaining‟ item.

These students are drawn from a small number of courses, and therefore are probably
encountering a relatively limited number of staff. The less satisfied students are being taught
by the same tutors as the more satisfied ones. These findings suggest that the student‟s
perception of the lecturer is the crucial factor here, because the ability to explain well and the
quality of approachability are not inherently related to one another. Students seem to be
answering on the basis of their overall comfort level with lecturers.

Most importantly, the judgement about „academic demands‟ has a significant relationship
with that relating to „approachability‟. 78.6% of students who feel that lecturers are
approachable also judge the level of academic demand to be „about right‟. 72% of those who
neither agreed nor disagree with the „approachability‟ item also feel that academic demands
are appropriate, but are more likely to judge the course „too easy‟ (18.2% as opposed to
9.5%), while those who find lecturers unapproachable are far more likely to judge that the
course is too difficult (50%, as opposed to 41.7% judging that it is about right).

The relationship between these items and the ones discussed in 5:1:1 is also statistically
significant. Students who feel that the lecturers are good at explaining things are more likely
to believe that they understand the course rationale, with 68.2% of those who strongly agreed
or agreed with the „good at explaining‟ item also strongly agreeing or agreeing with the
„rationale‟ item. However, only 50% of students who neither agreed nor disagree with the
„good at explaining‟ item found the course rationale easy to understand.

Students who feel that the lecturers are good at explaining things are also more likely to feel
that the academic demands of their course are „about right‟ (this just misses statistical
significance).

These outcomes show that students‟ feelings about their lecturers relate closely to their
feelings about their studies, but that both their satisfaction with the teaching they receive and
the extent to which they feel comfortable on a personal level with the tutors are important.
Retention measures which aim to build social as well as academic relations between staff and
students are likely to be effective if this is the case.




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5:1:3   Time management and independent learning

Four items related to these issues were presented.

9.4% of students said that they „strongly agreed‟ with the statement „I find it easy to manage
my own time at university‟, and 73.4% agreed. 17.2% neither agreed nor disagreed, and 9.2%
disagree. This suggests a very high level of confidence in time management skills, with nearly
three-quarters feeling that this was an aspect of university live they could handle well.

However, the nature of these skills is rather clear. In response to „I worked consistently
through my first year‟, 17.5% of students strongly agreed, suggesting that a large minority are
adamant about their commitment to the student role. The percentage agreeing with this item,
however, was rather lower than might have been expected at 30.2%. Over half of the students
surveyed are non-committal about their habits, or believe that they did not work consistently.
22.2% neither agreed nor disagreed, and 25.4% disagree, with commendable honesty at least.

Students were also asked to assess whether they had become good at working independently
since arriving at university. Again, confidence levels were high here. 15.6% strongly agreed,
and 48.4% agreed, indicating that 64.1% of all students were satisfied with their ability to
work on their own. A further 20% neither agreed nor disagreed, while 15.6% disagreed.

The vast majority of students seemed satisfied with their workload. 73.8% felt that it was
„about right‟; around 15.4% felt that it was too heavy, and 10.8% that it was too light. No-one
stated that it was „much too heavy‟ or „much too light‟.

Overall, there was a significant relationship between the answers to these questions, with the
exception of students‟ evaluation of their workload. 66.7% of students who strongly agreed
that they were good at managing their own time also strongly agreed that they had worked
consistently during their first year. Only 16.7% of students who simply „agreed‟ with this
item „strongly agreed‟ that they had „worked consistently‟, however. 42% „agreed‟ that they
had worked consistently, and 20% neither agreed nor disagreed, while 25% disagreed. 45.5%
of students who neither agreed nor disagreed that they had found it easy to manage their own
time also neither agreed nor disagreed that they had worked consistently, but 27.3% stated
that they believed they had not worked consistently. Poor time managers were likely to
indicate that they had not worked consistently.

This is interesting because it would be possible to argue that many good time managers could
be students who had not worked consistently, if they had managed to organise their
inconsistent work to their own advantage. However, inconsistent working seems to be
associated with poor time management for most of these students. It may be that they have
learnt to name this association through study skills classes etc., or it may be that a minority
are genuinely dissatisfied with this aspect of their own ability.

Satisfaction with one‟s independent working skills was significant related to both consistent
working patterns and satisfaction with time management skills. Once again, a distinction
emerges here between students who strongly agree in each case and those who simply agree.

Good time management was significantly associated with several other measures of
adjustment, including adjustment to the academic demands of university, grasp of the
rationale for course content, and – perhaps surprisingly – good social adjustment, were
correlations were particularly strong.

A high assessment of independent working skills was also significantly related to satisfaction
with adjustment to the academic demands of the course, social adjustment, and understanding
of the rationale of the course. Confident independent workers tended to find that their tutors


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were good at explaining things, although this relationship did not achieve significance.
Students who strongly agreed that they had developed good independent working skills were
significantly more likely to find their tutors approachable; students who only agreed with this
item, however, had lower levels of satisfaction on this item, with 16.1% neither agreeing nor
disagreeing and 22.6% disagreeing.

Students who strongly agreed that they had „worked consistently‟ throughout the first year
were more likely to strongly agree that they had adjusted well to the academic demands of the
course. Students who neither agreed nor disagreed that they were consistent workers were
more likely neither to agree nor to disagree with the item on academic adjustment. The
relationship between consistent work and a grasp of the rationale for course content was very
strong (just missing statistical significance).

An unexpected relationship emerged between students‟ assessment of their independent
learning skills and their satisfaction with the physical environment of university. Those who
judged themselves to be either good or bad at independent learning expressed a higher level
of satisfaction with their physical environment than those who were non-committal about
their independent learning skills.

Assessment of the level of academic demands is significantly related only to independent
working skills, and not to either consistent work habits or time management. 76.2% of
students who strongly agree or agree with „I have become good at working independently‟
believe that the academic demands of their course were „about right‟. Surprisingly, slightly
more of these students judge that the course was „too difficult‟ than „too easy‟. Among
students who neither agreed nor disagree with this item only 66.7% judge that the demands
were „about right‟, with equal numbers judging that they were too high and too low. Among
students who believe they are poor independent workers, only 50% state that the academic
demands were „about right‟. 30% believe that they were „too difficult‟ or „far too difficult‟.

Estimates of workload were significantly related to only two other adjustment items.
Perceptions of workload and of academic demands were closely related. 83.3% of students
who felt that their workload was „about right‟ felt the same about the level of academic
demand. 60% of those who judged that the workload was too heavy felt that academic
demands were too difficult, and 71.4% of those who felt that the workload was too light also
felt that the academic demands of the course were too easy.

The other item was understanding of course rationale, with students who found it difficult to
see a clear framework being more likely to perceive their workload as being too heavy. This
may be because where students did not see a clear rationale they felt that the workload
involved in balancing all of the elements of their course was greater.


5:1:4   Social adjustment

Students report high levels of social adjustment. 31.7% strongly agree that they have adjusted
well to their social life at university, and 49.2% agree with this item. 11.1% neither agree nor
disagree. Overall, more than 80% seem to be satisfied with their social adjustment.

Social adjustment is significantly associated with academic adjustment. Students who agree
strongly that they have adjusted well to their social life are more likely to agree strongly that
they have adjusted well to the academic demands of their course (45%) or to agree with this
item (45%). Students who agree that they have adjusted well to their social life strongly agree
less frequently that they have adjusted well to the academic demands of their course (16.1%),
and although their levels of agreement are quite high (58.1%), they also neither agreed nor
disagree to this item in quite high numbers as well (25.8%).


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Adjusting well to one‟s social life is also significantly associated with both managing one‟s
own time well, and becoming good at working independently. However, it is not associated
with working independently. There is a close relationship between understanding the course
rationale and social adjustment, although this falls just short of statistical significance. The
interlinking of social and academic experiences of university is demonstrated.


5:1:5    Financial pressures

Note: this topic is dealt with at greater length in the accompanying report on „students and money‟.

Over half of the students who responded agree that they „sometimes felt pressurised by
financial worries‟. 23.4% strongly agree with this item (which is close to the proportion of
students believed by several researchers to experience severe financial hardship). 32.8%
agree, and a further 20.3% neither agreed nor disagree (which seems a rather odd response to
this item). 17.2% disagree, while 6.3% strongly disagree, making the number who state that
they do not suffer from financial pressures almost identical to the number who do.

Perception of financial pressure relates to a number of other adjustment factors. Students who
feel that they have adjusted well to their social life are significantly less likely to feel that they
were pressurised by financial worries. In the absence of qualitative evidence about the social
lives of individuals, it is not possible to find out how this relationship operates. It may be that
students who feel financial pressures are unable to enjoy the kind of social life which they
would like because of a lack of money, and therefore feel that they have adjusted badly.
Alternatively, they may be engaging in a lively and expensive social life but feeling
dissatisfied with this because of the financial impact which it has on their lives. Different
students may offer this combination of responses for different reasons. Another possibility is
that the general stress level caused by financial pressure leads to dissatisfaction with life in
general, including social life.

Rather more surprising is the relationship between financial pressure and several of the
academic adjustment measures. Students who feel that they are under financial pressure are
significantly less likely to agree strongly that their lecturers are approachable. In addition,
students who strongly agree or agree that they sometimes feel pressured over money are
significantly more likely to disagree that their lecturers seem approachable, or to answer that
they neither agreed nor disagree with this item. The highest level of agreement with the
statement that lecturers are approachable is found among students who disagree that they
sometimes feel pressurised by financial worries.

There is a significant relationship between financial pressure and understanding the course
rationale, with student who feel less pressure being more likely to strongly agree with this
item (26.7% as opposed to under 10%). These students also show high levels of agreement as
opposed to choosing to neither agreed nor disagree (no students neither agreed nor disagree,
as opposed to 23.3% of students who neither agreed nor disagree that they feel financial
pressures, and 38.9% who agree or strongly agree with the financial pressures item). This may
relate to a raised stress level throughout the course for students who have money worries?

In addition, students who feel financial pressure are more likely to find that the academic
demands of the course are „too hard‟, although this item just misses statistical significance.
Among students who strongly agree that they worry about money 53.3% state that academic
demands are „about right‟. This rises to 76.2% among students who agree that they have
financial worries, and 84.6% among those who neither agreed nor disagree. 76.2% of students
who disagree with the financial pressures item feel that academic demands are about right.
Once again, this may relate to the distraction of financial worries, at least for the first group.


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5:2     Expectations

The relationship between expectations and actual measures of adjustment and attitude will be
discussed below. This section contains a simple description of students‟ evaluations of their
own levels of preparedness and the extent to which their expectations were met.

Students were asked to report on their expectations of academic and social factors, support,
the extent to which they felt well-prepared by their previous educational experience, and how
much they had enjoyed their course.


5:2:1   Academic issues

University workloads were a surprise to the majority of students surveyed. Only 43.1% found
them „about as expected‟, while 30.8% found them heavier and 26.2% found them lighter.

Expectations about academic demands were slightly more accurate. 50.8% found them „about
as expected‟, but 32.3% found them „a bit harder‟, and 12.3% found them „a bit easier‟. Very
small numbers found them much harder or much easier.

Expectations of course content were generally good, with 61.5% finding that they were „quite
accurate‟ (although only 3.1% found them „very accurate‟). 30.8% felt that they were „quite
mistaken‟, but only 4.6% were „very mistaken‟.

Students had a fairly realistic picture of academic staff, with 63.1% feeling that their
expectations were „quite accurate‟ (again the number reporting „very accurate‟ expectations
was small). 24.6% felt that their expectations of academic staff were „quite mistaken‟, and
7.7% had „very mistaken‟ expectations of academic staff.

Incoming students had a reasonable picture of the teaching methods they would encounter;
56.9% felt their expectations had been „quite accurate‟, and 30.8% had been „quite mistaken‟.
Again only very small numbers had had „very accurate‟ or „very mistaken‟ expectations.


5:2:2   Support

Students had reasonably accurate expectations of the amount of academic support they would
encounter at university. 53.5% had got this „about right‟. 21.5% had expected a little more
than they encountered, and 6.2% expected a lot more; 18.5% encountered more than they had
expected.

Expectations around non-academic support were more accurate. 63.1% had estimated the
amount which would be available reasonably accurately. Very similar numbers make
estimates which are a little too high or a little too low (13.8% and 16.9% respectively), and
estimates which are much too high and much too low (3.1% in each case). Increasingly strong
guidance tutoring in secondary schools and 6th form colleges may lead to these patterns.

Students had, however, rather over-estimated the amount of contact with individual academic
staff. Fewer than half (44.6%) had estimated this accurately, 27.7% had expected more and
15.4% had expected much more. Just 12.3% had underestimated the amount of contact with
individual staff members.

Students seemed well-prepared for the extent to which they would need to be independent
learners at university. 20% had made a „very accurate‟ estimation of this, and a further 52.3%
were „quite accurate‟, while only 26.2% were „quite mistaken‟.


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5:2:3   Social expectations

Students were asked how easy or difficult making friends at university had turned out to be,
compared to their expectations. This was the area in which their previous perceptions had
been least accurate. Just 36.9% found that making friends was about as easy as they had
expected before they arrived. 18.5% found it a bit harder, and 9.2% found it much harder. By
contrast, 24.6% found that it was easier, and 10.8% found that it was much easier. The levels
of social anxiety among incoming students appear to be quite high; these results are in line
with the findings of Andrew Shipton‟s work at the University of Northumbria.


5:2:4   General expectations

Students had a very accurate set of expectations relating to the physical environment of the
university, with 67.7% feeling that they had been „accurate‟ and 12.3% that they had been
„very accurate‟. Just 20% felt that they were mistaken.

The interest generated by their course seems to come as a pleasant surprise to a high number
of students. 46.2% find that their studies are about as interesting as they had expected, but
26.6% find that their course is „a bit more interesting‟, and 6.2% find that it is „much more
interesting‟. Almost a third of students, therefore, find that their course is more interesting
than they had anticipated. Several studies (e.g. Leathwood and O‟Connell 2000, Archer et al
2001) indicate that school pupils have a widespread belief that university work is dull and
„just like more school‟, so perhaps the results reported here are not surprising.

When asked to assess the quality of school or college as a preparation for university, a large
minority of students appear to be very satisfied. 12.3% feel that their previous institution was
a „very good‟ preparation for HE, and 32.3% feel that it was „good‟. A rather less satisfied
32.3% feel that it was „about adequate‟, and 20% state that it was „poor‟. Just 3.1% feel that
they have had a „very poor‟ preparation from their previous studies.


5:2:5   Discussion

Not surprisingly, accurate expectations in different areas often turn out to be significantly
related to one another. Where students find the workload harder than expected, they are
statistically more likely to find the academic demands harder as well. Only 60% of students
who find the workload harder than expected had „quite accurate‟ or „very accurate‟
expectations about the need to be an independent learner, but 78.6% of those who had
accurate expectations about workload had „quite‟ or „very‟ accurate expectations about the
need to be an independent learner. Students whose workload was lighter than expected have
significantly higher levels of accuracy about the need to be an independent learner, indicating
that skill in working on one‟s own makes the transition to HE study very smooth. Similarly,
there is a significant association between finding the workload about as expected or lighter
than expected and having accurate expectations about the study habits that will be needed.

Several „clusters‟ emerge, where students who have accurate expectations in one area are
significantly more likely to carry this accuracy into others. One of these is around academic
staff: students whose general expectations of academic staff are accurate are less likely to be
surprised by the amount of academic support, the amount of contact with staff, the teaching
methods used and the study habits that they will require. Students whose expectations about
teaching methods are accurate are likely to have accurate expectations about the study habits
required, including the need to be an independent learner, and the likely amount of contact
with academic staff. Students with accurate expectations of course content were also likely to
have been accurate about required study habits and the need to be an independent learner.


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There is also evidence that students who have formed an accurate assessment of course
content are particularly likely to have considered other aspects of university life as well.
While the generally good levels of academic preparedness among these students are not
surprising, they also turn out to have significantly more accurate expectations about how easy
it will be to make friends. These students are also significantly more likely to have accurate
expectations about the physical environment of the university.

Academic expectations relate to levels of interest. Students who encounter a workload higher
than expected find their course „much more boring‟ in 20% of cases, but „a little more
interesting‟ in 35%. Only 35% find their interest is „as expected‟. Where students anticipated
workload accurately, 46.4% also made an accurate assessment of their level of interest, with
roughly equal numbers over- and under-estimating this. However, among students who
estimated workload accurately, 62% find levels of interest „about as they expected‟. 30% of
these students find the course more interesting than expected, and very few are bored.

A statistically significant relationship is found between expectations of interest and students‟
expectations about the need to be independent learners. Here, where expectations were „very
accurate‟, levels of interest are „as expected‟ for 53.8% of students, with the rest finding the
course „more interesting‟ than they had predicted. Where students had „quite accurate‟
expectations, 48.5% find the course as interesting as they had expected, but around a third
still find it more interesting. Among students whose expectations of the need for independent
learning skills were inaccurate, 41.2% find the course about as interesting as they had
expected, and more than one third find it „more boring‟.

The relationship between expectations around workload and making friends is interesting.
Both of these items deal with how students spend their time, and which may account for their
significant correlation. In general, students who find the workload heavier than they had
expected will also find it harder to make friends. Only 45% find that making friends is as they
expected, and just 15% find that it is easier. Those who estimated the workload accurately are
the ones who find it easiest to make friends, with 53.6% finding this easier than anticipated.
14.3% find it harder, and a small number, 32.1%, find it harder. Students who encounter a
workload which is lighter have very mixed experiences of making friends: 40% find it harder
than expected, but 33.3% find it easier. Just 26.7% find that this proceeds as they expected.

Correlations which are close, but which just miss statistical significance, are also found
between interest and expectations about academic support levels and academic demands.
Where the academic demands are harder than expected, more students find the course duller
than they expected (36.4%), although just over a quarter also find it more interesting.
However, where students had accurate expectations about academic demands their interest in
the course is „as expected‟ for 48.5%, and higher for 42%. Where the academic demands are
easier than anticipated, 66.7% find the course as interesting as they had anticipated. Roughly
equal numbers find it more interesting and less interesting.

These figures suggest that students are best able to engage with their subjects when they are
well-prepared for the course, and also highlight the diversity of academic orientation among
students. Some students who find themselves working harder, in terms of hours and academic
demand, will actually enjoy being stretched, while others will use the term „boring‟ as a proxy
for „difficult‟ or „time-demanding‟. Interestingly, students who find that workload or
academic demands are lower than they had anticipated tend not to be bored, possibly because
they have found ways to channel their academic orientation and feed their interest in the
subject alongside the requirements of their course. Students who are prepared for independent
learning seem to fit well into the academic culture of the university, and can really engage
well with their subject. Where students are challenged by the nature rather than the content or
amount of university learning, this challenge is more likely to be negative than positive.


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5:3     Attitudes

5:3:1   Interest

In response to the item „In general, I found my course very interesting‟, 61.5% of students
agreed and 10.8% of students „strongly agreed‟. This represents almost a third of students
who were, for the most part, interested in their work. A further 23.1% chose „neither agree
nor disagree‟, and disagreement was expressed by 13.8% of students.

The source of interest was also investigated; students were asked to respond to the item „In
general, the lecturers stimulated my interest in my subject‟. 6.2% „strongly agreed‟ with this
time, and 32.3% „agreed‟. Lecturers are regarded as the source of interest by 38.5% of
students, therefore. This is quite a low figure; not surprisingly, responses to this item are
significantly related to those offered in response to „In general, the lecturers on my course
were approachable‟. Once again, the link between social and academic issues emerges.


5:3:2   Study approaches

Four items were used here. „I get satisfaction from meeting intellectual challenges and
pushing my limits‟ („intellectual satisfaction‟) was intended to measure whether students were
academically oriented, and whether they were interested in taking potential academic „risks‟.
„I am keen to learn about new aspects of my subject and to explore new areas‟ („new
areas‟)was intended to measure the degree of academic orientation by examining students‟
intellectual curiosity. „I only want to study topics which I consider to be relevant to my
career‟ („career relevance‟) was intended to measure how far instrumentality influenced study
behaviours, and „In general I only did the minimum of work which was required of me‟
(„minimum work‟) was indicated to examine how many students were taking a strategic
approach to their studies.

On the „intellectual satisfaction‟ item, 27.7% of students agreed strongly and 46.2% agreed.
Almost a quarter of students, therefore, state that they are to some extent willing to be
academically adventurous. A further 18.5% neither agreed nor disagreed with this item, and
just 7.7% stated that they disagreed, implying that this aspect of university study was not
important to them.

In response to „new areas‟, 21.5% agreed strongly, and 63.1% agreed. Again, a very high
level of academic orientation emerges, with over 80% of students in agreement with these
items. 12.3% neither agree nor disagree, and a tiny number disagree.

However, „career relevance‟ also gains relatively high levels of agreement. 12.3% agree
strongly and 44.6% agree, indicating that more than half of the students surveyed hold an
instrumental view of their course. This item could be regarded as conflicting with the
previous one, but it is possible that students might be perfectly willing to learn new things that
are career relevant, but not to take a „just in case‟ approach to their studies. 18.5% neither
agree nor disagree, and 24.6% reject this position altogether.

Another contradiction emerges around „minimum work‟. Here, 4.6% strongly agree, and 40%
agree that their usual working pattern is to do as little work as possible to get by. 15.4% are
non-committal, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. However, 30.8 reject the „strategic‟
approach to their studies, and a further 9.2% „strongly disagree‟. Students who appear to be
„strategic‟ on the basis of this item, and students who feel strongly about their academic work,
seem to be in roughly equal numbers. The presence of the latter group is encouraging; the
former group, however, give cause for concern.



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5:3:3   Motivation

A direct question about students‟ feelings of motivation was accompanied by items relating to
the motivational effects of high marks, feedback from staff on their progress, and the „future
motivation‟ of getting a rewarding job at the end of the course. Finally, students‟ beliefs about
the part played by inherent ability in academic success were measured, as these have been
shown to relate to motivation.

The majority of students report some problems with motivation. In response to „I often found
it difficult to get motivated to work on my course‟, only 6.2% strongly agreed, but 46.2%
agreed. Given that the question related to how the students felt often rather than sometimes,
this represents a low level of motivation. 27.7% stated that they neither agreed nor disagreed,
which may indicate that these are the students who sometimes rather than often lacked
motivation, or that they were unwilling to admit that they felt a lack of motivation, or that
they are not very sure precisely what is meant by motivation. 13.8% of students disagreed and
6.2% of students strongly disagreed. This 20% of students may be regarded as the highly
motivated group at the university.

Gaining high marks, as opposed to just passing, emerged as extremely important. 72.3%
strongly agreed that they felt this, and 23.1% agreed. Only 4.6% neither agreed nor disagreed.

Feedback is also crucial. In response to „I need to know how well I‟m doing in order to feel
motivated to work‟, 43.1% strongly agreed, and 47.7% agreed. Only 7.7% neither agreed nor
disagreed, and just 1.5% disagreed altogether. This represents a remarkably high level of
importance being attached to confirmation of progress.

Future motivation is important to a great many students. The item „I often find my course
boring but will stick with it because I want a good job‟ elicited strong agreement from 15.4%,
and agreement from 49.2%. Nearly half of the students questioned, therefore, are focussed on
their career aims above immediate academic goals for at least some of the time. 15.4% neither
agreed nor disagreed with this item. 26.2% disagreed and 9.2% disagreed strongly; these
students are presumably rarely bored with their course, irrespective of their future goals.

Responding to „Inherent ability is the biggest factor in academic success at university‟, 38.5%
agreed and 13.9% disagreed. The largest response was neither agreement nor disagreement,
which suggests that many students do not have a very strong opinion about this topic.


5:3:4   Integration

Very few students find it difficult to talk to their family and friends about university. In
response to „I find it easy to talk about university with my family and friends‟, 32.3% strongly
agreed and 44.6% agreed, while 13.8% neither agreed nor disagreed. Talking about university
with family and friends emerged as a problem for fewer than 10% of students.

Feelings of belonging are strong among these students. In response to „I feel that I really
belong at university‟, 21.5% strongly agreed, and 44.6% agreed. 23.1% neither agreed nor
disagreed, and just 10.8% disagreed.

Overall enjoyment of the course is also high, despite some of the findings in the previous
sections. „Overall, I have really enjoyed my studies at Northumbria so far‟ elicits a response
of strong agreement from 36.9% of the students surveyed, and of agreement from a further
33.8%. 18.5% neither agree nor disagree, and just over 10% disagree. These students appear
to have had a highly satisfactory first year.


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Section Six:     Study behaviours

6:1     Introduction

6:1:1   Items used in defining ‘study behaviours’

In this section, the relationship between particular kinds of study behaviour will be examined.
One finding to emerge from the questionnaire data is the „clustering‟ of particular responses
to items under this heading. Characteristic approaches to study emerge, and it is possible to
build a picture of different groups of students according to how they tackle their academic
workload.

These approaches appear to relate to several of the factors dealt with in the questionnaire.
Demographic factors seem to play a small part; reasons for applying to university, to
Northumbria University, and to a selected course play a rather larger one. Student
expectations appear to be related as well, and perhaps not surprisingly, students who have a
similar set of attitudes to their study tend to approach it in similar ways.

The data are discussed in terms of observed correlations within the quantitative questionnaire
data. Links cannot be described as causative, and where interpretations are placed on the data,
they are interpretations, and no more. Very few students chose to offer prose responses where
invited. However, the fact that by coincidence, the students interviewed fall fairly clearly into
one of the types observed through the quantitative data suggests that the broad groupings have
some validity.

Items in several parts of the questionnaire relate to student study behaviours. Students are
asked to report the number of hours which they undertake private study, their patterns of
attendance, and their part-time work commitments. In the section on adjustment, they were
asked to assess their time-management and independent learning skills and their working
patterns. Finally, the „study approaches‟ section measured the extent to which they organised
their work in a „strategic‟ way. Because of the high number of correlations between factors in
these different sections, they will be discussed together in this section. Requiring students to
reflect on their study habits at different points within a large instrument has the
methodological advantage of encouraging a holistic view, and also of teasing out any
contradictions in student self-perceptions.

With any questions which might invite a „value judgement‟, there is always a danger that
subjects will over-report „virtuous‟ behaviour (e.g. study hours, motivation, engagement with
the course of study) or attitudes which imply a high level of ability (e.g. understanding of
their subject). Some surveys have noted a tendency among students to prefer to attribute a
lack of satisfaction to features of the institution or its employees than to their own input. This
might lead to low levels of agreement in response to items relating to teaching quality or
institutional provision. As the discussion above suggests, the responses to items in all of these
areas seem to show a willingness to be honest about low private study hours and motivation
alongside a reasonable level of satisfaction with lecturers and with the institution. This does
not necessarily mean that they reflect reality, but it is unlikely that very large distortions have
occurred.




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6:1:2    Student study behaviours

The overall picture of study patterns offers a mixture of the encouraging and the disturbing.
Private study would appear to be one of the areas for concern. Tutor advice over the number
of hours students should be spending in private study appears to be widely ignored; only
17.8% of respondents stated that they had regularly done the required amount. Students seem
quite willing to admit that they rarely complied with tutors‟ advice, and are even open in
giving answers which reveal a lack of academic orientation, with over half citing a lack of
motivation and over a third stating that they were simply bored. In addition, the actual number
of hours reported by students appears very low indeed. It is doubtful whether any school
would advise students to spend the average of just over eight hours a week in private study, or
even the ten to fourteen hours reported by almost a quarter9.

Nevertheless, all the students who returned the questionnaire have progressed, or expected to
progress, to their second year. It appears that they are doing enough study to pass, and in
most cases to enjoy their courses and find them interesting. These students are neither failing
nor dissatisfied – in fact, their satisfaction was remarkably high 10. The data seem to show a
generation at odds with the practices of higher education, but it is also possible that part of the
reason why these students appear to work less hard than their predecessors is that surveys of
this kind are a very recent innovation. Oral reports at a 2005 conference organised by the
HEA indicated that in two other institutions, very similar responses to these were received,
and several of the tutors who were interviewed suggested that if their peer-groups at
university had been examined, advice for private study would have appeared similarly
irrelevant to at least a large minority of students.

Given the diversity of student experience, it may be that some of these students are successful
strategists, some are extremely efficient workers, and that some are simply typical late
adolescents who have a great deal on their mind other than working just hard enough to keep
their place in the exciting new world which they are discovering.

These students, however, are excellent attenders. Attendance only falls off in the first
semester for a tiny number, and hardly any attend under 50% of their classes. In the crucial
first six weeks, over 90% attend over 75% of timetabled sessions. Things deteriorate as the
academic year progresses, but only towards the end of the second semester, by which time the
„strategists‟ may well have effective strategies in place, does attendance reach alarmingly low
levels, with almost half of the students attending less than 75% of sessions. Even so, very few
students attend less than 25%. This „selective‟ attendance may indicate the implementation of
a strategy, as assessments are due and the knowledge base for a module feels as if it is in
place.

This good attendance record may explain the apparent contradiction between the high
satisfaction and low private study hours among these students. Their attendance means that
they maintain a strong connection with the university and with their subject, providing
integration and at least a minimal ongoing academic input. The most common reason for non-
attendance, moreover, is a practical rather than an academic one, long gaps between classes.
This may not say a great deal for motivational levels, but it is only indirectly related to the
academic experience.


9
   Students were not asked about „cramming‟, or study patterns around deadlines, because these relate
more to assessment – which would merit a study all of its own – than to the overall student experience.
10
   This study seems not to have suffered from the notorious pattern in which disproportionate numbers
of dissatisfied students return a questionnaire, while satisfied ones assume they need not participate
because „everything‟s fine‟. This may be due to the explanatory letter which accompanied the
questionnaire. Alternatively, the effect did arise, and actual levels of satisfaction are even higher than
those reported.

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Attendance and responses to the „minimum work‟ item are significantly related, with students
who disagree reporting higher levels of attendance. Attendance improves with strength of
agreement (again this correlation is statistically significant), and students who strongly
disagree with the „minimum work‟ item do not report levels of attendance below 75%.

Students generally feel that they manage their own time well, although only 9.2% strongly
agree. Nearly three quarters, however, are moderately satisfied with their time-management
skills. Just over two-thirds believe they are good independent learners, and only around 15%
disagree that they have become good at independent learning. The response to the item „I
worked consistently throughout my first year‟ is surprising. There is higher strong agreement
with this item than with either of the previous ones (17.5%), and a further 30.2% agree.
However, despite the concrete nature of the issue under assessment, a high number of
students are ambivalent; almost a quarter „neither agree nor disagree‟. Possibly they do not
remember the entire first year in detail and do not want to commit to a particular answer, or
perhaps they recall a patchy pattern of work, with little private study in some weeks and high
levels when examinations or deadlines approach. Given the low reported working hours, the
47.7% who state that they did work consistently may not in fact be doing very much.

