Shutdowns drive master’s students’ workload and contact concerns

Overall satisfaction drops to lowest level since Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey began

November 18, 2021
Online lecture illustrating US universities plans for autumn classes
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UK master’s students taught online last year felt less supported and reported receiving a worse academic experience than their peers who received the blended provision they expected, a survey has revealed.

The survey of almost 70,000 UK postgraduate taught students found that 76 per cent of respondents were not receiving teaching as they had initially expected, being taught mainly or completely online rather than having in-person lessons.

In 2019, 14 per cent of respondents to the survey were taught online. In 2021, as the pandemic continued to affect university campus openings throughout the year, 87 per cent reported that their teaching was “mostly or completely” online, according to the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey, published by Advance HE on 18 November.

Students who were taught online reported lower levels of contact time than those who experienced a blend of online and in-person: 62 per cent of those taught online who had initially expected to be taught in-person agreed that their contact time was sufficient to support learning, and 60 per cent taught online who expected to be taught this way, compared with 73 per cent who received blended teaching.

Of those taught online who had hoped to be taught in-person, 72 per cent agreed that their institution had worked to ensure the quality of the academic experience during the Covid-19 pandemic, compared with 82 per cent of those receiving blended teaching. Those figures were 77 per cent and 85 per cent, respectively, for overall satisfaction.

The survey also found that 71 per cent taught online but expecting in-person agreed they had had the support they needed related to the pandemic, compared with 80 per cent of those receiving blended teaching. For the statement that communications in relation to the pandemic “were appropriate and clear”, the figures were 82 per cent and 87 per cent, respectively.

Overall, the percentage of students who agreed that workload had been manageable slipped to its lowest levels since the survey began – 67 per cent this year, down from 73 per cent last year and 71 per cent in 2019.

According to the report, feedback from respondents showed that the impact of being unable to discuss work with other students affected how manageable they found the workload.

Only 65 per cent agreed that they had had opportunities to engage with other students this year, compared with 76 per cent last year, and 79 per cent the previous year.

This was particularly an issue for students who had to study online, with just 63 per cent agreeing with this statement, compared with 76 per cent of those who studied in-person or through a mixture of online/in-person.

“Much of the difficulty has been produced by the solely online nature of teaching. I really need to be able to see, talk to, discuss with other students in a same room/face-to-face context of learning together,” according to one respondent.

In 2021, satisfaction with course quality dropped to its lowest since the survey began: 78 per cent, down from 79 per cent last year and 82 per cent the year before that.

However, the survey found that the flexibility of online learning was “highly valued by students who were balancing other commitments, including those who had expected in-person teaching”.

Jonathan Neves, head of surveys and insights at Advance HE, who ran the survey, said the results showed that the pandemic “was still a defining part of the student experience for this year’s taught postgraduates”.

“We’ve found students voicing their isolation and frustration because they’ve been unable to go on-campus or access resources. We know the majority of students taking master’s level qualifications are just there for one year, so it has affected their whole time in higher education,” he said.

“However, most taught postgraduates were still upbeat about their studies. Many comments in the survey made clear how often staff and students worked to connect with each other, support each other, and create a good learning experience. That’s a real positive.”

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