Over half a million students take a postgraduate course in the UK every year. And today, these students have a world of choice, informed by personal recommendations from those who have made the journey before. To be confident of healthy recruitment tomorrow, education providers need to be delivering a world-class student experience.
So, what is it that taught postgraduate students in the UK want? And are they happy with their student experience? Looking at findings from the HEA’s Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey, a survey of over 72,000 postgraduate students, we explore their feedback, focusing specifically on what motivates and drives their satisfaction (Leman,J. 2015, What do taught postgraduates want: Higher Education Academy, York)
First things first. The picture of taught postgraduate provision is encouraging, with 82% of students satisfied with their course. Even for assessment, where there was the highest level of negative responses, only 12% were negative.
Understanding what motivates postgraduate students to study is useful in determining what they want out of their studies. Motivations are largely orientated around career aspirations. Nearly two-thirds of full time Masters students want to improve their employment prospects and around half were motivated by personal interest and/or by progressing to a higher level qualification.
There is a strong relationship between what motivates a student and age. Younger respondents tend to be motivated by both personal interest and general employment prospects, while older students are more likely to be motivated purely by interest in the subject. Students in their early thirties are more likely to be motivated by career.
Taught postgraduate courses should flexibly accommodate the diverse motivations of students.
The teaching and learning experience is most closely associated with overall satisfaction of the course, particularly how stimulating the course is and whether it enhanced their academic ability.
What is important to postgraduate students varies according to what motivates the student to study. Career had more impact on overall satisfaction where postgraduate study was a requirement for their current job and less impact for students motivated by personal interest in the subject.
With a diverse cohort of students, ensuring that every student is challenged and stimulated by their experience will be difficult. Prior experience and student expectations impacts on the perceptions of challenge, intellectual stimulation and academic development. Students who return to study after a gap of ten years or more are much more positive about the course, with 92% agreeing the course had enhanced academic ability compared with 83% for those who had just completed a period of academic study. Age again plays a factor here along with motivations and engagement.
The most significant difference across workload was by type of qualification studied and in particular those taking a full time Masters and those taking full time certificates or diplomas. In general, full time students working towards a postgraduate certificate or diploma were significantly less likely to agree their workload was manageable.
Let’s look at students studying education as an example: 79% of full time Masters students agreed their workload is manageable, whereas for those taking a Certificate or Diploma, this was just 55% of students.
Why is this? Students taking postgraduate certificate and diplomas are often doing so alongside work placements. For these students, good organisation is highly important.
Consistency, good communication and awareness of student need is likely to drive a better postgraduate student experience. Also it’s important to allow those struggling with workload to focus on gaining subject knowledge and developing academic skills so they gain the most out of their study.
A characteristic of good teaching is understanding a cohort and working with them to create an experience which flexibly accommodates diversity of prior experience and motivation to enhance the student experience and improve learning outcomes.
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