Enhancing student satisfaction in higher education: the creation of staff teaching communities

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The past decade has seen an increased emphasis on the quality of higher education teaching and learning environments. This study utilised qualitative (focus group) and quantitative (College and University Classroom Environment Inventory) methodologies to evaluate student perceptions of their tertiary classroom environment. Students were asked to both identify their preferred classroom environment and evaluate their actual experience. Qualitative and quantitative analyses emphasised the importance for students of (i) positive relational and communication issues, and (ii) explicit guidelines for, and support with, course expectations. In response to the finding that students’ actual experiences of their classroom environment were significantly below their preferred ratings, a semester long staff development program was established. This program was based on the model of developing a ‘teaching community’ and provided opportunities for staff to explore, in a participatory action research framework, aspects of their teaching practice. Staff rated the program as valuable and engaged actively with the process. Following the intervention there were significant increases in student levels of satisfaction with their tertiary course experience. This paper examines the process and outcomes of this project and highlights some of the methodological difficulties of practitioner based research in tertiary education practice. The past few years have seen an increased emphasis on the quality of teaching and learning within universities. Educational research has traditionally investigated the factors associated with positive outcomes for tertiary students. This research has often centered on characteristics of the student, the teacher and / or teaching style that correlate with improved performance measures. More recently attention has focussed on the relationship between the learning environment, i.e. the social – psychological context within which learning occurs, and student outcome measures (Fraser, 1994). Positive learning environments have been demonstrated to enhance student satisfaction, engagement with learning, and academic achievement (Ames, 1984; Ames1992; Candy, Crebert & O’Leary, 1994; Ramsden, Margetson, Martin & Clarke, 1995). The research project reported in this paper aimed to evaluate student attitudes toward their learning environment and explore the potential for a staff development intervention, modeled on a participative action research paradigm, to enhance student perceptions of the quality of that learning environment. Attempts to evaluate learning environments emerged from the seminal works of Walberg (1968) and Moos and Trickett (1974) who first quantified classroom characteristics such as competition, rule clarity and levels of formality (Fraser, 1994). Subsequently a range of classroom environment measures were developed and used to evaluate the impact of primary and secondary classroom characteristics on educational measures such as academic achievement (Walberg & Anderson, 1972), academic self efficacy (Keyser & Barling, 1981), student inquiry skills (Fraser & Fisher, 1982) and academic motivation (Ames, 1992). In a meta analysis of these early studies, environmental factors of classroom cohesiveness, student satisfaction and goal direction were identified as consistently related to improved outcome measures (Haertel, Walberg & Haertel, 1981). The extension of this work to higher education has been relatively recent and constrained by the lack of appropriate measures to operationalise tertiary classroom cultures. The College and University Classroom Environment Inventory developed by Fraser, Treagust and Dennis in 1986 provided the first instrument designed specifically for use in higher education. The inventory explores seven dimensions of the tertiary classroom environment, (i) personalisation, (ii) involvement, (iii) cohesiveness, (iv) satisfaction, (v) task orientation, (vi) innovation, and, (vii) individuation. (See Table 1 for a description of these dimensions). Two parallel versions of the CUCEI allow for the assessment of student perceptions of the ideal tertiary teaching environment (Preferred scale) and the extent to which these ideals have been attained (Actual scale). The development of the College and University Classroom Environment Inventory provides a quantitative measure of the classroom environment that builds on qualitative methods of inquiry such as ethnographic (Macdonald and Hagan, 1996), student interview (Hunter, 1989) and focus group (Mahony & Hodgkins, 1993) methodologies, that have also been used to facilitate insight into higher education classroom processes. Within higher education, attempts to maximise student learning environments are constrained by a range of issues. It is well documented that contemporary university cultures are dominated by an emphasis on research productivity and that attention to teaching may be seen as counterproductive for academics in terms of employment and promotional opportunities. In addition, student numbers are rapidly expanding, as there is an increased emphasis on school retention and articulation to higher education. Collins (1992) indicates that this new cohort of tertiary students includes increasing numbers of non-traditional students from areas of educational disadvantage such as equity groups and “first generation school stayers” (p.47). These changes to the student population result not only in increased numbers of students but also in increased diversity of learning abilities, skill bases and educational needs. Adaptation to increased student numbers in the absence of significant increments in funding has necessitated a shift in educational practice ” . . . resource constraints have increased the pressure on academics’ use of time and this has forced real changes in teaching methods and assessment practices, with negative implications for the acquisition by students of higher order skills” (Chubb, 1992, p.56). Inflated student numbers have also led to the increased use of non-permanent contract, or casual staff, for teaching. These ‘sessional’ staff, who generally comprise post graduate students, report uncertainty about their role as teachers, a lack of content knowledge and a sense of isolation from their department (Macdonald, Mitchell, Gunn, & Carbone, 1996). Despite these difficulties sessional staff often have substantial teaching responsibilities, especially within the first year of undergraduate programs. Paradoxically, whilst teaching of first year students is often managed by the least experienced academics, this transitional year is likely to be critical for both the short term retention of students and the longer term establishment of students’ core attitudinal orientations to learning ((Pascarella & Terenzini, 1976; Tinto, 1993; Volkwein & Cabrera, 1998). The context of the current study The Department of Psychology at Victoria University undertook the study reported in this paper. The university, established within the last decade, is a relatively new institution located within the Western Suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. The university services a non-traditional higher education population, a third of students representing low socioeconomic equity groups and 46% of students reporting non-English speaking backgrounds. The undergraduate psychology course has grown rapidly from 200 students in 1991 to over 500 enrolments in 1999. Alongside this growth in student numbers reductions in university funding have resulted in the shift from small group teaching formats to the delivery of material in lecture settings. This shift from a personalised teaching culture occurred within the context of the University’s policy of educational access and equity and a commitment to the pastoral care of students. For current first year Psychology students the only remaining small group teaching setting (where student numbers range from approximately 16-24 per class) is a two-hour weekly laboratory class. Twentythree laboratory classes are timetabled each week with 70% of the teaching load managed by sessional staff. As the first year experience has been identified as critical to both the shortterm academic goal of student retention and the longer term goal of establishing positive orientations to learning, it seemed essential to work toward maximising the quality of the learning environment within this first year program. The smaller group settings of the laboratory program were seen as providing the most effective way of working toward change within the course. The first step in the project involved a formative evaluation of student expectations, and actual experiences of, their current teaching and learning environment. This first stage was undertaken in semester two of the first year of the psychology program. Following this evaluative stage a staff development program, for all staff teaching in the Psychology 1 program was initiated. This commenced during the summer teaching break and extended across all of first semester of the subsequent teaching year. In semester two of this second year a summative evaluation was conducted with this new cohort of Psychology 1 students to evaluate the effectiveness of the staff program on students’ perceptions of the quality of the subsequent learning environment. Specifically this study aimed to (i) investigate student perceptions of the nature of the first year psychology learning environment, and (ii) evaluate the impact of a staff professional development program on the perceptions of a new cohort of students. Phase 1: Formative evaluation The aim of the formative evaluation was to (i) assess student perceptions of their learning environment with a view to identifying areas in need of change, and (ii) provide a baseline for assessing perceptions in the new cohort of students who would be experiencing the changed learning environment. The formative evaluation comprised both qualitative assess