The presence of a minority of strategic students is confirmed by the 44.6% who agree with the
statement „In general, I only did the minimum of work that was required of me‟. They are
balanced by 30.8% who disagree, and 9.2% who strongly disagree. This group may be
considered as the hardest working11. It would be unwise, on this evidence, to assume that
strategic students are now the norm, but also to maintain that they are rarely admitted.

How do reported private study hours relate to responses to the previous item? There is a
statistically significant relationship between reported hours of private study and students‟ own
assessment of their working habits as „minimal‟ or otherwise. However, even among students
who strongly disagree that they normally do the „minimum‟, reported hours seem rather low.

Students who „strongly agree‟ with the „minimum work‟ item have an average private study
week of one hour. Those who „agree‟ do more than four times that much, averaging around
four and a half hours. This probably represents enough time to complete regular homeworks
to a minimal standard. However, the variation within this group is huge. There is a cluster of
students doing 3, 4 or 5 hours, but several report that they do no private study at all in a
normal week, and one claims to do 18 hours. This student is one who stated that his/her tutors
advised 18 hours a week of private study, and so in these terms s/he is quite literally doing the
minimum amount officially required. However, s/he is in fact working unusually hard when
compared with his/her peers.

Few students reply that they „neither agree nor disagree‟ with this item. For this group, there
is again very wide variation around the average of 8.3 hours, ranging from 2 to 20 hours.
Students are very evenly spread through this range, with no observable clusters.

The majority (two thirds) of students who disagree with the „minimum work‟ item report
studying for 10 hours per week or more, and the average for this group is 10.6 hours.
However, the lowest number of hours which they report is 2 (one student), and there is a
small cluster at 5 hours per week. The highest number of hours reported by any student is 25.
Students who strongly disagree with the „minimum work‟ item all study for 10 hours per
week or more. One reports studying for 40 hours per week, although it is possible that s/he
has included contact hours in the calculation. If this student‟s return is excluded, the average
for the „strongly disagree‟ group is 13.6 hours, but if it is included their average rises to 18
hours per week.

11
   It is possible that they do less than the minimum and disagree with the statement offered for that
reason. The use of the word „only‟ in the questionnaire item should have removed this possibility.

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The few students who strongly disagree with the „minimum work‟ item and who report low
private study hours state „personal or medical problems‟ as the main reason why they did not
do the recommended amount of private study.

Private study hours and part-time work status show no correlation. Some students with jobs
disagree strongly with the „minimum work‟ item and report high hours, while others agree
with it and report very little study time. Precisely the same could be said of students without
part-time work. As with the students surveyed by Winn 2002, time pressure is what you make
it (see the note on „time management‟ and attendance, p.59 above). This does not mean that
the students who manage to work hard at both their course and their job would not have a
better learning experience, or study for even longer, if they did not have to take paid work.


6:2      Study behaviours and entry decisions

Students were asked to indicate their reasons for choosing to enter HE, the University of
Northumbria, and their particular course. The responses to these items suggested that at all
stages of the decision several different factors operate for most students. Academic
orientation, family wishes, career aims, peer pressure, personal factors (desire to leave or stay
at home, self esteem) and „instrumental‟ issues all play a part, and the relationship between
factors is complex. Very few statistically significant relationships between different factors
emerged; for example, students who state the strongly „academic‟ reason „I enjoy studying
and learning‟ are just as likely as their peers to agree that they „want to improve their general
job prospects12.

Students were asked to indicate the „most important reason‟ for their decisions, but so many
chose the option „no main reason‟ that the responses here were of little use. This may mean
that students are unclear in their own minds as to which of the numerous issues swayed them
most.

In both the section on the decision to enter HE, and the section on the choice of a particular
course, students could choose to name „subject interest‟ as a factor. One might expect that if a
student ticked „subject interest‟ in the first of these categories, they would tick it in the other,
but this was not the case; only just over half named this as a factor which moved them to
choose HE, but over 85% said that it became important once they were choosing their
particular course. In other words, for many students, the initial decision is simply to go to
university. Once this has been made, they begin to decide what to study.
This emerged as a very significant factor in relation to study behaviour. Students who agree
or strongly agree with the „minimum work‟ item are much less likely to cite subject interest as
a factor in their decision to enter HE; 28.6% said that it was important, compared to 73.1% of
students who disagree or strongly disagree with the „minimum work‟ item. This relationship
is statistically significant. In addition, students who cite subject interest as a factor at the stage
of choosing to go to university actually work longer part-time study hours, averaging almost 9

12
   It is important, and depressingly rare in discussions of widening participation, to note that students
are more likely to stress the importance of job prospects if they come from a background where the
prospect of a dull, „dead-end‟, low status or badly paid job is familiar. First-generation Northumbria
students would probably mention job prospects more often than independent-school students at
Cambridge because among their family and are people who hold jobs which they themselves would not
want. However, this does not mean that socially privileged students are „not bothered‟ about their job
prospects and have a more purely academic focus. They may simply assume that they will get a „good
job‟ because [almost] everyone in their circle has one, and it appears to be a „natural progression‟.
Similarly, the self-esteem reason of wanting to „gain a degree‟ will probably appear more often in the
responses of first-generation or non-traditional students than those from students in whose milieu a
degree is the norm.

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hours a week as opposed to just over 6 hours a week. A difference is seen between the levels
of agreement for students who cite subject interest as a reason for entering their course and
those who do not, but it is relatively small and does not approach statistical significance.

Their reasons for not complying with advice on the number of private study hours required
are also different. These students are less likely cite boredom, poor motivation or part-time
work as important, and are also less likely to say that they „feel as if they are doing enough
private study‟. However, they are significantly more likely to say that they reduce their
private study time because they feel that they „understand the subject well enough‟.

Students who name „subject interest‟ as important in the HE entry decision are also
significantly better attenders than those who do not. They report significantly higher levels of
consistent work and higher satisfaction with their independent working skills. It appears from
these findings that students who make the decision to enter HE for this reason are more likely
to fit in with HE culture and expectations. As discussed below, these are not the only
advantages which they enjoy.

Another „academic orientation‟ reason for entering HE is „I enjoy studying and learning‟, and
this is cited by around a third of all students. Again, there is a strong relationship between
study behaviours and this reason for entry. These students have a high average private study
time, over 10 hours per week, and over half disagree with the „minimum work item‟, while
under a quarter agree. Again, they report significantly higher levels of consistent working and
higher private study hours. They are significantly less likely to have a part-time job than their
peers, with only 34% stating that they took paid work as opposed to 60.5% who do not cite
this reason for entry. This suggests that students in this group are often prepared to prioritise
their studies over the possibility of earning money.

As noted above, students who cite subject interest as a reason for course choice but not for
HE entry have only slightly higher levels of disagreement with the „minimum work‟ item than
students who do not cite subject interest at any point. However, where subject interest is cited
as a reason for course choice, students still emerge as feeling that they are better at time
management, independent work and consistent working. An interest in the subject to be
studied seems to be a strong predictor of working habits which will stand the student in good
stead on his or her course.

Students who name the „instrumental‟ reason for HE entry of „improving my general job
prospects‟ do not show significantly higher or lower levels of private study than students who
do not name this item. Naming the instrumental factor of wanting a well-paid job as a reason
for selecting a particular course also shows no apparent relationship with study behaviours.
„Career aims‟ reasons, such as the desire to prepare for a particular kind of job, has little
effect: the only significant relationship found was among students who regard their course as
„training‟ for a particular kind of job when they decide to enter HE. These students do not
report higher levels of private study than those who do not, but they do report more consistent
working patterns. It is possible that this reflects the strength of their career focus, or that the
clue to the connection lies in the use of the word „training‟, suggesting that they see their
course as a kind of apprenticeship.

One factor which influences the choice to enter Northumbria University emerges as important
in relation to study patterns. Among students who state that the reputation of this particular
university was important to them, significantly higher levels of private study and attendance
are noted. This item emerges as important in several areas (discussed below), and it may well
be that students whose commitment to the institution begins before admission are willing to
express that commitment in practical engagement with their studies.




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Non-academic reasons for entry, such as the desire to live at or away from home or „self
esteem‟, do not appear to have any significant relationship with study behaviours.

Students who cite the „reactive‟ reason of „family influence‟ are significantly more likely to
agree with the „minimum work‟ item. Over 50% agree or agree strongly, and just 17.5%
disagree, while almost half of the students for whom family influence was not a factor
disagree or strongly disagree. This confirms the vulnerability of reactive entrants to poor
study behaviours.


6:3     Adjustment and study behaviours

6:3:1   Academic adjustment and study behaviours

The close relationship between overall adjustment and integration and retention would
suggest that students who are generally well-adjusted to HE are likely to be those who adopt
helpful study behaviours, and the outcomes of this study broadly confirm this.

Students who report a high level of academic adjustment, on the measures described in 6:3,
are more likely than those who do not to disagree or strongly disagree with the „minimum
work‟ item, although this relationship does not quite reach statistical significance. Students
who agree or strongly agree that they have become good at managing their own time and that
they work consistently are, however, significantly more likely to show high levels of
attendance and to disagree or strongly disagree with the „minimum work‟ item. This may be
because these are more specific items than the general „academic adjustment‟ measure.

There is also a statistically significant relationship between agreeing that it is easy to
understand the rationale for course content and disagreeing with the „minimum work‟ answer.
This is a case in which guessing at the direction of causality would be particularly risky.
Students who work hard may gain a better grasp of the subject as a field, rather than a series
of topics. Alternatively, students whose academic background, study skills and/or general
interests help them gain an understanding of the course rationale may feel motivated to put in
longer hours.

The amount of work students believe that they do also relates to the way they assess their
study skills. Students who disagree with the „minimum work‟ item are statistically more
likely to agree with the independent work item, and strength of disagreement/agreement for
these two items is also significantly related. A similar relationship emerges between responses
to the „minimum work‟ item and the „consistent work‟ item. Students who feel comfortable
with university level study seem likely to do more of it, on the basis of this evidence.

Attendance patterns are also related to academic adjustment. There is a significant
relationship between levels of reported attendance and responses to the „academic adjustment‟
item, with 93.9% of students who agree or strongly agree that they have adjusted well to the
academic demands of the course‟ attending 75% or more of timetabled sessions throughout
the academic year. Only 75% of students whose attendance is mixed agree or strongly agree.
However, in this second group, the vast majority fall into the „agree‟ rather than the „strongly
agree‟ category for the „academic adjustment‟ item. For good attenders, responses are more
evenly spread between „agree‟ and „strongly agree‟. Among poor attenders, 57% of students
neither agree nor disagree with the „academic adjustment‟ item.

Statistically significant relationships also emerge between attendance patterns and responses
to the items on personal time management, consistent working, and the development of
independent learning skills. It appears that academic adjustment, for many students, is an
holistic quality.


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6:3:2   Social adjustment

One might expect that to find a correlation between high social adjustment and helpful study
behaviours, where students who have found a good balance between their social and
academic lives manage to balance these activities well. Alternatively, it might be the case that
students who enjoy high levels of social adjustment are enjoying their social lives too much to
put in long hours of private study, attend classes, or focus on developing their study skills.
Part of the problem here is that two different students may use different criteria to assess their
level of social adjustment. A good balance might be the key for one individual, while another
might judge that having „a good time‟ on a regular basis, even to the detriment of their
studies, is the major factor.

In fact, a statistically significant relationship between good social adjustment and
disagreement with the „minimum work‟ item emerged. Students who report doing the
minimum work required of them are also likely to report that they felt poorer social
adjustment at university, while students who report that they do more than the minimum tend
to report that they feel better adjusted socially. This may indicate that they have managed to
integrate their social and academic hours, and through this their social and academic
identities. If they have friends among their course-mates then they are likely to count class
time as time which builds their social satisfaction. If their subject of study is part of the
identity which they present in different social situations, then this implies a level of
confidence with their whole life at university.

However, responses to the item „in general, the lecturers on my course were approachable‟
were more complex. Students who strongly agreed or strongly disagreed with the „minimum
work‟ item were significantly more likely to state that they had found their lecturers
approachable. It is not surprising that students who believe themselves to be very hard-
working are confident in approaching their lecturers, but one might expect students who
freely admit their strategic approach to be more diffident. In fact, students who agree or
strongly agree with the minimum work item are more likely neither to agree or disagree with
the „approachable lecturers‟ item; only 3.4% disagree (i.e. indicate that they found the
lecturers unapproachable). This compares with 26.9% of students who strongly disagreed or
disagreed with the „minimum work‟ item, and who find lecturers unapproachable. Most of
these students disagree rather than strongly disagree with the „minimum work‟ item.

There are various possible explanations here. For some students who work hard, this may be
partly motivated by a lack of academic self-confidence (see Section 12 below on the
motivating effect of „fear of failure). These students may enjoy their subject and willingly
work hard, but also feel that they need to do so because they are „not quite good enough‟ to
succeed. This might also translate to a nervousness around tutors. Students who feel that they
can get by on the minimum may believe this partly because of a generally high level of self-
confidence, which will help them to feel ease around academic staff. The small number of
programmes from which students were drawn makes it unlikely that variations in academic
staff practice lead to the discrepancies.




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6:4     Expectations and study behaviours

Study behaviour will almost certainly relate to students‟ preparation for university. If students
arrive with accurate expectations about the kinds of activities they will have to undertake to
succeed at university, it should be easier for them to fall into a routine which includes these.

No significant relationship emerges between expectations of the academic demands of the
course and attendance patterns, private study hours or responses to the „minimum work‟ item.
The vast majority (83%) of students who strongly disagree with the „minimum work‟ item
state that their expectations of the academic demands of their course turned out to be „very
accurate‟ or accurate. However, this correlation is not statistically significant, and no other
strong patterns emerge.

Expectations of workload and actual hours of private study or attendance do not appear to be
related. However, students who disagree or strongly disagree with the „minimum work‟ item
tend report significantly more accurate expectations of the sort of study habit which will be
required at university, and also of course content and the need to be an independent learner.
While the value of indicating actual workloads can be demonstrated on other grounds, it
appears that fostering accurate expectations of styles of work is also crucial.

Levels of attendance are significantly related to expectations about course content, with good
attenders having more accurate expectations than students with poor or mixed attendance.
Similarly, expectations about study habits are significantly related to levels of attendance,
with over 90% of students who attend well stating that their expectations in this area were
accurate, compared to 62.5% of those with mixed attendance and 50% of poor attenders.




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6:5     Attitudes to university and study behaviours

Students were asked to respond to items which related to their levels of interest in the course,
their attitudes to the „value‟ of studying and academic orientation, and their overall sense of
„belonging‟ and enjoyment at the end of their first year.

Once again, a cluster of responses emerged which indicated that students disagree or strongly
disagree with the „minimum work‟ item and attend who regularly are significantly more likely
to report attitudes towards their course which suggest an academic orientation. Although the
responses to these items do not reach statistical significance, they are less likely to state that
they only want to study topics which they believe will be relevant to their future careers. In
addition, they are less likely to agree or strongly agree with the statement „I often find my
course boring but will stick with it because I want a good job‟. Longer hours of private study
and attendance at classes, therefore, seem to be more likely among students who actually
enjoy their course than those who are engaging in these activities simply to get through and
enjoy some future reward.

This is backed up by the statistically significant relationship which emerges between
agreement or strong agreement with the „intellectual satisfaction‟ item („I get satisfaction
from meeting intellectual challenges and pushing my limits‟) and disagreement or strong
disagreement with the 'minimum work' item. This suggests that students who state that they
work harder and who attend more regularly tend to be less instrumental and to have a stronger
academic motivation. Interestingly, instrumentality at the point of entering HE does not seem
to be related to poor study habits. The correlation only emerges once students are at
university.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, students who disagree or strongly disagree with the 'minimum work'
item report significantly higher levels of interest in their course. Here, strength of
disagreement with the 'minimum work' item relates to strength of agreement with the interest
item. All of the students who strongly disagree state agree or strongly agree that they have
found their course very interesting, with the majority strongly agreeing; 70% of those who
disagree with the 'minimum work' item agree or strongly agree with the interest item, but the
majority of these students fall into the agree category. As noted above, overall levels of
interest among the sample of students are high. Even so, only 46.2% of students who agree or
strongly agree with the 'minimum work' item agree or strongly agree with the interest item.
Again, it is not possible to discover on the basis of this data whether interest forms study
behaviours or vice versa. However, the two are clearly related.

Students who report a high level of interest in the course are significantly more likely to
disagree or strongly disagree with the 'minimum work' item.

Students who disagree or strongly disagree with the 'minimum work' item are also
significantly more likely to agree or strongly agree with the „belonging‟ item („I feel that I
really belong at university), and with the „enjoyment‟ item („Overall, I have really enjoyed
my studies at the University of Northumbria‟). Once again, only a small proportion of
students (if any) who commit themselves to high levels of attendance and to a reasonable
amount of private study appear to regard this as a chore. This is extremely encouraging.




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Section Seven:          Student expectations

7:1     Expectations of academic demands

The students in this study are drawn from a small number of academic programmes, but
report a relatively high diversity of experience. To what extent can this be attributed to their
different expectations of university, and to what extent might managing student expectations
help to improve student experiences once they arrive?

Overall, as noted above, student expectations help form the parts of the student experience
over which they have control, their study behaviours. The findings of this project suggest that
their assessment of less tangible elements is also influenced by their preparation for
university. The findings reported above indicate the general level of preparation felt by
students. Overall, this was reasonably good but the vast majority of positive responses fell
within the „quite accurate‟ rather than the „very accurate‟ category. There are definitely areas
where students could receive more guidance about what they will encounter in HE. Workload,
academic demands, teaching methods, academic support and contact time with staff all
emerge as important.

Expectations relating to academic demands are significantly related to academic adjustment.
Again, the direction of causality is uncertain. It may actually be easier to adjust to academic
demands if one has anticipated them accurately. Alternatively, students who bother to find out
something about their course may be more likely to make the effort to adjust (hard work and
adjustment are also related). Or with hindsight, students who adjust well may over-estimate
their levels of preparation. Whatever the reason, reports of accurate expectations are likely to
be accompanied by good adjustment. Students who strongly agree with the „adjustment‟ item
are more likely to report that their expectations were „very accurate‟ than „quite accurate‟.
Students who agree with the adjustment item are more likely to report „quite accurate‟
expectations.

Correlations which just miss statistical significance also emerge between finding that
academic demands are as expected or easier and agreement with the adjustment items relating
to time management skills, consistent working habits and grasp of the course rationale
(surprisingly, responses to the „independent working‟ item are involved). Again, students
whose expectations about academic demands were accurate and students who find the
academic demands of their course easier than expected give similar responses. Those who
find that the demands are easier than expected show stronger agreement with these adjustment
items.

The accuracy of expectations and the content of a student‟s preparation may give them a
„head start‟ in developing useful study skills. Alternatively, it may be that students who find
that they have estimated the demands accurately or who actually find university work easier
than they had expected gain confidence from this. Such a boost to their assurance will
effectively remove a level of anxiety from their adjustment to higher education, and perhaps
make it easier to focus on the course. In addition, as seen from the very high number of
students who agree that knowing „how they are doing‟ is a motivating factor, feeling that one
is doing well by comparison with one‟s expectations will build student motivation.

Another set of close but not statistically significant correlations emerge between responses to
the „expectations of academic demands‟ item and expectations of course content, teaching
methods and amount of academic support. Students with accurate expectations of academic
demands, or who found these easier than expected, are more accurate throughout, while
students who found the academic demands of their course more difficult than expected are
likely to have had mistaken expectations in all of the latter areas.



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Course content, teaching methods and the quantity of academic support are all fairly concrete
issues which can be researched through open days, the use of prospectuses and/or discussion
with people who have experience of higher education. They are likely to be examined by
students who take some time to find out about courses for themselves and to choose a course
on the basis of a lot of information. Where students are pointed towards courses by teachers,
parents or advisers, these practical matters may not be given a great deal of consideration. In
the School of Informatics study, students who had chosen their course on the basis of advice
of this sort stated that they tended to receive more general advice along the lines of „this
course will be great for you‟, rather than „you will do these things if you take this course –
would you be happy learning this/like this?‟.

A rather surprising finding from the above data is the positive experiences among students
who find that they have overestimated the academic demands of their course, and that it is
actually easier for them than they had expected. Rather than finding that the course is „more
boring‟ or „much more boring‟ than they had expected, these students are likely to find it
more interesting than they had expected. Confidence may again be the key issue here.
Students who experience low levels of anxiety about their academic work are more likely to
engage with its content and find it interesting.

These students display a different set of attitudes from those expressed by students who find
that the course is more difficult than they had expected. They are significantly more likely to
disagree or strongly disagree with the item „I only want to study topics which I believe are
relevant to my career‟, and more likely to state that they are „keen to learn about new aspects
of [their] subject and explore new areas‟ (100% of these students agree or strongly agree, as
opposed to two-thirds of students who found the academic demands harder than they had
expected). In addition, they are slightly more likely to agree or strongly agree with the
„intellectual satisfaction‟ item.

Responses to one other item indicate that there may be a relationship between confidence,
working habits and finding that the course is easier than expected. Students who encounter
lower academic demands than they expected go against the general trend of agreement with
the item „I believe that inherent ability is the most important factor in success at university‟.
More than half of these students disagree or strongly disagree with this item, while among
students who found the academic demands of their course as they expected or harder than
they expected, only 20% disagree or strongly disagree. These students, based on their
experience, may attribute their ease with their studies at least in part to their own efforts.

No relationship was found between expectations of academic demands and students‟
assessment of the quality of preparation for higher education offered by their school or
college.




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7:2     Expectations of workload

Students who anticipate the workload of their course accurately are statistically more likely to
judge that the workload imposed on them in their first year was „about right‟. Those who find
that it is lighter than expected tend to agree with them, but are more likely than those who
anticipated accurately to state that they thought it was „too light‟. Students who find that they
are required to do more work than they expected are also more likely to judge that the
workload is „too heavy‟. Not surprisingly, judgements about the level of workload relate less
to what students are actually required to do (there are no correlations between workload
judgement and course) and more to how actual demands relate to their expectations.

Accurate expectations about academic demands are significantly related to accurate
expectations about workload. However, very few significant correlations with other areas of
expectation emerge, although there are a handful of nonsignificant relationships. Students
who find that the workload is lighter than expected are more likely to find that the rationale
for course content was easy to understand, and students who find that the workload is more
difficult tan expected are more likely to find it difficult. Finding the workload lighter than
expected relates to under-estimating the amount of academic support which will be available,
and students who find the workload lighter than expected are also more likely to have had
accurate expectations of the study habits which would be required at university. This may
indicate that they study more effectively, rather than for less time. Non-significant but regular
correlations are also found between accurate expectations and over-estimations of workload
and accurate expectations about course content and about the need to be an independent
learner. These effects are all small; with a larger sample of students they might have reached
significance, however.

Like students who over-estimated the academic demands of their course, students who over-
estimate workload are more likely to show an academic orientation, and to disagree with the
statement that inherent ability is the greatest determinant of success at university.

Workload expectations once again seem to relate to levels of interest. Students who under-
estimated the workload which they would encounter have high levels of agreement with the
item „in general, I found my course very interesting‟ (81.3%), and are more likely to state that
they strongly agree. However, students who find the workload heavier than expected are also
more likely than those who find the workload as they expected to agree or strongly agree with
the „course interest‟ item (73.7%). By contrast, only 44% of students who find workload as
they expected agree or strongly agree with this item.

The only really important finding here seems to be the relationship between perception of
workload and expectations of workload. This should be considered if student opinions
regarding their workloads are sought; the information gathered may be more useful as an
indication of what they were expecting than of what they are actually being asked to do.




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7:3     Other expectations

When a range of comparisons between expectations and experience are considered, it
becomes clear that these are strongly related. Managing student expectations should,
therefore, contribute significantly to student adjustment. The relatively high levels of response
stating that expectations were „quite accurate‟ rather than „very accurate‟ suggests that while
many students achieve some level of accuracy, there is room for improvement in this area.

Expectations about course content are significantly related to responses to the „course content
rationale‟ item. All of the students who strongly agree with the statement „It is easy to
understand the rationale behind the content of my course‟ report accurate or very accurate
expectations of course content. 67.7% of those who agree with this item report accurate
expectations, compared with only 58% of those who neither agree nor disagree. Among
students who disagree or strongly disagree with the „course content rationale‟ item, 71.4%
state that their expectations about course content were mistaken or very mistaken.

Expectations about academic staff and experience of staff approachability do not show any
correlations. However, students who estimate the amount of contact with individual staff
accurately are more likely to agree or strongly agree that staff are approachable.

Students who neither agree nor disagree with the „staff approachability‟ item tend to have had
expectations which were too high (54.5%) or much too high (9.1%), and among students who
disagree with the „staff approachability‟ item (i.e. who feel that staff are not approachable) are
likely to have made an estimate of the amount of contact with staff which was much too high.
45.2% fall into this category, and 18.2% had expectations which were „too high‟ about the
amount of contact. These findings are statistically significant.

Expectations of the amount of academic support also relate significantly to responses to the
„staff approachability‟ item. Students who strongly agree with this latter are likely to have had
accurate (62.5%) expectations about the amount of academic support, or to have expected less
than they in fact encountered (37.5%). Students who agree with this item are less often
accurate (58.8%); roughly similar numbers over- and under-estimate levels of academic
support. Students who neither agree nor disagree are accurate in 45.5% of cases, with just
over a third anticipating more support than they found. Students who disagree with the „staff
approachability‟ item are more likely to have over-estimated amounts of academic support.

Students who find lecturers approachable also show significantly more accurate expectations
about the need to be an independent learner.

Students may assess the extent to which their lecturers are „approachable‟ on the basis of the
amount of academic support which they find available, possibly in response to individual
attempts to source this. General beliefs about lecturers are irrelevant, but academic
interactions form students‟ „social‟ attitudes to their lecturers. Much discussion of
staff/student relations focuses on the extent to which tutors seem „to care‟ or „to be
approachable‟. It is helpful to learn that perceptions of this relate to academic interactions as
well as (more than?) to the more problematic factors of tutor „personalities‟ and apparent
levels of „really caring‟ about their students.

Expectations about levels of academic support are also significantly related to students‟
responses to the item „In general, the lecturers on my course were good at explaining things‟.
Students who assess their lecturers as good at explaining are more likely to have had accurate
expectations about the amount of academic support they will encounter. Expectations about
academic staff are significantly related to students‟ responses to the „lecturers are good at
explaining‟ item, but expectations about the amount of staff contact time are not. Here, it



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seems that accessibility is not an issue. The extent to which students expect their learning to
be supported forms their attitude to the support they get.

Expectations relating to the above factors also show correlations which do not quite reach
statistical significance with responses to the item „In general, the lecturers stimulated my
interest in the subject‟.

Expectations about the need to be an independent learner and adjustment to independent
learning practices are related. There is a significant correlation between responses to the
relevant items, with students who have accurate expectations about the need to be an
independent learner showing better adjustment in this area of study skills. Students who have
accurate expectations about academic support and levels of contact with academic staff are
also more likely to adjust well to independent learning. In addition, accurate expectations
around academic support and the need to be an independent learner are significantly related to
good time management skills.

Students were also asked to judge whether they felt that students are expected to become
independent learners „too quickly‟ during their first year. Once again, a statistically
significant relationship was found between individual reported experience and attitudes to the
general question. Students who found that their expectations about the need to be an
independent learner had been accurate were significantly less likely to agree (44.7%) with the
item „students are expected to become independent learners too quickly‟ than students whose
own expectations of the need to be an independent learner turned out to have been inaccurate
(64.7%). Responses to this item were also related to general expectations of study habits,
academic staff and teaching methods.




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Section Eight:           Motivation

8:1     Study behaviours and motivation

This section will not include an attempt to define student motivation. As the literature
reviewed in 2:5 demonstrates, to do so would require considerably more space and a rather
different sort of primary data. However, some of its manifestations in student attitudes and
behaviours will be discussed, in order to build up a picture of the behaviours and attitudes of
the „motivated‟ student.

Students were asked at three points to indicate their level of „motivation‟. They were offered
„low motivation‟ as an option to explain poor attendance or low private study, and they were
asked to respond to the item „I often found it difficult to get motivated to work on my course‟.
Although strong agreement with this item was rare, 46.2% agreed; in total, more than half the
students surveyed feel that they often feel unmotivated. Only 20% expressed disagreement
with this item. In practice, no student who agreed or strongly agreed with the general item on
motivation stated in the previous sections on attendance and private study that a lack of
motivation affected their behaviours. In this summary, therefore, I concentrate primarily on
the general item.

That these related to motivation is demonstrated by the strong significant relationship
between responses to the 'minimum work' item and responses the 'often lack motivation' item.
Unmotivated students state that they are likely to do only the minimum amount of work, and
also report a lower average number of private study hours. Attendance is also significantly
related to motivation levels; in fact, over 90% of students who disagree or strongly disagree
with the 'often lack motivation' item are in the „good attendance‟ category, and those who fall
below 75% attendance at any point are likely to cite „personal or medical problems‟ as the
reason for this. Motivation and study behaviours are clearly very closely related. Unmotivated
students, therefore, are at real risk of failure due to their approach to their studies.


8:2     Motivation and satisfaction

It is not possible to determine whether motivation leads to satisfaction with one‟s course, or
whether satisfaction builds motivation. On the evidence of the literature survey, it is possible
that the process works both ways. Whatever the direction of causality, however, a strong
relationship between the two emerges. It is reasonable to suggest that measures to boost
student motivation might well also boost their satisfaction.

A significant relationship is found between responses to the 'often lack motivation' item and
the item „In general, I found my course very interesting‟. All of the students who disagree or
strongly disagree with the 'often lack motivation' item agree or strongly agree with the
„interest‟ item. As noted above, overall levels of interest among these students are very high,
but less motivated students also report a lower overall level of interest. Students who disagree
or strongly disagree with the „interest‟ item all agree or strongly agree with the 'often lack
motivation' item item.

In addition, motivated students are significantly more likely than others to find the course
more interesting than they had expected. Just over half (53.8%) state that this is the case, and
almost all the rest find it about as interesting as they expected. Very few find it duller.
Students who neither agree nor disagree with the 'often lack motivation' item often find the
course more interesting than they had anticipated (47.6%), but students who agree with the
'often lack motivation' item are considerably more likely to find it more boring than they had
expected. Almost a third state that this is the case, while just 17.6% state that they find it more
interesting.


