Should we be aiming for student happiness or student satisfaction?

Although two sides of the same coin, there are crucial differences between happiness and satisfaction – and one of them serves our students far better, says Doug Specht

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7 Dec 2022
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Student happiness versus student satisfaction

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University of Westminster

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During the summer I was reminded of a rather unusual interaction with a student from many years ago. The memory came to me as I sat in Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia. Conversation with colleagues there had, as expected, turned to the pandemic and how it had affected students, learning and engagement. We talked at length about being worried for students and what the future might hold for how we teach in higher education. Someone complained that “it’s just so hard to keep them happy now”, and while we all nodded in agreement, we began to discuss what we might mean by happiness.

The past three years have brought this question into sharp focus. The move online during the pandemic raised many questions about what it means to be a student. Universities and lecturers wrestled with trying to ascertain what their new roles were. Were we to stick to education, or did we now need to play a larger role in helping students create social bonds? We wanted to look after our students, but would this now extend to managing their happiness?

As the pandemic receded, the UK government upped their attacks on higher education. Incessant talk of “low-value” degrees, low satisfaction and poor student experience by politicians and the national media has also shaped the way in which we think about working with students.

Against this backdrop, I recalled a second-year student appearing in the doorway of my office. He hadn’t made an appointment, and as he stepped into the office I remembered I had just failed his most recent essay. I was expecting a complaint, perhaps an altercation, and was steeling myself to reiterate why he had failed and to present to him his options. However, his response threw me off guard. He said he had “just come to say thank you”. I thought I must have misremembered; perhaps it wasn’t him I had failed. “I just want to say thank you for failing me.” So it was him. Was this sarcasm? Was this building to an argument? No, he was sincere. It transpired after talking that he had been scraping through for one-and-a-half years, always just getting a passing mark, but he felt it wasn't deserved as he wasn’t performing at his best. He was happy to be getting through each assessment, but he wasn’t satisfied. He said failing that essay would give him a kick to perform better and work harder. It did. He went on to get a 2:2 rather than the third he was heading for. A much more satisfying outcome.

To me, this story helps us to see the difference between satisfaction and happiness quite starkly. The two are, of course, connected but operate on different scales. Happiness constitutes short moments of joy or pleasure. While satisfaction is a longer-term, and longer-lasting, emotion.

The UK higher education sector has turned towards happiness as a result of the pandemic and in the face of increased government and media pressure. Sticking plaster actions try to stave off a barrage of real and imagined complaints from students – from being overly generous with marks or inviting speakers that are not embedded in learning to investing in infrastructure that is not used or suitable. Aiming for short-term happiness could be our downfall. So what might we do to move back towards longer-term satisfaction rather than shorter-term happiness?

It’s important to note that this is a not a call to “toughen students up” or to push for rites of passage that mean university becomes an unpleasant place. Indeed, the pursuit of satisfied students encompasses their well-being. It is important that the university continues to look after the real needs of students. Instead, this is a suggestion that we need to look back to our practice as lecturers and reposition ourselves in the big picture.

A study in 2001 by Darline Bay and Harold Daniel noted how students’ demands are often based on their short-term goals – and this is a mode of operating that has been encouraged in the pursuit of continuously happy students. But the study also suggested that meeting such expectations could turn out to be “detrimental to both the students and the institution for the long term”. The study showed that universities who focus primarily on “keeping students happy” would find “preparing them for their futures or creating new knowledge” harder. Twenty years later we still need to work on this.

To avoid the trap of pursuing happiness alone we must do three things: focus on the long term; use “good friction”; keep learning and assessment linked and authentic:

  1. To effectively support our students at university we must be mindful of a student’s full learning journey. A learning journey is iterative and sometimes slow. In helping students understand the fullness of their learning, rather than allowing them to focus only on the now, we can move from happiness to satisfied and well-rounded students. Providing a good roadmap of the course, its options and pathways give a solid basis. Lecturers must work hard, too, to show links not just between ideas but also parts of the course.
  2. Duolingo, the popular language-learning app, has begun to experiment with what they call “good friction”. In the app, this takes the form of requiring each person who uses it to go through regular screens where they set targets and goals. Yet these goals actually have no relation to how the app works or the learning the user undertakes. Indeed, common app design suggests that these should be removed to smooth the learner experience. But what the Duolingo team noticed was that with this bit of extra friction, their learners stayed on the app longer and learned more. The learner was motivated by the good friction that encouraged them to look to the longer term rather than focus on easy wins.
  3. Nobody enjoys failing an assessment, but well-designed assessments that are clearly linked to the learning objectives of the course and the future careers of graduates become a moment of learning even when marks are not as high as hoped. Careful planning of assessments that are built around learning rather than testing can be transformative when combined with well-constructed feedback and clear marking criteria.

There can be no meaningful discussion of student satisfaction without focusing primarily on the long-term quality of education they receive and the extent to which the learning process has fostered their success. What brings students to university in the first place is not the gratification of easy courses, inflated grades or a certificate. Rather, the vast majority of students come to university looking for long-term development of skills, ideas and knowledge. We must work slowly and iteratively with our students towards this goal, which may have moments of unhappiness along the way, but which will be ultimately more satisfying.

Doug Specht is a senior lecturer and director of teaching and learning in the School of Media and Communication at the University of Westminster, UK. He is also a chartered teacher and holds advanced teacher status.

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