Class in action

June 27, 1997

Four students tell Elaine Carlton what they think of university teaching

Annette Bailey, 21, BA hons architecture (name changed as the student feared reprisals from the department) I really felt as though we didn't have enough lectures. Our only lecture course was one on the history and theory of architecture but we needed to be taught about the structure of buildings.

At the end of the third year we were expected to write a technical report, which counts for a considerable amount of our marks, but they failed to teach us anything about the technical side of how to produce a building. On that front it was lacking. The attitude was: if you want to know, go and find it out yourself. Many of the people on my course were older and obviously had more experience than the rest, but everyone else was still expected to have the same level of structural knowledge.

In the second year we were offered the opportunity to pick up some computer skills, but 50 people volunteered for 20 places and we missed out.

Many of the tutors are senior architects and their job at college is just part-time. On one hand this was beneficial because they had considerable knowledge, but it meant their job was prioritised above us.

We did have a good field trip this year. Other field trips were just a time to view architecture and get drunk. But ours had a purpose. Each of us had to make something and take it to the Camargue, in the south of France, and use it to define a territory. I took 50 rubber blobs on a stalk. As they blew off they made indentations in the sand, marking out a territory which I used as a starting point for designing a research base for scientists.

It's June now and they've only just mentioned to us about applying for jobs. You would've thought they could have said something already in the three years we've been here.

* Naomi Green, 23, BA Hons public relations, Leeds Metropolitan University There was a distinct difference between the theory and practice of the course.

In theory it's a great idea. Public relations is a contemporary industry and it's a growing one. People desperately need to know how to promote themselves and their products.

In practice there was a big problem with our tutors, who were highly unapproachable.

Many of them were very cold and made you feel you were wasting their time if you asked any questions outside class time.

Our lectures were very repetitive and could have been condensed into one year rather than our learning the same subjects three years running. Each year we were taught exactly the same thing about financial public relations, corporate advertising and media relations.

On the plus side the course encouraged you to get up and do real public relations projects. One day a week students were expected to work for free. You had to get adopted by a company and help them with their PR, producing corporate brochures on their products and services. Most people ended up doing the work at night and over the weekend as well as that one day a week and felt completely overloaded.

Another module involved a communications audit. A team of five of us were charged with assessing the internal communications of a credit loan company with 1,400 employees.

This was supposed to take up one day a week for three months, but we handed out hundreds of questionnaires, carried out interviews with managers and we had to turn it into a report and give a presentation to the directors. It was really a six-month job for a full-time team.

I certainly can't complain that I haven't had any real experience. I could set up a sponsorship deal, run an advertising campaign and liaise with the media but, if we hadn't been given such an enormous amount of practical work, what we actually needed to know about PR could have been taught in a year.

* Andrew Steer, 22, MSc, physics, University College London My course is the new four-year version of the old BSc degree and the final year is made up entirely of options. The course introduced quarter-unit options for the first time, which can be combined with half units to make up the total units required. It meant students could have a taste of a broader range of subjects but it was hard going.

Some lecturers were very good and conscientious and created new courses which fitted the shorter time period. Others who had previously taught half-unit courses just went through their notes thinking "we'll do this page but miss out this one" and left us to fill in the gaps on our own.

I really enjoyed magnetism and magnetic materials as the lecturer gave us a good introduction to a specialist area, but with atomic and photon physics the lecturer made scanty blackboard notes and the key points weren't always made clear, which left me puzzling over other details.

Over the four years we were increasingly given training in presentation skills, which was very useful. We had to give talks in front of the rest of the year, use the overhead projector and supply handouts.

On the practical side all our projects were done alone or in pairs until the final year when we were put into a group of seven to work as a team under the charge of a board manager who was represented by a member of staff. Our project, worth a quarter of our final mark, was to investigate computer-controlled machines which could polish and shape large optical lenses for big telescopes, but we were not given very clear aims and it was dominated by excessive bureaucracy.

The tutors were trying to create a working environment but they were over zealous in their aim. If we asked the board manager a question he would ask us to put it in writing and bring it to the next meeting. Students were happy to take committee positions on the project but then stood around talking. Luckily, however we pulled together as the deadline approached.

Peter Howard, 54, art history, Birkbeck College, University of London I suffered a lot financially during the recession and until then art had just been my hobby. I started planning to take it up as my full-time occupation.

Each year of my course I was able to choose a whole range of subjects under the umbrella of art history and I found the overall level of tuition very good. Birkbeck is a world-recognised centre of art history and the level of expertise among lecturers was excellent. My specialism was 18th and 19th-century French and English painting and I found the course was extremely well structured. My lecturers gave illustrated lectures and at the end handed out a list of the slides presented during the lecture.

During the year each student had to give one lecture to the rest of the group. For me this was good practice as I would like to teach and lecture later on. It gave me a lot more confidence.

I did feel however that it would have helped in the final two years to have had a regular meeting each term with our tutors. There weren't any of these and it would have been useful to have a tutorial to discuss any essays coming back or general problems with the course.

The college organised trips to Paris, Venice and Rome which were extremely worthwhile but I could only afford one.

The trip lasted a week and was crammed full of gallery visits. The lecturer would take us to the Louvre, for example and stand in front of the Mona Lisa and talk to us about the social and political aspects which contributed to its production.

During the course we were also taught a little about critical analysis of painting and I am planning to continue studying this with an MA in the subject.

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