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As well as interest, overall enjoyment relates significantly to motivation. Here again, general
levels of enjoyment are high. Among students who state that they enjoyed their studies in the
first year, 39.1% agree/strongly agree with the 'often lack motivation' item, and only 28.3%
disagree or strongly disagree. However, this is because the vast majority of students agree
with the enjoyment item. Students who disagree or strongly disagree with the „enjoyment‟
item are much more likely to report low motivation, while students who strongly agree with
the „enjoyment‟ item are more likely to disagree or strongly disagree with the 'often lack
motivation' item.


8:3     Sources of motivation

There is a statistically significant relationship between responses to the general „motivation‟
item and to the item „I often find my course boring but will stick with it because I want a
good job‟. Students who agree with the „often lack motivation‟ item are significantly more
likely to agree with the latter item, as are students who neither agree nor disagree with the
'often lack motivation' item. For many unmotivated students, „future motivation‟ and
instrumental aims are important. However, these do not seem to translate into the day-to-day
motivation which would help students to attend and engage in private study on a regular
basis.

No significant relationship emerged between responses to the 'often lack motivation' item and
„I only want to study topics which I believe to be relevant to my career‟, or with the general
academic orientation items. However, students who report higher levels of motivation are
slightly more likely to disagree with the former and agree with the latter.

The vast majority of students agree/strongly agree with the item „I need to know how I am
doing to feel motivated to work‟. However, strength of agreement is significantly related to
responses to the 'often lack motivation' item. Students who strongly disagree with the latter
are less likely than students who agree/strongly agree or neither agree nor disagree to feel that
updates on their progress are important to their ongoing motivation. For students who
consider themselves motivated, therefore, formative feedback would be welcome but it does
not seem to be the only or the primary source of their motivation.

Students who disagree or strongly disagree with the 'often lack motivation' item are
significantly more likely to commit to an answer to the item „inherent ability is the most
important factor in success at university‟. This item elicited a very high number of „neither
agree nor disagree‟ responses. However, only 30% of students who report high levels of
motivation stated that they neither agree nor disagree, compared with over 50% of other
students. These highly motivated students are slightly more likely to agree with the statement
than to disagree with it.

The most useful finding from this discussion may relate to the confidence which these
students bring to their studies; if they believe that they have the ability to do well, they will
approach their work with lowered anxiety, and possibly also more assurance to engage in
independent study. However, the levels of agreement are not really high enough to offer this
as a blanket explanation. Perhaps the pattern of responses actually relates more to the overall
intellectual engagement of these students. They are prepared to take a moment to think about
a provocative statement towards which they may not already have formed a response, and to
come up with a positive conclusion one way or the other. Students with a lower level of
general interest in abstract questions (relating to lower academic orientation, and hence lower
engagement with their university studies) prefer simply to „play it safe‟ intellectually.




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8:4     Motivation and adjustment

Responses to many of the adjustment measures discussed above show a significant
relationship with responses to the motivation items. There is a strong significant relationship
between motivation and academic adjustment, with 50% of students who strongly agree with
the „academic adjustment‟ item agreeing/strongly agreeing with the 'often lack motivation'
item (all of the students who disagree or strongly disagree with the 'often lack motivation'
item agree or strongly agree with the „academic adjustment‟ item). None of the students who
neither agree nor disagree or disagree with the „academic adjustment‟ item disagree or
strongly disagree with the 'often lack motivation' item.

84.6% of students who disagree or strongly disagree with the 'often lack motivation' item
report that they find the academic demands of their course „about right‟, and the rest report
that they are „too easy‟. None find the demands „too hard‟. 29.4% of students who agree or
strongly agree with the 'often lack motivation' item, however, find the academic demands of
their course „too difficult‟, and none find them „too easy‟ (although almost two-thirds find
them „about right‟). Excessive challenge does not seem to motivate students; appropriate
challenge, however, does.

Highly motivated students are significantly more likely to report that they have developed
good time-management and independent working skills, although a fair number of students
who agree or strongly agree with the 'often lack motivation' item also claim to have acquired
these. A significant correlation emerges between grasping course rationale and motivation,
and also between motivation and consistent working habits. The latter is particularly strong,
with 92.3% of students who disagree or strongly disagree with the 'often lack motivation' item
agreeing or strongly agreeing with the „consistent work‟ item, and only 21.2% of students
who agree or strongly agree with the 'often lack motivation' item agreeing that they work
consistently. Motivation seems to be related to good overall adjustment to both the abstract
and the practical aspects of life in higher education.

One interesting factor in all of the above relationships is the position of the students who
neither agree nor disagree with the 'often lack motivation' item. In general, their level of
agreement with the adjustment item lies fairly evenly between that of the „motivated‟ and the
„unmotivated‟ students (these categories based on their response to the 'often lack motivation'
item). It does appear that students who neither agree nor disagree with the 'often lack
motivation' item are actually ambivalent about their motivational levels, because they report
behaviour and adjustment levels which are „worse‟ than those of highly motivated students
but „better‟ than those of students who admit openly to a lack of motivation. This group might
well have agreed strongly with an item worded along the lines of „I sometimes lack
motivation…‟ or „I sometimes feel quite motivated…‟.

The academic adjustment levels of highly motivated students are not surprising. A slightly
more complex picture emerges when responses to the 'often lack motivation' item are
compared with responses to the „social adjustment‟ item. Poor social adjustment and low
motivation are significantly related, and 92.3% of students who disagree or strongly disagree
with the 'often lack motivation' item agree/strongly agree with the „social adjustment‟ item.
However, students who report high levels of social adjustment are also more likely to report
low motivation when it comes to their studies. This may reflect the two possible kinds of
social adjustment discussed above. For some students, a good balance between work and
study constitutes „good adjustment‟, while for others a thorough enjoyment, or higher
prioritisation, of social life may go with low commitment to academic work.




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8:5     Motivation and entry decisions

Do the reasons which motivate students to enter higher education in the first place relate in
any way to their feelings of motivation once they are at university? The data examined here
suggests that several significant relationships exist, and that the kind of engagement achieved
by an institution with students prior to their entry decision could make an important
difference to their motivation once they are at university.

As before, by far the most important relationship is between subject interest as a motivation to
enter HE (as opposed to a particular course once the HE entry decision has been taken) and
this particular variable relating to behaviour once at university. Students who agree that they
decided to go to university in the first place because of interest in a particular subject show
significantly higher levels of disagreement/strong disagreement with the 'often lack
motivation' item (34% as opposed to 3.4%). Almost all of the students who disagree or
strongly disagree with the 'often lack motivation' item state that this was an important factor
in their decision to go to university, as opposed to 51% of students who neither agree nor
disagree or agree/strongly agree with the 'often lack motivation' item.

There is some relationship between response to the 'often lack motivation' item and an
expression of subject interest at the point of course choice, but this is not significant. All of
the highly motivated students, not surprisingly, state that subject interest motivated their
course choice. However, because such a high number of students agree with „subject interest‟
at the point of course choice, a number of students in this category also report lower
motivation.

University reputation, which emerged as important in relation to study behaviours, is also
significantly related to motivation. Students who agree that the reputation of the University of
Northumbria was important in their decision about where to study show a higher level of
motivation (35% disagree or strongly disagree with the 'often lack motivation' item) than
students who did not find this factor important (only 10.5% disagree or strongly disagree with
the 'often lack motivation' item). Among students who do not agree with the „University of
Northumbria reputation‟ item, double the number report low motivation as report high
motivation. Institutional commitment at this very early stage seems important in forming
motivation.

One further correlation emerges, although again this does not reach statistical significance.
Students who state that they entered university because they wished to „train for a particular
kind of job‟ show slightly lower motivation whether this is stated as being important at the
HE entry decision or at the point of course choice.

None of the „instrumental‟ reasons for university entry related to low motivation, unless it is
accompanied by a lack of subject interest at the point of HE entry. In addition, the „non-
academic‟ reasons for HE entry (a wish to leave home or stay at home, the reputation of the
city) are not related to responses to the 'often lack motivation' item unless they are
accompanied by a lack of subject interest at the point of HE entry.




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Section Nine: Demographic factors

9:1     Sex

A surprising number of sex differences emerged from the data. While many of these do not
relate directly to the categories discussed above, they will undoubtedly be relevant to the
student experience, and probably also to underlying patterns of satisfaction and withdrawal.
Discussing gender can be difficult at a time when many people believe that inequalities have
largely been addressed, and when a popular science discourse of „inherent differences‟ is
fashionable. However, this is precisely when it is important for staff to be aware of subtle
contrasts which may shape experiences and inform classroom behaviours.

A great many of the observed sex differences can be grouped under the heading of
„confidence‟, with male students expressing higher levels than women. The extent to which
women‟s answers revealed higher levels of uncertainty was remarkable. Some of this affect is
certainly due to the presence of computing students in the sample; ICT is notorious for male
domination and consequent insecurity among some female students. However, the students
surveyed have all overcome at least some of the gender bias surrounding their subject, and
successfully completed a first year at university. Moreover, large differences did not emerge
between the women on the Informatics courses and those studying in NBS. The effects
observed, therefore, may be widespread among female students across the university.

It should be made very clear at this stage are not meant in any way to suggest that the
University of Northumbria is in any way failing its female students. A similar range of
responses would probably be found in a survey of sixth formers, or of first year students at
any institution; the problems which underlie them are widely-recognised social trends, and
not the workings of this particular university or of any one department within it. A university
which addresses these difficulties, however, is in a position to „get ahead of the game‟ on
gender issues, and to help its women students to do the same.

In applying to university, women students seem at least tacitly aware that the earnings
differential between graduates and non-graduates is still disproportionately greater for women
than for men. Job prospects, important to both sexes, are named as a reason for HE entry by
nearly all the women, but just over three-quarters of men.

Women who do not do the required amount of private study are significantly less likely than
men to state that this is because they feel confident in their understanding of the course. Just
18.8% of women students who do not comply with their tutors‟ advice state this reason, as
opposed to 44.4% of non-complying men.

Overall, however, it is social rather than academic confidence which women lack. When
indicating reasons for not attending classes, far more women state that they find relations with
other students hard (45.5% of poor/mixed attenders who are female, as opposed to 5.9% of
those who are male), or that they do not attend because they find their tutors unapproachable
(81.8% of poor/mixed attenders who are female, as opposed to 11.8% of those who are male).
Women are significantly more likely to find lecturers less approachable in general: 36%
disagree or strongly disagree with the item „in general, the lecturers on my course were
approachable‟ as opposed to 7.5% of men. They also show lower levels of satisfaction with
the teaching: 60% of women agree/strongly agree with the item „in general, the lecturers on
my course were good at explaining things‟ as opposed to 75% of men.

Women also tend to worry more than do men about financial difficulties (68% agree or
strongly agree with the item „I sometimes felt pressurised by financial worries‟, as opposed to
48% of men; only 12% of women disagreed, as opposed to 30% of men). And although
women report similar levels of social adjustment to men, they are more likely to find that


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making friends is harder than they had expected. 44% state that this is the case, as opposed to
17.5% of men, although rather more encouragingly, men are more likely to find that making
friends is about as easy as they had expected, and around a third of both men and women find
that it is easier.

Although around the same number of men and women find the course harder than expected,
25% of men and no women find it easier (64% of women and 42.5% of men find it about as
expected). A facile response to this might be to suggest that this relates to differences in
ability; a wiser one would point to the lower levels of confidence among women, and suggest
that they are considerably more likely to expect their course to be difficult than are men, and
to underestimate their ability to handle it.

Yet female students show higher levels of adjustment in several categories. Overall, women
are more likely to agree that they have adjusted well to the academic demands of their course
(84% as opposed to just over 50% of men). This may relate to their high level of realistic
expectations regarding these. They have significantly more realistic expectations than men
about the need to be an independent learner, and report better adjustment to independent
working patterns (84% feel that they have adjusted well, as opposed to 53.8% of men, and
only 4% feel that they have not adjusted, as opposed to 23.1% of men). A noticeable, but non-
significant correlation is found between responses to the „academic orientation‟ items, with
100% of women agreeing or strongly agreeing with these as opposed to 75% of men. Women
also show slightly lower levels of agreement with the 'minimum work' item, and higher levels
of agreement with the „interest‟ item.

Despite their lack of confidence, women show rather higher satisfaction than men when
interest in their subject is examined. They are significantly more likely to find their course
more interesting than they had expected: 44% state that this is the case, as opposed to just
17.5% of men. This may well be because of women‟s higher anxiety prior to entry. Women
also express higher levels of interest overall, with just over three quarters agreeing or agreeing
strongly with the general „interest‟ item, as opposed to just over half of the men, and only 4%
disagreeing with this, as opposed to one quarter of the men.

Their lack of confidence may have something to do with their beliefs about ability. No
women at all disagree with the „inherent ability‟ item, and 44% agree. 35% of men agree, but
22.5% disagree. If women lack confidence in the first place, it may prove very difficult to
help them acquire it.




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9:2      Generation

Overall, first-generation students (those with two non-graduate parents13) provide responses
to a handful of questionnaire items which indicate slightly higher academic orientation. The
important „subject interest at HE entry‟ item was found significantly more often among first
generation (65%) than second generation students (39.1%). First generation students were
also slightly more likely to name this factor at the point of course choice (87.2% as opposed
to 73.9%), although in the latter case the difference was not statistically significant.

Second generation students are significantly more likely than first-generation students to state
that the wishes of their family were important in their decision to enter HE. 50% of second-
generation students, as opposed to 15% of first-generation students, agree with the item „my
family wanted me to go to university‟. This does not necessarily mean that first generation
students do not have families who want them to go to university, or who support their
decision to do so. It could be that they are less likely to feel that their family‟s wishes have
prevailed in their eventual decision. Second generation students appear to be in greater danger
of „reactive entry‟ to HE.

Another significant correlation suggests that first-generation students are less likely to have
entered „reactively‟. First-generation students with older siblings are significantly less likely
than second generation students with older siblings to state that those siblings themselves
have entered HE. Only 22.9% of first-generation students with older siblings state that they
went to university, compared to 85.7% of second-generation students with older siblings. It
appears that for many families where neither parents is a graduate, going on to tertiary
education is not a „natural progression‟ for all of the children (no such correlation is found
with parental occupation). This may go some way towards explaining the slightly higher
levels of academic orientation and subject interest among first-generation students14.

There are also clear differences between the study behaviours of students who state that their
older siblings went to university and students who state that their older siblings did not. The
former group are significantly more likely to agree or strongly agree with the „low
motivation‟ and „minimum work‟ items, to be non-committal about their time-management
skills and to disagree with the „consistent work‟ item.

First generation students show slightly higher levels of disagreement or strong disagreement
with the 'minimum work' item (46.3% as opposed to 30%), although this is not statistically
significant. When generational classification is broken down, students with graduate fathers
turn out to show significantly higher levels of agreement or strong agreement with the
'minimum work' item. One third agree or strongly agree, as opposed to only just over a third
of students with non-graduate fathers.

In addition, 38.3% of the children of non-graduate fathers disagree or strongly disagree with
the 'minimum work' item as opposed to 8.3% of the children of graduate fathers. First
generation students report better levels of adjustment to independent study, but slightly worse
time-management skills (neither of these quite reaches statistical significance).

13
    Students were asked to indicate the graduate status and occupation of both parents, and the
overwhelming majority did respond for both their father and their mother. It is unlikely that all of the
„couples‟ described by students in their responses to the questionnaire are still living together in the
parental home, and students were not required to specify whether they referred to a step-parent or a
biological parent. It is assumed that in most cases they will have referred to the latter, but some may
have chosen to refer to the one who has been a greater presence in their life. Given the nature of the
research, this is not a problem.
14
   Students whose older siblings did go to university are more likely to state that family wishes were
important in their decision to go to university than those whose older siblings did not, although this
correlation is not statistically significant.

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However, second generation students do show the expected advantage when it comes to
accuracy of expectations (presumably gleaned from their graduate parents). First generation
students report less accuracy in anticipating the academic demands of the course, with 31.7%
(as opposed to no second generation students) finding it harder than expected. They are also
less accurate in estimating workload. Another noticeable but non-significant correlation
between the judgement of lecturers‟ „approachability‟ emerges, with 26.8% first generation
students disagreeing with the „approachable lecturers‟ item as opposed to 4.3% of second
generation. Only very slightly more second generation students agree or strongly agree with
this item; the difference is in the number who neither agree nor disagree.

Most importantly, first generation students are less likely to feel that school or college has
prepared them well for university. Just 34.1% agree with this item, as opposed to 60.9% of
second generation students, and 31.7% disagree, as opposed to 8.7% of their second
generation peers. It is possible that here, students are responding to the quality of preparation
which they have received from all sources as opposed to just from their schools or colleges.

Despite some of the views expressed about the unsuitability for higher education of „non-
traditional‟ students (LS1, 43), the first-generation students surveyed here appear to be just as
likely to succeed in HE as their second-generation peers. In relation to some of the factors
which are beyond their control they are slightly weaker, but they make up for this with higher
levels of academic orientation in other areas. The very positive attitudes found towards non-
traditional students among the academic staff interviewed seem to be borne out by this
evidence.

It is possible that this pattern of responses from first- and second-generation students is
characteristic of a prestigious post-1992 institution. A new university which is perceived as a
„good‟ one may well attract the more academically oriented of the first-generation students
along with some of the less academically oriented of the second generation. Non-traditional
students who are nervous about applying to an „old‟ university such as Newcastle, for
academic or (more likely) social reasons, may well choose an institution which they perceive
as being „friendlier‟ and more welcoming to „people like them‟, while still offering high
standards and a recognisable higher education experience in terms of things like tutor contact,
research profile, range of courses and teaching methods. Second-generation students whose
family want them to go to university may be encouraged to apply to a new university with a
high reputation in a city where there is a strong „student life‟15. It would be interesting to
examine data from similar institutions, in particular those which are located in the same city
as a prestigious „old university‟ and where other nearby „new universities‟ have lower
reputations among potential applicants (whether these are deserved or not).




15
   A tutor described a conversation with one of her middle-class second generation students. According
to this student, his parents would tell their friends that their son was „at university in Newcastle‟ rather
than „at Northumbria University‟. In his opinion, this was because they were embarrassed that he had
chosen a post-1992 institution (in his case, because the University of Northumbria offered the course
which most closely fitted his interests) rather than a pre-1992 one.

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9:3     Social class based on occupation

There is a significant relationship between the social class based on occupation of students‟
parents and student generation. This is not at all surprising, because occupation is often
dependent on educational attainment. A few relationships between questionnaire responses
and social class of the parental home do emerge, but for the most part these are not
significant.

One which does achieve statistical significance is the number of hours of private study time
reported. Because student numbers are relatively small, the reliability of these figures is not
absolute. However, students with family backgrounds which are „professional or higher
managerial‟, semi-skilled or unskilled/routine do report higher hours of private study than
students from „lower managerial/associate professsional‟, „skilled non-manual‟ or „skilled
manual‟ backgrounds. The latter groups report study times between just under six and just
under seven hours each week, while the former report between eight and ten hours as an
average study time. The longest hours are reported by children of professional backgrounds
(around nine and three quarter hours) followed by children from semi-skilled backgrounds.
The shortest hours are found among students from skilled manual backgrounds.

There is a significant relationship between part-time work status and socio-occupational class
of parents. 34.8% of children from professional/higher managerial homes have part-time jobs,
but 80% of children from skilled manual or non-manual homes work, as do 69.2% of children
from semi-skilled and unskilled homes. This may relate to level of financial support which is
available from parents, or to the debt aversion of children with lower social class backgrounds
and/or lower family incomes (see the accompanying survey on students and money for a
discussion of class and attitudes to debt).

Some non-significant correlations emerge between stated reasons for non-attendance and for
low private study hours. The children of professional/higher managerial and lower managerial
homes report that low motivation and boredom are important factors for them; these are rarely
stated by the children of lower social class backgrounds. This may arise because the influence
of family wishes is also related to socio-occupational class of the parental home. As one
would expect, the importance of family wishes rises as class „falls‟. This relationship is
consistent but does not reach statistical significance; however, it is reasonable to conclude
that reactive entry may be a greater danger for the children of parents with a higher socio-
occupational classification. In addition, students from semi-skilled or unskilled backgrounds
are significantly more likely to agree that an enjoyment of studying and learning was
important in their decision to go to university. 75% of students from this class name this item,
but it is selected by less than half of the students from any other occupational background.




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9:4     Entry qualifications

So few students state that they hold any qualification other than A-levels as their main entry
requirement that it is difficult to attach much weight to findings based on this item. However,
there is some support for the view that students who hold vocational qualifications rather than
traditional A-levels have a less strong academic orientation. None of the students who hold
VCE or Diploma qualifications state that they comply with their tutors‟ instructions for
private study time (this effect just reaches statistical significance). In addition, these students
have a slightly lower average private-study period in each week.

There is some evidence from other studies that students with vocational qualifications
generally show poorer study habits, and national statistics on retention show considerably
higher rates of withdrawal among these student than those with A-levels. In the School of
Informatics study, there was a clear correlation between withdrawal and previous vocational
qualifications. This may be because more of the assessment for these courses is done through
closely supported coursework rather than independent work towards examinations or
dissertations. The latter will help students to develop study skills and habits which are useful
in HE, and students who have acquired at least some of these prior to entry are at a distinct
advantage. More vocationally qualified students will be entering university in the next few
years. It would be easier to support them if their previous academic experience, and the ways
in which it contrasts from that of traditionally-qualified entrants, is closely examined.




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9:5     Accommodation

This is the demographic factor which shows the strongest correlation with student behaviours,
adjustment and attitudes. The better levels of retention, integration and satisfaction found by
many researchers among students who live in university accommodation have been described
above. Very similar patterns are found here.

In the following discussion, I have concentrated on students who live at home (given the age
of the majority of this sample, this will usually be the parental home) and students who live in
University of Northumbria Halls of Residence. This accounts for the vast majority of those
surveyed; the numbers living in other types of accommodation are too small to produce
meaningful statistics.


9:5:1   Study behaviours and accommodation

Students who live in Halls of Residence report significantly better levels of attendance than
students who live at home. Among these students, 61.9% report good levels throughout the
year as opposed to 55.6% of students who live at home; fewer students living in Halls fall into
the „poor attendance‟ category. When they are asked about the reasons why they sometimes
fail to attend all their classes, they are significantly less likely to name long gaps between
classes as a reason (only 40% of students who live in Halls and sometimes miss classes name
this item, as opposed to 90% of students who live at home).

These figures are hardly surprising, especially when the location of the bulk of Northumbria‟s
accommodation is considered. The majority of students who live in Halls will have a five-
minute walk between their bedroom and their lectures, and where there is a gap between
timetabled sessions, even if this is as short as one hour, they can easily go home. By contrast,
students who live at home may find that they have nowhere to go between sessions. One
extraordinary finding in the School of Informatics project was that some students who live up
to an hour away from the campus will attempt to go to and from home if there are gaps
between their classes during the day. It was simply accepted by some students that going
home is „what you do‟, even if this meant that they spent more time travelling than they
actually did at home. Students who did go home between classes were prone to stay there, and
miss later classes.

These students are less likely to name „part-time work‟ as a reason either for missing classes
or for cutting down on private study time. As they are statistically less likely to have jobs, this
is precisely what would be expected. They are no more likely than students who live at home
to state that their social life gets in the way of either private study or attendance.

Students who live in Halls of Residence show an even lower rate of reported compliance with
tutors‟ advice about private study time (only 11.1% comply, as opposed to 26.3% of those
who live at home). However, the average private study time is almost identical for the two
groups, and their responses to the minimum work item are very similar.

These students may show a slightly lower level of academic orientation, but this is balanced
by the advantages of living in an environment where everyone is a student, and where simply
getting to the sites of their academic activities, such as timetabled sessions and the library, is
very easy.




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9:5:2   Entry and expectations

Students who live in University of Northumbria accommodation are significantly more likely
to state that they decided to enter university because they wanted to study a subject which
interested them (66.7% state this, as opposed to 55.6% of students living at home), and that
they wanted „train for a specific type of job‟ (52.4% as opposed to 14.8% of students living at
home). However, students who live at home are more likely to state that subject interest is
important for them at the point of course choice (92.3% as opposed to 76.2% of students
living in halls).

Not surprisingly, students living in Halls are considerably more likely to cite the reputation of
the university or the city as reasons for their decision to apply to the University of
Northumbria.

Students who live at home are significantly more likely to find that the workload at university
is heavier than they had expected (48.1% as opposed to 9.5% of students living in halls).
Considerably fewer find the workload to be as they expected or lighter than they had
expected. In addition, they are more likely to find that the academic demands of the course
are harder than they had anticipated before they arrived at university. Similar numbers find it
harder than expected to make friends at university, but a higher proportion of students living
in halls (42.9%) than students living at home (25.9%) find it easier to make friends than they
had expected.

Students living at home are significantly less likely to have been accurate in their expectations
of the amount of academic support which will be available; their responses are evenly split
between stating that they over- and under-estimated this, and only about a third were correct.
By contrast, more than 80% of students living in halls were accurate. Students living in halls
were significantly more likely to have accurate expectations about the study habits they would
need (90.5% as opposed to 66.7% of students who lived at home).


9:5:3   Adjustment and attitudes

Students who live at home generally show lower levels of adjustment than students living in
Halls of Residence. Their responses to the general „academic adjustment‟ item show lower
levels of overall agreement (74.1%, as opposed to 100% of students living in halls). In
addition, just 18.5% of students fall into the „strongly agree‟ category for this item, compared
with 50% of students who live in halls. Accommodation and academic adjustment, therefore,
seem to be closely related. The practical advantages of living more or less on campus may
account for this.

One might expect that social adjustment would also be higher for students living in university
accommodation. However, responses on the „social adjustment‟ item are similar among the
two groups. Because such a high proportion of University of Northumbria students live at
home, it may be relatively easy for them to develop a social life on this basis. It is harder,
though, to integrate living at home with the academic aspects of being a student.

Students in halls also have significantly higher levels of response to a number of the items
which provide an itemised picture of academic integration. They tend to find it easier to
understand the rationale for the content of their course (76.2% as opposed to 59.3% of
students living at home), and are more confident about their adaptation to independent
learning skills. They are more likely to state that they find their lecturers to be good at
explaining things, and they are also more likely to find their lecturers approachable.




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Students who at home and those who live in halls of residence have similar patterns of
response to the „low motivation‟ and „minimum work‟ items. However, those who live in
halls are slightly more likely to strongly agree rather than simply agree with the item „I want
to gain high marks at university‟ (81% as opposed to 66.7% of students who live at home),
and also to strongly agree rather than agree with the item „I am keen to learn about new
aspects of my subject and explore new ideas‟ (28.6% strongly agree as opposed to 18.5% of
students living at home).

Although the majority of students agree or strongly agree with the statement „I find it easy to
talk about university with my family and friends‟, there is a significant correlation between
responses to this item and accommodation. Students who live in halls of residence are likely
to agree strongly ‟ (52.4%), but students who live at home are more likely simply to agree
(with only 18.5% agreeing strongly). This may reflect easier access to friends who are sharing
the same experience at the same time; students who live at home may not be surrounded by
people who have experience of higher education, or they may simply find it harder to access
people of their own age whenever they want to discuss their university experience.

Overall, more students living in halls agree that they have enjoyed their studies so far. The
difference between groups does not quite reach statistical significance, but it is marked.
92.5% of students living in halls agree or strongly agree that they have „really enjoyed their
studies‟; none disagree. By contrast, 59.3% of students living at home agree or strongly agree
with this item. 22.2% neither agree nor disagree, and 18.5% disagree or strongly disagree.




Note on Section Nine: because the vast majority of students who responded fell into one
age category, it has not been possible to examine variation by age




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Section Ten:     Expressed reasons for entry and student characteristics

10:1    Academic reasons

The discussion so far has suggested that students who enter HE for what might be described
as „academic‟ reasons show the most appropriate study behaviours for university, adjust better
to their work as students, and in various other ways appear to get more out of their HE
experience in the first year. In this section, I shall look at the ways in which aspects of
conduct and experience relate to responses offered in the section of higher education entry.

The item which showed the most distinctive set of responses, many of which have already
been discussed in the previous sections, was „I wanted to study a subject that interests me‟ in
the section on the decision to go to university in the first place. As noted above, far more
students cite subject interest as a reason for selecting their course than for going to university.
Students who name this reason at the later stage, i.e. once they have already decided that HE
is for them, may have a lower interest in and commitment to their particular course, as well as
less of the engagement which will help them to develop helpful study behaviours on a day-to-
day basis.

When the responses from these students in a variety of categories were considered, they
emerged as a very distinctive group. It appears that a student who enters university because
they enjoy a particular subject is likely to find him or herself at an advantage in a number of
ways.

The study behaviours of these students are markedly different from those of students who do
not agree with this item at the point of HE choice. They are significantly better attenders, with
65.7% reporting attendance at over 75% of timetabled sessions throughout the academic year,
as opposed to 34.5% of students who do not agree with this item. Only 17.1% report poor
attendance, as opposed to 34.5% of students who do not cite this reason for entry to HE. They
are also more likely to disagree or strongly disagree with the „minimum work item‟ (54.3% as
opposed to 24.1% of students without this item at HE entry). However, their reported private
study hours are not significantly longer.

They are also significantly more likely to agree or strongly agree with the items relating to
„consistent work‟ and „independent work‟, suggesting that they adapt easily to the study skills
required for university. In addition, they are much less likely to agree with the „low
motivation‟ item. 34.3% disagree, as opposed to 3.4% of students who do not cite subject
interest at HE entry. And they are significantly less likely to agree that they often find their
course boring but will stick with it because they want a good job: just over one third agree or
strongly agree with this statement, as opposed to almost two thirds of other students, while
over half disagree or strongly disagree, compared with just 17.2% of other students.

They appear to be more academically oriented as well. They are significantly more likely to
agree with the „intellectual satisfaction‟ item. A total of 85.7% agree or agree strongly with
this, and 40% strongly agree. By contrast, 65.5% of the rest agree or agree strongly, but only
13.8% agree strongly. They are also more likely to strongly agree that they are keen to learn
about new aspects of their subject and explore new ideas; 31.4% strongly agree and 57.1%
agree, as opposed to 10.3% of the rest who strongly agree and 72.4% who agree (this latter
correlation is not, however, statistically significant).

