Category Archives: Student Experience

I am the customer

Jack Heinemann

Looking through an old pile on my desk, I found a piece I wrote for the UC student newspaper in the 1990s which I paraphrase as: “Why you don’t want to be my customer.” The terminology of ‘students as customers’ was taking firm hold back then. Now, though it is still contested, among a large proportion of academics at universities the language of business is part of the culture and its bias unconscious.

I still think that students don’t want to be my customer and that they are not my customers. They may be paying fees (and they are far from the only generation to do so), but that doesn’t mean that they are right. Paying fees does not make you a subject expert or the best judge of the pedagogy that produces the best learning outcomes.

The research on this point is already clear and covered elsewhere. As quality teaching measures became de facto synonymous with student evaluation of teaching surveys, the learning environment eroded. It continues to do so. The resistance to these trends in the academy has been light. We grumble, but frequently when pressed will make the Freudian slip that we are good teachers, look at my survey numbers!!

Meanwhile, it serves us pretty well to offer learning environments that large numbers of students reward, because they also tend to correlate with lower effort from us. The more I understand my students to be my customers, the less I have to do to make them successful. The upside is that there is competition to make the learning environment more dynamic and fun, which might have some balancing effect. But there is very little, if any, research to demonstrate how much engagement of this kind improves learning outcomes. This is mainly because the introduction of novel experiences is measured by student appreciation rather than its effects on achievement.

This essay, though, isn’t for students. It is for my academic colleagues. My message is that I’m not discouraged or prepared to settle as a teacher, even though my institution rewards me if I do. What I want to say is, despite your employment relationship, you are the customer in your relationship with students.

The effectiveness of me as a teacher will be measured in the quality of the society my former students support. For as long as I am a member of that society, I will benefit from – or pay the price of – my efforts as a teacher. My students are not my customers; I am theirs.

In your future dotage (or now, as applies), when you grumble at the mistakes made by the tax department, the Council, your doctor, accountant, computer helper, parliamentarian, chemist, fellow voters, and articles in the paper (special edition, with larger type), remember how you took your foot off the peddle just a wee bit when you were teaching.

To read, or not to read

A few years ago I was the focus of a small but spirited rebellion in the 100 level course I teach in Biology. My sin was to have a question on a test that had an answer students only could  know entirely from the assigned reading. This came to the students as more than a surprise, it was unfair.

I had gone to the trouble of saying on the Learn pages, in the same place that I listed required readings, that not all content material was possible to cover in lectures and that reading to an appropriate level was a required skill of the course. But this defense rang hollow with some students.

My purpose in raising this historical event with my colleagues now is not to criticize the actions of the students. What the event taught me was that through our teaching culture we trained students to expect that all they needed to do was attend, and possibly understand, lectures. Some sections of our 100 level courses had no required reading and in most others, the requirement apparently was never enforced. Not only were these sections of our courses not encouraging students to read, they were de facto encouraging them to not read.

I am sure that this will come as a surprise to colleagues in many parts of the University. An essential skill students hone through university is the ability to read efficiently at their academic level. Achieving this proficiency at 100 level helps in their transition to 200 level. In their book Academically Adrift analyzing the most important aspects of a university experience to learning, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that assigned reading and writing activities were two of the most important correlates with measured increases in critical thinking.

Biology now has a policy that requires, at least for 100 level courses, that students should have an assessment based entirely on the assigned reading. This could be an unavoidable test or exam question.

But it isn’t enough just to assign some reading and then write a test question on it. Students should be given guidance and feedback on their progress. The reading and the scale of reading has to be appropriate for the course and the learner. Based on the nominal 150 hours for a 15 point course, students should be assigned selected readings that they can be reasonably expected to have time to read and understand.

“How much is that?”, so I wondered as I dismounted my high horse reaction to students’ umbrage at having to demonstrate competence in the material I assigned them to read. The answer was not easy to find nor does it remain a fully satisfying answer. What I settled on for now as a working estimate was this advice from Rice University: at an average density of 750 words per page in a textbook, the average student should be able to read 7 pages per hour.

