‘What Were They Expecting Anyway?’ The Workload Expectations of Undergraduates.

What don’t we tell students before they become students? The table below caught my eye when I saw it in a blog by Louisa Darian of Which? For me, it contains one mind-altering statistic. It’s a table of ‘factors that undergraduates and graduates would have researched in hindsight’.

first-year blog - which survey

The stand-out figure, as I hope you’re agreeing, is the answer given by students to ‘amount of work I’m supposed to do’. On the basis of this sample, twenty-three per cent of students feel unprepared for their workloads. I was so perplexed by this line that I contacted the author of the blog, asking her whether students are surprised by how much or how little work they are required to do. Her answer: ‘could be a bit of each’. Actually, we don’t really know!

One question we might ask in response is: does it matter? Part of the value of university education has always been the process of defamiliarization, as young people are wrenched out of the habits of school-level education and rewrought into students. We might also point to the accompanying line on the table: by the time they graduate from university, those concerns about workload appear to disappear.

But I think it might matter, all the same. Universities across the country are reporting increasing problems with stress among undergraduates. And stress can cause students to leave their studies: which has financial consequences for universities, as well as lasting personal and professional consequences for individuals. Moreover, if we don’t properly understand the problem we risk exacerbating it. To take one example: since the fees were raised to £9000 we’ve been uneasy, at Exeter, about calling week 6 of first term a ‘reading week’, despite the lack of scheduled classes in many subjects. Indeed we’ve found all sorts of reasons to keep students from going home. The fear is that we will look like we’re not sufficiently demanding. But is this having unintended consequences? Might we be pushing our students plenty hard enough already? Might freshers want nothing more by week 6 than an opportunity to touch-base and recharge after six of the most challenging weeks of their lives?

The answer to these questions is: we just don’t know. Possibly some students go home in week 6 and complain of being underworked, while others dutifully stay in the library and then queue up at the university counselling service, stressed. Either way, I can’t see how this situation benefits anybody. The lesson, I’d suggest, is that we need to know more about what students expect, and in turn do more to inform their expectations.

I’m not aware of any significant study of pre-arrival expectations of workloads. I’d be interested to see one, and especially to see comparative data, pre- and post-£9k fees. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that attitudes have changed: that, for example, the ‘extra’ reading we were accustomed to listing, hopeful that maybe one or two students would have a look at one or two items, is now being consumed more consistently and methodically. The issue is compounded in some subjects by the gulf between learning and teaching practices between school and university. One of the most eye-opening talks I’ve attended over the past ten years was a presentation by two English A-Level teachers, simply talking us through what and how they teach and assess. I had no idea theirs was such a different world.

What might we do to breach that gulf? I don’t see open days as the answer. The minds of applicants and/or offer-holders are likely to be too cluttered with other questions. But there will be at least six months between most applicants’ last visit to a university and their arrival as students, and I wonder whether we might do more to prepare them over the course of this period. How do we stay in touch? How do we ask them to prepare?

One example that caught my imagination came via the daughter of a colleague, preparing for her first year of English at Sheffield. In the weeks before she arrived, she was asked to read Middlemarch. Now I would challenge anyone to name a book – any book – that would serve as better preparation for the study of English at university than Middlemarch. It’s a proper grown-up book, it’s about learning and life, it’s readable, and it’s big. It says to a student-to-be: you’re going to love this degree, but you’re going to have to work at it.

The question on my mind since hearing this story has been: what do they then do with Middlemarch? The answer is more prosaic (as it were) than I had imagined: they set it as the first text in week one. I guess that’s fair enough, though one wonders whether a department could make more of a project of something like this, perhaps by releasing a series of short videos of lecturers (and maybe current students) talking about the book, and thereby modelling the experience of study. Might this even be approached across institutions? A national summer Middlemarch project?

And might that, then, be enough? After nurturing this idea of a Middlemarch project in my mind, I was a little disappoionted to discover that Sheffield also asks its incoming students to read a long list of other stuff – in that hopeful, ‘we know you won’t but wouldn’t it be nice’ way that many of us use. Might that be achieving little more than some cases of stress? Is it time, perhaps, to be realistic?

And then there are those early weeks on campus: times when personal tutoring looks like the answer but rarely is; times when individuals are working out for themselves how to go about being students. Do we make enough accommodations to this transitional moment? Might we do more to walk them across the bridge? I don’t have easy answers to these questions, but I feel it might be time to think about them, and – crucially – discuss them with the students who have successfully made that transition themselves.

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One thought on “‘What Were They Expecting Anyway?’ The Workload Expectations of Undergraduates.

  1. I’m convening the large (approaching 400 students) first-year literary greatest hits course at Exeter. Three comments from student feedback which capture the even spread among the handful of responses that tackled workload directly:

    1) Many of the texts are simply too long to read and be studied within a week.

    2) I think the workload and seminar discussions were at a very low level for what I expected of exeter.

    3) Overall I thought the module was very interesting and well organised. I think it helped make the transition from school to university relatively effortless.

    The even spread of such comments, and the silence or tacit acceptance of workload from the great majority of the cohort, suggest to me that we’re asking for about the right amount of work from students, though we can always work on ways to stretch the better prepared or more motivated and to help those who find themselves at sea.

    Much more prominent in the feedback than comments on the amount of work required were negative or confused comments on the kind of work expected. In particular, ‘context’ and what to do with it in literary discussions and texts were a recurring theme; e.g. ‘lectures were always interesting and if they are there simply to increase our knowledge and give us interesting historical background, rather than being of use in essays, then I think they are very good’. Most of the comments were more decided about what lectures are for. The disenchantment with context was not overwhelming, but it looks like evidence of the different, A-level world that Andrew mentions and argues for modelling study with Middlemarch and not just asking people to read it. It even suggests a particular Intended Learning Outcome for the Middlemarch project.

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