This group report higher levels of social adjustment (this correlation just misses statistical
significance), and are significantly more likely to find the physical environment of the
university pleasant, to find lecturers approachable, and to find making friends easier than they
expected.



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Finally, this group express significantly higher levels of overall satisfaction. They report high
levels of interest in the course and are more likely to find the course more interesting than
they had expected (77.1% report that this is the case, as opposed to 44.8% of students who do
not cite subject interest at the point of HE entry). They are also significantly more likely to
state that they strongly agree with the statement „overall, I have really enjoyed my studies‟;
54.3% strongly agree, and 25.7% agree, as opposed to 17.2% and 44.8% of other students.
They are also significantly more likely to feel that they really belong at university. 28.6%
strongly agree with the relevant item, and 48.6% agree, as opposed to 13.8% and 41.4% of
other students.

The responses relating to subject interest at the point of course choice show some interesting
contrasts with these. Of course, the majority (63%) of students who cite subject interest at HE
entry also cite it at the point of course choice. Although students who cite subject interest at
the point of course choice show many similarities in their response patterns to those who cite
it at HE entry, some differences emerge between those who cite it at both points and those
who cite it at the point of course choice only. Overall, these students have higher levels of
agreement than students who do not cite subject interest at any point with items such as „time
management‟, „consistent work‟, „intellectual satisfaction‟ and „keen to explore new ideas‟.
However, their levels are still lower than those of students who name subject interest at both
of these points. The latter are also more likely to „agree strongly‟ on these items.

Students who name subject interest both at HE entry and at course choice have better
attendance, and significantly higher levels of agreement with the „independent work‟ item. In
addition, they are much more likely to disagree strongly or disagree with the „minimum
work‟, „low motivation‟ and „I often find my course boring but will stick at it because I want
a good job‟ than students who name subject interest at course choice only. They indicate
higher levels of overall interest, and also of belonging. Academic orientation is much stronger
for students who are interested in their subject before they arrive.

Students who state that an enjoyment of studying and learning was important in their decision
to go university, not surprisingly, show a number of study behaviours which indicate high
academic orientation. They are good attenders and have significantly higher levels of
disagreement with the „minimum work‟ item than students who do not name these reasons for
HE entry. In addition, they are significantly more likely to agree with the „consistent work‟
item.

They have significantly higher levels of agreement and strong agreement with the item „keen
to learn about new aspects…‟; 91.7% agree or strongly agree, 41.7% strongly agreeing, as
opposed to 82.5%, only 10% agreeing, among students who do not name this reason for HE
entry. They also have high levels of agreement with the „intellectual satisfaction‟; once again
50% strongly agree, as opposed to 15% of students who do not name this entry reason. This
group report significantly higher levels of enjoyment of their studies, and also of „belonging‟
at university.

The vast majority of students in the survey agreed with the item „I want to achieve a degree‟,
and therefore it is quite difficult to identify any strong correlations with this. It does appear
that students who do not state this reason tend to be rather less interested in their course.
Students who cite it tend to be the ones who strongly agree, rather than just agree, with the
item concerning high marks as a motivating factor. They are also more likely to state that they
agree, rather than neither agree nor disagree, with the „intellectual challenge‟ item, and to find
the course more interesting than they had expected. However, they also tend to over-estimate
the amount of contact which they will have with academic staff. It does appear that
achievement and self-esteem play a part in the motivation of students who name this item at
entry.



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10:2    Career reasons

Students could state that their HE entry decision was made because they „wanted to train for a
particular kind of job‟ and/or „wanted to improve their general job prospects‟. The latter was
selected by the vast majority of students, and very few interesting correlations emerged. The
few students who did not name this item were significantly more likely to believe that
inherent ability was the major factor in success at university, and also less concerned about
gaining high marks.

However, students who stated that they wanted to train for a specific job showed a set of
characteristics which suggested a slightly lower academic orientation among these students.
Although the following results did not reach statistical significance, they indicate a strong
„job focus‟ in approaches to day-to-day work: these students are slightly more likely to agree
with the statement „I only want to study topics which I believe to be relevant to my career‟
and „I often find my course boring but will stick with it because I want a good job‟. These do
not translate into poor study behaviours. These students are mostly good attenders, and their
levels of agreement with the „low motivation‟ and „minimum work‟ items are not higher than
their peers.

Their expectations of course difficulty are significantly less accurate, with just 47.4% stating
that academic demands were about as they expected (compared with 77.8% of other students).
A similar proportion finds academic demands easier and more difficult.

Students who choose their course because they want a particular kind of job are significantly
less likely than students who do not name this reason to find the course more interesting than
expected. They tend to feel well-prepared by their previous educational experience, and this
may relate to their significantly higher levels of agreement with the „time management‟ item.
They are also significantly more likely to estimate accurately the amount of contact with staff.
However, no other clear correlations emerged.

As suggested above, most students will enter HE with some kind of agenda relating to their
career, whether this is acknowledged or not. Its acknowledgement will probably have more to
do with the social situation of the student. The overall lack of significant correlations with this
group of entry reasons is not very surprising.

One specifically „instrumental‟ reason was included. Students could state that they chose their
particular course because they wanted to get a „well-paid job‟ as opposed to a specific type of
job. Students who cite this reason are significantly more likely to agree that they only want to
study topics which are relevant to their career, and significantly less likely to agree with the „I
am keen to study new topics…‟. However, their study behaviours do not differ to any great
extent from those of other students.

Concern regarding students who enter for instrumental reasons is more relevant in relation to
their behaviour regarding withdrawal (see Section 11). If they persist at university, they may
have some problematic agendas around course content. However, if this factor appears
alongside other reasons for going to university it is unlikely to create many difficulties. Once
again, it is more likely to enter the discourse of students at post-1992 institutions and of non-
traditional students because they are simply more aware of the reality and prevalence of
poorly paid jobs. The Cambridge students who enter law or business might not be aware that
„wanting a well-paid job‟ is important to their choice of course or HEI, but many of them
would probably not be content at the prospect of a standard public-sector or non-graduate
salary after leaving university.




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10:3    Reputation

Students who decide to come to the University of Northumbria because of the reputation of
the institution show a cluster of characteristics which indicate good preparation. They are
more likely to disagree or strongly disagree with the „minimum work‟ item, and significantly
more likely to state that they have enjoyed their studies overall. 50% of these students find
their course more interesting than expected (compared with 21% of students who do not name
this entry reason).

They appear to have a clear idea about the academic demands of the course, and also the
workload, showing higher levels of accuracy than students who do not name this reason.
Where their expectations are inaccurate they tend to find the reality easier rather than harder
than they had anticipated. They also have accurate expectations about university study habits.

It is possible that the high motivation and accurate expectations found among this group may
result from a level of commitment to the institution which is in place before the student
arrives, and which ensure that s/he makes a real effort to research their course prior to
application. They are also more likely to value a place at an institution which they respect.
„The reputation of a particular school or course‟ was mentioned by very few student at the
point of HE entry, and no significant correlations were found. Students who mentioned course
reputation at the point of course choice, however, show high levels of enjoyment, and are
much less likely to agree with the item „I often found my course boring but will stick with it
because I want to get a good job‟. In fact, many of these students find the course „much more
interesting‟ than they had expected prior to entry.

Students who state that they chose the University of Northumbria because it offered „a course
which I wanted to do‟ show significantly higher levels of accuracy in their estimation of
workload, academic staff contact and physical environment. This probably reflects research
on the part of the student.

Students who choose the University of Northumbria because of the reputation of the city of
Newcastle are slightly (but not significantly) less likely to find that lecturers stimulate their
interest in their subject, and also to work consistently throughout the first year. They are
significantly more likely than students who do not name this item to agree or strongly agree
that they sometimes felt pressurised by financial worries, possibly because they spend more
money enjoying the social life offered by the city.

Overall, however, responses to this latter item were encouraging. Only two students named it
as their most important reason for choosing the University of Northumbria, and none named it
as their only reason, suggesting that this „characteristic‟ of the strategic student is more or less
absent from this group, at least. Among students for whom the reputation of Newcastle was
important, there did not appear to be a cluster of characteristics indicating poor study habits,
low academic orientation or a particularly problematic lack of motivation. This may allay
some worries about the lure of the „party city‟, and the student characteristics which this may
foster16.




16
  There are other reasons, of course, besides the much publicised nightlife why Newcastle could attract
students. A recent article in The Guardian drew attention to the high number of new IT firms in the
North-East, for example, and at least some students to whom I spoke chose to come here because of the
opportunity to take part in outdoor pursuits in the Northumbrian countryside. Once again, it is
important not to over-estimate the danger of attracting students for external reasons of this kind. A
close questioning of Oxbridge students would probably uncover a very high number of non-academic
and instrumental reasons for their choice of institution.

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10:4    Family and school: ‘reactive’ entry reasons

The relationship between student generation and „family influence‟ has been discussed
elsewhere.

Students whose decision to enter HE was taken partly on the advice of their schoolteachers
show a bigger range of response to the item „I only want to study topics which I believe to be
relevant to my career‟. 41.2% agree or strongly agree, as opposed to 63.8% of students who
did not name this item; however, 35.5% disagree or strongly disagree, as opposed to 19.1% of
students who do not name this item. They are also slightly less likely to agree with the item „I
want to learn about new topics…‟. However, the majority do still agree or strongly agree with
this item.

Students whose course choice was influenced by their teachers show a surprising mixture of
responses. They are significantly less likely to agree or strongly agree, and more likely to
disagree, with the „career relevance‟ item mentioned above: 30% agree and 53.8% disagree,
compared to 64% of other students who agree and 16% who disagree.

This suggests a high level of academic orientation. Similarly, these students are significantly
more likely to strongly agree or agree with the „intellectual satisfaction‟ item, and to disagree
or strongly disagree with the „I often find my course boring but will stick with it because I
want a good job‟. However, they are significantly more likely to agree or strongly agree with
the „minimum work‟ item. They appear enthusiastic about their role of students, but to feel
that they are not backing this up with study habits.

It is possible that students who are influenced by their teachers are in general inclined to feel
positive towards the educational system, and its values, as a whole. This would account for
the attitudes discussed in the latter paragraph, but not for the contrast between the responses
from students who feel this influence at different stages in the entry decision.

Students who state that family influence was important in their decision to come to university
have significantly higher levels of agreement with the „minimum work‟ item, and
significantly lower levels of disagreement. This suggests that they are in fact among the
„reactive‟ entrants whose motivation to go to university does not „carry them through‟ to
useful study habits. Overall, their levels of academic orientation are quite similar to averages
for the group. However, their overall assessment of their academic integration is significantly
lower. This is surprising, because their expectations of the academic demands of the course
are significantly more accurate than those for students who do not name this item; this may
relate to the high number of second-generation students who select this item.

They have responses which are slightly lower (this correlation just misses statistical
significance) to the items relating to intellectual satisfaction and time management. Concern
about reactive entry is reinforced by the results of this survey.

Correlations with the desire to leave home or live at home were very minor and for the most
part non-significant. Where they do arise, they have been discussed already in the section on
accommodation. Students who wanted to leave home are significantly more likely to have
estimated the workload correctly. However, they are significantly more likely than students
who live at home to state that they feel that school or college provided a poor preparation for
HE. This may be because the transition to independent living has been relatively sudden for
these students.




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Section Eleven:         Who considers leaving?

11:1    Demographic factors and withdrawal

In this study, none of the mature-age students questioned stated that they had considered
dropping out of their course or transferring. The numbers included were, as noted above, very
small, but this is an encouraging finding.

Also positive, given the observations on confidence made above, is the lack of a statistically
significant gender difference, although a higher proportion (32%) of women than men
(20.5%) do consider leaving. Men are more likely to consider transferring: 35.9% think about
changing to a different course, as opposed to 24.9% of women. This may relate to the
previous findings in that women show a higher level of academic engagement but lower
levels of social confidence, while men are more socially confident but possibly less
committed to their courses.

More first generation (30%) than second generation (17.4%) students consider dropping out,
and a similar pattern appears for transfer; this is considered by 35% of first generation and
26.1% of second generation students. However, these correlations are not statistically
significant.

Parental occupation does relate significantly to this issue. Just 9.1% of the children of
professional/managerial homes consider leaving, compared with 40% of children of skilled
non-manual or manual employees and 38.5% of those from semi- or unskilled backgrounds.
Similarly, only 18.2% of students from professional or managerial homes consider
transferring, compared with 33.3% of those from skilled backgrounds and 53.8% of students
whose parents are in semi- or unskilled work. This may relate to cultural factors, but given
some of the interview feedback it is also possible that financial hardship is influential here.

The most consistent and significant correlation among the demographic factors is with type of
accommodation. Just 4.8% of students who live in halls of residence consider leaving, and
14.3% consider transferring to a different course. 25.9% of students who live at home,
however, consider dropping out, and 29.6% consider transferring courses.

Once more accommodation emerges as crucial. Aston and Bekhradnia (2005, 5 – 6) speculate
that students who come from the immediate geographical area around a university may well
have a lower commitment to their course than do students who have made the decision to
move away from home. Remaining at home requires less effort, and dropping out may well be
easier too; the student who does probably has somewhere to live, and an accessible group of
family and friends among whom to find support. They may also have an advantage in finding
work as an alternative to study. Students who decide to leave home may be more inclined to
research their course carefully, with this greater commitment in mind.

In addition to this, the various practical factors, discussed above, which make it easier for
students living in halls to become integrated and to develop appropriate study behaviour may
also sustain their persistence at university. Helping students who live at home to share the
kind of experience offered by halls of residence should improve both their retention and their
satisfaction.




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11:2    Entry decisions and withdrawal

There are some correlations between factors which informed the decision to withdraw from
university and students‟ responses to the questions about withdrawal and transfer. Potentially,
these findings could be integrated into recruitment activities so that students can be helped to
reconsider decisions which might not be helpful, or to consider aspects of their entry choices
to which they may not previously have given much thought.

There is a correlation (which just misses statistical significance) between subject interest at
the point of deciding to enter HE and not considering withdrawal in the first year. 17.1% of
students who state that this was a factor in their initial desire to go to university state that they
thought of leaving, but 34.5% of students who did not have thought about withdrawing at
some point.

In this case, an absence of subject interest at the point of course choice is significantly
associated with danger of withdrawal. 23.1% of students who chose their course on the basis
of interest state that they considered leaving, but 63.6% of the small number of students who
apparently did not have done so. This comes as very little surprise; who would not think about
leaving a course in which they were basically not interested?

Choice of a particular course in order to get a specific type of job, however, is significantly
associated with persistence. Just 12.5% of the students who chose their course because of a
specific career aim consider withdrawal, compared to 35.5% of students who did not. Clear,
focussed career goals (which are almost certainly founded in interest) are important in
retaining students.

Also close but not significant is the correlation between entry to HE to improve general job
prospects and persistence. 21.8% of students who name this factor consider leaving, but
44.4% of those who do not have thought about it.

Reputation of one sort or another seems to strengthen student commitment, and lessen the
danger of leaving; course and subject reputation as factors for an entry decision are
significantly associated with persistence. 10.7% of students who chose to come to the
University of Northumbria because of the reputation of the institution state that they
considered withdrawal, compared to 36.1% of those who did not. The reasons of commitment
and value attached to a place on the course which aided their study behaviours and adjustment
may well contribute to this pattern. None of the students who state that they chose their course
on the basis of its reputation state that they contemplated leaving.

By contrast, choosing a course on the basis of its title, however, is significantly associated
with withdrawal. Among students who state that they chose their course „because they were
attracted by the title‟, 47.4% considered abandoning it, compared with 22.7% of other
students. This may be because they chose the course solely or largely on the basis of the title
and did not do sufficient research into its content. This might be taken as a warning against
the trend towards „sexy‟ course titles in higher education, or at least against concentrating too
heavily on titles in university marketing.

Simply having some instrumental motivation for entering university is not associated with
withdrawal. However, prioritising such a reason relates to contemplation of leaving to an
extent which almost achieves statistical significance. The correlation with considering course
transfer is statistically significant.

Students who state that one of their reasons for choosing their course is their desire for a well-
paid job are no more likely to consider departing than those to whom this factor is
[apparently] unimportant. However, 55.6% of students who state that this is their main reason


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have thought about leaving, and 77.8% have thought of transferring to another course. Where
students have named one reason as the „main one‟ for their choice of course, only respondents
to „I want to get a well-paid job‟ and the very popular „I was interested in this subject‟ have
considered withdrawal or transfer (just 13.3% of students who chose their course because of
subject interest have done so – these are the same students in each case).


11:3    Study behaviours and withdrawal

Practically every aspect of study behaviour relates significantly to students‟ responses to the
question about their consideration of leaving or transferring. Given the close association
between attendance and withdrawal, it will come as no surprise that just 15.2% of good
attenders have thought about leaving, compared to 18.8% of students with mixed attendance
and 53.3% of students whose attendance has been poor.

Students who have considered withdrawing have a lower average number of private study
hours each week (around five and a half as opposed to around eight and a half), and are also
more likely to agree or strongly agree with the 'minimum work' item.

The direction of causality here cannot be conclusively established. Attendance may fall off if
a student is experiencing specific academic or personal difficulties; in this case poor
attendance is a symptom of problems which may lead to withdrawal, rather than the cause of
the withdrawal. However, it will become an additional problem in this sort of situation as the
student‟s integration is damaged and s/he falls behind in his/her studies, so that as well as
sorting out the other issues s/he will have to catch up with the work which has been missed,
and do so quickly enough to make the most of the next part of a course where learning is
cumulative.

Students who lack integration and/or academic orientation, however, may stop attending
almost by accident, when long gaps between classes, minor problems or simple lack of
motivation mean that it is easier and easier not to go. For a student who likes their subject,
values academic progress and feels that s/he has an investment in the social life of their
course, it is worth overcoming the inconvenience of having to find somewhere to go for an
hour between classes, waiting for delayed public transport or attending college with a minor
cold. However, if the student does not particularly like their course or their social life around
the course and nothing is going to happen to them if they don‟t attend, any of these can turn
into a valid reason for not turning up. After a short period, being „behind‟ with work becomes
a reason in itself not to attend.

Attendance monitoring provides a valuable contact point with students, and the opportunity
which it offers for catching problems of any sort (personal, medical, motivational, academic)
before they have had time to turn into crises. With effective follow-up and referral on where
necessary, formal attendance monitoring can ensure that the institution connects quickly with
most of the problems which its students may encounter, and which may threaten their
persistence. Monitoring attendance is also beneficial for students whose attendance is good. If
they are struggling through their difficulties in order to get to classes, they may feel that staff
appreciate this effort, and be encouraged to come forward to seek support. And it sends a
message to the highly motivated students who take good attendance „as read‟ that this is
valued by the institution. Some follow-up may have to be unconventional (e.g. negotiating
approved absences for students with particular financial or family needs). What is crucial is
the opportunity to open a dialogue.




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11:4    Attitudes, experiences and withdrawal

A lack of motivation is significantly associated with thinking of leaving university. Almost all
(81.3%) of the students who consider dropping out agree or strongly agree with the „low
motivation‟ item, and none disagree or strongly disagree. Students who consider transferring
also report significantly lower levels of motivation, with 70% agreeing or strongly agreeing
with the „low motivation‟ item.

The responses to various „adjustment‟ items from students who consider leaving indicate that
their integration into academic life is poor overall. Responding „yes‟ to the item „I considered
dropping out of my course‟ relates significantly to responding „neither agree nor disagree‟,
„disagree‟ or „strongly disagree‟ to the item on academic adjustment. None of the students
who thought of leaving strongly agreed that they had adjusted well to the academic demands
of their course. Just over one-third agree, and half state that they neither agree nor disagree.

Poor social adjustment is also significantly related to consideration of withdrawal. 93.6% of
students who have not considered dropping out agree or strongly agree with the „social
adjustment‟ item, compared to 43.8% of students who have. Just over a third of these students
neither agree nor disagree with this item.

A response of „yes‟ to the item about considering dropping out is also significantly associated
with disagreement or strong disagreement in response to several of the more specific
adjustment items. Students who have considered leaving are significantly more likely to
disagree or strongly disagree with the items on time management, consistent work,
independent working skills and finding lecturers approachable. They are also significantly
less likely than students who have not considered leaving to agree or strongly agree with the
„lecturers stimulated my interest in the subject‟ item. Responses from students who
considered transferring are not significantly related to the latter item, or to the items on social
adjustment, time management, independent work or consistent work. In other words, these
students appear to feel that they have quite adequate study skills to succeed at university.
However, considering transfer is significantly related to neither agreeing nor disagreeing with
the academic adjustment item, and also disagreement or strong disagreement with the
„lecturer approachability‟ item.

When student attitudes are considered, a small number of correlations emerge. Considering
withdrawal is significantly associated with disagreement or strong disagreement in response
to the item „I am keen to learn about new aspects of my subject…‟, and also strongly but not
significantly associated with disagreement or strong disagreement with the „intellectual
satisfaction‟ item. These patterns seem to reflect disillusionment both with academic activities
in a particular subject, and with university study in general.

Students who consider transferring have similar responses to the „I am keen to learn about
new aspects of my subject…‟ item. However, they appear not to be disillusioned with
academic activity as a whole; their responses to the „intellectual satisfaction‟ item are more
similar to those of students who have never considered abandoning their course than to those
who consider leaving.

Responses to both the „withdrawing‟ and „transferring‟ items are significantly related to
responses to the item „I often find my course boring but will stick with it because I want a
good job‟. In the latter case, this may reflect dissatisfaction simply with the course; in the
former, either the course or the whole situation of being at university may be the problem for
individual students.

Agreeing with the „withdrawal‟ item but not the „transfer‟ item is significantly related to the
overall level of enjoyment reported. Disagreement or strong disagreement with the


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„enjoyment‟ item is associated with considering leaving, but responses from students who
consider transfer are similar to those from students who have been happy to stay with their
initial course choice.

However, two items relating to integration are significantly related to both of the items on
persistence, in slightly different ways. Agreement with the „withdrawal‟ item is significantly
related to a noncommittal response or disagreement with the item „I feel that I really belong at
university‟. 37.5% of students who considered leaving (but stayed) agree or strongly agree
with this, compared to 77.1% of students who never considered leaving; 37.5% of those who
considered leaving state that they neither agree nor disagree (compared with 16.7%) and 25%
disagree (compared with just 6.3%). This suggests that these students in general feel
ambivalent about their university course. Students who thought about transferring (but did
not) show similar levels of „neither agree nor disagree‟ and „disagree‟ responses to those who
have not considered any other course. However, they are much more likely to agree than to
strongly agree with this item. Just 10% strongly agree (compared with 27.3% of students who
did not consider transfer), and 60% agree (compared with 36.6% of students who did not
consider transfer).

There is also a difference between responses to the item „I find it easy to talk to my friends
and family about university‟. Here, as noted above, the vast majority of students fall into the
„agree‟ or „strongly agree‟ category. Once again, though, responses are significantly
associated with responses to the „withdrawal‟ item. Among students who have not considered
withdrawal, 41.7% strongly agree and 43.8% agree with the „talking to friends/family‟ item.
However, only 6.3% of students who considered withdrawal strongly agree, and 50% agree.
A much larger percentage neither agree nor disagree (25%, as opposed to 8.3%). Among
students who considered transferring, responses in the „neither agree nor disagree‟ and
disagree/strongly disagree categories are similar to those of other students, but far more agree
rather than strongly agree.

Once again, the association between academic and social integration emerges as crucial.




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Section Twelve:          Student interviews

12:1    General characteristics of student interviewees

The response to the request for student interviewees was disappointing. Relatively few
students agreed to be interviewed, and of those who did a number gave invalid telephone
numbers or did not respond to requests. In the end, six interviews were carried out, three in
person and three by telephone. Students who requested a telephone interview all asked for this
to be made to a mobile phone rather than a land-line.

Three of these students lived at home (in two cases the parental home, in one independent of
family), and three lived in University of Northumbria halls of residence. Four were studying
in the School of Informatics and two in NBS, and all but one were male. Although very few
mature-age students returned the questionnaire, two of the students who were interviewed
were over 24, and categorised themselves as mature-age students. Three had part-time jobs.
Two of the students with part-time work lived at home, the other in a University of
Northumbria hall of residence, and all were working an average of 15 hours per week.

In the interviews, students were not asked to identify their generation or to discuss „social
class‟. However, in four cases they self-identified voluntarily as both first-generation and
working-class (in each case they did so while discussing student finance).

Any request to students to take part in this sort of exercise will inevitably risk some risk of
self-selection. Just as those students who return questionnaires often tend to be the least
satisfied, those who will happily give up half an hour of their time to talk to a member of
university staff tend to be those who feel more positive towards the institution. While the
„dissatisfaction‟ effect does not seem to have been strong in relation to the questionnaire, all
six of the students interviewed appeared to be highly satisfied students who had enjoyed their
courses. They also were all academically successful, having passed into their second year
with no referrals. They were not asked to disclose their actual marks, but in the course of the
interviews several mentioned these; all fell into the upper second or first-class bands.

This group of students provide a very valuable opportunity to see „what went right‟ for
individuals who are highly satisfied with their first year and have achieved academic success.
This is the sort of experience which a successful retention programme should attempt to
extend to all students. In fact, the „good experience‟ which these students had had was
remarkably similar in each case, and related closely to their study behaviours and attitudes to
their courses. Therefore, it can be regarded as offering a helpful „template‟ for a successful
student lifestyle.

One of the very positive outcomes from the interviews was the real enthusiasm with which all
of the students talked about their experience of university in general and their course in
particular. At several points their positive tone became emotional, even joyful, when they
reflected on their first year. The topics which most frequently elicited this sort of response can
be regarded loosely as relating to types of student „transformation‟. One was the opportunity
to learn new things and become good at things which the student had previously not
encountered, or had thought s/he was bad at, and the other was the opportunity to immerse
oneself in the new social milieu of university. These students at least are revelling in the ways
university can change them; none felt that s/he was being asked to become „a different
person‟.




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12:2    Preparation and transition

12:2:1 Course choice

All of the students interviewed had taken a great deal of trouble over choosing their course,
and preparing for university in general. This almost certainly accounts for at least some of
their high levels of satisfaction. None had been content to take the advice of their teachers,
college tutors or careers advisers without doing some further research on their own initiative.

All but one of the students had attended a University of Northumbria open day, either general
or related to their specific programme. The feedback on open days was very positive, with
students stressing the importance of „getting a feel for the place‟. The student who had not
been to an open day stated that some things would have been much easier if s/he had been
able to do so, and noted that s/he felt „lost‟ in the physical environment of the university and
the city in the first few weeks. As well as „obvious‟ aspects of the usefulness of open days,
the students drew attention to the helpfulness of having the chance to see what lecture
theatres, computer rooms and tutors‟ offices actually look like. One pointed out that the
teaching spaces are often the things which are most different from anywhere they have been
before, and that having an idea of the scale, décor etc. of these made the first few days less
intimidating.

The two mature-age students had used the Access Guidance Centre to take „taster‟ courses in
order to test out whether their initial decisions about which subject to study had been right for
them. Both were enthusiastic about the provision offered. One student found that his/her
instincts had been correct, and applied for the course which s/he had first considered. The
other realised that the course for which s/he had intended to apply did not fit his/her interests
and career aims as closely as s/he had thought. S/he was able to select a different course
instead. In both cases these students found that as well as a clear idea of course content, the
Access Guidance Centre courses had helped them to adjust to university teaching methods
and study skills.

Two of the „young‟ students had friends who had previously taken the courses on which they
themselves were now enrolled, and who had provided invaluable help, telling them precisely
what they would study, and pointing them towards aspects of the school-university transition
which might be challenging. Hearing about these matters from a friend had „helped a lot‟; one
student stated that „you got the straight story‟. S/he had found the combination of honesty and
reassurance from someone who had „done it and survived‟ very helpful.

One student had received exceptionally good preparation and guidance at sixth-form college,
where pupils who planned to go on to higher education had been offered special classes at the
end of the academic year in which they were set „university style‟ assignments which were
marked by teachers as if they were being assessed as part of an HE course. The teachers also
explained in detail some of the differences between university and school teaching methods
and study skills. This student found that these classes helped enormously with the first few
weeks at college, and reported that his/her transition had been very comfortable. S/he was
aware that some of his/her peers had been „shocked‟ by the difference between university and
their previous education.

All of the young students had read prospectuses very carefully indeed. One described reading
in detail the materials offered by different institutions, comparing the range of modules on
different programmes, and thinking about „what they would really include‟. Another
explained that s/he had „thought very hard‟ about what the brief module descriptions actually
mean, and a third stated that s/he had been put off certain other institutions because course
descriptions were „too vague‟ and did not include module lists or short accounts of module
content.


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12:2:2 What came as a surprise? Academic factors

The short answer to this question is „not very much‟. The previous section explains why
course content did not surprise any of the students to a great extent. In a few cases the depth
of technical content surprised students, who had not realised from the module descriptions
just how much mathematical, technical or statistical material they would have to cope with.

Where this was mentioned, students described a range of initial responses. Two of them stated
that they had initially felt demotivated because they felt that they would not do particularly
well in units where they were required to show a high level of technical or mathematical
proficiency; another stated that a unit of this sort was „a shock, but not a bad one‟, because it
offered the opportunity to learn something new and develop problem-solving skills.

The other students came to a similar conclusion, but in each of their cases the factor which
made the difference was a particularly helpful tutor who had encouraged them to overcome
their initial worry. In one case this had been in response to the student‟s poor attendance;
when the tutor spoke to him/her, this conversation was used as an opportunity for reassurance.
In all cases the students reported working rather harder on units which surprised them in this
way, and in all cases they stated that they had eventually enjoyed these units as much as or
more than the ones they had expected to find easy or interesting. In one case a student had
chosen second year options in the area which had initially appeared most surprising and
challenging.

These students were asked whether they objected to having to learn things which they had not
expected to encounter, or whose relevance to their careers they did not immediately
recognise. In all cases, their attitude was that they had come to university to find out new
things, and that even where they could not see the immediate use of a module, in the words of
one student they „just got on with it‟. One student recalled being unsure of the practical use of
a module at first, but realising its purpose after „looking at all my course together‟ and finding
out more about careers in his/her field.

Two students said that the first year had proved less difficult than they had expected overall.
One of them stated that „well, it‟s university, isn‟t it – you expect it to be really difficult when
you come here‟. The other student in this situation attributed the apparent „easiness‟ of this
course to his/her own assiduous efforts to prepare. Neither had found themselves bored. They
had either chosen to concentrate hard on those modules which did seem more difficult, or to
find out more about topics which interested them particularly strongly. One attributed the
unexpected „easiness‟ of the first year course to the quality of the teaching which s/he
encountered, stating that „I had really good tutors who explained things clearly and didn‟t use
jargon‟.

