Report from the Economics Network’s Student Focus Group Scheme, 2010
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Miriam Best, the Economics Network
Published July 2010
The Economics Network’s student surveys along with the National Student Survey (NSS) allow departments to see what students feel about the learning and teaching of Economics within their university and department. The Student Focus Group scheme is a confidential service offered to Economics departments that discusses the issues raised in both the Economics Networks Students Surveys and the NSS.
The issues discussed were chosen by each department in consultation with the Economics Network to better the department’s understanding of the student survey responses. Issues within departments varied slightly but some common themes prevailed. This report discusses these themes within the 8 departments where the focus groups were held. A “common theme” is one mentioned in at least two institutions.
Feedback and assessment
“You have X amount of exams, but you also have revision for tests and things like that. You’ve got ten weeks to do revision, essays and your report.”
“With multiple choice exams you don’t get a chance to explain yourself.”
“It is sometimes frustrating that assessments are non-standard. One three-thousand-word essay could be worth a third and another 50%”.
“If you have a class test halfway through the first semester it encourages everyone to work as you know it counts. Also, you have the basics early on and the January and Summer exams come a bit easier”.
“The feedback is always good but there’s always areas this could be improved”.
“You’re waiting weeks and then maybe there’s an upcoming test and you don’t have feedback on the last one so you’re probably going to make the same mistakes again”.
“I can’t understand why you can’t get any feedback from the essays written in exams. I got three times in a row the same mark and I still don’t know what I’m doing wrong”.
“He was perfectly happy to take as long as it needed, and stay for his office hours to go through every question step by step, which I think is really good.”
“So if you really want to know what you’ve done right or wrong you can always go and see them. So I think it is there, but whether we utilise it is something different”.
“I don’t think we should be working as a group because, at the end of the day, it’s your individual degree”.
”It can be a disaster because you can be working with people who don’t have the same commitment as you”.
“We all have to mark each other, so if one person didn’t do a lot of work we’d be able to tell the lecturer”
“I have worked in many groups where I had to lie about how much cooperation another group member had made as we’d made a vow to give each other equal marks”.
“It seems to be a bilateral relationship with the student and the teacher; it isn’t incentivised among the students to interact with one another.”
“You can be in the same year as people in your class and not know they exist”.
“People make friends along nationality lines, you group together with people from the same background for ease- this integration is very low cost. The department should lower the cost for people to put themselves out ‘there’.”
“We have our Economics building but I don’t know what’s going on in it. There are these things saying we have world class research going on here, but I have absolutely no idea about it”.
“I don’t know whether it’s just because they’re so massive or because you only have three tutorials but there’s never an opportunity for a tutor to just come over”.
“I think Economics is fairly small compared to others. There’s a sense of belonging because classes are so small”.
“I know how to do things, but I didn’t know why I was doing them, and how I could apply them to Economics”.
“I did double mathematics at A-level but still the jump from the way they teach at A-level to they way it’s taught at University–it’s completely different. It’s much more rigorous at university”.
“I personally would have preferred a little bit more maths that actually showed you the background behind these theories”.
Transition for School to University
“We never had to write an essay in school so when I came here and they asked me to write an essay. I didn’t know I had to apply the literature. I had no explanation whatsoever,”
“At school I had a really close relationship with my teachers, then suddenly you’re a little fish in a big pond. I think it’s all a bit overwhelming”.
“Personally for me it helped a lot. It helped me understand what was expected of me”.
When students raised concerns over what was expected of them academically at university, the subject of personal tutors often closely followed. The majority of institutions offered personal tutors but, with one exception, students did not see this as a successful scheme:
“In theory we all have personal tutors but I’ve never met mine.”
“In other courses they see there tutors for ten minutes once a term. I don’t know what our tutors are supposed to be doing for us at the moment. It seems kind of pointless”.
In the institution where the personal tutors scheme was praised students recognised it was more useful later on in their degree:
“I took advantage of it more through third and fourth year. I would go to mine with anything if I was unsure”.
The structure of courses differed between institutions; some had tutorials weekly while others had two or three a term. Regardless of structure, what constituted a good tutorial seemed to be similar across all of the institutions:
“It’s [a handout with all the answers on it] giving you an incentive to go to class but you’re also getting some back-up material that you can use at a later date”.
Attendance to tutorials was also raised as an issue:
“You shouldn’t strong-arm people to attend classes. It’s counter-productive. There are other things that you need to tackle–maybe make the classes more engaging”.
Students knew exactly what they didn’t want from a tutorial:
“They come in, they face the board, they write. After an hour they say, ok, we’re done”.
Regardless of the way tutorials were taken, they were seen as a useful learning environment:
“They give much more scope for questions and answers, you’re going through the questions with them so you see the way the lecturer thinks, which gives you the foundation for when you’re writing essays for them.”
