Rules of engagement fall short

Opinion by Bret Stephenson

John Henry Newman wrote that an educational system ‘without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron university, and nothing else’.

Staff and students talk outside classCurrent research suggests that Newman was on to something. Increased interactions between students and academic members of staff, both inside and outside the classroom, have been linked to gains in student satisfaction, motivation, retention, self-confidence, and the most coveted of learning outcomes - critical thinking.

However, recent data suggest Australian universities are struggling to prevent the ‘arctic winter’ that Newman feared.

A recent study found that ‘Australian students are much less satisfied with their relationships with teaching staff than their peers in the USA’.

The Australian Council for Educational Research briefing compared the results of national student engagement surveys in the US and Australia - the National Survey of Student Engagement in the US and the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement.

On every measure, Australian students report far lower levels of engagement and involvement with academic staff than their American peers. The authors concluded ‘that students in Australia are being short-changed by their universities’.

It makes for particularly grim reading considering that over the past decade or so institutions have redoubled their efforts to improve student retention and engagement.

Much of this work has rightly been focused on the critical first year of study.

Part of the reason for the difference in performance is money. The 2011 review of base funding showed local universities are funded below the average ‘for all US public higher education institutions’ and peak just above the OECD average for overall expenditure per student.

Combine this with the rapid expansion of student numbers since the 1990s, and alarmingly slow growth in the pool of academic teaching staff - particularly those on full-time continuing contracts - and we have the perfect storm: underfunding, increasing casualisation and widening student-staff ratios.

But money is only one part of the engagement equation. US universities do things differently to build student engagement and better facilitate student interactions with academic staff.

Two interventions in particular are worth closer inspection: first-year seminar courses and academic advising programs.

First-year seminar subjects have been growing in popularity in the US since the 1970s. 

While the format is nothing if not diverse - from skills-focused seminars to special academic topic models - they all employ a delivery format that eliminates large-scale lectures. Instead they provide a small-group learning environment that is active, social and fundamentally learner focused.

This allows students to get to know and interact with their fellow students and a single member of academic staff during their first semester of university study.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities has highlighted first-year seminar courses as one of the ‘five high-impact practices’ in undergraduate education.

Indicative of its widespread adoption, a 2009 study found that 56 per cent of the 26,000 first-year student respondents indicated that they had enrolled in seminar courses.

Academic advising, also known as personal tutoring in Britain, is the practice of assigning new students to a single adviser who is often, but not always, a member of academic teaching staff. Students are then invited, or sometimes required, to meet with their adviser at key times during the academic year.

While there is a variety of models, their purpose is to create a developmental relationship between adviser and advisee, much like a mentor.

It is now among the most widely practised interventions in US and British institutions. A recent survey found that 78 per cent of US institutions employed academic staff, rather than professional staff alone, within their advising program.

While there has been a number of recent and ongoing efforts to embed or improve various forms of academic advising within Australian institutions - including at Melbourne, Griffith, Murdoch and La Trobe - the first-year seminar has enjoyed far less attention.

Seminars require greater resourcing, but they are investments in improving retention and learning outcomes which, over time, will pay for themselves.

It is also concerning to note that now that the University Experience Survey has largely superseded the AUSSE survey, we are losing one of our most effective means of measuring student-staff interactions.

The UES contains few, if any, questions aimed at directly evaluating levels of involvement between students and those who teach them.

The forces responsible for creating this gap in engagement are complex. However, by working to guard against Newman's ‘arctic winter’ we have an opportunity to do what is right for students and what works for institutions.

First published in The Australian on 2 October 2013. 

Dr Bret Stephenson is First Year Coordinator in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University.