Universities should go back to basics and organise more contact between students, the first Higher Education Academy annual conference heard last week.
Craig McInnis, professor of higher education at Melbourne University, told delegates that undergraduates were losing informal learning opportunities enjoyed by students in the past because they increasingly worked alone outside lectures.
"We need to engineer situations where students can meet," Professor McInnis told delegates at the conference held at Edinburgh University.
"We need to construct situations and build mechanisms into the curriculum rather than expect (students) to meet in their spare time, which they don't see as spare time anymore."
Professor McInnis said students' expectations had changed. "Students increasingly expect universities to fit in with their lives rather than the other way round. We need to rethink what we mean by the student experience and to come up with new forms of learning communities," he said.
It was not just in lecture halls that students developed academically and cognitively, he said. Studies suggest that informal contact with fellow students and academics is positively linked with increases in intellectual skills, greater independence, interpersonal skills and educational aspirations and attainment.
A study of first-year experiences covering 1994-2004 revealed that 29 per cent of students in Australian universities never worked with classmates on assignments outside class. Students who stayed the longest on campus asked more questions in class, spent more time studying, discussed course material with friends and in class, felt as if they belonged and were more positive about their identities as students.
"If universities are overly responsive to student work priorities and preferences, they run the risk of exacerbating the growing problem of more general disengagement," Professor McInnis said. "We need to reconceptualise the student experience as a process of negotiated engagement."
Dilly Fung, who is researching at Exeter University, has just completed an inquiry into the first-year student experience. She found that traditional and non-traditional students benefited greatly from working with peers. "We need to restore time for students to meet. It does not happen naturally anymore," she said.