Meeting Student Expectations 8: Reducing Student Stress

All the issues that I have raised so far could, in theory, be introduced by any programme across the University who wished to move in that direction within the next academic year. We own the rules and regulations. We can change them to make some of these more experimental approaches possible. We would need to know why it was that we wanted to transform our first year programme to allow for a more complete transition from school or college, why it was that we wanted to be more flexible with the modular structure in order to enable a more balanced and more authentic learning journey, why it was we wanted to distinguish different learning communities within a single cohort, and so on. But we could do it, and we could fit that around our current structures, regulations, and academic year. My final response, however, does go beyond that and, I would argue, will demand a much more radical change across the University as a whole, probably a complete transformation of the academic year as I have been advocating.

It only takes a cursory look at the graph of appointments to well being services matched against the weeks of the year to see, immediately and obviously, that there are peaks and troughs, and when the significant stress, on the system, on students, and I would suggest on staff, fall out across the current academic year. There is an initial peak before Christmas, with the submission of course work for the first term, a peak in the January exam period, another in early April and the final one during the summer exams. We have created a system that is almost designed to accentuate those peaks, and not just for the students but for the staff as well. Inherent in that design, of course, is the accepted ‘truth’ that for any module, or whatever segment of learning, there is a period of input that ends with a form of assessment and, as we have things set out across the current academic year, all that assessment falls on students and staff alike at particular points in the year.

Surely it is possible to think about this differently! Is this the only way in which our engagement with student learning can be modeled? As part of the Go Beyond project we looked particularly at assessment and feedback and many different models were reviewed, most of which had clear advantages to the student (and in some cases to staff) over the standard approach of essays or exams. Of course, these alternative forms of assessment take more thinking about. They will also need a different distribution of resources, perhaps a series of rooms set aside throughout the academic year that are dedicated to assessment for example. But they all have the advantage of bringing assessment and learning much more closely into alignment in real time and many of them also break our dependence on peaks and troughs in stress throughout the year.

If, however, we remove the assessment periods, especially the summer exam period, then students will find themselves with large chunks of the year when they have nothing more to do. A number of students already think that the spring term does not begin till mid-February and use the January exam period to catch up with their skiing as they have no formal assessments. Others leave as soon as they are able in the summer, wasting valuable time for potential learning and often money in holding accommodation when it is not needed. Shifting the modular weight of each term, however, has the potential to both reduce the number of modules, and therefore the amount of work, undertaken in any one week, and spreads the load for the student across the full thirty-two weeks of the academic year. This must have advantages, both for learning and for student stress levels.

Of course, this kind of radical rethinking of the academic year cannot happen without the other responses that I have already outlined. It will also take considerable effort and serious rethinking across all degree programmes. It cannot be introduced overnight. Much of the thinking and reflection on the various elements that would be needed to embark on this approach have already been thought through as part of the wider Go Beyond programme, but we would still need to make the commitment, as a University, to head in this direction. The potential benefits, however, particularly for the students, would be huge. What is more, this one single innovation, I would suggest, would go further to meeting the expectations of students in the next ten years or so, as outlined in the first part of this paper, than any other single action that we could take as a University.

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