A new cohort of first year students are just beginning their university journeys. After the annus horribilis of 2020, and with continuing disruption in early 2021, it’s fair to ask whether their expectations of university study will have changed. Many school leavers spent much of last year learning remotely, and the COVID-19 pandemic and economic rollercoaster may have changed the perspectives of many others.

We don’t ask often enough what expectations our students have for study. Even phrasing it in that way may make you bristle, conjuring images of entitled, demanding students-as-customers more interested in getting through to employment rather than in their learning.

To rephrase then: what do students expect university study to be like? My colleagues and I recently completed a study asking that question. We also asked teaching staff the converse: what can students legitimately expect from study?

My caricature of the bristling reader was one of the bases for our study —we were concerned as much about staff morale and burnout from teaching as with supporting student transitions. We wondered how the perceptions of students and teaching staff aligned.

The good news is that expectations closely aligned. The students, however, conceived of success at university far more broadly than academics, and placed much stronger focus on the importance of personal relationships with staff, which they linked directly with teaching quality. In contrast, academics saw student success primarily in terms of grade performance. The pride they took in teaching accounted for their frustration when (some) students failed to live up to expectations.

We suspect that, because of the differences in their conceptions of success, simply articulating staff expectations will not resolve the issue. Instead, academics and students should meet halfway where possible. This means that university workload models, which frequently impose high teaching loads, must acknowledge the importance of relationship building and opportunities for interaction. With many students learning remotely in 2021, this may be more important now than ever.

Associate Professor Ryan Naylor

Sydney School of Health Sciences, The University of Sydney




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