Does student happiness undermine academic rigour?

For some time there has been a growing focus on student satisfaction. This obviously makes sense for all sorts of reasons, since university courses are there to be educate, support, inform and develop students – and their judgement on whether this is successful is clearly important. In the UK this is reflected in the National Student Survey, which tells students that ‘the NSS is your opportunity to give your opinions on what you liked about your time at your institution/course as well as things that you felt could have been improved.’. The results are published annually.

The issue of student satisfaction has also been considered in the context of tuition fees. As these have risen in some countries, the question has been asked whether this has created additional pressures on institutions to take steps to ensure student satisfaction. This might appear to be good and proper, but recently a US professor, Richard Arum, has asked whether one consequence might be that students increasingly ‘lack critical thinking, complex problem solving and writing skills, which are required for business success and thoughtful civic engagement,’ because faculty are too concerned with pleasing students and therefore hesitant about challenging them. He also wondered whether professors were inflating grades in order to get good student feedback and evaluations.

Before we get too carried away attributing this to tuition fees, it might be pointed out that student satisfaction is probably just as important to institutions that recruit students in free higher education systems, where retention and satisfaction also have a direct impact on institutional revenues. So perhaps the question might be put more broadly: have universities become reluctant to set and maintain standards? And perhaps, could this be because students are pushing them to adopt a softer approach?

As pedagogical methods change and as learning technology becomes more common, these are questions that need to be seriously addressed.

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7 Comments on “Does student happiness undermine academic rigour?”

  1. foleyg Says:

    Ferdinand, Richard Arum is only partly right in my view. What has happened is that lecturers are confronted with classrooms full of students who are either not able to cope at third level or who simply do not really want to be there at all – the price of the obsession with third level for all. The result as that we adjust the level at which we teach to accommodate the students, not so much to keep them happy but to keep ourselves happy. There is nothing quite as demoralizing as a sea of blank faces in a lecture theatre or a large stack of exam scripts on your desk with an average mark of 20%. We reason that it is better to teach something rather than nothing. The whole process is aided by a ‘teaching and learning’ culture in which unvalidated innovations are introduced for no other reason than a feeling that ‘innovation is good’ and that students seem to ‘engage’ more when they learn in these ‘new’ ways. Much of these innovative approaches to teaching at third level are actually borrowed from second level and even first level and, in my view, they have contributed to the general perception among employers that graduates are less independent and lacking initiative.
    I recently had a conversation with an eminent Swiss adjunct who teaches a couple of modules on our program (and always shocked by our standards) and I asked him how we were going to raise standards. He had a simple answer: “make it harder”. But to make third level harder, we have to have first to have a conversation among academics themselves to agree on a way forward. We’re being way too passive about this, just shrugging our shoulders at the inevitability of it all.

    • Could there be a cognition boundary here? Lectures: note taking, only work for some people. Could there be other ways of getting the knowledge across? That is, presuming the lecturer has time, resources and the unlimited and boundless energy to even begin to look into this.

  2. V.H Says:

    Of course it does. The very fact you’ve got to deal with pesky students at all undermines the academic rigour. Now that professors of the red may have to view them as paying human beings as distinct from an infestation sent to test the metal. Well certainly it will blunt academic endeavour. (joke)

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    I don’t think that universities have become reluctant to set and maintain standards. If anything the proliferation of ranking, research & teaching targets and other quality assurance mechanisms make sure that is not the case, of course it might be worth considering issues of standards and quality from a different perspective. What often lies behind the corporate narrative of ‘excellence’ or ‘innovation’ is a culture that prefers to ‘play it safe’, not to upset stakeholders, public/private funding bodies, students etc.. It’s not so much that students are pushing universities to adopt a softer approach, the fact of the matter is that the soft approach has become the norm..(Bill Readings has something very interesting to say about the rhetoric of ‘excellence’ in case anyone is interested

    What is also interesting here is the use of the word ‘happiness’, a true obsession, almost a morally imperative pursuit within Anglo-American society:
    thus forgetting that individuals from different cultures respond to happiness very differently
    Surely an awareness of such cultural differences, should be considered in any evaluation of our (international) students’ happiness..

  4. Eddie Says:

    I would not believe in NSS surveys in any manner of speaking, unless I am sure it was really students who filled in the forms. That aside, we all as students in American universities knew a few decades ago-ages before Richard Arum wondered about (yes, questionnaires were handed out even then, in the last class of the course), that “easy-grading” professors were given massive thumbs up, and even then these professors routinely received the “best teacher” award, and we used to smile at them knowingly then!!

  5. Kate Says:

    I’m curious: when we talk about standards in higher education, it doesn’t take long for someone to mention “learning technologies”, as though there was a golden age of sherry and sharpened pencils, and now there’s Facebook and shallow popularity. Measures of either student satisfaction or student engagement (the US based NSSE instruments) are weak in that they are focused on what happened five minutes ago, when the real measure of learning is what happens longer term. I’m not sure learning technologies affect this much, unless the sherry really is a dealbreaker for positive sentiment.

  6. James Fryar Says:

    I think the issue comes down to one simple question – should students expect some minimum standard to be applied in relation to teaching?

    We all know that there are some lecturers who were assigned a course at the start of the year by department heads which they simply aren’t comfortable teaching. There are older, more experienced academics whose class-time is limited by administrative duties. There are the ‘world-class’ researchers who don’t have to sully themselves with having to deal with those pesky undergraduates. And there are lecturers who are supremely disorganised, mumble through a lecture, and roll out the same notes year on year having never quite bothered to correct the mistake in equation 132 on slide 97 that has been present since 1992.

    I remember some of our first-year students having a torrid time. Lecturers in one course took roll calls to be folded into continuous assessment marks, another refused to place notes on moodle for subsequent download. Other lecturers placed everything up on moodle at the start of the semester and didn’t bother taking roll calls. In labs for some subjects, students were required to sign in and out and to work individually with minimal conversation with their peers. Others allowed students to collaborate.

    I think universities need to establish ‘student charters’. They need to spell out a commonality of experience. It shouldn’t matter who your lecturer is or what the subject, students (particularly those paying thousands a year) have every right to expect that there are institutional guidelines outlining the minimum they can expect from each of their lecturers. One can understand the frustration students feel when some of their notes are on moodle, some aren’t, sometimes rolls are taken, sometimes they’re not, some of their lecturers are approachable, others are so terrifying you don’t dare knock on their door for advice, and so forth.

    I’m always somewhat depressed that we consistently talk about ‘academic rigour’ when discussing assessment of students rather than ‘academic rigour’ when teaching them. How can a system with such vast differences in teaching talent, methodologies, approaches, availability of notes, etc be considered rigorous?

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