This paper describes the results of a survey of academic staff at the University of Canterbury, which asked how prevalent a number of instrumental-type behaviours were amongst their students. The results show that the three behaviours perceived as most prevalent were: not doing extra reading or other non-assessed work; not preparing for tutorials; and wanting to be told in detail what will be in a test or exam. In addition, although reported as less prevalent, non-attendance at lectures was seen as a particular problem for learning. Three quarters of our sample had taught at the University for at least five years and of these two thirds thought there had been an increase in these types of behaviours over that period.
The instrumental student has a pragmatic approach to education... Such students ask themselves how (or whether) the study of a text or the writing of a paper can help them achieve a higher grade and thus further their specific career or life plans (p.16).A decade later the instrumental student and the implications for higher education were still cause for comment:
When teachers in higher education discuss their problems a fairly frequent complaint is that students are not motivated... [and] lack an urge to work independently, applying themselves only if external pressures are exerted... students these days are not interested in the courses they have selected but simply 'want a qualification and a good job' (Beard & Senior, 1980, p.1).Not surprisingly, most students come to university with the twin motivations of increasing their career opportunities and studying subjects which interest them. However, we believe that when the first of these motivations comes to dominate it can affect students' study attitudes, leading to the adoption of instrumental behaviours. We argue that this creates a problem for the university as a place of learning, because learning is frequently sacrificed by the instrumental student in favour of 'getting through' a course and/or a degree. For example, students who are instrumentally motivated are likely to adopt a surface approach to studying, which does not lead to high quality learning (Biggs, 1999, p.15).
The idea of the university experience as a means to an end (a job) is therefore not new, but is it more prevalent now? We became interested in this subject over a period of years, as increasingly (or so it seemed), we heard academics complaining about low lecture attendance, students wanting full lecture notes to be provided and not doing extra reading or non-assessed work. We were also interested that, when the American Association of Higher Education surveyed a random sample of its members in 1999 about changes in higher education over the last 30 years, the fifth most frequently mentioned change, which was the first one regarded as truly negative, was the trend amongst students to emphasise career preparation over a quality liberal education (Hendley, 2000).
We began to wonder whether there were factors within the university's control which might be causing this change. Was it part of changes in wider society, or was it merely a function of larger classes, which means that lecturers encounter more students with an instrumental view of education, but that proportionally things had not changed. Were we just looking back at our student days with rose-tinted spectacles, thinking that it was all so different then? We decided as the initial step in a more extensive study, to survey academic staff at Canterbury about how widespread certain 'instrumental' type behaviours were amongst their students.
We piloted the survey with five academics representing a range of disciplines, amended our list of behaviours and sent the final version of the survey to departments for distribution to academic staff in late November 1999. We received 172 replies representing 39% of the academic staff who might have been expected to be on campus at that time. The response rates from the various Faculties were very similar. Of the 172 respondents, 128 (74%) had taught at Canterbury for 5 years or more and 158 (92%) had been teaching at tertiary level for at least 5 years.
Responses to the set of closed questions were analysed using SPSS for Windows (Release 8.0) to give frequencies, means and standard deviations. Faculty and course level variations were examined using one-way analysis of variance, but none of the former and very few of the latter were statistically significant at the p<0.01 level, so these are not reported in this paper. Open question responses were analysed by categorising them into broad groupings and tallying them.
|N||Rank||% of common/|
|Not doing extra reading or other non-assessed work||3.9||160||1||68|
|Not preparing for tutorials||3.6||98||2||62|
|Wanting to be told in detail what will be in an exam or test||3.5||164||3||55|
|Not attending lectures on material which will not be assessed||3.3||123||4||48|
|Wanting full lecture notes to be provided||3.1||168||5||42|
|Not attending tutorials||3.0||102||6||35|
|Not attending lectures||2.9||169||7||27|
|Wanting/expecting to pass the course regardless of the |
amount of work done
|Applying for Aegrotats (Special considerations)||2.4||170||9||15|
|Not attending laboratory classes||1.9||76||10||9|
|Applying for work to be re-marked||1.7||171||12||5|
|Appealing grades and Aegrotat (Special consideration) decisions||1.5||170||13||4|
The most prevalent behaviour according to respondents was students 'Not doing extra reading or other non-assessed work' (mean 3.9), followed by 'Not preparing for tutorials' (3.6) and 'Wanting to be told in detail what will be in an exam or test' (3.5). Nearly two thirds of respondents thought that the first two behaviours were either common or very common (responses 4 and 5), while just over a half put the third behaviour in these categories. A slightly lower proportion (48%) of respondents thought that the fourth-ranked behaviour, 'Not attending lectures on material which will not be assessed' (mean 3.3), was either common or very common. The mean responses for next three most frequent behaviours in Table 1 were close to the mid-point of the scale, indicating that they were perceived as relatively less common, while the remaining behaviours were relatively uncommon.