All of these students said that the academic induction they had received had been very useful
in making the transition to university. One student described the induction programme and
first few weeks‟ lectures as „a good way of starting and adapting to how to learn at
university‟. Another felt that the teaching at the beginning of the course had been good
because „with the subject you haven‟t got any choice but to be thrown in at the deep end‟.

One student mentioned in particular some classes/sessions in which students had been
encouraged to „reflect on your own experience‟ of learning and on what had been learnt so
far. Two students said that they valued the formation of friendships with other students on
their courses, because this offered a „sounding board‟ for course discussion, solving problems
and for exploring ideas.




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12:2:3 What came as a surprise? Non-academic factors

While students felt well-prepared for the academic side of their university lives, some of the
non-academic aspects proved more problematic. Two (both living away from home) drew
attention to the sheer size of the campus and of Newcastle: „it‟s a massive place and it can be
intimidating‟, in the word of one. The other said that s/he needed a better map than the one
provided. However, another student said that something which s/he really liked about
university was the size. The diversity of university and of students was mentioned by two
students as something which had surprised them and which they liked very much because it
was interesting and „prepares you for living in a very diverse society‟.

The lack of a strong „clubs and societies‟ culture was mentioned by two students. While all
the young students and one mature-age student (the other did not mention the Union at all)
felt the Student Union was „very good‟ as a social centre, these two students had expected to
find more societies, and more active ones. They were both friendly with students from
Newcastle University, and compared their experience of this aspect of student life with theirs.

Two students were surprised that their Schools did not offer formalised opportunities to
socialise with other students from their courses. One stated that students from his/her year had
begun to organise course-based social events themselves (with encouragement and support
from staff), and said that this would have been very useful indeed when they were freshers.
The experience of students at other universities was noted as a model here. Another student
said that a coffee party for students on his/her course had been a very good event because it
was informal, quiet enough to hold conversations, and academic staff and turned up and
chatted.

Two students (one living at home and one in halls) said that the freedom they encountered at
university came as a surprise. The student who lived in halls said that it was odd „being on
your own and having your own space‟ at university, but that once you got used to this it was
enjoyable. The student who lived at home had been used to having a more rigid schedule
„outside‟ the house, and also, of course, to having more regimentation in how to organise
study time. In neither case was freedom considered by the student as essentially problematic;
overcoming the problematic aspects was regarded as quite enjoyable. Another student spoke
of the „independence‟ offered by university as an entirely positive characteristic.

One of the mature-age students said that the immaturity of some of the young students was
rather a shock after several years in the workforce.


12:2:4 Transition

All of the students interviewed had been thoroughly looking forward to both the academic
and the social life at university. One said that s/he viewed the academic opportunity as „a
chance to really get into something‟. Another said that after being „at school and sixth form
with the same people for seven years [s/he] wanted the diversity… I was really looking
forward to it… it‟s great that you have to get to know people from all over the place‟.

The single most helpful factor in the transition to university study was support from tutors.
All of the students interviewed stated that for the most part they had received highly
satisfactory teaching and in addition had felt able to approach individual members of staff for
help. Only two students had used Student Services in relation to specific difficulties: in both
cases they had found this provision extremely accessible and very helpful.




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12:2:5 Financial reality

Discussion of finance was the only area in which the generally positive tone of these
interviews was lost. I had not planned to raise this issue, because it is dealt with in the
accompanying report, but in fact four of the six students talked about it at length, and one of
the others mentioned it.

It was raised, in each case, in response to the question about which aspects of university came
as „an unpleasant surprise‟. As the discussion above suggests, very little in the academic and
social lives of these students was both unexpected and unwelcome, but their experiences
around money were almost all negative.

One student drew attention to the differences between „living at home with your parents when
a job‟s for pocket money‟ and his/her situation at university, where the job essentially paid for
hall fees and „essentials‟. Another stated that s/he had been alright for money because s/he
had „been sensible‟, but stated that s/he had friends who had „struggled‟ financially, some of
whom had decided to leave university. Two others attributed their lack of a financial „crisis‟
to their own organisation and planning ahead; again, it had been difficult at times and had
been a source of stress. Just one student in this group stated that budgeting for him/herself had
been a major problem. S/he did not have a part-time job, and had found living on the loan to
be more difficult than expected. In the end, things had appeared „critical‟ and the student had
approached his/her father for small loan as well as being helped out by his/her „mates‟ (one
other student mentioned that s/he had lent money to a friend).

Two difficulties with finance emerged. The first is a simple lack of information before arrival.
While most of these students had a general idea that they would be hard up, the phrase „the
reality of it‟ recurred in several interviews. This „reality‟ involves seeing one‟s bank balance
dwindle, having to make hard choices between items, being faced with an occasional
unforeseen bill and/or cutting back on „inessentials‟. None of these, in itself, is necessarily a
„hardship, but they are not necessarily part of the experience of a teenager coming from a
home where financial crisis had been avoided, even if life was not luxurious. Students may
also have experienced what one interviewee in the School of Informatics described as the
„rabbit in the headlamps‟ experience. He had been well aware of what a student budget would
look like, and how it would relate to his loans and grants, but explained with considerable
embarrassment that there is all the emotional difference in the world between a theoretical
knowledge of this and „when it‟s real money‟.

In particular, the lack of clear advice and specific advice on budgeting seems to cause
difficulties. The transition from living with parents to having to pay one‟s own way and
organise one‟s own money is mentioned by students either as a hurdle which they personally
have over come or as something which for them (or their less organised friends) precipitated a
major crisis. A student who managed this well described very specific help from his/her [non-
graduate] mother on how to organise a budget which includes termly, monthly and weekly
items. The student who had had to borrow informally stated that it was the problem of
organising finance on different scales which made things very hard. His/her strategy in future
would be „to set a target… of how much I need and work everything out from there‟.

All of the students with part-time jobs said that these were essential for them to pay their way
in basics such as rent, bills and food supplies. None of them regarded their part-time job as a
source of money primarily for a social life or „extras‟. As noted above, four of these students
self-identified as „working class‟, and all of them were aware that there were many better-of
students whose parents paid for a great deal, and who could sustain a much higher standard of
lifestyle. Students whose parents were paying for a few items expressed guilt over this.




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All four of the students who self-identified as coming from working-class homes stated that
they would not have come to university if they had anticipated the levels of debt which will
become normal under the 2006 funding arrangements. None of them was willing to consider
these as a form of „graduate tax‟. What concerned them was not the relatively high earnings
threshold for repayment, or the size of the repayments themselves; it was the fact that „you‟d
have that much debt‟ in the first place.

Four students stated that their decision to go to university might or would have been different
had the 2006 arrangements been in place. One stated that even as things stood, s/he „nearly
didn‟t come‟ because of the levels of debt involved; this student stated that s/he was
managing his/her lifestyle very carefully so as to minimise debt. Another stated that „if I‟d
known what the money would have been like I‟d definitely have thought again,‟ and another
said that the hardest part of the decision to come to university had been over the money. In
this student‟s case, the decision to go when s/he did was made partly on the basis of the
introduction of higher tuition fees to be payable by students.

The student who probably demonstrated the highest level of academic orientation in his/her
interview was adamant about his/her views on the impact which 2006 funding arrangement
would have had on his/her entry decision:

      I wouldn‟t have gone if I‟d had to pay those fees. That amount of debt is
      impossible. You know you‟re going to be in debt after university, but… I just
      couldn‟t put myself in that kind of debt.




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12:3    Experience of university

12:3:1 Study behaviours

The students interviewed all described extremely helpful study behaviours. All but one were
excellent attenders, and stated that they only missed classes if they were ill or had a very
pressing commitment elsewhere. The student whose attendance had fallen beneath 75% stated
that s/he had now „mended his/her ways‟, but that the difficulty for him/her had actually been
living too close to the campus (in a hall of residence). It was easy to feel that s/he was „at
university‟ when at home, and „sheer laziness‟ led to him/her missing some classes.

When asked what made them attend timetabled sessions so regularly, a variety of answers
emerged. All students stated that most of their lectures were interesting and well-presented,
and that they actually enjoyed them. One student said that s/he went because „I want to get
my money‟s worth, and I do get it, too – the lectures are good‟.

Another reason was wanting to keep up with the course, understand materials, and have a
foundation on which to build new knowledge. Several students mentioned that they liked the
relationship between lectures and classes in which they got a chance to learn something in a
lecture, then apply it in a seminar or tutorial. Another stated that the pace of lectures was
generally good, and meant that you „could see the explanation for things‟. Several stated that
it‟s not missing sessions for trivial reasons because of the time which is needed to catch up. A
rather unexpected reason which emerged was „well, I haven‟t really got anything else to do‟.
However, this student did go on to explain that s/he found lectures and seminars interesting.

One student stated a strong preference for lectures over seminars because of the opportunity
which they offered for independent learning, and also because they meant that his/her
commitment to learning was not damaged by „strategic‟ students.

       I love lectures… a lot of the time I don‟t like seminars because when people
       don‟t bother it‟s like you‟re at school again. I always prepare for seminars and
       contribute, and I get really annoyed when people don‟t bother. And I don‟t like it
       when the tutor picks people out to speak in a seminar… I don‟t like it at our age.
       If you go to a lecture you can take the notes you need, take what‟s of most help
       for you. I like working individually… I don‟t really like group work because you
       get put in with some students who can‟t be bothered…

However, most stated that they liked seminars. One valued „new ways of learning things, in
practicals and so forth‟, and found this particularly rewarding. Two had found the
explanations offered in response to questions from a small group especially helpful. Two
students mentioned „active teaching‟ as something they valued very highly. In all cases, the
most important aspect of a seminar, class or tutorial was regarded as interaction. One student
contrasted some „excellent‟ seminars with one in which „the tutor just hands out exercises and
leaves after five minutes‟, which s/he felt was „pointless‟.

These students, even the poor attender, had exemplary patterns of private study. Three said
that they had developed these via their previous educational background, via particularly
helpful school/sixth form teachers or Access course tutors. The others were not really sure
where their systems had come from, but said that they had evolved them simply by trial and
error, and finding out what would help. One stated that s/he had worked out along with
friends (some of them doing other courses) that this was a helpful way to study.

Good habits included reading through lecture notes and typing or writing these up on a
regular basis. All the students employed some variation on this system, and used the notes to
prepare for seminars and for the next week‟s lecture, as well as for revision around


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assessments and examinations. There are many advantages to this. Students noted that it was
helpful to have a „complete record‟ of their module, but that it was particularly important that
this was written „in their own words‟, because of the way this helped them to understand and
recall the materials. One student spoke with satisfaction of „finding my own style‟, and two
made the point that if you wrote up the notes yourself „you know that you‟ve really
understood it‟.

In addition, working in this way provides a constant reassurance that one is keeping up with
the course, making progress, learning new things and developing study skills. „It makes you
feel really organised‟, in the words of one interviewee; according to another, it „cuts down
your anxiety levels‟. All of the students stressed the fact that their study habits had been
consistent throughout the year, and that there was no point knowing about good study skills
unless you „get into the habit and stick with it. Several were disparaging about their peers
whose study habits were weak, and two expressed annoyance that some students seem to do
very little and still pass.

These students all kept up with recommended reading as a matter of course, and again, most
of them stated that this was something they enjoyed. They also appreciated the offer by tutors
of „additional reading‟ (along the lines of „if you‟re interested in this topic, you could go off
and read x‟). Several mentioned that they knew students who did not bother to read, making
comments such as „how do they expect to understand the subject properly‟, and „what‟s the
point of coming to university if you can‟t be bothered?‟. They were aware of „strategic
student‟ behaviours, but were either scornful of these, or annoyed at these students‟ presence.
Several students mentioned the use of ICT on their courses. The Blackboard system received
mixed comments. Its negative points were unreliability of access and the fact that some
lecturers seem to do little more than „just put the slides up‟ (although one student who had
had some health problems found this invaluable as it meant that most of the materials missed
could be downloaded in one session, rather than obtained by „going round all the tutors‟).

Where this Blackboard had been used imaginatively, students found it very helpful. Two drew
attention to the way in which some tutors had provided „extra‟ information about topics
covered in timetabled sessions. This include links to external websites and reading lists,
which „mean… you can really get into a topic‟. Another student had found that the
„Assignment FAQs‟ offered by some tutors „worked really well… you don‟t know what
questions you‟re allowed to ask about an assignment and most people want to know the same
things anyway‟.

Three students mentioned that they had found the „communties‟ facility on Blackboard
extremely valuable. One pointed out that this meant you got around the problem of not
knowing where tutors were, or whom to ask about a particular issue, while another said that
the opportunity to share questions and opinions was very helpful. Two students said that they
liked this facility because it meant they could avoid „sounding stupid in class… anonymous
posting on Blackboard is brilliant… you don‟t feel like an idiot‟. This lack of confidence
about contributing is interesting because it came from a student whose chance (on the basis of
study habits, results, academic orientation etc) of sounding „like an idiot‟ would appear to be
miniscule in the first place.

Four students mentioned the use of email as a way of communicating with tutors. They had
all had good feedback on their electronic communications with staff, who had offered prompt
and helpful feedback. One student said that „it‟s not very personal, but… they sorted it all out
really easily‟. Two said that their seminar tutors had provided friendly and encouraging
emails, with very good specific guidance on academic points.

When asked about their study habits as compared to official guidelines for private study time,
these students were aware that they were doing more than their peers, but felt that they were


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about at the level recommended by staff, and, more importantly, that they were doing
„enough‟ private study to satisfy their own standards. One put it thus: „I think I work pretty
hard, actually, compared with some people, but I wouldn‟t be comfortable doing less‟.
Several spoke of „budgeting‟ their study time so that they could devote more work to modules
which they found difficult; as noted above, the sense of reward when this paid off was
considerable.


12:3:2 Academic staff

These students had almost overwhelmingly positive impressions of the majority of academic
staff. One or two had encountered less sympathetic tutors who stood out as being „different‟
from the norm. Tutors were described as „easy to understand‟, „really approachable… I
haven‟t found anyone unhelpful‟, „a really friendly bunch, even the ones I don‟t know
properly‟, „not condescending… not like I was worried they would be‟, „great… they‟re
bothered about the subject‟. None of these students stated that it was important to them that
tutors „really cared‟ about them. What they valued was clear, readily available academic
support which did not make them feel foolish or patronised. For the most part, this was
precisely what they had had.

Several were aware of the pressure on staff time due to high staff-student ratios. This was
noted as the biggest change from school by several students.

One student stated that „you don‟t really get to know the tutors that well [because] often it‟s a
different person each time… you don‟t need to know the lecturers too well, though‟.
However, two students had thoroughly appreciated the chance to discuss aspects of their
subject with lecturers in an „informal chat‟ outside lectures, simply because they happened to
bump into the tutor, who initiated conversation. These interactions had clearly made an
impression on the students.

Two students had received specific support from a guidance tutor, and both had found this
invaluable. In fact, both of these students stated that the guidance tutor was „the main reason I
didn‟t drop out‟. Another student stated that s/he would have liked to get to know his/her
guidance tutor better, but that an opportunity had not arisen as s/he had not had any particular
problems with which the guidance tutor had to get involved.

Three students expressed a desire to know more about staff research interests and specialisms.
One suggested that students should be told more about these at the beginning of the year, and
that as well as a „practical‟ list of staff names, roles and contact details they would like to
have a brief description of people‟s professional and academic backgrounds, research and
publications. This can be seen as a desire on the part of students to join an „academic
community‟ which includes both them and their lecturers. It is hard to imagine that a move of
this sort would be anything but popular with academics.


12:3:3 Social experiences

All of these students reported that they had enjoyed their social life during the first year of
university. They were all adamant that they did not fit the stereotype of a student who goes
out drinking every night and neglects his/her work, although several were clear that they‟d
had „a really good time‟ and mentioned that university had been „fun‟ so far.

All three students who lived in halls of residence said that these had played a great part in
their social satisfaction. The opportunity to live within a student community was one essential
factor. In addition, two students stated that they had liked the diversity of students in their


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halls, and the opportunity to make friends with students from other parts of the UK and
international students.

One student said that s/he liked the social opportunities offered by his/her course because
„you know you‟ve got something in common with other people on the course… it‟s not like
school, most of them want to be here‟. Another stated that s/he had enjoyed the chance to
meet „serious people‟ through the course, and a third said that a „really good‟ part of the
university experience had been „getting to know the people in my year‟. A student who lived
at home felt that s/he had encountered some problems because of the presence within the
university of a number of old friends from school. S/he stated that this had proved something
of a „barrier‟ at first when s/he tried to make new friends. This student also spoke warmly of
the diversity s/he had encountered. Several students mentioned the importance of making
friends with students from a variety of Schools within the university, both from the social and
the academic point of view. Two students said that they liked talking to students from
different schools about „different subjects‟.

Three of these students had become involved in informal „study groups‟ with their friends,
both in the same School and across the university. These had clearly been very important in
maintaining both good study habits and morale. One of the students who had worked with
students from other courses spoke of enjoying the sense that part of his/her identity was
derived from his/her subject.

Students were aware of the importance of social integration in university persistence. Two
mentioned that they knew of students who had left because of a lack of social integration, and
one said that without the community s/he had joined in a hall of residence, s/he „would not be
here now‟. For this individual:

      … it‟s reassuring because everyone‟s scared, and you force each other to make
      friends… it‟s just knowing people are in the exact same position as you that
      helps. I‟m still sharing with people from my halls now because of that
      community.

The city of Newcastle was also praised by all three students who had moved here to enter HE.
Surprisingly, the nightlife was not mentioned at all, although two students stated that they
liked the „Quayside‟, which may have been a proxy for this. The Northumbrian countryside
was mentioned by two students, as were the museums and art galleries. Sport was also
important to these students, although the Great North Run got more mentions than NUFC.




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12:4    Student attitudes

12:4:1 Motivation

Not surprisingly, these students reported extremely high levels of motivation. Five seemed
surprised at being asked whether they ever felt unmotivated, and the other student recalled a
lack of motivation only as something s/he had felt in the first semester. In his/her case, this
had been entirely linked to a lack of confidence around two particular modules. S/he had
sought help from a guidance tutor and the seminar tutor for one of these, and as his/her
assurance rose, so did his/her motivation. Another mentioned that at the beginning, „worry‟
was a demotivator, but that interest in the course and initial success had helped him/her
overcome this: „thinking you can‟t do it is the problem‟.

All were aware that some of their peers are often unmotivated, but seemed unable to
empathise with this to any degree. One expressed annoyance at students who „just go on to
university because they can‟t think of anything else to do and then they don‟t… make any use
of it‟. Again, this can be seen as the response of a hard-working student to his/her „strategic‟
peers (social class may also have played a part in this response from a first-generation student
who felt that university offered an important opportunity which should not be squandered).
Several were aware that „going out‟ gets in the way of work for a lot of students, but although
they enjoyed their social lifes their focus on their academic and career goals meant that giving
this up sometimes was not difficult.

When asked about the sources of their motivation, a remarkably uniform set of responses
were given. The most common, mentioned by all students, were „enjoyment‟ and „interest‟.
These students have other agendas, but engaging with their subject is not a chore for them
because they actually like it. All of them also mentioned „self esteem‟ reasons, such as
„feeling that I really understand things‟, „personal satisfaction‟, „doing better than I did last
time‟, and „doing better than I think I can‟. One student mentioned the satisfaction from
„working hard at things I don’t enjoy‟ and getting on top of things which are definitely
difficult.

High marks were mentioned as a motivating factor by most of these students. However, one
also said that the occasional low mark was also a motivator, because it fostered a
determination to do better next time.

For several students, learning „new‟ techniques or topics was motivating, and one mentioned
that meeting deadlines and keeping to a schedule was satisfying. Fear of failure was also
mentioned by three students, and three stated that tutors were a motivating factor, either
because they inspired interest or because they were „nice‟ and the students did not want to let
them down.

Career goals were mentioned alongside these here-and-now motivators by three students. One
student stated that s/he worked hard because s/he „wants to get a job which I want to get up
and go to every morning‟ on leaving university. Similar sentiments were expressed by the
others, who wanted „interesting‟ and „rewarding‟ jobs. While these will probably offer good
salaries, money was not mentioned by any of these students. Future motivation is important to
at least some of them, but it is accompanied by a very clear set of motivations relating to their
current tasks.




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12:4:2 What is university for?

Students were asked what they believed the purpose of a university to be. Again, the
responses to this item were remarkably uniform. All of the students stressed a mixture of
career and vocational purposes, academic or intellectual ones, and social ones.

The first category included items such as „help people get better jobs‟, „encourage people‟s
career aspirations‟, „help people prepare for work‟, „let people know what sort of jobs are out
there‟.

The second was worded more diversely (perhaps because it is more abstract, and less often
discussed). Items included „let people study things that they enjoy and that they‟re happy
with‟, „help people to understand things‟, „help people to fulfil their potential‟, „help people
study and think about subjects‟, „catch people‟s interest‟.

Finally, social skills were mentioned by almost all the students involved. Three actually used
the phrase „the student experience‟, which was seen as a mixture of opportunities to meet new
people and to develop one‟s own independence in a supported environment. Another was
more formal, stating that students had the chance to „develop social and interpersonal skills‟,
and one stated that „it‟s a chance to learn to be independent and to meet lots of different
people‟.

No student saw university as nothing other than a source of job training, and no student saw it
as a source of purely intellectual pursuits. In addition, these highly academically oriented
students viewed the social aspects of university and the opportunities which it offers for
personal development as being just as important as the academic and vocational elements.
Their construction of a university was very similar, in fact, to that described by the academic
staff.

What stood out most strongly, however, was that none of them seemed surprised at being
asked this question. All of them, at some point, had thought about what university actually is
for and why they were there. As one student remarked rather sadly, „I don‟t think a lot of
students have thought about this sort of thing.‟


12:4:3 Responsibilities

The students were asked what they believed to be the responsibilities of a university towards
its students and vice versa. These students felt that their experience at the University of
Northumbria so far gave a good example of a university which is fulfilling its responsibilities.
They had a fairly simple definition of these; provide excellent teaching and be available to
help students with specific academic difficulties or questions where necessary. One student
said „Just stick to what you‟re doing; it‟s working‟, while another stated „I‟ve had a really
good experience, it was about as good as I could hope‟.

The students who had been supported by their guidance tutors and/or Student Services
mentioned pastoral care (again citing the help they had received as „what you should get‟).
The other students did not mention this without prompting, but when asked about pastoral
support they all agreed that it was important.

Employability was not mentioned specifically, despite the fact that this was part of the
definition of „what a university does‟ for all the students. This was probably because they felt
that this was adequately covered by the teaching they received, including classroom work and
assessments (see below on „future goals‟).



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Similarly, they did not discuss social life, perhaps because this had come to all of them fairly
easily and they did not think of it as something that a university might have to facilitate for its
students. All of these students had given both their course choice and their decision to gain a
„university experience‟ very serious thought, and had clearly made an effort both to get the
most out of the course and to build a good social life around this.

Three students mentioned organisational factors and timetables. Two stated that they had had
a very good experience of these, but that some of their friends had found the timetable
problematic, because of long gaps between classes and the need to balance five days a week
in college with part-time work. The library had proved „difficult‟ for one student, and another
stated that s/he was happy with the facilities encountered, but that students who were paying
fees might expect „better facilities and… maybe a few more lecture hours too‟.

A less satisfied – and/or more strategic – group of students might have provided very different
answers to this question. The answers of these students to the question about student
responsibilities is in keeping with their proactive views and their dislike of the „strategic‟
approach observed among a minority of their peers. Their view of student responsibility was
once again very simple: „turn up and put the work in‟, as one interviewee put it.

They did not feel that universities should do anything different once students are paying fees.
Two students stated strongly that students whose parents were paying for them had a
particular responsibility not to let their families down or „make excuses‟. They were mostly
aware that some students probably would arrive with the view „I‟ve paid so I should get a
degree‟, and this was once again considered as foolish and immature. One student stated that
„if students have paid their own fees they have a responsibility to themselves… they should
work hard if they are paying, otherwise it‟s pointless‟.

These students found the analogy between students and „customers‟ interesting to consider,
but most rejected it as flawed. Two stated very firmly that they believe students are not
customers because the relationship is entirely different. Another said that s/he could see that
aspects of the relationship could be viewed that way, but that students must always be
students first.

One student misunderstood the question, responding that the university was providing
excellent „customer service‟, but went on to question the usefulness of the term in this
context, saying that it was „not a good description at all‟ of the role of the student.
Interestingly, two interviewees independently stated that they preferred the analogy of an
„apprentice‟. One of these students said that s/he had done so because it captured the sort of
„mutual respect‟ and openness to learning new things which had been valuable in his/her first
year experience (this was a mature-age student who had workplace experience prior to
arriving at university).


12:4:4 Future goals

The future goals of all these students related closely to their idea of what a university was all
about. All referred to enhanced employment prospects, and to more generic or personal skills
as well. Four referred to a more general „broadening of horizons‟, reflecting a discourse where
university education is equated with opportunity.

Again, none mentioned salary as an important criteria for their desired job. When asked what
they meant by a „good job‟ or „a decent job‟, they responded that it would be one that they
„enjoyed‟, that „was interesting‟, that „stretched them‟ or that „was useful‟. Several students
had had a clear idea of what they wanted to do on graduation when they first arrived, but had
since decided not to make a decision about their career until later on in the course, because


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one of the effects of university had been to „open their eyes‟ about the range of work which is
available. One student said that s/he had been surprised at how much s/he had enjoyed new
materials during the course, and stated that it would be „silly‟ to be too narrow-minded about
careers after just one year.

These students had a clear grasp of the generic skills which they wanted. Confidence was
mentioned by four students as very important. Two mentioned organisational skills, and four
mentioned writing and/or presentation skills. General study and learning skills were
mentioned by three students, who were clearly aware of „lifelong learning‟ and CPD. Two of
the „young‟ students mentioned „independence‟ and „growing up‟ as things which they
wanted to do through university, and one student, as mentioned above, mentioned living in a
diverse society.

Several students specifically mentioned broader „academic‟ or intellectual goals as well.
Three stated that they wanted „a really good understanding of [my field]‟, and one felt that
this was an important reason for taking a degree course in the subject rather than just
„working your way up‟. One referred to general intellectual development („learning about
ideas‟), and the theme of „potential‟ recurred in several interviews.

These students, with their strong vocational goals and academic orientations, offer a useful
picture of student „best practice‟ which can be used in developing work around the student
experience. While sharing staff best practice has a long pedigree, the explicit extension of this
strategy to students is less developed. However, it is clearly happening informally through
small study groups and student social networks. The university might benefit from tapping
into and supporting these.




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Section Thirteen:        Staff perspectives

13:1    Methodology

The response to the staff questionnaire was very small. It was circulated to over 100 staff in
three schools, but 18 questionnaires were returned, and only 16 of these were usable. The
proportion of staff who were willing to be interviewed was relatively high, and seven
interviews took place with staff from two schools.

Staff were offered the option of completing and returning the questionnaire electronically, or
of printing it out and returning it be internal mail. In the end, eight of the usable responses
were received electronically and eight by internal mail. No differences emerged between
questionnaires submitted in each mode.

The staff questionnaire was designed after most of the results of the student questionnaire had
been analysed, so that specific issues which arose from this could be raised with academic
staff. Because of the diversity of student attitudes and experience, staff were asked to estimate
the proportion of their students who showed particular characteristics, rather than to
characterise „students‟ as a whole group. The staff responses confirmed that this approach
was useful, because answers in the „large majority‟ and „small minority‟ brackets were
extremely rare throughout the responses. In addition, several staff drew attention to a wide
diversity of student behaviours and attitudes in their prose responses.

Prose responses were invited on four topics. However, staff did offer slightly longer responses
to some of the questions where very brief answers were requested. These have been discussed
alongside the shorter answers, because in almost all cases they simply elaborated on general
points made in these.


13:2    Staff characteristics

Twelve members of staff from the School of Informatics responded to the questionnaire, and
four from the School of the Build Environment. Responses from staff in these two Schools
were extremely uniform, possibly because they all teach courses which are quite strongly
vocational. The differences which emerged related to specialisation of particular courses.

The majority (just over one third) of these staff had been lecturing at the University of
Northumbria for five years or less. Three had lectured here for between 12 and 15 years, and
two for twenty or more years.

Two members of staff had entered university teaching directly from undergraduate or
postgraduate study, and four had been working as academics in other HE or FE institutions.
Nine had been working in business or industry before taking up their lectureships.

The majority (10) stated that their main teaching area was „subject-specific and technical‟.
Two felt that that they mostly taught in areas which were „subject specific and non-technical‟,
and three that their work was „subject specific and conceptual/theoretical‟. Secondary
teaching areas included technical work, work experience and generic skills teaching, and
project work and research.

Staff were asked to respond to questionnaire items in relation to the first year students whom
they encountered, either in classrooms and lectures or as guidance tutees. The majority of
these lecturers both taught first years and acted as first year guidance tutors.




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13:3       Staff responses: quantitative sections

13:3:1 Staff impressions of students

The following table presents staff responses to questionnaire items on student characteristics.
The figures represent the percentage of staff who believe that each statement is true of the
proportion of their students indicated at the head of the column17.

                                                   a large     a           about     a          a small
                                                   majority    majority    half      minority   minority

Students arrive at university with adequate or     0           18.85%      25%       37.5%      18.8%
better subject-specific skills/knowledge

Students arrive at university with adequate or     0           6.3%        37.5%     43.8%      12.5%
better self-management skills

Students find it easy to acquire self-             0           6.3%        37.5%     50%        0
management skills

Students arrive at university with adequate or     0           12.5%       62.5%     18.8%      6.3%
better study skills

Students are strong on concepts                    0           6.3%        31.3%     56.3%      6.3%

Students are highly motivated to learn             6.3%        25%         43.3%     25%        0

Students are interested in their subject           6.3%        56.3%       31.3%     6.3%       0


Students find their course boring                  0           12.5%       25%       50%         6.3%

Students expect to be „spoon fed‟                  6.3%        31.3%       62.5%     0          0

Students expect to „dictate terms‟                 6.3%        6.3%        0         50%        25%

Students understand that they need to work         18.8%       25%         43.8%     12.5%      0
hard to gain good marks

Students generally only do the minimum of          18.8%       25%         43.8%     12.5%      0
work required of them

Students need to know „how they are doing‟         37.5%       50%         12.5%     0          0
in order to feel motivated to work

Gaining high marks (rather than just passing)      12.5%       31.3%       31.3%     25%        0
is very important to students

Students are clear about why they are at           0           31.3%       31.3%     31.3%      6.3
university

Students are confident in their academic           0           18.8%       43.8%     31.3%      6.3%
ability

Students have high general levels of self-         0           12.5%       56.3%     31.3%      0
confidence


17
     Where a member of staff declined to respond to a particular item, percentages will not add up to 100

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The staff who responded seem to have concerns about the study skills of at least half of their
students, both when they arrive and once they have had some time to work on these. The
majority of staff suggest that only around half of their students have good general study skills
on arrival, and most are pessimistic about students‟ ability to improve these. This contrasts
with student assessment of their own study skills as indicated in their questionnaire responses,
where well over half felt that they had acquired good study skills during their first year.

