Student experience has a central focus in higher education as institutions strive for retention, attainment, and growth; acknowledging students as both consumers and participants (Muijs et al. 2017). Consequently, universities pursue active engagement of student voice to inform quality enhancement as a route toward improving educational experiences. Within the Scottish sector, quality enhancement is defined in part as the deliberate steps taken “to bring about improvement in the effectiveness of the learning experiences of students” (QAA, 2017, p. 3).
In the School of Education and Social Work at the University of Dundee, an interdisciplinary team has initiated a three year study, exploring the experiences of a previously overlooked student group (Morgan et al. 2014), the taught postgraduate (PGT) student population, consisting of in-service professionals including early and middle career teachers pursuing a Master’s degree. This study aligns with the University vision, values and core principles, aiming to enhance student personal development, well-being and performance, by exploring student experiences to inform quality enhancement.
To this end, a participatory action research design has been adopted to engage and actualize student voice. Using an online survey followed by focus groups, we have begun to explore the phenomenology of student experience across five areas emerging from a review of literature (Morgan, 2014; QAA, 2017; Temple et al., 2014): Transitions, Academics, University Services, Culture and Daily Life.
To further explore student experience, well-being measures have been collected, reflecting the understanding that well-being is important in human functioning. According to Boekharts (1993) negative emotions arise when an experience is perceived as a threat to an individuals’ well-being. When this happens, the negative impact on well-being becomes the focus of attention, disrupting capacity for learning. Through this understanding, we posit a relationship between student experience, well-being, and engagement with learning.
Findings from the first year of the study highlight the formative nature of PGT education; they indicate cognitive and affective processes underpin the student journey directly influencing student experience through three distinct dimensions: Degree of Connectedness; Effectiveness of Supports; and Quality of Communications. Resoundingly, students report feelings of transformation through their student journey. Transformation in thinking, understanding, capacity to problem solve and quality of social interactions.
Simultaneously, students describe a range of heightened emotional peaks and troughs throughout their journey that at times act to heighten or threaten motivation and engagement.
Through our analysis we sought to understand more clearly the challenges and threats students encounter and the various factors influencing their capacity to overcome. Three distinct dimensions of student experience emerged, each containing sub-categories operating independently and at times interacting to heighten or threaten the student journey.
Three sub-categories define the degree of connectedness dimension. These include the students’ perceived sense of belonging, identity and relationships. Through these sub-categories students establish membership, academic identity, and comradery promoting resilience during high stress periods. Perceived availability of support, access to support and quality of support provided through University Services and within the programme of study define the effectiveness of supports dimension. Findings suggest a relationship between students’ perceived effectiveness of support and their capacity for self-directed learning. Effective supports, those defined as useful in promoting goal achievement, prompt increased motivation to engage in the study journey, while ineffective supports trigger feelings of demotivation, frustration and anxiety, sometimes lasting for extended periods of time, becoming impediments to their study journey. The third dimension, Quality of Communication, includes communication between student and University Service or within the student’s programme of study including tutor email exchanges, tutorials, and feedback. It is defined by students’ perceived sense of efficiency of communication, tone of communication, and clarity of response toward meeting the students’ needs. This dimension interacts heavily with the other dimensions through its capacity to impact academic identity, sense of membership, and self-efficacy. Acting as a threat, this dimension prompted feelings of confusion, demoralization, and isolation, placing the student journey at risk through decreased sense of self-efficacy, belonging and academic identity. Conversely, quality communication influenced student empowerment through increased confidence, and capacity to pursue self-directed learning.
Interestingly, positive peer and tutor relationships emerged as the greatest factor promoting resilience in times of threat; through a foundation of strong peer and tutor relationships students report an improved capacity to persevere through high stress, overcoming threats from within any one of the dimensions, to continue on their study journey.
Implications are twofold. For teacher educators, a revised understanding of the diverse nature and needs of this population, overcoming the taken-for-granted assumption that this group begins study possessing sound academic identities and the capacity to engage in self-directed learning, and that these qualities are inherently impregnable. Herein lies the potential for innovative programming, focusing on the relationship between student experience, well-being and learning. For the in-service teachers engaging in programmes designed through this revised understanding, resides the potential their learning experiences will be sustained through embedded supports fostering resilience throughout the student journey, leading to the formation of strong academic-identities, high self-efficacy, and sustained motivation to pursue professional learning.
Boekaerts, M. (1993) ‘Being concerned with well-being and with learning’. Educational psychologist, 28(2), pp.149-167.
Education Scotland (2017) Enhancement led Review Handbook (ELIR-4) (PDF) (Accessed: 10 September 2018). Quality Assurance Agency.
Morgan, M. and Rigby, S. (2014) The importance of understanding the expectations and attitudes of the student body, university staff and business and industry in improving the STEM postgraduate taught student experience. (Accessed: 25 August 2018) The Higher Education Academy STEM.
Muijs, D. and Bokhove, C. (2017) ‘Postgraduate student satisfaction: A multilevel analysis of PTES data’. British Educational Research Journal, 43(5), pp.904-930.
Temple, P., Callender, C., Grove, L. and Kersh, N. (2014) Managing the student experience in a shifting higher education landscape. (PDF) (Accessed: 28 September, 2018) The Higher Education Academy.