When interpreting the results in Table 1, it must be borne in mind that we posed the behaviours in the negative sense, that is, respondents were asked to rate the prevalence of, 'not attending lectures' rather than that of 'attending lectures'. We did this quite deliberately, as it is the negative behaviours which interest us. However, it is possible that our questions may have biased responses to be more negative than they would have been if positive behaviours had been listed.
The low rating of cheating and other dishonest behaviour in Table 1 is of interest, given that a 1995 study of cheating in British universities found that more than 60% of students admitted behaviour such as copying another's work, plagarism and altering and inventing laboratory data (Franklyn-Stokes & Newstead, 1995). The authors also reported significant differences between academic staff perceptions of the incidence of cheating and the amount reported by students, with academics underestimating the problem (Franklyn-Stokes & Newstead, 1995). It is likely, therefore, that the low rating of cheating in the present study reflects a similar underestimation.
We also asked respondents to think more generally, beyond the specific course they had answered in terms of above, about how common it was for students majoring in their department to make choices for extrinsic reasons, by rating two specific behaviours. Again, responses were on the 1 to 5 scale, and Table 2 gives the results.
|N||% of common/|
|Choosing a course that is perceived to require minimal effort, |
rather than for intrinsic interest
|Seeing a degree as solely a stepping stone to a 'good job'||3.2||167||44|
It seems likely that academics see lecture non-attendance as a problem, regardless of how common it actually is, because they place a particularly high value on lectures. This value was seen in a study amongst academics and students at the University of Canterbury, which found that academics believed that regular lecture attendance was relatively more important to success at university than students did (Ditcher & Tetley, 1999). It must also be noted that lectures remain the main form of teaching at universities, and the most visible, so it would be strange if academics did not see lectures as a vital part of learning.
Table 3: The five behaviours most frequently reported as particular problems for student learning, ordered by total number of listings. Note that respondents were able to list as many of the behaviours as they wished.
|Problem for student learning||N||No. applicable||% of no. applicable|
|Not doing extra reading or other non-assessed work||51||160||32|
|Not attending lectures||51||169||30|
|Wanting full lecture notes provided||36||168||21|
|Not preparing for tutorials||32||98||33|
|Not attending tutorials||28||102||27|
If you are trying to present a connected series of lectures that interprets the readings, students who miss lots of lectures simply fail to see the point of it all.Again, these comments, and many similar ones, reflect the high value placed on lectures by academics.
A number of our respondents argued that the behaviours were degrading the experience and the benefits of a university education:
[all of these behaviours] are several parts of a single common problem, namely that students (not all, but many) seem more interested in passing a course rather than genuinely trying to learn a subject matter to their best ability. They seem far more pre-occupied with figuring out what "they need to know" and getting my notes, than reading independently or synthesising material themselves. This concerns me because we end up training students that are good at regurgitating lecture material, but hopeless at assessing new ideas critically, or even proposing new ideas themselves.Some respondents saw the behaviours as symptomatic of a lack of personal responsibility on the part of students:
It seems to me that the underlying problem is lack of personal responsibility on the part of many students and the impact this has on the entire culture of the University ... In my experience, it is very rare for a student to accept responsibility for themselves and their learning.However, one respondent was a little more positive about students' learning abilities:
Many of these behaviours degrade the experience. I also see them restricting what students could learn. But I don't see them as problems for learning necessarily as I could still imagine personal attributes that could compensate, even thrive, despite such behaviours.