One explanation for this is the acceptance among students of relatively low private study
hours, and possibly also surface learning practices. Staff may be more aware of students with
weak study skills than of students who are good at organising their own work, because these
students may take up more of their time than do the ones who are managing well.

Overall, the aspect of student study about which staff are most concerned is their self-
management. Just under 50% of students stated that they felt that they „worked consistently‟,
indicating that most staff have a fairly accurate estimate of the extent to which students are
strong in this area. However, students seem to rate their own „independent working‟ skills far
more highly than do staff. The need to help students develop better study skills, and
recognised the need for these, emerges from this data and the interview feedback from staff.

Staff were not overly concerned about the lack of subject-specific skills brought to university
by their students, because most were teaching on courses which are designed to be suitable
for students „starting from scratch‟ in a particular area.

Levels of subject interest are judged as being relatively high by the majority of staff. Just over
70% of students agree or strongly agree with the item on interest; it would appear from this
that their perception is more or less accurate. It should be noted that the student responses to
items around interest are slightly contradictory. While about 70% state that they find their
course interesting overall, around 65% agreed with the item „I often found my course boring
but will stick with it because I want a good job‟. This probably indicates that for many
students experience of the course (like their levels of motivation and work patterns) is
somewhat uneven. Staff interviews confirmed that staff are aware of this, and also of the shift
in levels of interest which occurs through the academic year and as the course progresses.

Staff over-estimated the percentage of students who are highly motivated to learn. Almost
half of the staff questioned believed that around half of their students are highly motivated,
and more than a quarter believe that a majority of students feel highly motivated. However,
Just over half of the students agree or strongly agree with the „low motivation‟ item, and only
20% actually disagreed or strongly disagreed. Students may well „cover‟ their lack of
motivation with hard work in class, or the „future motivation‟ of the „good job‟ may ensure
that they make an effort. It is also possible that staff were thinking of all the students they
teach; most stated in their interviews that motivation increases in the second and final years.,
and that the responses from the staff who teach very specialised courses (where motivation
was noted as being considerably higher) have led to a high figure.

There may also have been a shift in the general motivational levels of students in very recent
years (see below on interview comments relating to attendance and assignments).

Staff underestimated the importance of gaining high marks (rather than just passing) to
students. Almost three-quarters of the students strongly agreed with this item, and a further
quarter agreed; however, only 12.5% of staff thought that this was important to „a large
majority‟ of students, and only around one-third thought that it was important to a majority.
More than half the staff questioned thought that high marks were important to 50% or fewer
of their students.




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The reason for this underestimation may well be the failure of many students to put in the
requisite number of hours. In the student data, no significant relationship was found between
strong agreement with the „high marks‟ item and disagreement with the „minimum work‟ item
(although commonsense would suggest that it should exist). However, if some of the students
comments in 2:2 above are considered, it appears that Northumbria students are far from
atypical in this pattern.

Perhaps surprisingly, therefore, staff generally believe that students are well-aware of the
importance of hard work in gaining good marks. Almost half believe that the majority of
students know this, while the same number believe that half of their students are aware that
they need to put the work in in order to do well. Staff may overestimate students‟ satisfaction
with their own performance in this respect. Another possibility may lie in the comparison of
this response with the fact that almost 40% of students agreed with the item „inherent ability
is the biggest factor in success at university‟, and very few disagreed. One member of staff
commented that students seemed very surprised when they were actually able to „get better‟ at
their subject, and two stated that many students assume that their performance at school
determines all they can ever achieve. Students may believe that high marks are simply
something of which they are not capable, rather than something they can gain with hard work;
staff are aware that to a large extent students can control their own attainment.

The impact of feedback on motivation was estimated as being high among students, but it was
still underestimated. Only 37.5% of staff believed that „a large majority‟ of students „need to
know “how they are doing” in order to feel motivated to work‟. However, more than 90% of
students agreed or strongly agreed with this item, a „large majority‟ by anyone‟s standards.
50% of staff believe that a majority of students feel this way, and 12.5% stated that it was
probably important to around half of the students.

The immense importance of ongoing feedback to students is something of which staff seem to
need a greater awareness. Again, student behaviours may play a part here; many staff note
that students are unwilling to cooperate with the formative assignments and regular tests
which would help to give them this kind of low-anxiety ongoing awareness of their progress.

Staff are well aware that a number of their students are „strategic‟ in that they will do the
„minimum of work that is required of them‟ if possible. Only 12.5% of staff stated that this
applied to a minority of their students; the rest were equally divided between attributing this
working pattern to between half and a majority of their students. Around 40% of students
disagree or strongly disagree with this item in their questionnaire, suggesting that the 25% of
staff who suggest that „a majority‟ of their students generally do the minimum are correct, and
that those who suggest that this pattern applies to around half are slightly over-optimistic.

Again, differences between staff and student definitions of „minimum‟ should be considered.
A student may feel that s/he is doing „the minimum‟ if s/he studies for the prescribed 18 hours
a week, or if s/he is completes assignments by the skin of the teeth. A student may feel that
s/he is doing more than the minimum if s/he occasionally glances at last week‟s lecture notes
before a seminar, or if s/he does the regular writing-up, revision and non-required reading
described by the student interviewees. Staff definitions are probably a good deal less elastic.

No particular item on the student questionnaire measured students‟ responses to conceptual
work, although several items could be regarded as „proxies‟ for this, e.g. the item relating to a
preference for obviously „career relevant‟ topics. It is probably fair to say that most if not all
of the students who were interviewed would have enjoyed „conceptual‟ work, and probably
performed strongly in these areas. However, staff were deeply concerned about students‟
skills in this area, and hardly any felt that more than half of their students were good at
handling this aspect of university level work. This probably relates to the preference for
„transactional‟ learning discussed in interviews (see below).


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The item on „spoon feeding‟ was included because this term is heard so often in discussions
of the contemporary student in the media and in informal conversations between staff (it was
also used by two of the student interviewees in relation to some of their peers). No member of
staff felt that fewer than 50% of their students brought this expectation to the classroom at
some stage, and just over a third felt that it applied to the majority of students. This issue was
explored at great length in the staff interviews.

The item „Students expect to “dictate terms”‟ was borrowed from McInnis and James‟ 2000
survey of academics in Australian universities. It was introduced following the introduction of
a system in which many students paid tuition fees, in response to concerns that students were
coming to view themselves as „customers‟ who are in a position to make demands over
aspects of their course (as opposed to other, more obviously „transactional‟ elements of
university life such as facilities, accommodation etc).

Staff in this survey did not appear to believe that this was a prevalent attitude among
University of Northumbria students. However, only 25% suggested that it was found among
no more than „a small minority‟. 50% state that „a minority‟ of students at some time show
this sort of behaviour, indicating that it is a small, but real, issue in their day to day lives. Just
two members of staff suggested that it is widespread.

Staff were evenly divided in their views on whether students are „clear‟ about their reasons
for coming to university. Very few felt that a large minority or majority were either clear or
unclear; the „clustering‟ of responses in the middle reflects the very wide student diversity
which emerged from the interviews. A similar diversity emerges around levels of confidence
among students, although given the relatively low levels of confidence reported even by the
highly satisfied and successful interviewees, staff may overestimate the assurance of students.

It should be noted that these are responses from a small number of staff in a small section of
the university. In addition, it is likely that the questionnaire was returned only by staff who
have a strong interest in student affairs, which may have skewed the results in some way.
Several staff told me privately that they believed this exercise, for one reason or another, to be
a waste of time (and that therefore they had not completed the questionnaire). Their responses
would have been interesting for this reason if no other, but it would be difficult to find a
reliable way of collecting these.


13:3:2 Staff perspectives on student retention

Staff were asked to indicate what they believed to be the main reason why students drop out
of university. The purpose of this, like that of the questions above, was to measure staff
attitudes to withdrawal, and not to discover why students „really‟ leave.

The majority of answers reflected the importance of poor course choice, which several studies
(LS1, 51-6, 82-90) cite as the major reason for withdrawal from HE. This suggests that staff
here perceive retention patterns as being similar to national ones. The School of Informatics
study came to a similar conclusion. 25% of staff state that students leave because they „chose
the wrong course‟, and two more state that they leave because the course was „not what they
expected‟. Several staff also suggest that these are secondary reasons for withdrawal. One
tutor suggests that changing career aims also have an influence, which may be observed
especially in the vocational courses taught in these schools.

Financial hardship is suggested as the main reason by three members of staff as the main
reason for withdrawal, and by three more as an important secondary reason. This is out of line
with national statistics, but in keeping with UFNE (2001), and also with the attitudes reported
by the student interviewees.


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Lack of motivation and poor time management were mentioned by three members of staff as
primary reasons and by just one as a secondary reason. It may be that these factors are rarely
cited by withdrawing students themselves, because they will usually merge with other factors
(e.g. homesickness), or because they will have other, more obvious symptoms such as
academic failure. In addition, they are rather difficult things for a student to admit in a face-
to-face interview with their tutors. In several interviews in School of Informatics a student
admitted to a member of staff who had not taught him/her that they had decided to leave
because s/he „just didn‟t feel motivated‟, but that s/he had offered a different reason to a
guidance tutor or year tutor. However, several staff did say that some students will discuss
their lack of motivation with little embarrassment.

A cluster of academic issues were cited, mostly as secondary reasons. Only one member of
staff named this as a primary reason for withdrawal, but four suggested that finding the course
too difficult was a secondary factor in some students‟ decision to leave.

Homesickness was named as a primary factor by one tutor and a secondary factor by two.
External time pressures were seen as important by two tutors; one named part-time work as
the main problem, while the other noted that family pressures are a problem for many
students.

One tutor suggested that the main difficulty lies in institutional attitudes towards students. If
they are not treated as individuals they are more likely to leave; similarly, poor course
organisation and inconvenient timetables make it difficult for many to persist in higher
education. Evidence from the School of Informatics project suggests that the latter factor in
particular is a source of difficulty for many students.

Several staff offered slightly longer discussion. For example, the tutor who stated that „poor
time management‟ was a problem elaborated on this, suggesting that:

      These are often students who have low attendance rates, in spite of attempts to
      contact them and encourage them to contact us, who then fall so far behind they
      no longer feel able to catch up. This is often due to inability to juggle earning
      money with socialising and then with study (in that order) – so the study can be
      the first thing to give.

This is actually a very accurate picture of the sort of „drift‟ which was described by students
in the School of Informatics who had been called in to interviews following poor attendance.
Another tutor offered a similar response to the one quoted here in relation to poor motivation.
The sense of „not being able to catch up‟ is a hugely important factor in the decision to leave
for many students. This tutor draws attention to a number of issues, such as the failure of the
student to integrate with the institution (e.g. by responding to contact) and low academic
motivation (so that study is their lowest priority).

What was interesting about these responses is that very few staff seemed aware of this sort of
„passive‟ withdrawal. One explanation may be that students who leave in this way often fail
to see their tutors before their departure, or even to fill in an official „exit form‟. The students
with whom tutors are more likely to discuss a withdrawal tend to be those who have identified
one particular reason why they are dropping out.

Several staff mentioned that part-time work was an issue which compounds the problems of
financial hardship, and another stated that students may allow personal problems to spiral out
of control if there are a range of stresses in their lives. Tutors are extremely receptive to the
fact that students often have to balance a range of difficult and diverse factors; it is probably
fair to say that many students do not realise how understanding their lecturers are of their
situation and its difficulties.


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Only two members of staff suggested that students leave specifically because they are more
committed to their social life than to their course.

One stated that some students may be inclined to give up early on in a course if they find
certain elements, especially the technical ones, difficult. The importance of changing the
student perception that their abilities are pre-determined and that they are relatively unlikely
to be able to develop new skills is clear. This is part of the agenda for study skills provision.
Students need to become aware that they can, and will, be able to extend their range of
knowledge and abilities quite dramatically if they are willing to put the work in. The
excitement of finding that one is able to do something which was previously very hard was
mentioned by several of the interviewees, but these were all proactive students whose
personal inclination was to relish a challenge. Fostering a similar approach in a wider swathe
of the student body is important18.

The member of staff who drew attention to administrative and timetabling matters was well-
informed of the sort of difficulty which students in the School of Informatics had mentioned.
S/he noted that students found it difficult to maintain attendance, and therefore to persist, if
they encountered „unsympathetic timetables [which] assume students are available on campus
9am-6pm, 5 days a week‟ (see LS1, 128-132, on the decline of the „full time‟ student).

This member of staff also drew attention to the dissatisfaction of some students with elements
of course organisation which they perceive as being poor. This is a very valid point. Poor
organisation can be damaging to retention where it means that a student misses out on one
„key‟ element of their course, e.g. being unable to contact a guidance tutor at a crisis point,
missing one examination or assessment deadline, failing to find the first two introductory
classes on a particular module. These may appear relatively trivial, but they can provide the
„critical incidents‟ which colour a student‟s view of university. Alternatively, generally poor
organisation can make students feel that the institution is not particularly concerned with their
experience or their convenience, which is damaging to commitment and integration.


13:3:3 Staff perspectives on entry decisions

Staff named various aspects of „job prospects‟ as being the most important reason why
students enter university. 68.8% stated that this was the most important factor in entry
decisions, and 25% thought it would be the second most important one. This suggests a very
realistic view of student priorities.

Staff underestimated subject interest. Just one lecturer stated that this was the most important
reason, and five stated it as a secondary reason. However, over 50% of students stated that the
desire to study a particular subject prompted their decision to enter HE.

Staff are aware of reactive entry. One person named it as a central reason for entering HE, and
two named „pressure of expectations‟. However, most felt that it would be a secondary
reason; reactive entry and/or pressure of expectations were named as powerful secondary
motivations by 13 members of staff.

„Self esteem‟ and „status‟ reasons were mentioned only by two members of staff, and only
very few believed that the desire for a student social life (named as secondary by 2 staff) or to
avoid getting a job at this stage (likewise) had any impact. Just two members of staff suggests
that academic reasons (e.g. „to be educated‟, „joy of learning‟) are important.

18
  I had a similar experience at my previous institution where I taught technical linguistics to English
students.

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Overall, staff appear to have a realistic picture of the career focus of their students, and a wise
awareness that many students enter HE because it is part of a „natural progression‟. However,
they might be cheered by the high levels of interest in particular subjects with which students
arrive. It is possible that in these vocational areas staff assume that this is a part of the
students‟ desire to improve their job prospects, as most students entering these courses will
aim to get a particular sort of job.


13:3:4 Staff perspectives on the purpose of the university

Staff were asked to indicate what they believed to be the most important function of a
university in relation to its students. Seven offered responses indicating their belief that the
central function should be „general intellectual development‟. This reflects a traditional view
of the role of higher education, and also more recent discussion of the skills which employers
seek in their graduate recruits. Three people preferred a more directly vocational definition,
stating that universities should „prepare students for work‟, or for particular jobs. Two tutors
stress „personal development‟ issues, and one states that staff should support students in all of
their vocational, academic and personal learning. Staff also stress the importance of capturing
students‟ interest and providing excellent teaching.

A wider range of issues emerge when the „secondary functions and characteristics‟ are
named. Seven tutors state at this stage that developing subject- or career-specific skills is key,
and two point to generic skills. Personal development is mentioned by three tutors at this
stage. Interestingly, only 5 people who did not provide answers under the heading of „general
intellectual development‟ as the main function do so here, suggesting that for some tutors this
is either subsumed in the preparation of students for work and/or personal development, or
that they do not consider this to be an essential function.

Several tutors who did not name vocational aims in response to the first item do so at this
stage, and almost half point to the importance of offering pastoral support. Three suggest that
offering students an academic and social community is important.

Overall, staff and students appear to have fairly similar views on what a university „should
do‟. Both specific and generic preparation for work, and general intellectual development
feature substantially in their accounts, although it is probably the case that the students
interviewed gave a minority perspective on the latter issue. However, the importance of
offering a community to students is almost certainly underestimated by academic staff. It may
be that large element of this are outside the core activities of lecturers and are part of the
function of central services such as accommodation or the Student Union. The importance of
academic integration to students, however, suggests that this is an area where more staff
activity (and support for this) would be very helpful indeed.

Several members of staff drew attention to the importance of helping students to develop
confidence in their abilities, and to help them develop both their intellectual and social
identities. Staff showed a high level of awareness of the need to challenge students in a „safe‟
environment, and to provide supportive teaching.

In addition, the particular needs of part-time students were noted by several staff. This was
the first point at which the very favourable views of non-traditional students, noted during the
interviews, arose. One tutor characterised his/her part-time students as follows: „Part time
students are 'hungry' to learn as much as possible and engage in a great deal of independent
study.‟




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13:4       Staff responses: student lifestyles and characteristics

13:4:1 Staff knowledge of student lifestyles

Staff were asked to estimate the proportion of their full-time students who had a part-time job
during the term. The majority estimated this as being quite high. Just one tutor estimated the
number of students with jobs as being around 25%. One thought that about half of the
students had a job, and three believed that 60 – 65% of students had jobs. Seven tutors
thought that 70 – 75% of students worked, and two believed that the actual number was
around 80%. Two tutors put the number over 90%.

These estimates are extremely diverse, and suggest that many tutors simply do not know how
many of their students spend time earning money. This is not surprising, because where
figures on student employment are published they are rarely given wide publicity. Part of this
may be because of the difficulties involved in obtaining really reliable statistics. Students
cannot be said either to have a job or not. Throughout the academic year they give up jobs or
take on new ones, change their working hours and shift patterns, and it would be hard to
provide a strong definition of precisely what is meant by „part-time work‟. However, several
of the staff interviewed stated that they would greatly appreciate some firmer information
about these matters.

Around 50% of the students surveyed in this project had part-time jobs. However, the
„cluster‟ of tutors who estimated the number of students in work at 70 – 75% were reasonably
accurate in relation to the whole student population. The data collected in the University of
Northumbria Debt Survey suggests that about 76.8% of all full-time students at this
institution work during term-time. On this basis, the majority of lecturers who returned the
questionnaire underestimate the number of students in employment.

Staff were also asked to estimate the typical working week among their students. Two stated
that they had no idea (and stressed that information on this must be sought from the students
themselves). Here, staff seemed to have a more realistic picture of the actual situation. Five
lecturers estimated that students worked for twelve hours or less in a typical week, but five
suggested that a normal workload would be 15 or 16 hours, and four more stating that they
believed students typically worked for around 20 hours.

Again, there is a wide diversity of opinion with a cluster around the „actual‟ figure of 15.5
hours which emerged from the questionnaire. From the data collected in the University of
Northumbria Debt Survey, a very rough estimate of the average would be around 16.25 hours
a week, suggesting that a number of tutors make an accurate estimate but that many would
appreciate some more accurate information19.

Staff turned out to be remarkably realistic in their estimates of the typical number of hours
spent in private study by their students. Despite the official advice that students should spend
around 18 hours a week working independently, no tutor offered an estimate which was this
high. Eight tutors estimated 10 or 12 hours as a regular week‟s study time, and only one
suggested that most students would study for around 16 hours. The rest all suggested that
between three and six hours was more likely to be accurate. This suggests that the majority of
tutors slightly over-estimate how much their students normally work (the average tutor
estimate was just under nine hours), but that they are depressingly realistic about how little
study is actually done.




19
     Like this project, a very wide range of student working weeks was revealed by the Debt Survey.

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13:4:2 Staff narratives of student lifestyles

When students were asked to write about the lifestyles of their first year students, a range of
very diverse impressions emerged. Several tutors drew attention to the wide range of
behaviours and attitudes, and were careful to state that their comments should not be taken as
referring to the entire student population.

Time pressures on students emerged as a theme of which many were well aware, and staff had
a clear picture of the different issues which compete for priority in the lives of many of their
charges. All but one mentioned the problems of balancing elements of a student life, as this
tutor suggests: „worst case is they get the balance between learning, getting the marks and
enjoying yourself wrong‟. Another tutor stated that: „some are very focussed on their studies –
others try fit their studies around everything else‟, and this comment suggests a similar
impression: „I suspect that in the division between academic work, paid work and social life
the academic work looses out‟.

One tutor felt – rather like the student interviewees – that financial pressures are the main
difficulty for many students, writing that:

      I have the impression that students main concern is finance and that they are
      spending long hours basically trying to get cash. They have fairly active social
      lives as well, but the financial issue seems to be the predominant one.

However, some tutors did not feel that financial pressure was particularly important, at least
to some of the students, and that the main difficulty was an over-indulgent social life. „Non-
existent study till exam time and lots of partying with some paid work in between‟ was how
one characterised his/her students‟ lives, and another suggested that for most of his/her
students, life consisted of: „too many putting work before study, not necessarily because of
financial necessity… students do very little work outside of the class in order to meet their
learning needs‟. Another, who was most definitely in a minority, felt that his/her students did
not experience any stress: „Study [is] very relaxed – [their] lifestyle is based on enjoyment
and enjoying life‟. Elsewhere, student socialising was seen as „problematic‟ only in the first
semester, after which students grow up a bit and start to „settle down‟.

Several tutors drew attention to the link between poor attendance and time pressures of
various sorts: „They seem to spend a lot of time socialising and working part-time to earn
money, and don‟t attend all lectures and seminars as a consequence‟. Another suggested that
not only the time spent socialising, but the time spent recovering could lead to problems, and
noted that students often found it difficult to get up for 10am lectures after a night out.

The variation between student lifestyles was noted by another tutor, whose impression of
his/her students was that as well as part-time work commitments which were actually more
similar to a full-time job, „many live surprisingly quietly in the parental home‟. The variation
is again important.

Other perspectives on attendance were offered. One suggested that peer pressure might lead
to absenteeism, and several were aware that some students did not attend because they knew
there would be no penalties. Two tutors drew attention to the „double edged sword‟ of
providing learning materials on BlackBoard. This was regarded a valuable resource for
students who miss classes for a „valid reason‟ or who incorporate it into an organised
programme of revision and review, but as potentially damaging where students use it as a
substitute for attending classes.

One tutor drew attention to the informal study groups which had sprung up among his/her
students, and the usefulness of these.


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Another tutor focussed on the positives as well as the negatives, and while noting that many
students took time to settle, pointed out that the majority do find sources of support and
progress. It is easy to see the less ideal aspects of student habits and circumstances as
insurmountable, but in fact most do progress without major difficulties.


13:4:3 Staff impressions of student study skills and academic orientation

Staff were asked to reflect on the characteristics of first year students when they arrive at
university. Once again, very wide variation was mentioned by the majority of staff, and a
wide variation was described in the extended answers.

Some staff made it clear that they concentrated on the gaps in their students‟ skills and
knowledge, possibly because the students who arrived with high levels of skill tended to „get
on with it‟, and did not emerge as a problem. One tutor attributed this to the financial situation
of most current students:

      Generally motivation is high, financial demands as well as subject interest now
      motivate most students. A feeling of getting 'value' for money as well as one of
      making the most of the 3/4 years

Another tutor suggested that the norm was a reasonable level of study skills, which simply
needed to be directed towards the demands of individual courses:

      [study skills are] generally good but they need guidance as to what might be
      expected within this establishment and in particular as may relate to specific
      modules of learning as designed by specific members of staff.

These positive impressions, however, were in the minority. Staff who stated that at least some
of their students lacked the necessary study skills often referred to a general deficit in this
area: five people simply stated that some of their students had „poor study skills‟ overall.
Elsewhere, attention was drawn to poor skills in verbal and written communication (with
some exceptions). Staff were aware of a general unwillingness to engage in writing tasks, and
also to an inability or unwillingness to produce any kind of structured or formal prose. Report
writing emerged as a particularly difficult area.

This may relate to the difficulties with logical thought mentioned by three tutors. One
complained that students „could not be logical‟, and another stated that s/he had encountered
an unwillingness to „think through problems‟. This sort of view was summed up by the tutor
who wrote that „problem solving is usually the skill that they need to develop‟. Similarly,
there are complaints that students are unwilling to engage with theory, and find it very
difficult to comprehend structural or abstract concepts unless an enormous number of
practical examples are offered.

Interestingly, these latter areas relate to the development of different ways of thinking which
students may not have had to use during their school careers. Learning to think in a „different‟
way is one of the „transformational‟ aspects of higher education which may prove particularly
daunting for students. This may be because it is particularly vulnerable to failures of
confidence, or because it is perceived as potentially damaging to a student‟s identity. It is also
likely to require greater mental effort than simply learning facts, because it is by definition
acquired only through deep learning.

A lack of confidence is mentioned by two tutors, one of whom states that this is an area where
individual students vary enormously. Another tutor suggests that students fail to focus on
their work and in general are not „conscientious‟.


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A number of specific weaknesses are mentioned by several tutors. These include poor
independent working skills, a refusal to read any material in textbooks or journals, develop
listening skills or take notes, a deficit in „basic‟ subjects such as English or Mathematics, and
a desire – even a demand – to be spoon-fed. All of these factors are mentioned by at least two
different lecturers. In addition, one notes that the presence of a number of students in this
position can be difficult for students who are more willing to develop their study skills or who
arrive better prepared:

      a significant number lack adequate study skills such as: note-taking,
      independent reading, listening, analytical skills, writing. They determine the
      „culture‟ on a course.

However, another tutor states that most of his/her students arrive with generally good study
skills and a willingness to learn. These students are taking a very specific vocational course,
which is extremely unlikely to attract „reactive‟ entrants or students who have not undertaken
at least some careful thought about their future careers.


13:4:4 Staff impressions of student attitudes to university

The staff who returned the questionnaire felt in general that students have a positive attitude
towards their university. Students were described as „good humoured‟, „generally positive and
happy‟, „favourable‟ and „largely positive‟, and several tutors stated that they felt their
students liked university. One said that his/her students were „respectful [and] appreciative of
support given‟, and another stated that „most have a level of loyalty towards the university‟.
These views, given by about half of the staff questioned, seemed to reflect an accurate
appreciation of the level of satisfaction which emerged from the student questionnaire.

Recognising the importance of personal development and progression from school, the
comment was made that students „like the adult environment‟ which they find in higher
education. It is interesting that only one tutor mentioned this, because it is something which
seemed to underlie many of the comments from the student interviewees.

However, some less enthusiastic responses were received. One tutor suggested that students,
rather than being happy, tended to be „stoic‟ in the face of difficulties in their lives many of
which are not of the university‟s making. Another suggested that they might be happier if
they arrived with higher expectations, and rather less cheerfully, one tutor suggested that
his/her students „vary between scared and cynical‟. This may well be a similar impression to
that of the respondent who noted that they often „lack passion‟.

Once again, the variation between individual students was noted by several tutors. It was
asserted that „in the main they have a general understanding of what it means to become a
graduate and to have their degrees accepted by their chosen profession and peers‟. Others
expressed the variation as leaning rather less towards the positive characteristics. This was
attributed to the pressures on student time and the lack of integration which results from this.
One links a lack of social integration to a very „transactional‟ approach to learning and lack of
academic orientation:

      Attitudes vary. Some students fit “uni” in between work. Their social ties are not
      university-based. Some see it as a place where they get told things and then are
      tested.

A similar account is the following:



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      My impression is that some do as little study as possible to get by and others are
      incredibly committed to doing the very beset they possibly can. The vast
      majority have to work and this impacts on their study behaviour. Social activity
      within a cohort has certainly reduced as many do not have the time.

This lecturer might well find that s/he is in close agreement with the student interviewees on
the characteristics of the student body as a whole.

Four tutors, in this section, drew attention to the development not only of a transactional
approach to learning but of a „customer‟ mentality among students. The following comments
express this:

      [they] think that they should dictate policy and that they should get extensions
      and consideration even without cause. [they are] very blasé.

      They consider university to be a means of obtaining a degree at minimal effort,
      and are not interested in wider issues

      This is changing. It is more of an “I pay and therefore I have a right to pass”

      Some look at the university in quite a consumer-oriented way, thinking that as
      they pay for it they can demand what they want from their education. Others
      seem to think that it is a good place to learn.

Finally, several tutors draw attention to the distinction between student satisfaction with their
course and its teaching, and their dissatisfaction with some aspects of organisation. The
problems over timetabling which were mentioned by some of the student interviewees were
mentioned by two tutors, as were difficulties with the reliability of some IT services. Another
commented that „facilities and access to these facilities could be improved‟. The difficulties of
integrating students and organising timetables and other facilities in ways that support them
most effectively was noted by one respondent, who stated that increasing centralisation in
these areas both diminished efficiency and made the institution seem „inhuman‟ to students.


13:4:5 Staff impressions of student motivation

Here, more than in any other section, staff drew attention to the wide variation between
individual students and between defined groups of students. Only one suggested that the norm
was low motivation, and the majority were aware of some extremely highly motivated
students in their classes, probably very similar to the interviewees. One tutor wrote:

      There is a big difference between the attitudes and abilities of students on our
      courses. We have a small but significant number who do not fit the perceived
      profile… most of the students are quite blasé but can be motivated and a small
      number are almost alarmingly motivated!

It is easy to imagine that the interviewees would fit the latter, very welcome, category.

Other staff expressed the contrast as follows:

      About half… are highly motivated but the other half just turn up, do their work,
      and don‟t seem to be bothered about why they are doing it.

      Some students are motivated but about half are here because they think they need
      to be or can‟t think of anything else to be. Parental expectation is a key factor.


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       Generally about 60% are well motivated and attend regularly on first years

       … very mixed. Some are very motivated and want to achieve and therefore
       attend everything.

       Motivation is varied. There are significant numbers who appear reluctant to
       engage with learning activities or with others in their group. This sets a tone.

       Certain defined groups of students were described as considerably more
       motivated. Mature-age students were mentioned twice in questionnaire responses
       as „much more motivated‟, as were final year direct entry students. Several tutors
       note that motivation changes as students progress through the course:

       This [demotivated attitude] has generally changed by the final year.

