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Is your course challenging you? Impact Investigates

Prompted by the national survey ‘A Degree of Value’ published in November 2014 by consumer watchdog Which?, Impact investigates student satisfaction at the University of Nottingham. The Which? report is calling for students to be given better information and advice about higher education choices, minimum standards for complaints and better regulation that focuses more heavily on standards. Despite this, the Impact survey of 100 University of Nottingham students found a more positive outlook, although serious concern has been raised by both in regard to value for money.

66%  said seminars at UoN were worth attending. The main complaint about seminars is when they are student-led,a second year History student told Impact “I enjoy seminars but not those that are student led – I find these are generally [of] a poor quality and I get very little information from them”.

Students can miss out on things that come up in the exam

Meanwhile another student criticised the impact these can have on exams: ‘‘It means students have to second guess what areas of discussion need to be covered in the seminar and could miss out things that could come up on the exam’’.

In contrast, a first year English student expressed in the Impact survey that seminars “allow you to talk to others and this helps you to cement your ideas”, something which is “fundamental when it comes to essay writing”.

Seminar and lecture satisfaction is almost equal, with 65% of students believing lectures are worth attending.

Almost two thirds of those who said lectures were worth attending were from arts or humanities based subjects. One first year Law student said lectures were worth attending because ‘‘it would be very difficult to fully understand the course just from reading the textbook’’.

A first year English student also said “lectures get the ball rolling for independent research and allow you to propel your own ideas based off the lecture content”.

I feel I am taught in a condescending manner

However, a third year Film, Television and American Studies student told Impact: ‘‘We are taught in a condescending manner, a manner that my tutor has said appeals to ‘the middle ground’ and thus does not seek to challenge the intellect of dedicated students’’.

Impact found that 76% of students surveyed felt that their course content stretched them enough, compared with just four in 10 students in the Which? survey. 76% of University of Nottingham students also thought workload for their course was demanding. Many students commented that their lectures were challenging and required extra work to fully understand the syllabus.  However, a second year Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience student was critical of assessment rather than content and workload: ‘‘It isn’t so much a case of not being stretched. We are stretched by bizarre methods of assessment (multiple choice about names and dates our faculty could not get a 1st on)’’.

95% of UoN students surveyed said private study was required to get a good grade

In addition, 95% of students said private study was required to get a good grade on their course, despite Which? finding that one in four students nationally felt they could get away with little private study. However, 88% of students in the Impact survey undertake 30 hours or less of private study a week, significantly less than recommended by the higher education watchdog, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).

There was a correlation between how much private study was put in and which year a student was in: students who did more private study outside of lectures tended to be in year two or above. Of the students who chose between 26-30 and 31-35 hours, the most common subjects were Medicine and Law.

Amongst the most common course problems cited in the Which? survey, 53% of undergraduates complained of inconsistent teaching, a problem shared by 54% of University of Nottingham students. When discussing how inconsistent teaching affects them on their course, a first year Music student said: “Lecturers give us clashing information which affected my assignment results”. A first year English student was also critical: ‘‘Teachers have different approaches therefore it becomes difficult to engage with multiple teaching styles at times’’.

34% of UoN students surveyed think they have too few direct contact hours

47% of students questioned by Which? complained of too few hours of direct contact, whilst only 34% of University of Nottingham students recognised this problem.  A second year History student commented that too few contact hours ‘‘means I have to substitute a lot of absent knowledge with extra reading and lack of general direction makes doing so more stressful as I am worried whether I am looking in the right areas’’.

60% of UoN students surveyed felt university was not good value for money

60% of respondents from the University of Nottingham feel that university is not good value for money. The Which? survey found that only around 18% felt their university experience was poor value for money. However, these were university leavers who paid around £3,000 a year for their course – around a third of the current maximum fee. This suggests it is the rise in fees that is causing the discrepancy in those that are critical. As Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK, said: “The move from public funding to increased fees in England has undoubtedly led to increased expectations from students.

When asked why they thought university was not worth £9,000 a year, a second year English student told Impact: ‘‘We worked out that with 11 hours of contact time, we’re paying around £40 per person per hour. That’s extortionate when some seminars merely involve the lecturer going through and clarifying the plot of the text we’ve had to read that week”.

A third year Environmental Sciences student told Impact: “I only pay £3,000. I wouldn’t be happy paying £9,000”. Even science students who receive more contact hours and direct teaching than students from other departments, who complained to Impact about having ‘to teach themselves’, are critical of the value for money at the University of Nottingham.

A second year Biologist stated ‘‘With a science, it’s important to equip us with skills apart from Science – what about the rest of us who don’t want to work in a lab forever? There aren’t enough transferable skills’’ while another said ‘‘a degree is almost compulsory these days, especially if you want a job in science. How can a compulsory part of our education cost £9000 a year plus maintenance costs?!’’

85% of UoN students surveyed would still apply to the university again

Despite stating that university was overpriced, Impact found that 85% of students surveyed would still apply to UoN again. A third year Computer Science student told Impact: “I would say do it. I’ve had great fun, met some great people and the course was interesting too”.

However, while many noted most universities have the same costs, which was the majority of respondents main criticism, a second year Biology student noted that: ‘‘UoN is dropping its rankings very quickly and isn’t reacting… There’s a strong culture in UoN of apathy towards education’’.

Overall course satisfaction is 80%. A first year student of Theology told Impact that they: ‘‘really enjoy the teaching and feel I am getting a good education for life, not just for my first job’’.

In addition, a first year Geography and Business student commented that their ‘‘course is satisfying and incorporates a lot of outside ideas and skills which are relevant to the course. The course has given me the option to study modules which I have always been interested in’’.

88% of students surveyed said they were satisfied with the University of Nottingham overall. The most common reasons for student satisfaction were ‘volunteering opportunities’, ‘atmosphere in halls’, and ‘the people’.

One respondent summed up the general feeling: ‘‘I love the campus, the city, the size of the student body, the facilities, the community feel’’.

Tamsin Parnell and Yasemin Craggs Mersinoglu

 Image: Clay Shonkwiler via Flickr

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