What motivates students and how can universities ensure that students do not just coast through their courses, doing just enough to pass?
These were the questions exercising speakers at the Motivation Conundrum, a conference hosted last week by the University of Central Lancashire. Academics are worried that larger classes mean they do not know their students as well as they did, and that some are slipping through the tutorial net.
Pauline Kneale, senior lecturer in the department of geography at Leeds University, has surveyed student motivation at her institution and sent questionnaires to 176 departments at other universities. Just over a third responded.
Some students claimed that they coasted through university because they had chosen the wrong course; others said they put outside interests first. One student claimed he had applied only to seaside universities in order to surf.
Dr Kneale found that large classes made study less enjoyable for many students. Others wanted to do well, but were too tired to produce their best work because of part-time jobs. Some worked more than 20 hours a week, even during term.
A small but growing group of students freely admitted that they chose to do as little work as possible to survive, Dr Kneale said. Trying to change their attitudes is frustrating. "Perhaps lecturers should not waste their time on them," she suggested.
Even students who are keen on their subjects can suffer from a lack of motivation. Lewis Elton, professor of higher education at University College London, told the conference that most students have at least some motivation towards their courses when they enrol. "They are demotivated by what people do to them once they are at university," he said.