       [students are] keen initially, some lose motivation later in the first year. Most
       work adequately in second year and very hard in third year.

Different types of course seem to attract students with different levels of motivation. One
tutor who taught only on a very specific vocational course explained as follows:

      [Motivation is] good to very good as they have all chosen a specific vocational
      course. They generally have done some research into their chosen profession but
      need reinforcement. The majority have a year in a professional office as part of
      their course from which they take great benefit and heart.

In an interview, this tutor explained that the jobs for which this course trained students were
not necessarily particularly glamorous or well-paid ones, and in addition that they tended to
be jobs of which students were not aware unless they knew someone in a similar line of work
or had encountered professionals of this sort. It would be a very unusual place for a „reactive
entrant‟ or a student who was simply pursuing a high salary to end up, and students would be
unlikely even to apply without a strong subject interest.

Another tutor, who taught both on „general‟ courses and more specific ones with higher entry
requirements, contrasted his/her students thus:

       … there is a bid difference between „general‟ students and [specific course]
       students. The general students tend to do what is necessary to pass, whereas the
       [specific course] students are highly motivated learners… they are of a higher
       academic standard coming in and of a higher motivation.

Staff had various perspectives on what motivates students. Subject interest was cited by
several:

       Some [students are] highly motivated by aspects of the course but tolerate others
       (e.g. specific modules). Some are excited by challenge and discovery, but many
       plod along in search of employability in the end.

For this tutor, vague career aspirations are what keep some unmotivated students going.
Considering the relatively high number of students who agreed with the item „I often find my
course boring but will stick with it because I want a good job‟, this tutor seems to have a good
idea of the different motivations among his/her students.




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Passing modules (possibly to avoid the additional work involved in a resit) and fear of failure
are cited by many tutors. Few seem to believe that high marks are particularly important to
the majority of students, possibly because aspirations and effort are, as suggested above, out
of step in many cases. However, simply getting enough marks is seen as a factor: „the key
motivator is marks but even this does not motivate some‟, states one tutor, and another writes:

      They are usually motivated enough to try to pass a module, but don‟t always
      want to do more than that. Summative assessment and fear of failure is the main
      motivator, and possibly keeping at the same level as the rest of their peer group.

Another tutor suggests that good relations with staff can boost motivation, a position which is
supported by the evidence from students:

      Certainly in class times, students generally come across as being motivated to try
      and grasp and apply what they are learning. E-mail seems to have contributed to
      this, as students are able to ask questions as they think of them… the students do
      seem to feel supported by staff, and I think that contributes to their positive
      motivation.

Various demotivating factors are noted. Two staff suggest that pressure of part-time work, in
particular exhaustion after long or badly-timed shifts, prevents students engaging well with
either attendance or assignments. Another suggests that part-time jobs operate in a „trade off‟
with students‟ desire to get „the best degree they can‟. Personal problems and unpleasant
aspects of the physical environment (wide variations in temperature and poor air quality) are
also mentioned. Three tutors suggest that poor motivation arises when students encounter
work which is difficult. This may be because they „exhibit the “it‟s hard and will take time so
I won‟t bother” attitude‟, or because they are worried about their ability to succeed:

      Some students become disillusioned when some elements are hard to grasp and
      they need to work independently to achieve results. They are motivated in
      subjects they think they know but may not appreciate the level required is above
      what they have been studying which can lead to demotivation.

It is possible that each of these attitudes may operate for different students.

The latter tutor picks up on the unwillingness of students to believe in the possibility of their
own intellectual transformation. It is not unusual for a tutor to encounter the attitude among
students that they will be unable to perform at university in subjects which they have not
„done before‟. A tacit belief seems to operate that both one‟s ability and one‟s subject
knowledge are more or less determined by one‟s school experience, and will not change
during higher education. Overcoming this is a very great challenge for academic staff. It may
become more difficult as students bring different expectations to education which is „free‟ and
education for which they pay.

Finally, two tutors draw attention to trends which may damage motivation for students with a
high level of academic orientation. One states that „many are disillusioned when very poor
students are allowed to pass into second year‟, and another argues that „students expect to
have to work for a degree and this is undermined when lazy students are allowed to progress
on a very poor performance‟. Both of these are essentially comments about „strategic‟
students. While the student interviewees were certainly not demotivated by their awareness of
„strategists‟ among their peers, it is possible that hardworking students with less
determination and/or academic orientation might well experience emotions of this kind. A
student who works hard but does not enjoy the subject greatly for its own sake may be
inclined to value their course lightly when the institution is perceived as passing the same
judgement on his/her own efforts.


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Section Fourteen:       Staff interview feedback

14:1    Staff interviews

A total of seven interviews were carried out with members of academic staff. Unfortunately
the response from staff to the request for volunteers was low; several said that they would
have liked to participate but were too busy to do so.

Interviews were informal and in most cases lasted about twenty minutes; they were kept short
because they were carried out in term and staff time was very limited. The interviews were
„semi-structured‟ and followed up on two of the topics raised in the questionnaire; student
characteristics, and university cultures.

Much of the discussion here focuses on the negative observations which staff made about
their students. However, most of the staff interviewees were enthusiastic about their students,


14:2    Staff perceptions of students

14:2:1 Student study habits

Staff estimates of student private study times and the reports of the students included in this
survey are very similar. Most staff were not surprised that many students ignore the „official‟
advice about how many hours they should spend working outside class.

Once again, differences between groups of students were mentioned; the lecturers who taught
on [different] very specialised vocational courses stated that they saw a difference between
these groups and their more „general‟ students. Both lecturers pointed out that although the
jobs for which these courses would lead attract reasonable graduate salaries, neither is
associated with exceptionally high pay, and that students would only really make the effort to
apply for a place if they had a genuine interest in the subject and the work. On these courses,
the tutors suggested that about three quarters of the students were extremely highly motivated,
and that even the less successful students worked hard.

Other differences between categories of student will be discussed in 14:2:4.

One lecturer, who felt that students „do a lot less than they need to‟, felt that in many cases
students did not bother to prepare for seminars. S/he regularly observed an enormous
difference between the reasonably-sized minority of students who prepared regularly and
thoroughly, and the majority who do not prepare at all, or who do so only very shallowly.
This was described as making seminars difficult to conduct, especially when the hard-
working students become demotivated because the „lazy‟ ones are allowed to progress, and
even benefit from other people‟s efforts.

This tutor recognised students‟ awareness of the diversity of input, and described a situation
in which students „tacitly‟ re-organised seminar groups on their own, so that all of the hard-
working ones ended up in the same group. Poor seminar attendance was noted; industrious
students may dislike attending seminars where their peers have not done enough work to
make the class viable, and weak students may not attend seminars where they are required to
„work for no marks‟. A similar pattern was described by several tutors, who were very clear
that a lack of work was not necessarily the norm, but that it was in danger of determining the
course of seminars because the students who do not prepare well, if they actually bother to
attend, are often demanding.




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Several members of staff stated that they were aware of some groups of students who were
probably doing sufficient work but would like the time to do more. In particular, mature-age
students with children were mentioned in this category.

The reasons why many students do not do anything like the required amount of work were
mentioned by many members of staff. Most were aware that there are some students who
balance a great many demands on their time in order to work very hard, but it was recognised
that this is difficult, and that one small upset can make it difficult for a student with a part-
time job, childcare responsibilities and a conscientious attitude to his/her coursework to
maintain their preferred schedule.

However, all were aware that a large number of their students do not work hard for other
reasons. One said that s/he felt students were quite willing to work, but that late adolescence
simply presented a wide range of things to do and think about, and that at first it was difficult
for students to concentrate on any one of these, especially when the strict supervision of
school (and in many cases parents) is removed. Most of them will „settle down‟ as the course
progresses. Another tutor said that s/he felt that many students were simply „lazy‟ and not
inclined to make any effort beyond the minimum to get through.

Another had spent time discussing schedules with students. For many, the 15 – 20 hours a
week of part-time work to which they were committed is not the only time commitment
which competes with their studies. Many commute to their jobs and also to college, adding as
much as ten hours a week of travel to some schedules. This tutor commented that many staff
were not aware of the complexity of student timetables and that the timetabling system is still
based on the assumption that students are „full time‟ and that is that. Instead, as one lecturer
put it, „many students occupy a part-time/full-time no-man‟s land‟.

Several tutors stated that they had noticed a sharp decline both in meeting deadlines and –
more importantly – attendance levels within the last year, or at most within the last two years.
No-one offered a specific explanation for this, but the fall in attendance levels was
commented upon by tutors on all courses apart from the specific vocational ones. In informal
discussions, this recent and worrying trend has been mentioned to my by tutors from four
different Schools.


14:2:2 Student preparation for university

Staff felt that in general students who came from school were poorly prepared for university,
and that the most important difference is between those who quickly adapt to university
assumptions and habits, and those who do not. Overall, staff reiterated the difficulties with
student preparation which had been mentioned on the questionnaire; poor time management,
an unwillingness to engage with tasks such as note-taking or independent reading, weak
writing and general communication skills, and a general inclination towards a „transactional‟
approach to learning, in which students are simply told precisely what they need to know and
then given opportunities to reproduce this.

Staff were asked whether they felt that these problems related specifically to „non-traditional‟
students, such as mature-age students or those from low-participation neighbourhoods and/or
non-graduate family backgrounds. These sections of the student population were absolutely
not regarded as having worse study skills than the rest. Several members of staff, in fact, felt
that these groups had more motivation to improve their study habits and make the best use of
their university place. At no point did I encounter the reservations in relation to non-
traditional students or widening participation, which have been attributed to academic staff by
some discussions. If anything, these staff felt more positively towards „widening
participation‟ students than towards the more traditional ones.


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Where a particular group was singled out as being worse prepared and least inclined to
overcome difficulties with their preparation, it was invariably the population of „reactive‟
entrants who had drifted into university because „it‟s what you do next‟ or because of vague
aspirations towards a good (usually, a well-paid) job. Staff were aware that reactive entrants
are more likely to be middle-class, young, and/or second generation.

Once again, students on the specialised vocational courses were noted as being considerably
more willing to improve their own study habits. These students were in general exempt from
most of the problematic traits discussed in the remainder of this section; they were also said to
adapt more easily to expectations in their work placements.

One of the difficulties around reactive entry was regarded by several tutors as the need to
maximise recruitment. One lecturer suggested that incorporating more elements of the higher
education „experience‟ into open days might reduce the number of applicants but increase the
number who are likely to stay. Useful elements of this sort might be an indication of
university teaching methods and of the amount of work which is really needed for a decent
performance. The results of the questionnaire regarding student expectations and their
relationship to perceptions are relevant here.

The term „spoon feeding‟ was used in nearly all the interviews. Several tutors felt that many
schools „spoon feed‟ pupils to a great extent, sometimes backing this up with the experience
of their own teenage children. Various reasons were suggested, such as the need for schools to
perform well in league tables, or the difficulties of teaching independent study techniques to
large classes. Two lecturers felt that criticism of secondary schools is „frowned upon‟.

Several lecturers believed that the „transactional‟ approach to learning, and the failure to
encourage students to find things out for themselves, were encouraged by schools. Students
who have been able to do reasonably well without developing independent research skills feel
that it is „unreasonable‟ of the university to ask them to engage in tasks such as reflection on
their own performance, problem-solving or library based research.

One lecturer stated that students fail to recognise the importance of developing generic and
study skills, and that this also relates to the belief, mentioned before, that abilities are „laid
down‟ before one enters HE and cannot really be changed. S/he stated that many students talk
about a lack of core abilities (e.g. time management, concentration, spelling) as if this is due
to a disease rather than a lack of experience20. Students are also unwilling to think „across‟ the
course, after the very separate experience of their school or college modules.

Also noted were deficits in basic communication and interpersonal skills, once again areas
where some students are unwilling to address their own development. These are particularly
problematic if students are wary of transformation during their higher education experience,
because the way someone communicates with or relates to other people are closely related to
identity. However, these are fundamental in both academic and professional performance.

Several staff were sceptical of the extent to which „bolt on‟ skills courses can address these
skills gaps. One stated that difficulties in self-management run deeper than anything a course

20
   During the ten years when I taught in HE, I noticed a difference in the way students described their
study skills. When I first entered the profession students described difficulties actively, e.g. „I find it
hard to organise my own time‟ or „I find essay writing difficult‟. However, as time went on they were
more likely to refer to themselves passively in this sort of report, e.g. „Time management is very hard
for me‟, or „Essay writing is a difficult issue for me‟. One student explained that she had a „lateness
problem‟ which made it difficult for her to attend a 10am seminar. I assumed that this was caused by
some particular circumstances, such as family responsibilities or transport. When asked what caused
this problem, her only answer was „I‟m often late‟.

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on time management skills can address, suggesting that what is actually in question is the way
students organise their whole lives. Students are not used to using any „spare time‟ effectively
or prioritising, and will tend to do whatever is „easiest‟ rather than „switching on their brains‟.
This tutor felt that this was „… an attitude developed early… ineradicable by the time they get
to university, and you can‟t change it in a few weeks‟.

Another felt that better management of expectations would make the transition easier. S/he
said that many students who struggle with both the course and their study skills have not
understood what is required in terms of ability or time commitment. Thus, as well as the
practical adjustment to new materials and ways of learning, they have to make the mental
adjustment to a course which is more difficult and time-consuming than they had expected.
Many tutors stressed that these concerns were not simply the complaints of a group of „out of
touch‟ academics longing for the „good old days‟. In fact, they were just as likely to come
from younger staff as from older ones, and from staff who had worked in industry or business
until recently as from staff who had always worked in higher education. One lecturer, who
had had a longer career in education, believed that the best students are still „as good as they
ever were‟, but that s/he recognised a larger constituency of reactive entrants who were poorly
prepared and unwilling to do a great deal to overcome this.


14:2:3 Student attitudes to academic work

Again, staff contrasted students with good work habits and strong interest in the subject with
those who attempt to get through on the minimum work. Some students work very hard,
developing excellent subject and generic skills. They complete tasks on time, to a high
standard, and put in both hours and intellectual effort. Some characteristics of these students
are discussed in the next section. Descriptions of student attitudes inevitably focussed on the
negatives because these are the ones who „disrupt‟ the normal flow of teaching and learning.

Several tutors suggested that a number of students are simply not realistic in their
expectations of the effort which is needed to succeed. This relates to the „spoon feeding‟
which they may have encountered in school, where it was possible to pass, or at least „scrape
through‟, on the minimum of work. One tutor stated that such students may only realise that
they will fail if they do no work outside class, or simply fail to attend, when this is immanent.
Warnings do little good because they may have received these while at school, and found that
they could still get away with very poor study habits. The example of a student who failed to
attend, or respond to contact, for ten weeks was given; this student was unwilling to accept
that s/he was simply not in a position to „catch up‟ and pass the unit.

Comparison with school can be actively unhelpful. Students who see higher education as a
prolongation of school have difficulty in adjusting. Tutors were aware of the tendency noted
by Ozga and Sukhnandan (1998) to think of university as „more relaxed‟ than school because
attendance is not mandatory. If this informs a student‟s first few weeks at university, they
may already be so far behind that catching up presents an enormous challenge.

Several tutors mentioned „excuses‟, some of them focussing on communication problems.
Claims that an assignment has „only just been received‟ when the deadline is due were
mentioned in several cases, along with an explanation that this was implausible but that the
benefit of the doubt has to be given to the student. Another tutor stated that „they expect
extensions for the smallest thing… there aren‟t any extensions when you‟re in a job‟.

Unhelpful student attitudes were summed up succinctly by one tutor: „they want maximum
results with minimum effort… it‟s a time management skill of a sort‟. This had been observed
by several interviewees. Another stated that some students are quite willing to tell tutors that
it is „unreasonable‟ to expect them to go to the library and look up materials, rather than


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simply giving out completely comprehensive handouts. The development of research skills is
not seen as a priority by these students. Two tutors described an attitude in which students
want to be told „the question‟, and then exactly „what to write down to get the marks‟.

Lack of commitment is evidenced in other ways. A refusal to buy textbooks was noted by
several tutors, and the example was given of a book which will be useful for core modules
throughout all there campus-based years of a course. This costs £40, yet each year a number
of students say that they „cannot afford‟ a book of this price. Another tutor commented that
students may have difficulty adjusting to a mentality in which paying £30 or £40 for a book is
„normal‟, or at least „reasonable‟ occasionally. Should a university help students with this
adjustment, or cease to demand this sort of transformation?

Difficulties coping with any kind of course overview, or with „cumulative‟ learning, were
noted by several tutors. Again, these arise where students seek a „transactional‟ process. If
they see learning simply as a transaction, they are unlikely to accept that a large part of their
learning must be valued as the grounding for higher-level skills and knowledge.
One tutor, in frustration at students who want to do the minimum to get „their piece of paper‟,
stated that s/he „sometimes wonder[s] why, if they want the marks so much, they don‟t just do
the work‟. S/he then answered this question, stating that for many students working out
priorities and acting on these is very difficult.

Several specific problems were noted. Three different tutors drew attention to the lure of the
mobile phone (each first stating that s/he was sure the interviewer would find this a silly point
and that s/he was probably the only person to make it!). Staff were aware of the mobile as a
constant distraction and a way to fill up any break with relatively trivial concerns. The use of
games on mobile phones to „fill in‟ any break, even in class, was noted, as was the fact that
many students are already making calls or texting before they have left the classroom. One
tutor stated that s/he „was actually going through assignment questions [outside class time]
and a student took a call… I was trying to support his learning, but the phone call was more
important‟. It should be noted that not all tutors feel this way about the use of mobiles by
students; two tutors to whom I have spoken outside formal interviews felt that tutors who
crack down on students who leave phones on during lectures and even on those who take calls
are being over-harsh and unrealistic.

In addition, two tutors suggested that a few students in the early stages of the course really do
manage their social lives very badly with regard to alcohol use. A tendency which both had
noticed in the past year was for students to arrive at morning sessions smelling of alcohol
(previously this was only found in the later afternoon).

Staff felt that some of these attitudes result from a culture in which students do not regard
their university career as an opportunity, but simply as „the next stage‟ or as a chance to get „a
piece of paper‟ which will enhance their employment prospects rather than the skills or
knowledge which will do this. Study skills and a willingness to develop these was linked to
employability by most of the interviewees. It was noted that most employers expect graduate
recruits to have a set of generic skills which are precisely the ones that would help students to
succeed in their degree courses.

One tutor felt that deficiencies in study skills and engagement with this area of learning was
„bad news‟ for the employment prospects of students. Another suggested that if their attitudes
and aptitudes in this area cause them difficulties at university, they will be even more
problematic when they enter the workforce. It was stressed that the difficulty here is not in
introducing units or teaching methods designed to enhance study skills, but in getting students
to use these, rather than making sure that they are the part of the degree course which falls by
the wayside as they attempt to do the minimum to pass.



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Most tutors who taught on programmes including a placement year stated that this was the
point at which students finally realise how important generic skills are, and that they return
from their placements with infinitely better study habits than before. Final year students were
described as „much more self managed‟, „realising the value of time‟, „professional‟, „much
more mature‟. Students were described as undergoing a „transformation‟ in their attitudes and
behaviours during placement years, often after a very „rude awakening‟ during their first few
weeks of professional employment.

One lecturer noted that in particular, the importance of reflecting and reporting on one‟s own
work was a skill which students refuse to take seriously in the first and second year and had to
develop during their placement.


14:2:4 Student motivation

The staff interviewees had remarkably uniform views on the factors which motivate students.
By far the most important factor noted was simple interest in the subject. To a large extent
this is determined by the student‟s experiences before s/he arrives at university, but it was
noted that staff can undertake certain activities to foster interest even in students who may
have entered for other reasons (see below on staff/student relations). One tutor linked a lack
of interest to the transactional approach to learning described above, stating that what staff
need is a way to show students how much more enjoyable a course can be if they do realise
the value of intellectual curiosity for themselves.

Like the students, staff recognised the relationship between confidence and motivation.
Several tutors felt that individual contact and praise for high marks or improved performance
was important, and that there should be time and resource for more of this, rather than just
information about grades. However, this demands that tutors have the time to reflect on
individual student performances, which is not especially realistic under current conditions.
The impact of an unexpectedly good performance, where students‟ beliefs in their inherent
abilities are either reinforced or shaken, was also noted. One tutor stated that „students are
really surprised when they find that we can teach them something‟.

Praise and support from family and friends were also noted as being important in motivating
students. Once again, this can be especially important where expectations of a particular
students were not very high. The need for a channel of communication with students‟ social
networks outside the university was described here. Peer support between students was
regarded as a very positive motivating factor, and several tutors had encountered the informal
study groups which were described by the student interviewees. Camaraderie within the peer
group was regarded as very important; on the other hand, a peer group where inertia is the
norm can demotivate students who might otherwise be inclined to work hard.

The other factor which was noted by all tutors was future employment prospects. Students on
the specialised vocational courses were described as seeing their course as the first stage in
their professional lives (which often affected their relations with tutors as well as determining
their high levels of motivation). Highly motivated students were regarded as having clear
career goals founded in interest rather than financial aspirations, and in the ability to
understand the principle of „delayed gratification‟. Given the outcomes of the student
interviews, this seems to be a very accurate perception.

However, the influence of „future motivation‟ was regarded as more complex by many tutors.
Effective „long term‟ thinking was seen as characteristic of the more academically-focussed
students, and the rest may need more immediate rewards. Job prospects alone were not
regarded as sufficient to ensure high levels of motivation, partly because a degree no longer
guarantees a graduate job. The main problem with using employment as a motivator is that


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the prospect is simply too vague to engage students with specific tasks. Several tutors noted
that the term „a good job‟ is used very loosely by a number of students, and does not seem to
have much effect on their motivation to attend or complete assignments.

Specifics were named as a useful response to this by most of the tutors. Where possible,
industry speakers, open days and visits were regarded as helpful, because these would
encourage students to see the relationship between what they do in university and what they
would need to do in a job. The development of both subject knowledge and generic skills can
be encouraged by this means; one tutor stated that students would be more likely to „trust‟ an
industry spokesperson than their tutors to tell them about the importance of study skills.
Experience of the workplace encourages students to see their studies as the route to a job,
rather than the „piece of paper‟ which they receive in a final transaction.

Self-esteem was also identified as a motivator. Students at all levels were regarded as being
motivated by the prospect of improving on their own performance, although they first need to
believe that this is possible. High achieving students are often motivated by the possibility of
„being the best‟, or at least of maintaining high marks. Two tutors stated that we can motivate
students by making sure that they have a „sense of opportunity‟ and of the possibility of
changing their knowledge, abilities and ultimately lives.

However, staff were realistic about the extent to which it is possible to affect student
motivation where many students are motivated to do as little as possible. One stated that „we
can only encourage them to show initiative and learn actively‟. However, this interviewee and
several of his/her colleagues were clear that getting students to engage in this sort of work
from the very beginning of the course was essential. One proposal was to set „research tasks‟
in induction week whose practical benefits for students are very clear; for example, they can
be required to gather information about student services, social events or finance.

Staff were aware of a number of demotivating factors, many of which have already been
mentioned. Time pressures due to part-time work, tiredness, social lives and personal
problems as well as distractions such as TV and mobile phones were all noted. Several tutors
described the problems around identity and career choice which quite naturally affect
students. Where a student wonders whether s/he has chosen the right course, a loss of
motivation was regarded as inevitable, and staff stressed the importance of early intervention
and useful support for students who find themselves in this position.

However, two tutors were also aware that some students may suffer a lack of motivation
whose causes are relatively obscure. The fact that a student can „drift off‟ was mentioned, as
was the fact that if a student fails to attend and ignores, for whatever reason, attempts at
contact from the university. The „passive point of no return‟ for a student in this position was
seen as a danger.

A demotivator which was mentioned only twice by staff, but several times by students, was
lack of confidence in one‟s academic ability. It may be that this is subsumed for staff under
the first point in this section, but overall it may be something which is underestimated,
especially in its effects on students who are in fact academically able and academically
inclined.




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14:3    Staff perspectives on university culture

14:3:1 The impact of fees on student attitudes

Two concerns emerged in this section. One was the effect of fees on student attitudes to
university, which was the subject of a certain amount of pessimism. The other was the
essential „mission‟ of the institution, as viewed by staff and students.

The majority of the staff interviewed felt that student attitudes had changed, and would
change even more, as they are required to pay a greater proportion of their own fees. Two
tutors, however, did not believe that this had had much impact, or would have in future. One
was a tutor on one of the specialised vocational courses, and simply believed that his/her
students had a strong enough subject interest to override the influence of the new funding
arrangement. The other believed that changes in attitude – which s/he felt had been enormous
in the past few years – related to a more transactional system in secondary education. S/he
believed that students who pay their own fees will expect better „value for money‟, but did not
think that this would necessarily equate to a demand for more „spoon feeding‟, and argued
that s/he had seen very little change in attitudes since the introduction of the £1100 fee.

However, these views were in the minority, and (perhaps by coincidence) the alternative
position was expressed more often by tutors who had previously worked in business or
industry. Two tutors stated that the „sense of “entitlement” is definitely stronger‟ than before
students had to pay fees, and one felt that although students may want „more‟, they may not
necessarily want „more‟ of things which will enhance their skills or their educational
experience. Another felt that students who pay are less likely to value learning for its own
sake, and that more will be inclined to want „something for nothing‟. The sense that „just
being here and doing some work deserves a reward‟ was also noted.

Several tutors felt that students were not really aware of the „realities‟ of higher education in
terms of the sheer numbers of students with whom tutors are dealing. One example of this
was the assumption that tutors will immediately remember the module, course and level on
which an individual is studying, even if a tutor teachers more than three hundred students.
Another was the annoyance expressed when a tutor is not available immediately, and on
demand, because s/he is teaching a different cohort. The old-fashioned media image of
academics as having plenty of time to engage closely with their small tutorial groups seems to
be believed by many students.

The difficulties of finding sufficient time to make the invaluable individual contacts with
students was noted by most of the tutors interviewed. One of them also noted that the rewards
for doing this, or for becoming an „excellent‟ teacher, were limited because most promotion
routes for academic staff relate to administrative rather than classroom and student support
activities, or to research.


14:3:2 University mission

All of the staff interviewees described a „tension‟ between two functions of the university.
One of these is to provide students with academic abilities and orientation, study skills and an
„enquiring mind‟, as well as a desire to learn. The other is to train them in specific skills and
knowledge required for employment. Most of the staff interviewees stated that the „ideal‟ was
a balance between these, although several stated that a number of other staff would fall firmly
into one camp or the other. In general, staff believed that students took a similar view to
theirs, i.e. that they were looking for a balance between these two types of activity.




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This would certainly be true of the student interviewees described above. However, it is
probably fair to say that the questionnaire responses indicate that a number of students enter
university looking only for the latter. Three tutors pointed out that students who enter with
just this priority may often leave with an appreciation of the blend of the two. Staff suggested
that most modules are written to provide a combination of these two types of activity.

For the majority of staff, the key to combining these lies in encouraging students to take an
interest in their personal development during, or alongside their course. In order to develop
students academically, prepare them for work and help them to get the most out of their
university course, staff feel that it is essential to provide „an overall educational experience…
where they gain more than the sum of their module marks‟.

Many staff feel that the places where this happens most often are the placement year and its
aftermath, and the final year project. Finding ways to integrate personal development
activities into the earlier years of the course is a real challenge, especially in the light of time
pressures and financial constraints, and the disinclination of many students to put much effort
into activities which are not immediately rewarded with marks.

Three tutors suggested that students who enter HE seeking training may be particularly
disinclined to bother with this aspect of a course. One stated that „many treat the whole
personal development side of things as a joke, and attendance plummets when this is
introduced [in the first year]‟.

For students who are inherently motivated, engagement in personal development activities is
less of a problem. Several tutors stated that this group tend to want a degree and a job, but
also to develop their own learning and to broaden their social lives by meeting a new and
diverse group of people (again, this is precisely the balance sought by the interviewees).
Students with weaker motivation, however, show little interest either in general learning or in
extending their experience of life outside the classroom.

Three tutors stated that this might begin with encouraging students to make social contact
with staff, learning about their research and professional interests, and possibly also their
experience in careers before they began lecturing. Two tutors actually stated that they had
found students extremely interested in their previous jobs in industry, but that their classes
would not have sought this information by themselves. Another suggested that staff „don‟t
need to be automata‟, and should be offered the time and space to talk to students about their
own interests in the subject and even about their lives outside work. However, it was noted
that facilities and workloads do not really allow this.

This sort of activity might also improve student-tutor relations, which were described by two
of the lecturers as leaving room for improvement (others referred obliquely to a „lack of
respect‟ from certain students). One stated that stronger students will often respect lecturers
because of their subject knowledge, while weaker ones may resent them simply as authority
figures. The very good tutor-student relations on the specific vocational courses seem to
reinforce this; here, it may be that the „apprenticeship‟ situation suggested by some of the
student interviewees has been achieved.

Several tutors suggested that, once again, the transactional approach may be at the root of
some problems here. One stated that a number of students now tend to see university as a
„means to an end‟ rather than an experience. Students are required to spend more time outside
university in part-time jobs, and as staff:student ratios rise it is increasingly difficult to make
contact with students and to encourage those who might be shyer, or less industrious, to
become integrated and to see the „bigger picture‟ around their studies. This is still possible on
the specialised vocational courses because students who apply to these in the first place will
usually have clearer vocational goals and value their place more highly.


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For the wider student body, the challenge is to encourage students to do the work needed to
acquire the skills and knowledge which will help them gain high marks and „good jobs‟, but
also to value the process of personal development which will help them to become highly
successful (and satisfied) students and, later, employees. And this will not be achieved in a
situation where it is possible to pass on the basis of a purely „transactional‟ approach to
education. In the words of one interviewee, „we need to… get them to think in new and
interesting ways and learn how to learn‟. This is essentially a transformational process.

Once again, the ethical question of whether it is reasonable to set out to transform students in
higher education is raised. Should an institution which has expanded numbers and increased
vocational provision simply accept that many of its students arrive wanting job training and
little more? Does this constitute giving a number – possibly a majority – of students „what
they want‟? Or is it unfair on students like the interviewees, all of whom are first-generation
students and all of whom have derived benefit and satisfaction from the „intellectual‟ and
„personal development‟ aspects of their course? If we insist that students who choose to get
their training in a university engage with conceptual and personal development work, are we
authoritarians who want to give them „what‟s good for them‟, or genuine practitioners of
„widening participation‟, widening participation in activities and opportunities of which
students were not previously aware?

