student learning experience

Executive summary

Background to the study

  1. There is increasing awareness of ‘differences’ – between individual students, between individual higher education institutions and between different national systems – in the nature of the student experience of higher education. Awareness of these differences inevitably raises the question of whether some experiences are better than others.
  1. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) commissioned the present report from the Open University’s Centre for Higher Education Research and Information (CHERI). Its aim is to examine international differences (especially in respect of European higher education) in the student experience, based both on a review of literature and on the re-analysis of existing data on students collected as part of two recent studies. The initial and main focus was on the hours students devote to study activity but this was subsequently broadened to take account of other factors and different ways of conceptualising the student experience.
  2. It is worth emphasising some caveats at the outset. The data reported on here were collected from students at different stages of their academic careers and beyond. They depend on the accuracy of the students’ recollections and perceptions of their time at university. They may sometimes fail to distinguish between what was on offer and what was actually experienced. The time devoted to study may indicate little about the demands of that study or the quality of teaching experienced as part of that study. And as with all forms of aggregated data, they may fail to take account of differences between sub-groups, in this case especially in relation to factors such as the subject studied, the institution attended and the life circumstances of the individual student.

Hours devoted to study

  1. While there is considerable variation in the hours students devote to their studies – according to the subject studied, the institution attended and the individual student’s circumstances and motivations – the research evidence supports a conclusion that United Kingdom (UK) students study for fewer hours each week during term-time compared with their counterparts in other European countries. This appears to be the case whether one takes a narrow definition of study hours in terms of teaching contact or a broader one based on all study-related activities. However, the size of the differences between countries when aggregated national data are compared has to take into account a range of intervening variables of which the subject mix within the national higher education system is an important one. (Sections 1.4 and 2.1)
  2. However, there is also evidence to suggest that UK students are more likely than others to undertake additional work beyond what is required of them by their universities (Section 2.3) although ERASMUS students visiting UK universities are rather more likely to report the requirements as ‘less demanding’ than ‘more demanding’ in comparison with those at their home universities. It may be, however, that the perceived high quality of the teaching experienced in UK higher education had the effect of making courses appear to be ‘less demanding’. (Section 1.3)

The way study time is spent appears to be broadly similar across countries, with lectures or classes and writing course assignments the most frequently experienced types of activity. UK students give slightly less emphasis to their teachers as their main source of knowledge than do students in other countries. (Section 2.2)

  1. Much of the research literature continues to present the student experience as synonymous with young full-time students, living away from home, probably for the first time. It tends to ignore the different kinds of mature students and also the increasing numbers of international students. The experiences of different groups may be qualitatively different. The hours spent on study will differ as will the purposes and motivations to study. (Sections 1.8 and 3.5)
  2. The distinction between full-time and part-time students has become increasingly blurred with many students on full-time courses spending substantial amounts of time on part-time jobs and domestic commitments. But for some increasingly ‘busy’ students, less time spent on study may be coupled with more efficiency in the use of that time. (Section 3.5)
  3. In summary, too much significance should not be attached to contact hours in isolation from the wider context and conditions reported by the studies examined in this report. It is safe to conclude that the experience of higher education for UK students is increasingly diverse but that the contours of this diversity are hardly captured by comparisons of contact and study hours.

Approaches to study and factors which affect them

  1. This study did not set out to answer the question of how much the amount of study impacts on learning. There is a considerable literature on approaches to study in higher education and on study methods which would suggest that ‘time spent’ may not be the crucial factor; it is by no means evident that spending more time on study is in all circumstances related to learning more. However, there does not appear to have been much comparative research on this subject and there is at least a suggestion that there may be some relationship between time spent and approaches to learning (with ‘less time’ being associated with ‘surface’ forms of learning). (Section 1.7)
  2. There is evidence to suggest that students in UK higher education are less dependent on their teachers than are students in other European countries. They also appear to be amongst the most motivated of students in European higher education. (Section 2.2) Visiting ERASMUS students give positive evaluations of the teaching and student support that they receive in UK universities. (Section 1.4)
  3. While the growth in term-time employment carries implications for the time available for study, there is evidence that it is the non-academic aspects of the student experience which get sacrificed in order to make time for paid work. (Section 3.3)
  4. A very large difference between the student experience in the UK and elsewhere in Europe lies in the much greater use of work placements and internships in the latter. (Section 2.2)
  5. There does appear to be a relationship between time devoted to study and degree results in most European countries. But the relationship is not particularly strong and the causality not particularly clear. (Section 2.5)
  1. There is, however, a much stronger relationship between study hours and the perceived benefits of higher education in relation to factors such as career preparation and personal development. The investment of more hours of study appears to bring substantial pay-offs after graduation. (Section 2.5)

In relation to the other outcomes of university learning, the strengths of the UK student experience appear to lie more in the direction of personal development while elsewhere there is a more even balance between personal development and employment-related benefits. (Section 3.5)

  1. Introduction: recent research on the student experience
  • Contexts

Two broad trends lead us to question assumptions about the nature of how and what students experience in contemporary higher education. The first of these is the increasing diversity of the student body and of higher education’s institutional forms. In particular, many students on full-time courses effectively study part-time while they combine study with paid employment and/or domestic responsibilities. The consequence may be less time for and/or different approaches to study. The second trend is globalisation and the increasing internationalisation of higher education, as witnessed by the increasing volume of student movements across national borders and by the growth of attempts at supra-national co-ordination and regulation through processes such as Bologna. The latter draw attention to differences in national traditions and cultures of higher education, not just in terms of the length of courses but in the intensity and nature of study.