In courses I coordinate, I subtracted the contact hours from 150 which left me with the time a student has to read and write or perform other course-required tasks. I did not include the time in an assessment such as a test or exam, but the time to complete a problem set and to study for the problem set was included.

I then evaluated what reading is ‘need to have’ and what is ‘nice to have’ relative to how I prioritise other activities and that can reasonably be expected of a student to complete in a 150 hour course. The completion of this exercise resulted in a table such as below.

Workflow analysis
15 point course = 150 hours

BIOL231/BCHM202

Activity Assessement value Number Estimated hours/activity Hours
Lectures 20 1 20
Laboratory 4 4.5 18
Tutorial 5 2 10
Final exam 30 1 2 2
Course test 15 1 2 2
Pre-req test/tut 15 1-2 2 2-4

1-2

Lab test 10 1 2 2
Lab flowsheets 5 4 1 4
pre-Lab problem sets 10 4 2 8
~number of pages
Assigned reading 318 (26.5 pages/week) NA 45
*Textbook page density is 750 words; engaged reading ~7 pages/hour
Undirected self-learning (other readings, laboratory readings, etc) 43-44
Values in blue are not considered part of the 150 hours because these are text/examination times.
*http://cte.rice.edu/blogarchive/2016/07/11/workload

 

One of my colleagues, on seeing this, exclaimed “That is far too much.” But is it? Undoubtedly it indicates that we have different priorities on what to emphasise in a course for our stated (or unstated) learning objectives. However, unless we attempt to inform our course structure with research-based evidence, we will be vulnerable to standards drift. A sign of this is when committees spend more time determining the line between C- and D grades than they do discussing the use of readings to support learning in courses.

Biology now uses such workflow analyses in all applications for new courses and encourages their use in all annual course review exercises. It is a work in progress.

Novel teaching practices within a course can be used to motivate students. However, they may be ineffective, or worse counterproductive, when used sporadically in a curriculum, as my anecdote illustrates. Only when adopted at a threshold regularity in courses do some practices become part of a constructive learning culture. We need more than to innovate in teaching; we need to innovate in our approach to curriculum-wide innovation and research-assured confidence in its effectiveness.

Jack Heinemann

Students Making a Difference on Campus- UC Fossil Free

Fossil Free UC was a single-campaign club calling on the University of Canterbury to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

We were part of a global ‘Fossil Free’ movement of university students, faith groups, and businesses with a simple premise: since it is wrong to wreck the climate, it is also wrong to profit from that wreckage. Fossil fuel companies’ ties with respected institutions like universities are what give them the social licence to continue business as usual – a business that is destroying the planet, and the futures of the very students UC seeks to educate!

By divesting from fossil fuels, UC could help revoke that social licence, no longer legitimising the destructive business of the fossil fuel industry, and instead prioritise the interests and wellbeing of its students, its staff, and the wider society it serves.

We started a petition urging UC to divest in 2015. Through posters, movie nights, campus stunts, and other events, we raised awareness on campus about the harmful effects of fossil fuels. We found that many students were concerned about climate change, but didn’t necessarily know how they could engage with the issues. Our grassroots action gave students a way to make a difference on campus and beyond.

We delivered our petition to the Chancellor in September 2016, by which time it had gathered nearly 2,000 signatures from students, staff, alumni, and concerned community members.

However, it took another six months of campaigning and raising awareness before we could declare victory. On 29 March 2017, the University Council resolved to have no direct investments in fossil fuels and to reduce indirect investment in fossil fuels to less than 1%.
Our campaign took two years, the dedication of a handful of core members, and the support of thousands of students, staff, alumni, and community members who signed the petition, came to events, and spoke up on behalf of our collective future. Together, we sent a powerful message to the fossil fuel industry: their destruction of our future will not be tolerated at UC. Sadly, the university demonstrated little interest in championing its students prepared to make a difference, or its decisive action in response to their efforts, barely communicating this success to staff, students, and civil society.

Mah Mah (Tohoa) Tetini, UC Fossil Free, PhD student in Anthropology