#53ideas 1 – Students are trying to get different things out of being at university

What students do as they are learning, how much they do and to what level, and what they pay attention to, varies a good deal from student to student. And an important determinant of these differences concerns what they are trying to get out of studying. Students go to university for different reasons and choose courses for different reasons and as a result they behave differently and they value different aspects of teaching and assessment. They also make judgements about the quality of teaching, in part in terms of the extent to which it helps them to achieve their goals regardless of whether these coincide with the goals of their courses.

The most common distinction between students that is made is between vocational orientations and academic orientations: whether students focus on what their education will achieve in terms of subsequent employment (whether or not they have a particular career or profession in mind) or whether the subject itself is their main interest, independently of its utilitarian value.

The vast majority of courses in higher education no longer lead to a predictable job. Even science courses nowadays produce graduates more than half of whom will never again do anything with their scientific knowledge. So a vocational orientation is often about how their degree will either get them a job, any job, or will give them generic skills that will be useful to them in almost any job, rather than that the content of the course will have direct relevance to their subsequent working life. Despite trying hard to do well there may be little interest in the subject matter itself. Modules may be selected by students because they offer training in statistics or questionnaire design, alongside the content, rather than that the content itself appeals.

Baume-Air balloon

If teachers have no idea of the balance of these orientations and preferences in their classes then they are not in a good position to decide what emphasis should be placing on, for example, real world examples, or whether you should be setting assignments about ideas or about their application. Engaging students is not just about you being engaging, but about understanding what it is that engages your students.

Cutting across this vocational/academic distinction, however, is the crucial issue of whether students have an intrinsic (interested for its own sake) or an extrinsic (interested for other reasons) orientation. An intrinsic vocational orientation to studying medicine might involve wanting to become the best doctor you could possibly become, learning about medicine and learning practical skills to the greatest extent possible. An extrinsic vocational orientation, in contrast, might involve simply wanting to qualify as a doctor. This might result in highly strategic study behavior: question spotting, doing just enough to pass, choosing modules with lower failure rates, choosing specialisms with better employment prospects, and so on.

In a similar way there are intrinsic and extrinsic versions of an academic orientation. An intrinsic academic orientation might involve a History student being wholly fascinated and endlessly wrapped up in History itself. This might reveal itself in asking questions out of a sense of inquisitiveness, rather than to check on a fact or that a topic might come up in a test, and in reading outside the reading list, even if this meant overlooking recommended texts. An extrinsic academic orientation might take the form of trying hard enough to get a 2:1 that would provide the qualification to undertake an MA in History. The intrinsic academic orientation might result in choosing an interesting but difficult topic for a project while the extrinsic academic orientation might result in choosing a predictable topic that might provide a safer guarantee of a good grade.

In terms of how much time students spend studying, or how interested they are in your lectures or the reading list, whether students have an intrinsic or extrinsic orientation may be more important than whether they have a vocational or academic orientation.

In addition to vocational and academic orientations there are also personal orientations. Mature students, in particular, often have a dominant personal orientation. As with vocational and academic orientations, there are intrinsic and extrinsic versions of personal orientations. An intrinsic personal orientation might take the form of wanting to become ‘the best person one could be’. This might involve a student taking everything on every course seriously as it is perceived as inherently worthwhile and self-improving, whatever it is. But such students might also be interested in competing activities such as volunteering and making use of a wide range of opportunities and experiences on campus: anything that was perceived to develop them as a person. That such extra curricula activities might reduce the grades they have time to achieve on the course might not be perceived as important. An extrinsic personal orientation might in contrast involve trying to prove to oneself, or to others (such as parents) that you are a good enough person to justify going to university, or as good as others, or capable of getting a first, or whatever. It may be wrapped up with personal identity and a feeling of self-worth. A decision to change courses might be not because of interest in the subject but because there might be less risk of failure in some courses rather than others. Grades might be perceived as very important, rather than what had been learnt.

Finally there are some students for whom studying is hardly relevant. They have a predominantly social orientation and want to have a good time. There is no ‘intrinsic’ version of a social orientation – a social orientation has nothing to do with an interest in the subject matter or developing employability, except that it offers opportunities to meet interesting and fun people, network, and so on.

Extrinsically oriented students, whether academically, vocationally or socially oriented, may demand detailed specifications for assignments, recommended reading lists, clear indications as to what might come up in the exam, detailed criteria, and so on. They may want to know how to meet externally defined requirements as easily and as reliably as possible. Their focus on feedback on their assignments tends to be why they got the grade they did, not what they might learn about the subject matter. They may not be interested in being stretched and challenged, but rather in meeting requirements by using their time economically.

Students do not have a single or simple orientation. A vocational extrinsic orientation (e.g. wanting to qualify for a profession) may be mixed with a personal intrinsic orientation (e.g. wanting to be fulfilled) just as people sometimes undertake jobs to earn a living so that they can have rich lives in other ways away from their work. Students may also not be consistent in their orientations across all their courses. They may get completely wrapped up in some subjects and study them in depth, pursuing their own interests, while treating other courses in highly strategic and disengaged ways – saving time on one course to ‘spend’ on another.

Students also evolve in their orientations over time. Unfortunately the available evidence is that this often involves a shift from intrinsic orientations to extrinsic orientations, as students work their way through three years of a degree. Students may spend an ever smaller proportion of their time on anything other than formal course requirements and marked assignments, seemingly abandoning their own intrinsic interests. This is quite an indictment of higher education and the opposite of what teachers aspire to achieve.

Suggested reading

Beaty, L., Gibbs, G. & Morgan, A. (2005) Learning orientations and study contracts. Chap 5 in F.Marton, D.Hounsell & N.Entwistle (Eds) The experience of learning: implications for teaching and studying in higher education.

This blog post is also available as a PDF

53 Powerful Ideas All Teachers Should Know About

Professor Graham Gibbs

SEDA is publishing online both on its website and on its blog one of Graham Gibbs53 Powerful Ideas All Teachers Should Know About every week for a year, with the intention of prompting debate about the underlying basis of our work. On the blog we hope that you will comment on and discuss the ideas set out. After a year the intention is to hand over to our community and publish one idea from someone other than Graham Gibbs, each week, to continue the debate.

We invite you to join the discussion using the comment box below in response to Graham’s question.

What are your students trying to get out of your course?


2 thoughts on “#53ideas 1 – Students are trying to get different things out of being at university

  1. I teach medical physiology in a school in Pakistan. After reading your blog, I am baffled at the similarities of how students behave/expect across versatile cultures! What I mean specifically is the increasing trend of ‘strategic studying’ – I see a lot of this here in my line of work, and your blog mentions that amply as well. Why is that though? How come we are not producing ‘deep’ students – at least not in significant numbers anyway?


  2. Pingback: #53ideas 28 – Making feedback work involves more than giving feedback – Part 2 The students | thesedablog

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