These trends themselves lead to an increasing awareness of ‘differences’ between individual students, between individual higher education institutions and between different national systems. And awareness of differences in the student experience inevitably raises the question of whether some experiences are better than others.

It is within this context that the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) commissioned the Open University’s Centre for Higher Education Research and Information (CHERI) to produce a report which looked at international differences in the experience of students and the hours devoted to study, based both on a review of literature and on the re-analysis of existing data collected as part of two recent studies, one European comparative project (section 2) and one UK national project (section 3), on students and graduates. As well as looking at data on the student experience, the report will also consider how that experience is conceptualised, including the social as well as the academic sides of academic life.

It is, however, worth emphasising some caveats at the outset. The data reported on here were collected from students at different stages of their academic careers and beyond. They depend on the accuracy of the students’ recollections and perceptions of their time at university. They may sometimes fail to distinguish between what was on offer and what was actually experienced. The time devoted to study may indicate little about the demands of that study or the quality of teaching experienced as part of that study. And as with all forms of aggregated data, they may fail to take account of differences between sub-groups, in this case especially in relation to factors such as the subject studied, the institution attended and the life circumstances of the individual student.

In a paper to be published in the forthcoming third edition of the International Encyclopaedia of Education, McInnis notes that

The complexity and multiplicity of student types and roles is currently challenging established research, policy and practice for governments, universities and academics. Traditional notions of a campus-based experience and the university as a cohesive learning community preparing undergraduates for citizenship and the workplace are being tested in most developed countries. Universities around the world are under pressure to adapt to significant changes in student needs and expectations while maintaining core values concerned with the holistic development of students.

(McInnis, forthcoming)

The notion of ‘holistic development’ might itself be something of an Anglo-Saxon conception of the student experience that contrasts, for example, with more professional/occupational traditions in other European countries. But what is important about the McInnis quote is that it relates the student ‘experience’ to the equally if not more important topic of what students ‘become’. Questions about the nature of the student experience cannot sensibly or easily be separated from questions of what students are meant to be learning, or expressed more broadly, from questions about the personal and professional changes which are expected to occur as a result of the experience of higher education.

McInnis quotes Clark’s portrayal of research on the student experience as a ‘relatively massive but trivial literature’ (Clark, 1973, p9) and more recently Terenzini and Reason’s view that the literature, with a few exceptions, is ‘highly segmented, even atomistic, and virtually atheoretical’ (Terenzini and Reason, 2006, p1). Both quotations refer to the United States (US) literature which is certainly more massive and of longer standing than the research literature in Europe and elsewhere. But in terms of the growth of higher education into ‘universal’ systems in many parts of the world, the US experience may provide pointers of things to come. McInnis summarises the US approach to the student experience as follows:

Despite evidence of diversity, the prevailing models of student life from the US assume an optimal level of student engagement with the university or college in a campus-based environment. These include the assumptions that: a positive experience is unlikely to occur in a social vacuum; that learning in a group is critical to the quality of student life; and that there are important learning outcomes from university beyond the mastery of subject matter.

However…

What students do in college and what that means for them and America’s future is a common theme. The key issues generating research and policy most recently have been focussed on the need to improve the quality of the student experience set against an apparent drift away from the levels of student engagement that characterised the undergraduate experience for previous generations. Over the last five years or so there has been a wave of internal reviews of undergraduate programs in US universities and colleges to counter the perceived loss of focus and direction. This is particularly the case for large research intensive institutions.

(McInnis, forthcoming)

Turning closer to home, a report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI),

The academic experience of students in English universities (Sastry and Bekhradnia, 2007), explored the teaching contact hours of students at a sample of English universities. Data were based on a survey undertaken in March 2006 and repeated in March 2007 of first and second year students in English universities and focussed on various aspects of the amount of teaching and private study undertaken by students, their levels of satisfaction and other attitudinal questions1. Hours spent studying might be regarded as fairly basic to the student experience: the more time spent, the larger the experience and the amount and quality of learning that might accrue from it. The latter points do not of course necessarily follow from the former. It is, for example, important to know how these hours are spent, what learning outcomes are intended and what outcomes are actually achieved. But, nevertheless, hours of study do provide a fairly natural starting point for an examination of the student experience.

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