The concerns of a number of respondents about the effects of financial pressures and paid employment on student learning are illustrated by the following comment:
Students feel immense pressure of time and money. Their time especially is limited by outside employment. Naturally therefore they need to select attendance according to highly pragmatic criteria... pressure of external work and the hand-to-mouth nature of fulfilling in-term assessment projects cuts into time for both specific and more general reading.We were initially sceptical about the belief of more than a third of our respondents that time pressures due to students having paid employment were the main cause of the increase in instrumental behaviours, particularly where non-attendance at lectures was concerned. In 1998, of the 260 undergraduates from Canterbury who were part of a New Zealand Vice-Chancellors' Committee survey of full-time students about part-time employment, 139 (53%) had some term-time employment, but only 8 of the 139 regularly missed lectures, while 28 missed lectures occasionally (NZVCC, 1998). Nevertheless, 85 (61%) of the employed group agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that "I would be more successful in my studies if I did not have to spend as much time employed during term-time as I do" (NZVCC, 1998).
It is likely that time spent in employment, even if not directly affecting lecture attendance, would otherwise be spent working on assignments or doing extra reading. Support for this interpretation of the data comes from a 1992/93 study of full-time undergraduate students in their second or subsequent years at four British universities, which found that, of just under one third who were employed during term time, 30% said tutorial preparation suffered, 36% said they read less course-related material and 27% said that the standard of their academic work had suffered (although 40% said that it had not) (Ford, Bosworth and Wilson, 1995). However, Ford et al (1995) found that the greatest effects reported by the employed group were cutting down social activities (53%) and having less leisure time (67%). In addition, although for a large minority of the students the effects of employment were largely negative, over a quarter enjoyed their employment and saw it as a way of maintaining or enhancing their social lives (Ford et al, 1995).
Returning now to the comments of respondents in the present survey, a number were more concerned about the effects of high fees on student attitudes and expectations than on employment issues:
I have noticed this year among a few students the idea that because they are paying a lot of money, they should be 'given the service' they are purchasing as customers, i.e. good marks and a degree.Such consumer attitudes are not confined to New Zealand. In the U.S., for instance:
Students seem to believe that paying fees entitles them to a degree and that this should require as little effort from them as possible....
...students increasingly are bringing to higher education exactly the same consumer expectations they have for every other commercial establishment with which they deal.... They believe that since they are paying for their education, faculty should give them the education they want... (Levine & Cureton, 1998, p.14)Advertising by New Zealand universities reflects and reinforces this view of education as an object to be bought and sold:
Through advertising, university degrees and courses are imaged and packaged in much the same way as other consumer commodities (Bassett, 1999).In the U.K., a university Vice-Chancellor was recently reported as commenting "It is good for the system that students exert their consumer rights" (Hodges, 2000). However, the view of students as consumers has far-reaching consequences for learning, as one of our respondents pointed out:
Payment of large fees changes the relationship between teacher and students. There is a contradiction between paying for a course and being required to do hard work in the course ... Instead the focus shifts to the outcome of the course, because, implicitly the student is paying to pass the course.A number of other comments suggested that changes within the university were a factor in the increased behaviours:
Students now appear to be more conditioned to work mechanically and lack the curiosity to read around the themes of courses in general. I believe the heavy emphasis on internal assessment, working for marks, and related to this, packing material into small "bites", is to a large extent responsible for this.Over the past decade, the University of Canterbury has moved increasingly from full-year courses to half-credit half-year (one semester) ones, and more recently we have seen the introduction of a number of quarter-credit half-year courses. Thus courses are being cut into smaller and smaller 'chunks', each with its own coursework and examination requirements, which can lead to excessive assessment pressures on students (Entwistle, 1998, p.19). Students can also get into a vicious circle, whereby assessment demands in one course affect their behaviour in others, and vice-versa, as the respondent below notes:
The main pressure for an increase [in behaviours] comes from the assessment workload... Assessment deadlines drive most of my students' study habits - when something is due, other subjects are dropped - and I think the number of these deadlines has increased, at least over the last 10 years or more.Support for this comment comes from a 1998 survey of lecture attendance amongst 168 full-time students at the University of Canterbury, which found that 72% of the sample had missed at least one lecture during the previous week, and 20% had missed five or more, and that the main reason students gave for missing lectures was the need to work on assignments (Hunter & Tetley, 1999).
