It is probably fair to say that for new students, university life is all about change.
Changing the way they plan their time, changing the way they think about the world, and changing their attitudes to learning. That change, that adaptation to meet the expectations we thrust upon them, is one we as their educators encourage from the get-go.
Although each university has its own idiosyncrasies that often reflect its institutional strategy, many expectations regarding ways of learning, time management, reflection on performance and preparedness for employment are the same across the sector. This reshaping is based (at least in part) on what we recognise as a need for students to adapt to a different learning environment compared to what they experienced in college, as well as to be adaptable in readiness for a fiendishly competitive job market.
But are we as academics insisting that students change to meet the expectations of the big bad world, while we ourselves are guilty of failing to adapt our way of working and teaching to meet the expectations of a different type of learner and a different way of doing a job once they graduate?
Our expectations are simple if you think about it. We expect students to turn up to class (on time), to do more than sit there and rely on the material on the VLE (virtual learning environment) for understanding and revision, to complete their coursework before the 11th hour (or in most cases, if submission time stamps are anything to go by, the 59th minute), to use their feedback to improve, and to study throughout the year rather than revise just before the exam period purely to pass.
But these simple expectations are also often analogous to those students have of us. They want us to inspire them and make them want to be in our class (on time), to get their marks and feedback returned before the end of the agreed marking period, and to change what doesn’t work and do more of what does work in order to give them the best experience so that they get the best possible outcomes (both academically and in terms of employability).
Essentially we expect students to change to suit the changing world, and to take our advice on what they need to survive out there.
They, in turn, expect us to facilitate that. But to do that (and here is where things get controversial) sometimes we need to be willing to change how we do what we do. And more importantly we need to just get on and do it.
There is a terrible pattern in so many job sectors of meetings that discuss a lot but achieve very little, of strategies without implementation, and of reflection without action. And higher education is no exception.
I often have conversations with or meetings attended by colleagues that include utterances of “I just don’t have the time”, or “what we’ve always done is…”, which is inevitably followed by inaction or procrastination of that which needs to be done. Lectures go unchanged, assessments go unreviewed, and processes and guidelines remain the same year after year (ironically these are often centrally controlled ones that struggle to change to adapt to those pockets of innovation our institutional strategies claim to encourage).
But this superglue-like adherence to the way things have always been, to the detriment of the time available to do those things justice, not only has an impact on the student experience, but also on the fragile work/life balance that so many of us struggle to maintain.
We leave processes such as timetabling, workload planning and review meetings until the last minute, despite frequently telling our students how important it is to keep on top of things. We keep programmes exactly the same as they have been for the past five years despite student feedback suggesting some tweaks may be in order, and then feel put out and hard done by when the same responses come the following year and student performance is worse.
We put off updating our lecture material or changing the way we deliver it, and then wonder why the class is half-empty by week three. We set enormous exams with long essays at every level, then complain that we have so much marking to do and that what students have written is subpar. And we provide lacklustre feedback on coursework because there was no time to give more, owing to the size and number of submissions and the rapidly approaching marking deadline, and then we lament the lack of improvement on the next assignment.
Simply put, there comes a point where our reluctance to make changes because of the time it takes to do so results in a perpetuation of having no time, because we are clinging on to the things that need changing in order to meet the expectations our students have of us, and that employment will have of them. Surely as this difficulty to maintain standards and meet evolving expectations repeats itself year after year, we should consider perhaps trying something new on the off chance it works better than the approach we’ve relied on for so long?
Maybe we need, on occasion, to work better not harder, if only to claw back some of that time on the weekend we lost to all the things we didn’t have the time to do during the week when we were actually being paid to do them.
As important as it is to encourage students to adapt to higher education and change their attitude to study by coming to university to learn and not simply to get a degree, we must also be mindful of our own resistance to adapting to an ever-changing field of play. There are a whole host of different ways of going about even the simplest of tasks that eat up our time in and among the fun parts of the job. We just have to be brave, take a leaf out of our own books of “wisdom for students”, and take the time to try something different and adapt ourselves to a new breed of learners.
You never know – maybe that idea you’ve toyed with trying but were too afraid to test out because it’s “not the way we’ve always done it” might just save you a headache later on and make your students better learners and colleagues happier bunnies.
But you won’t know until you try…
Chris Moore is senior lecturer in anatomy at the University of the West of England.
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