The teaching style of the lecturer or tutor seemed to influence the students even though they realised that different teaching styles exist:
“Certain lecturers walk around, deliver the message, it’s coherent, it’s clear. Certain lecturers stand behind the podium and just recite. It’s not very helpful but then that’s just them. We can’t really influence the way they deliver their message. You just have to make sure you pay attention to both as, at the end of the day, they’re as important as each other.”
Engagement during lectures was seen as positive by the students:
“If you answer a question you get a Mars bar, they just chuck Mars bars around the lecture hall!”
One student noted that tutorials provide support:
“Even if the material is complicated, as long as you’ve got the support it’s manageable.”
In only one institution did students feel that lecturers were inaccessible, particularly during office hours:
“Their offices are in the room above the library, which is locked, and you can’t get there without talking to his secretary”.
In all of the other institutions where office hours were discussed, students felt that their lecturers where approachable:
“There is an open door policy, I think we don’t actually knock on their doors enough”.
Some lecturers seemed to encourage students to knock on their doors:
“One of my lecturers wouldn’t put anything on Blackboard so I went to see him and asked him why and he said ‘because I want people to come and see me’”.
Students realised that attending office hours required some effort on their behalf:
“It’s you that has got to make that move to go and see them or email them for an appointment.”
Overall, students were generally happy with the range of modules offered to them. Students doing joint honours realised that there would be some constraints on their choices and were satisfied with this. What did become apparent from a few institutions was the restriction that some module options had on further years:
“It’s quite limited, as you get further on you have to think about what you’re going to be doing in your third year. If you go down a certain route you can’t divert away from it, you have to stay on a certain path”.
One student did recall a first year seminar “where it was impressed upon us to work your way backwards. Look at your third year, see if there’s something you really want to do and, if it has pre-requisites, work your way backwards. So for us, it wasn’t too bad, we were told.” If students were told or forewarned about this they seemed generally happy.
Many of the students involved in the focus groups were international students. Support for international students differed with some being content (“support for international students is good”) to others feeling more could be done:
“When we’re writing essays, the language constraints are obviously a difficulty for us and we sometimes cannot express ourselves very clearly. We only have support in year two, when we get to year three, the support is gone”.
Perceptions of international student support differed greatly among students in focus groups and across institutions; whether more or less support was needed depended very much on personal opinion.
Student voice within the department
When students were dissatisfied with an element of their course, they seemed disheartened by the complaint procedure:
“I complained about one of my teachers but nothing gets done. Someone came to monitor his class but for that class he made such an effort, did extra handouts, a slide show, but the next week it was back to how he was before”.
This feeling was shared among the majority of students. Those who were student representatives were equally disheartened:
“I went to all the student rep meetings and they don’t do anything, there’s nothing you can do. There’s two of us for a whole year and we’re supposed to be called for five minutes every month to tell them what’s going on, but they don’t call us. I’ve never had any connection with them”.
Another theme that was mentioned by a few of the students related to their frustration—and in some cases anger—at the attitudes of their peers. This frustration always stemmed from why people chose to do Economics; those who attended the focus groups almost unanimously chose to do it because of a love for the subject:
“I’m finding it really hard to accept that someone would say it was boring-just think of what you can do with it afterwards”
“This is actually what I don’t like, there are loads of people who are here to whore themselves out to the finance industry”.
One student summed up their attitude to his peers:
“I have a plan roughly where I want to be in three years time but if you ask some other people in my course they don’t even know what they’re doing tomorrow. Are they even going to turn up to the lecture tomorrow? The majority of people, it doesn’t even occur to them to think long-term.”
Careers and job prospects were discussed in the majority of focus groups. Students who had taken an employment-based module wanted more out of it:
“It was more to do with presentation skills, communication skills, teamwork; those kind of employment skills but not so much into what you can do with your degree once you’ve got it.”
Students did not seem to have chosen to study Economics just because of the job possibilities at the end:
“I first found out about the degree when someone from the GES came and said this is what we do. And it kind of swayed me but I came mostly because of the love of the subject”.
It was thought that internships should be encouraged:
“I think throughout the years they should encourage people to apply more for internships”.
Students were fairly confident that the skills their Economics degree taught them were transferable into employment
“You’re going to be presented with problems, and you’re going to have to sort them out and see why they’re happening, being able to think independently, solve things, come up with viable solutions. You can just be more rounded as a person”.
All of the departments who participated in the Student Focus Group scheme found them extremely useful. Some have requested workshops provided by the Economics Network as a result of the issues raised whilst others are planning changes to the curriculum, teaching method and feedback as a result of the focus groups. The Economics Network aims to continue with this initiative over the 2010/11 academic year.
PS: The scheme was run again in the following academic year, and a second report was published in May 2011.