Ensuring student success – Students are not to blame

Many students may appear to be unqualified, unprepared and uninterested. But if you believe, as I do, that each one of them has a talent, each of one them has a capacity to develop – intellectually and emotionally – then it follows that each one should be given a fair chance to succeed.

Far too often undergraduate programmes come across as fragmented and homogenised, and neither adapt to the needs of individual students nor to the needs of various employers. Courses are typically created in a vacuum and not surprisingly appear as hoops and hurdles for students.

There is an alarming scarcity of interdisciplinary courses, little integration of existing courses, and almost no alignment to achieve the specific outcomes that these collections of courses are geared towards.

This is especially true of first-year courses with large impersonal classes taught by teaching assistants and part-time instructors.

It is exactly during this time, the first-year experience, when students are making important transitions, when students require a lot of personal attention and when they seek faculty time. It is a time when we should put our best teachers on the front lines and offer an experience that few, if any, students will be able to refuse.

Why are we surprised that students drop out then?

Why do the same students who are characterised as weak and unmotivated, who use surface approaches to memorise and learn for the test, do exactly the opposite from one course to another?

If you change the learning environment and key parameters (such as exposing them to good teachers) that influence learning outcomes, these same uninterested students never miss a class, show sophisticated, deep approaches to studying and get passionate about their learning.

Please, let's stop blaming the students!

Another factor that affects the student experience is the way we pit teaching against research.

A note about our choice of words used to define how we spend most of our time at university. I am referring to the assignment of ‘teaching loads’. What does a ‘teaching load’ say about our attitudes towards teaching? A load is a burden that one tries to minimise in every way possible.

In fact, in most disciplines, the message to get ahead is clear: spend your time securing more research grants and this can and will reduce your teaching load. Why are teaching and research presented as a mutually exclusive set of choices?

Pitting teaching against research is not only a false dichotomy; it has also had the deleterious effect of degrading the role of teaching in the broader definition of what counts as scholarship.

Even if one takes teaching seriously, it is still a very private activity. How many times have any of us sat in a colleague’s classroom, the same colleagues who we collaborate with in a seminar, conference and co-publication of research?

Also, why aren’t we encouraged to do research on how we teach? We are experts at research methodology. We have access to unbelievable amounts of student learning data.

Our students would willingly participate in research projects that would improve the quality of their learning experience. Why does research on teaching not count unless you are in the education department?

Until we – teachers and the faculty associations that represent us – decide to change this culture which makes the very act of teaching a poor cousin of what we have come to define as true scholarship, and unless we make teaching public, it is difficult to expect dramatic changes in the quality of teaching.

Another way we could increase student satisfaction is if we started listening more to our students.

According to most experts, the single most important variable that accounts for a quality learning experience is student-faculty contact. This shows up as the first item in Chickering and Gamson’s famous seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. It is also something we can do – by spending more time giving feedback on student work rather than by spending most of our time lecturing to them.

Similarly, a longitudinal study (Students Speak by Richard Light at Harvard) reveals that students learn more outside the classroom than during our lectures. They also have great ideas and pragmatic suggestions to improve their learning experience and especially about using emerging technologies.

If we allowed students to co-design curricula and participate in our research, there is a strong likelihood that their learning experience would be enriched.

Finally, one of the reasons we hit and miss with the quality of student learning is because ours is the only profession that does not require any systematic study, training or professional development with respect to teaching.

How many courses did we take on pedagogy in our four to five years of PhD studies? How many theories of learning can we identify and use in our own practice? How have our teaching strategies evolved? Why are teachers who engage in educational development an invisible minority?

Let’s be honest. There is a shocking disregard and ignorance among many academics when it comes to our own expertise on being informed by the educational literature, or following best practice or taking teaching seriously.

* Arshad Ahmad is president of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education in Canada. He and Ken Coates of the University of Saskatchewan gave a presentation on different approaches to student success at the recent “Ensuring Student Success” conference organised by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.


Is this article a general rant, or can the author provide a structure for analysing and understanding the issues copied from the literature?

Dennis Bryant, University of Canberra