Other respondents in the present survey saw the increase in the amount of in-course assessment as a response to the problem of students not doing non-assessed work, that is, work which respondents saw as an essential part of learning in their course:
Doing problems between lectures, to develop and reinforce learning, just does not happen unless there is formal credit given. To get any work done through the course you have to give formal assignments which increase the pressure on the student and swamp the lecturer with marking.One respondent saw the increase in behaviours as being related to the quality of the relationship between teacher and student:
The increase in class sizes has made a big difference. If you know the student personally, the relationship can motivate their involvement, they feel responsible for what they do in the course because they know you know and care. With large classes the anonymity leads to a break-down of mutual commitment between teacher and students.The breakdown of the teacher-student relationship in large classes has been noted by Gibbs (1992), who comments that motivation comes from "personal contact with lecturers and involvement in small group discussions", which enables student imagination to be "fired" (p.162). In large classes, however, the absence of personal contact and lack of interaction results in students frequently being "disengaged and passive" (Gibbs, 1992, p.162). With the expansion of higher education in the past decade in New Zealand and other western societies, large classes have become the norm, especially at first year level. Thus students' first experiences of university study, which set the stage for future years, are of disengagement and passivity, hardly experiences likely to encourage enthusiasm and independence in learning.
We were interested that none of our respondents gave 'poor lecturing' (or some similar phrase) as a reason for the increase in behaviours, particularly for non-attendance at lectures. The 1998 survey of lecture attendance at the University of Canterbury found that the second, third and fourth most frequently cited reasons for non-attendance at lectures indicated that students "thought the lectures were not worth attending" (Hunter and Tetley, 1999, p.1). While this may indicate poor motivation on the part of the students, some of the problem may also be poor lecturing. However, in the present study, since lecturers were responding to our questionnaire with a course they were teaching in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that none of them referred to poor teaching.
The link between higher university fees and students having part-time paid work is not as clear as many of our respondents believe, however. The New Zealand Vice-Chancellors' Committee survey (NZVCC, 1998) also asked respondents why they had paid employment; 52% of the Canterbury respondents gave "living expenses" as the reason, 28% gave "working for disposable income" and a further 9% gave "living expenses and disposable income". Working part-time for income also appears to be widespread amongst New Zealand High School students, with a 1999 survey finding that nearly half of such students worked for wages during term-time (Ross, 2000). Students are already used to working and studying while they are at high school and not all students work because they need the income to survive, thus cutting university fees will not necessarily reduce the numbers of students in paid employment, nor will it necessarily affect the behaviours which concern our respondents.
Looking now in more detail at the suggestions that the university should promote a culture of learning, some respondents made this suggestion in a general way, for example:
[University should] work towards re-establishing the culture of university education as a collegial experience involving staff and students and not the delivery of a 'product', i.e. resist the tendency to commodify education and package it commercially.Other respondents made more specific suggestions, which we also placed into the 'promote culture of learning' category of responses. These included: teaching study skills to first year students; providing students, especially first year ones, with more academic and pastoral support; emphasising in advertising that the university provides a general education rather than a career-focussed one; and introducing learning contracts for students. A number of respondents commented that they simply did not know what could be done to counter the increase in behaviours, while a few thought that nothing could be done.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to the next question - what can we do about this situation? We were disturbed that so many of our respondents resorted to 'blame the student' and/or 'blame the government/society' explanations for current behaviour, as we feel that this mind-set ignores the reality that education is a social activity in which academics and students jointly take part. Another problem with such explanations is that they blind us, as academics, to the fact that at least part of the solution lies with us. Becker, Geer & Hughes (1968) suggested a long time ago that we:
...abandon the goal of manipulating students into doing what faculty desires... Instead of trying to get students to do what we want, we [should] look for ways of not encouraging them to do what we do not want. (p.138)As Ramsden (1997) reminds us, the context of learning is a powerful influence on student behaviour, and can indeed encourage students to do things we don't want them to do, and the context is under our control. Perhaps we could make a start by examining the contexts we set.
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|Authors: Dr Anne Ditcher, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ. Phone 64 3 364 2987 ext 7390 Fax 64 3 364 2078 Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Sally Hunter, Educational Research and Advisory Unit, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ. Phone 64 3 364 2832 Fax 64 3 364 2830 Email email@example.com
Please cite as: Ditcher, A. and Hunter, S. (2001). The instrumental student: An increasing problem? In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 202-212. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/aset-herdsa2000/procs/ditcher.html