It would be dishonest to deny that staff are genuinely divided on this, and so are students. The
interviewees would have been very disappointed if they had just been offered training and
nothing more, but at least some of the questionnaire respondents might well have been
perfectly content. However, while perfect contentment within one‟s comfort zone may be a
pleasant enough state, higher education has the potential to offer any student a great deal
more than that, and to limit institutional and student aspirations thus would be a true loss of
opportunity. This was expressed by the tutor whose commitment to the training function of
the university was the strongest encountered, but who was also passionate about the
intellectual mission of HE. Towards the end of this interview, s/he simply stated that: „The
trouble with our students, when they arrive… is that they don‟t dream enough any more‟.




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Conclusion

This report offers a „snapshot‟ of some of the lives, attitudes and experiences of some
University of Northumbria students at the end of their first year. What emerges is encouraging
and positive; the majority have thoroughly enjoyed their university experience and the
academic component of this in particular. They are generally well adjusted to their lives at
university, although relatively few claim very high levels of adjustment. In general, staff like
their students, and are impressed by their efforts at university and by the maturity which they
achieve as they progress through their courses. Staff are aware of the difficulties which
students face and sympathetic to these. Lecturers are concerned to provide an excellent
learning experience for their students, and help them get the most out of their course, in terms
of enjoyment, academic development and preparation for work.

However, there are some genuine problems. One is a genuine gap in motivation among at
least some students. Specific groups are especially vulnerable to this, but it appears to affect a
broad range of students at some time or other. Various factors cause this: a lack of interest, a
failure to connect employment goals with current tasks (perhaps because these future goals
themselves lack clarity), „worry‟ and lack of confidence in one‟s own abilities, time pressures,
unclear or undefined priorities and poor study habits. Low motivation operates in a vicious
cycle with poor study habits, lack of enjoyment and integration, and a failure to engage with
the personal development aspects of the course which are fundamental to a higher education
experience.

One group of students who are unmotivated are those whose entry to university has in some
way been „reactive‟, i.e. they have chosen to enter HE because of pressure from family,
teachers or peers or because it seems to be a „natural progression‟ after school. Getting these
students to engage with the institution and develop good study habits is a challenge; they are
especially vulnerable to drifting away from behaviours which support their learning and
ultimately from university itself.

Another problem is the presence of „strategic students‟, who set out to do as little work as
possible in order to get through their course. If they manage the inherent risks of their strategy
well, they may persist and pass, but there is a danger that they may fail or withdraw. Even
where they achieve a measure of success, strategic students are unlikely to have a good
experience in HE, and their presence is annoying, even demotivating, to students who are
interested in their course and work hard. This is partly because the success of strategic
students implies a devaluing of the university places which hardworking students make
sacrifices to keep, and partly because they make it difficult for all students to get the most out
of student-centred teaching methods which many favour.

In general, the reasons which inform students‟ entry decisions will influence their behaviours
once they are in HE. Students who decide to go to university because of interest in their
subject, whether or not this is accompanied by instrumental aims, are likely to show a cluster
of characteristics which predict academic satisfaction and retention. Where students do not
have clear subject interests and/or career goals, they are more likely to encounter difficulties.

Successful students are also likely to have realistic expectations of their course and their
university experience as a whole. Students with realistic expectations report higher levels of
adjustment and satisfaction once at university, while those whose expectations turn out to
have been mistaken in a particular area will find adjustment in that field more difficult, and
are less likely to be satisfied. In addition, perceptions of aspects of the university experience
appear to have more to do with how the reality measures up to student expectations than with
that reality itself. For the most part, reports of satisfaction and experience relate
toexpectations and not with programme (students on the same programme will have had
broadly the same actual experience).


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At Northumbria, it appears that successful, academically oriented students are just as likely –
if not more likely – to be „non-traditional‟ students and/or those who might be considered as
„successes‟ of the widening participation initiative. Contrary to the situation described in
some national reports, academic staff on the courses examined at Northumbria have
extremely positive attitudes towards the quality of these students. This may contribute to the
success of the institution in meeting both its retention and widening participation targets.

There are some correlations between adjustment, attitude, study behaviours and persistence
decisions and various demographic factors. Women seem to have lower levels of academic
and social confidence than men, although their academic adjustment may be slightly better.
Students who enter with qualifications other than A-levels show slightly worse academic
adjustment and orientation. Mature-age students seem less likely to consider leaving, and
first-generation students seem to have slightly higher academic orientation and subject
interest, although they are slightly more likely to consider leaving.

The most important demographic factor appears to be accommodation. Students who live in
University of Northumbria Halls of Residence are better attenders and show overall stronger
academic orientation, enjoyment and satisfaction. This is probably because it is considerably
easier for them to integrate into the institution, and also practically simpler for them to attend
lectures and use academic and social facilities.

Relations between students and staff seem to be reasonably good. Students generally feel that
staff are good teachers and are approachable; however, student perceptions of staff
„approachability‟ appear to relate closely to their expectations about the availability of
academic support. The „personalities‟ of academic staff seem to be a secondary issue.

For many students, the financial realities of university life are harsh, and the students
interviewed, despite excellent overall levels of preparation, found that this came as a surprise.
The impact of debt on recruitment is outside the remit of this project, but it is worth noting
that several of the interviewees stated that the prospect of owing the sums of money which
will become the norm after 2006 would have been a serious deterrent or an outright bar to
their entering HE.

Staff and students appear to have a similar set of priorities for the mission of the university;
vocational preparation, general intellectual development, and personal development in generic
skills, „university experience‟ and individual transformation. However, it is possible that the
views of the student interviewees represent those of only a minority of the students
population. Staff felt that for many students the personal development aspect of university is
„squeezed out‟ under current constraints of time and finance. They also suggested that for
many students this is a very low priority, at least until the final year once they have developed
a more mature and professional attitude during a placement year.

Staff generally have a fairly accurate picture of student characteristics and lifestyles.
However, some said that they would like more information about these, and there were areas
where many staff did not know a great deal about students. In general they slightly over-
estimate student motivation, but under-estimate the importance of gaining high marks and
also of knowing „how one is doing‟ to students. Staff are aware that there is an enormous
range of different attitudes and lifestyles among their students.

Staff are concerned about certain student attitudes and abilities. In particular, they feel that
incoming students are weak in self-management and prioritisation, and various basic generic
skills, e.g. note-taking, listening and directed reading, written and verbal communication,
problem-solving and conceptual work, and reflection and report on their own learning. Staff
also worry about the development of „transactional‟ approaches to learning, which make it
difficult to engage in student centred techniques, deep learning or problem solving.


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Some staff and students are also concerned about the development of a „customer‟ approach
from a minority of students as they begin to perceive that they are paying more for their
education, and about the detrimental effect on teaching and learning which this may have.

Students often lack confidence in their own abilities, and may not relate working hard to
gaining the high marks which they crave. This may relate to poor study skills, or to the lack of
opportunities for individual encouragement and feedback from academic staff. It may also
arise because students are often inclined to believe that success at university is determined by
„inherent ability‟, or by performance before they enter university. A disturbing number prefer
to believe that they „just can‟ or „just can‟t‟ do certain things, and find it surprising (and
encouraging) when they realise that they can actually learn things. Again, this relates to a
belief in transactional learning rather than transformation through learning.


Many students lack a discourse or dialogue to discuss elements of their university experience.
Often, the institution and its staff may work on the basis of different fundamental but
unspoken assumptions about the purpose of the university, and some of its core activities,
from those employed by the students. The need for a dialogue around various aspects such as
skills, employability, personal development and the purpose of HE emerges from this study.

What sorts of activity are suggested by these findings? In the first place, it provides yet
another argument for building in more opportunities for staff: student contact in small groups
or one-to-one interactions. Both staff and students were clear about the value of this; it was
seen as encouraging and motivating, and staff were clearly committed to this element of their
work. It is valued even where the contact is offered through the creative and prompt use of
electronic resources. And it is facilitated by an important message from the data which should
not be lost among the various less cheerful ones; staff and students do want to cooperate in
the work of the university, and hold fundamentally positive attitudes towards each other.

Importantly, offering students academic contact on a personal basis seems to be what
determines their view of staff as approachable or otherwise. This is extremely encouraging
because it offers a much more concrete – and reasonable – way of improving staff-student
relations than the rather vague exhortation to lecturers to „be nice to students‟. Of course, it
would be absurd to argue against any initiative of this latter sort. However, it is often
frustrating for academics to be told that they must „really care‟ about their students, or to
imply that certain kinds of personality have a better chance of offering „excellence‟ in
education. Advising staff on frequency and type of professional interaction is considerably
simpler than offering advice on what constitute appropriate emotions.

Poor motivation among students needs to be addressed. It is not simply the fault of staff who
fail to enthuse their students. Some students arrive at university with relatively little interest in
their subject, and even where they bring a level of subject interest this is does not always
translate into a willingness to put the work in. „Student centred teaching‟ can encourage some
students to participate more in their own education, but it is impossible to centre one‟s
teaching very effectively on students whose inclination is to place themselves at the margins.
Specific problems with motivation were identified by staff. The „transactional‟ approach to
education is one symptom of this, and another is an unwillingness to develop generic skills
and to engage in the personal development involved in education.

Many staff felt that the placement year was key to improving both generic skills and
motivation. This may occur partly because going on placement helps students to clarity their
career goals, and to see the link between all aspects of their course and future employment. If
they perceive that report writing, prioritisation of their time and problem solving are essential
in the workplace, they have a greater incentive to work on these than if they have simply been



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told to do so by a „teacher‟. In addition, students who develop these abilities in the workplace
can find that a job is more interesting when it is done in a professional way.

The workplace incorporates some of the elements which students themselves say they find
motivating. Jobs have an inherent element of constant and ongoing feedback on „how you‟re
doing‟; if one is underperforming, this will often be picked up very quickly while good
performance will be noted and sometimes rewarded. In addition, students whose placement
work means that they work in a team will experience „subject-based‟ integration of the sort
for which universities strive.

Building some of these elements into the early stages of a course would be a very useful
strategy. However, the workplace has several distinct advantages over the university for doing
so, and for engaging students with these activities. In the first place, attendance at work is
compulsory, and instead of the situation where „nothing happens to you if you don‟t do the
work‟, something does happen to employees who do not show up or who fail to do their job.
In addition, students spend more time, and more consistent time in their workplace, rather
than perhaps 16 or 18 contact hours spread out over the week. A placement offers all students
some of the advantages of the Halls of Residence. And students in the workplace are almost
forced to undertake the activity of meeting and dealing with new and diverse people which
some staff stated was a low priority for unmotivated students. Communication and
interpersonal skills are fundamental to day-to-day survival.

Perhaps both staff and students can learn from „student good practice‟ of the sort described by
the interviewees. Staff were careful to point out that, although they spent more time in their
interviews talking about the worse students, they were aware that many were hard-working,
motivated and had good study skills. It is entirely understandable that these students who are
„getting things right‟ did not occupy a great deal of the discussion, as they are in one sense
„unremarkable‟; the course is set up to work for students like them. However, it is interesting
that we know relatively little about the habits, interests and priorities of „excellent‟ students in
the modern university. Identifying and sharing good practice is a standard technique in staff
development; could this be extended to our students as well?

„Trapping‟ or encouraging subject interest at an early stage is important here. There is a
discourse of university entrance which focuses on career goals to the exclusion of this, and it
appears that students who enter without at least some attachment to the subject are vulnerable
to poor study habits and adjustment, and also to withdrawal. Building subject interest from
scratch for these students – rather than simply assuming that everyone on a course has an
attachment to their field – is important. This may be achieved partly through regular and
precise careers activities from the very beginning of the course, because it makes the link
between classroom activity and the desired job.

Another aspect of student good practice which can be fostered by the institution is clarity of
personal goals and their relation to study. This appears to be one of the motivating factors for
students on the highly specialised vocational courses which have been mentioned above.

To encourage better motivation, and facilitate student work in general, staff need to have a
clear picture of day-to-day student lives. Overall staff do not seem to hold highly inaccurate
beliefs, but there are some misconceptions and a real staff hunger for clear information about
what life is like for all of their students. Staff and students also feel that this sort of „realistic‟
picture might be helpful in some administrative areas, e.g. timetabling.

Some of the student priorities identified, most importantly ongoing feedback, could be used in
boosting motivating and possibly also effective study behaviours such as good time
management and attendance. Where students fail to take up opportunities for formative
feedback, this might be supported by the sort of „dialogue‟ discussed below.


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It would also be useful for students to know about some of the less „obvious‟ aspects of
student opinion and lifestyle. One finding from this project which would probably come as a
surprise to many staff is the lack of confidence among many female students; the knock-on
effects of this in student representation and possibly also achievement are not known.

One area in which it might be possible to extend student „good practice‟ is in helping students
who live at home to enjoy some of the advantages conferred by accommodation in Halls of
Residence. In particular, this would involve providing spaces where it is pleasant and easy to
spend academic or social „down time‟ on campus. The informal study groups used by students
might be facilitated by provision of small spaces which are reasonably quiet but do not
require „library like‟ silence, and where it is possible to spread out one‟s work and have a cup
of coffee. Gaps between lectures might be spent on campus if students could go somewhere
warm, comfortable and – ideally – smoke-free where they can sit down for an hour or so
without having to spend money. And providing more social events around courses would help
provide a university community for students living at home. All of these require large
resources of time and money, but would probably be appreciated by many students.

Managing student expectations from before entry and during the first year (at least) is
extremely important in helping students to enjoy their course and to adjust well. The strong
relationship between expectations and adjustment/satisfaction is also important when the new
emphasis on surveys of student satisfaction is considered.

All of the above activities will have some impact on the specific problems caused by two
groups of students who are vulnerable to withdrawal or failure, the „strategic‟ and the
„reactive‟ groups. An awareness and acknowledgement that a minority of students do fall into
these categories is important, as is the development of some measures to support their
learning and to help them get more out of their university experience than might have been
the case (or, indeed, their intention).

It is not really practical „just to leave them‟. Strategic students clearly damage the quality of
classroom experience for all students (especially where tutors try to use interactive and
student-centred techniques); their decision to follow their university career in this way is not
something which harms only them. In addition, the behaviours of these groups may have
worked at a time when staff: student ratios were low and staff had the time to put in the effort
with individual students which would ensure that they engaged sufficiently with their course
to pass. As students are required to be more proactive in „owning‟ and managing their own
learning, reactive and strategic students are going to find it harder to „survive‟ at university.

Very importantly, these are groups of students defined not by any demographic factor, but by
their attitudes and approaches to study. There is some evidence that these may relate weakly
to some demographic factors. For example, mature-age students rarely fall into either
category (for obvious practical reasons); both Kneale‟s study and this one suggest that more
men than women are „strategic‟, and there is evidence that first-generation students are less
likely than second to be „reactive‟ entrants. However, there are plenty of highly motivated
young, male and/or second generation students who come to university with a love of their
subject and a determination to work hard, and a number of strategists and reactive entrants
will be female and/or first generation.

All of these issues are related to the theme of „unspoken‟ assumptions about the university on
the part of both staff and students, and to the need to open a dialogue in which both sides can
voice these. This is not easy. Dialogue, and the formation of a shared discourse, needs time
and space, and is best achieved in small groups rather than in the larger classes and
impersonal fora which are becoming more common in higher education. Students who have
grown used to a „transactional‟ approach to learning in school may be unwilling to put in the


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additional time and thought needed for this process; such a resistance has been mentioned by
several staff. However, active participation in a dialogue is an effective way for staff and
students to learn more about each other and reinforce the academic community.

Several priorities for staff-student dialogue have been noted in this project. The nature of
learning, skills, feedback and motivation are all areas of interest for both students and staff.
As students reflect on their experiences and enhance their own learning, staff can find out
more about the individuals whom they teach and can shape teaching methods and
organisation towards this group. Once again, discussion and active exploration is a more
effective way to help students understand the mission of the institution in areas such as
feedback and generic skills acquisition; there is something of a contradiction in expecting
them to believe things in these areas because they have just been told that it is true.

If university is a place where students are encouraged to take part in a dialogue, this will
crucially establish the fact that it is different from school. However good secondary schools
are at their job, it is different from that of a higher education institution. Whether dialogue is
regarded as an old-fashioned function of intellectual development or a modern generic skill
for the adaptable, creative, problem-solving professional (or, as most of the staff and students
interviewed would probably argue, as a bit of both), it is something that definitely belongs in
a university, and which students will not only enjoy, but need.

Some of the tensions around university teaching, such as the difference between transactional
and transformational learning, can be explored here. The nature and ethics of transformation
can be discussed, where these are a source of anxiety or simply unknowns for students. It is
also a place where students can reflect on the variety of sometimes bewildering experiences.
Students can learn more about the purpose of the subject skills and knowledge which they are
acquiring, in relation to their relevance in the outside world and to individual career goals.
They can also gain generic skills of reflection, report, analysis and communication. A
dialogue would encourage students, to paraphrase one of the student interviewees, to think
about „this sort of thing‟. It might also help them, to paraphrase one of the staff, to „dream‟.




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2004

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Appendix One – Student Questionnaire

THE STUDENT EXPERIENCE AND STUDENT EXPECTATIONS

Student Questionnaire 1 - The Student Experience and Student Expectations

1:          First of all, please provide a little information about yourself and your course. Please tick the
            box which best represents your answer to each question, or fill in your response in the space
            provided.

1:01        At the present time, what do you think you will do in the coming academic year?

Progress to the 2nd year of my course                       Intermitting this year but will return
Repeat the first year of my course                          Unlikely to return to university
Study at a different university from UNN                    I’m not sure what I will do

1:02        Age

17 - 18             19-20           21-24           25-30           31-39           40-49            Over 50

1:03        Sex

        Male                        Female


1:04        The course on which I initially entered UNN was

1:05        Did you transfer to a different course at UNN during your first year?

                                                                      Yes               No

1:06        The last qualifications which I gained prior to entry to UNN were:

            Type (e.g. A-levels, VCE, HNC etc)


1:07        Where did you live during your first term? Note: if you moved during your first term, please tick
            the type of accommodation in which you lived for the longest period of time.

Parents’/own home                     Shared house/flat (private)             Private hall of residence
UNN hall of residence                 Shared house/flat (UNN)                 Other


1:08        Did any of the following people among your family and friends go to university?

                                             Went to university      Went to university as a         Did not go to
                                              aged 17 – 24            mature-age student              university
                  Mother
                  Father
         Older brother or sister
        Younger brother or sister
          Aunt, uncle or cousin
     Close friend from school/college

1:09        What is/was your father’s occupation?

1:10        What is/was your mother’s occupation?

                                                                                                     CONTINUED




                                                      164
165


2:        The following questions ask about how you spent your time while studying at UNN. Again,
          please tick the box which best represents your answer to each question, or fill in your response
          in the space provided.


2:01      Approximately how many hours of formal study appeared on your timetable?

         Activity         Hours            Activity            Hours           Activity               Hours
         Lectures                      Seminars/classes                  Small group tutorials
       Lab sessions                      Study groups                      Other activities


2:02      Did your tutors suggest a sensible number of hours for you to spend in private study?

                                                                  Yes                No


2:03      If they suggested a sensible number of hours of private study, what was this?

                                     Hours per week


2:04      In a typical term-time week, how many hours did you actually spend in private study?

                                     Hours per week



2:05      If the amount of time you actually spent in private study was less than advised by your tutors,
          why was this? Please tick all which apply.

I felt that I was doing enough work                               I lacked motivation to study
I felt that I understood the subject well                         Personal/medical problems
I found private study boring                                      I felt foolish in front of family/friends
I was too busy earning money                                      I’m not sure
Family commitments made studying difficult                        I usually did the advised amount
My social life was too busy                                       Other, please state:




2:06      If the amount of time you actually spent in private study was about the same as, or more than,
          that advised by your tutors, why was this? Please tick all which apply.

I enjoyed studying for this course                                I didn’t want to let my family down
I felt that I needed to work hard to keep up                      I didn’t want to let my tutors down
I wanted to get good marks                                        I didn’t want to let myself down
My friends were all working hard                                  I rarely did the advised amount
I have made sacrifices to come to university                      Other, please state:




                                                                                                CONTINUED




                                                   165
166


       2:07    Please think about your attendance at the sessions on your timetable, and estimate what
         percentage of timetabled hours you attended at the following stages of the year:

                                         75 – 100%    50 – 75%      25 – 50%      0 – 25%       None      Had left course
   Semester 1, weeks 1 – 6
   Semester 1, weeks 7 – 12
   Semester 2, weeks 1 – 6
   Semester 2, weeks 7 - 12

2:08      If at any point you attended less than 75% of timetabled hours, why was this? Please tick all
          that apply.

Personal/medical problems                                         I disliked the physical environment
I felt that I understood the subject well                         Family commitments
I found the timetabled sessions boring                            Part-time work commitments
I found the tutor/lecturer unapproachable                         I just didn’t feel motivated
I disliked a particular topic or module                           I was too tired
Long gaps between classes                                         I attended 75% or more
I found it difficult to relate to other students                  Other, please state




2:09      Did you have a part-time job during term-time in your first year at UNN?          Yes / No

2:10      If you had a part-time job during term-time, when did you begin this work?

          Before I began my course                             Semester 2, weeks 1 – 6
          Semester 1, weeks 1 – 6                              Semester 2, weeks 7 – 12
          Semester 1, weeks 2 – 12                                Easter vacation
             Christmas vacation

2:11      Did you continue with your part-time work until the end of the academic year?

                                                                  Yes                No

2:12      If you answered ‘no’ to 4:11, please indicate the date when you left your job

2:13      What sort of part-time work did you do?

2:14      In a typical week, how many hours did you work in your part-time job?

2:15      Did the number of hours which you worked in your part-time job vary significantly during the
year? If so, please state when this occurred and how many hours you worked at your busiest and least
busy times during term-time.


2:16      In an average week, how many days did you come into university ?                  days


2:17      On an average day, how long did your commute to university take?
          (Note: please provide the figure for one way travel only)

                                        hours                    minutes
                                                                                            CONTINUED




                                                     166
167


3:       When you answer the questions in the next section, please think about your application to UNN
         . There are several possible answers to each question; please indicate all of the answers
         which you feel apply to you.

3:01     Why did you decide to go to university?

To study a subject that really interests me                       Family wanted me to go to university
To train for a specific type of job                               All my friends were going to university
To improve my job prospects generally                             I enjoy learning and studying
I didn’t want to get a job right away                             I want to achieve a degree
Teachers advised me to go to university                           Other, please state below:



3:02     Was one of the reasons indicated above the most important reason? Yes / No

3:03     If so, which one was this?

3:04     Why did you choose to go to UNN? Remember, tick all the answers which apply to you.

Reputation of the university                         It offered a course I wanted to do
Reputation of the School/course                      I wanted to live at home
Reputation of the city                               I wanted to leave home
My friends were going to UNN                         This was the only place I was offered
Recommendation of friend/relative                    Other, please state below:



3:05     Was one of the reasons indicated above the most important reason? Yes / No

3:06     If so, which one was this?

3:07     Why did you choose the course onto which you were initially accepted at UNN?
         Remember, tick all the answers which apply to you.

Attracted by course title                             Reputation of this course
Interest in the subject                               Advice of teacher/careers adviser
Want to get a particular type of job                  Advice of family/friends
Want to get a well-paid job                           Other, please state below:



3:08     Was one of the reasons indicated above the most important reason? Yes / No

3:09     If so, which one was this?

3:10     At any point in your 1st year, did you consider dropping out of your course? Yes / No

3:11     At any point in your 1st year, did you consider transferring to a different course? Yes / No

3:12     If you considered withdrawing or transferring but eventually stayed on your original course, why
         did you decide to stay on your original course?

I began to enjoy my course more                       I began to enjoy university more
I couldn’t decide on another course                   I got support from my tutors
I got support from student services                   I got support from friends/family
My career aims haven’t changed                        Other, please state


                                                                                             CONTINUED




                                                   167
  168


  4: In the following section, you will be asked to think about your experience during your first year at
  university. Please circle the answer which best represents your response to each question


4:01    I have adjusted well to the academic demands         strongly      agree        neither        disagree     strongly
        of university                                         agree                    agree nor                    disagree
                                                                                       disagree

4:02    I have adjusted well to my social life at            strongly      agree        neither        disagree     strongly
        university                                            agree                    agree nor                    disagree
                                                                                       disagree

4:03    I find it easy to manage my own time and             strongly      agree        neither        disagree     strongly
        workload at university                                agree                    agree nor                    disagree
                                                                                       disagree

4:04    I worked consistently throughout my first year       strongly      agree        neither        disagree     strongly
        at university                                         agree                    agree nor                    disagree
                                                                                       disagree

4:05    It was easy to understand the rationale for the      strongly      agree        neither        disagree     strongly
        content of my course                                  agree                    agree nor                    disagree
                                                                                       disagree

4:06    I have become good at working independently          strongly      agree        neither        disagree     strongly
        while at university                                   agree                    agree nor                    disagree
                                                                                       disagree

4:07    Students are expected to become                      strongly      agree        neither        disagree     strongly
        independent learners too quickly                      agree                    agree nor                    disagree
                                                                                       disagree

4:08    University timetables should be more                 strongly      agree        neither        disagree     strongly
        convenient for students                               agree                    agree nor                    disagree
                                                                                       disagree

4:09    The physical environment of the university is        strongly      agree        neither        disagree     strongly
        pleasant                                              agree                    agree nor                    disagree
                                                                                       disagree

4:10    I sometimes felt pressurised by financial            strongly      agree        neither        disagree     strongly
        worries                                               agree                    agree nor                    disagree
                                                                                       disagree

4:11    In general, the lecturers on my course were          strongly      agree        neither        disagree     strongly
        good at explaining things                             agree                    agree nor                    disagree
                                                                                       disagree

4:12    In general, the lecturers on my course were          strongly      agree        neither        disagree     strongly
        approachable                                          agree                    agree nor                    disagree
                                                                                       disagree

4:13    In general, the workload on my course was…            far too       too        about right      too light    far too
                                                              heavy        heavy                                      light

4:14    In general, the academic demands of the work        far too         too        about right     too easy      far too
        on my course were…                                  difficult     difficult                                   easy

                                                                                                CONTINUED




                                                      168
  169


  5: In the next section, please try to remember your expectations about going to university. Please
  circle the answer which best represents your response to each question.

5:01    How does the workload at university compare          much            a bit        about as I         a bit       much
        to your expectations?                               heavier         heavier       expected         lighter      lighter


5:02    How do the academic demands of your course           much             a bit       about as I        a bit       much
        compare to your expectations?                        harder          harder       expected         easier       easier

5:03    How does making friends at university                much             a bit       about as I        a bit       much
        compare to your expectations?                        harder          harder       expected         easier       easier


5:04    How interesting is your course compared with        far more       a bit more     about as I     a bit more    far more
        what you expected?                                 interesting     interesting    expected         boring       boring


5:05    In general, how good a preparation for             very good         good           about           poor         very
        university was school or college?                                                  adequate                      poor


5:06    My expectations about the amount of                much too         a bit too     about right     a bit too     far too
        academic support available were…                     high             high                          low           low


5:07    My expectations about the amount of non-           much too         a bit too     about right     a bit too     far too
        academic support available were…                     high             high                          low           low

5:08    My expectations about the amount of                much too         a bit too     about right     a bit too     far too
        individual contact with staff were…                  high             high                          low           low



5:09    My expectations about the study habits I would need at             very            quite         quite          very
        university were…                                                 accurate        accurate       mistaken      mistaken


5:10    My expectations about the course content I would                   very            quite         quite          very
        encounter were…                                                  accurate        accurate       mistaken      mistaken


5:11    My expectations about the physical environment of                  very            quite         quite          very
        university were…                                                 accurate        accurate       mistaken      mistaken


5:12    My expectations about the need to be an independent                very            quite         quite          very
        learner were…                                                    accurate        accurate       mistaken      mistaken


5:13    My expectations about academic staff were…                         very            quite         quite          very
                                                                         accurate        accurate       mistaken      mistaken

5:14    My expectations about the teaching methods at                      very            quite         quite          very
        university were…                                                 accurate        accurate       mistaken      mistaken

                                                                                CONTINUED




                                                   169
  170


  6: When you answer this section, please think about how you felt about your course at UNN, and circle
  the answer that most accurately describes your response to each statement.


6:01    In general, I found my course very interesting          strongly   agree    neither       disagree   strongly
                                                                 agree             agree nor                 disagree
                                                                                   disagree

6:02    I only want to study topics which I believe to          strongly   agree    neither       disagree   strongly
        be relevant to my career                                 agree             agree nor                 disagree
                                                                                   disagree

6:03    Inherent ability is the biggest factor in               strongly   agree    neither       disagree   strongly
        academic success at university                           agree             agree nor                 disagree
                                                                                   disagree

6:04    In general, I did only the minimum of work              strongly   agree    neither       disagree   strongly
        which was required of me                                 agree             agree nor                 disagree
                                                                                   disagree

6:05    I often found it difficult to get motivated to          strongly   agree    neither       disagree   strongly
        work on my course                                        agree             agree nor                 disagree
                                                                                   disagree

6:06    I want to gain high marks at university                 strongly   agree    neither       disagree   strongly
                                                                 agree             agree nor                 disagree
                                                                                   disagree

6:07    I need to know how well I’m doing in order to           strongly   agree    neither       disagree   strongly
        feel motivated to work                                   agree             agree nor                 disagree
                                                                                   disagree

6:08    In general, the lecturers stimulated my                 strongly   agree    neither       disagree   strongly
        interest in my subject                                   agree             agree nor                 disagree
                                                                                   disagree

6:09    I am keen to learn about new aspects of my              strongly   agree    neither       disagree   strongly
        subject and to explore new ideas                         agree             agree nor                 disagree
                                                                                   disagree

6:10    I find it easy to talk about university with my         strongly   agree    neither       disagree   strongly
        family and friends                                       agree             agree nor                 disagree
                                                                                   disagree

6:11    I get satisfaction from meeting intellectual            strongly   agree    neither       disagree   strongly
        challenges and pushing my limits                         agree             agree nor                 disagree
                                                                                   disagree

6:12    I often find my course boring but will stick            strongly   agree    neither       disagree   strongly
        with it because I want a good job                        agree             agree nor                 disagree
                                                                                   disagree

6:13    I feel that I really belong at university               strongly   agree    neither       disagree   strongly
                                                                 agree             agree nor                 disagree
                                                                                   disagree

6:14    Overall, I have really enjoyed my studies so            strongly   agree    neither       disagree   strongly
        far at UNN                                               agree             agree nor                 disagree
                                                                                   disagree




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