October 17, 2018

Seven themes: What students say about their SFU learning experience

A Teaching and Learning Centre report based on student focus groups sheds light on how SFU students feel about their courses and their instructors.

In Fall 2017, the Teaching and Learning Centre (TLC) partnered with Student Services’ Student Engagement and Retention unit to ask undergraduate students about their SFU learning experiences. Thirty-one students from all Faculties took part in focus groups or individual interviews.

The full report, Undergraduate Students’ Perceptions of their Learning Experiences at Simon Fraser University, is now available to the SFU academic community. Vivian Neal, a TLC educational developer who co-authored the report with TLC learning technology specialist Robyn Schell, characterized students as satisfied overall with their learning experiences, but emphasized the complexity of the picture.

“It varies a lot,” Neal said. “It’s a big institution, and each student’s experience is different to the next. And also, each student has a wide variety of experiences.”

Nevertheless, the report authors identifies seven themes that were prevalent in the comments of many study participants.

1. Applying knowledge and skills in a practical setting

Students expressed a strong interest in experiential learning—learning that connects theory and practice through “real world” research and “hands-on” learning. One student commented, “Through application, we are able to understand the theories and concepts we are being taught.”

2. Developing community and connection for learning and support

Connecting with instructors and classmates was a recurrent theme. According to Neal, the most positive experiences that students expressed “[had] to do with what faculty do to personally connect with students and help students connect with each other.”

The most meaningful practices were sometimes remarkably simple. One student described the deep impact made by an instructor who spent five minutes prior to class on the first day shaking hands and engaging with students.

3. Large classes inhibit connection and learning

Students spoke of feeling disconnected and disengaged in large classes. One student in a class of 500 expressed, “I definitely feel not connected to many of my peers or my professor. My professor also doesn’t really make eye contact with us. She’s always looking at the screen. So that kind of puts a barrier. I think the tutorials are where I feel most connected to my peers and my TA.”

4. Use real-world examples, especially from the instructor’s research, to make material relevant

Students cited the value they gained when instructors share their personal experiences.

“I really appreciate when the teacher actually shares his stories and is involved in what he is teaching, and he gives us personal experiences,” said one student.

5. Assessments that promote learning and that are fair

Students felt that exams often promote memorization rather than understanding. They recognized that exams are sometimes appropriate for sciences and technical subjects, but prefer a greater variety of assessment types and more transparency about assessment criteria, along with better feedback. Some suggested student presentations and discussion-based assessments as a way to promote deeper understanding and critical thinking.

6. Improve training and teaching ability of teaching assistants

Students commented on inconsistencies in the support provided by teaching assistants. “I think there were six tutorials. So each [TA] had two, and they were all run differently,” said one student.

7. Better prepared instructors and better organized material

Students had a number of practical and specific suggestions for instructors: They asked for more alignment between lecture material and supplemental course work, readings and tutorials. They also suggested more effective use of technology to organize course material; for example, provision of course materials to students prior to the start of a course, posting of lecture notes online, and provision of audio recordings of lecturers.

A worthwhile endeavour

Neal wasn’t surprised by the findings. They aligned with the research literature and corroborated results from the Undergraduate Student Survey conducted each year by SFU’s Institutional Research and Planning department.

Still, she feels it is important to speak regularly with students: “I’ve always believed we should consult the students more. Understanding the students’ perspective of teaching and learning is important for understanding the kinds of services the TLC should offer.”

The full report is available as a PDF file. In addition to the focus group results, it contains a useful five-year summary (2013–2017) of teaching and learning–related content from IRP’s Undergraduate Student Survey (Appendix E) as well as student demographics with specific information for groups such as co-op, international and Aboriginal students (Appendix F).