July 04, 2007

Would you recommend Warwick University?

A few weeks ago I completed the Academic Satisfaction Survey. Like many such surveys there were some strange questions. Number 28, for example asked me

(to) indicate the level to which (I am) personally satisfied with (my) aware(ness) of which services are available to me and what they are for

Well, as any student of epistemology will tell you, if you are not aware of something, you won’t know that you are not aware. Or as Donald Rumsfeld famously put it, there are not only unknowns but also unknown unknowns. Then there was question 11, which asked the subject how many hours he or she spent studying outside timetabled teaching, without specifying the whether that should be per week, term or year.

Still the most important question was number 34:

Thinking about your whole university experience, with hindsight, if you were able to choose again, how likely is it that you would choose to study at Warwick?

My answer to this was “Not sure”. I’ve no doubt that I’ve learnt many things during my five years of undergraduate part-time study at Warwick, but I have found one thing rather irksome. That’s the individualised nature of the learning process. While I accept that students in higher education must direct their own learning process, I question whether isolation in private study is the only way to achieve this. Is there no room for teamwork?

Many people’s experience of paid work does involve a fair degree of teamwork. In my last job, for example, I would write technical documents which would be reviewed by my peers. The review was an important part of the work process. It was also an educative process, for both author and reviewer, in giving and taking constructive criticism as well as in understanding the points made by the other parties. It’s a pity that in my Warwick experience I’ve encountered so little teamwork, so little interaction with other students on academic matters outside the seminar room. As far as I know most mature students (if not others?) have had much the same experience.

So if I knew back in 2001/2 what I know now, one of the key criteria I would use when assessing a higher education institution would be the extent to which it offered a collaborative learning environment. If one seemed to have a better practice than Warwick, I’d go for it.

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  1. John Dale

    one of the key criteria I would use when assessing a higher education institution would be the extent to which it offered a collaborative learning environment. If one seemed to have a better practice than Warwick, I’d go for it.

    When you say a collaborative learning environment, and better practice, what do you mean? Physical spaces like the Learning Grid? Electronic tools such as Breeze or Groove? Or are you perhaps thinking more about embedding; the extent to which collaboration is part of the curriculum, perhaps in the form of shared project work?

    04 Jul 2007, 14:35

  2. I was thinking in terms of it being the part of the standard practice. The social rather than the technological environment.

    It’s one thing to claim that there’s technology to support some method of working and quite another to actually use it in the manner implied.

    04 Jul 2007, 15:12

  3. John Dale

    Interesting. So do you have examples of the kind of collaborative work which you would have liked to see as part of your course, but didn’t?

    05 Jul 2007, 15:45

  4. It’s a bit difficult to provide examples of something I’ve never really experienced. However I have read that some groups of people, who have nothing to do with any University, have managed to establish reading groups which are led by themselves. Clearly there a lot of private study there, it’s not unusual for there to be a fair amount of private work in any teamwork situation anyway.

    A factor somehow connected with age/experience may be at play. Many people have little experience with teamwork prior to entering paid employment. It’s there that they learn how to do it. So some might consider that only older students could be expected to successfully apply it to learning. Although that does raise the question of why we leave it so late to learn that life skill?

    A friend of mine once related her experience in helping to interview recently graduated job applicants. Despite the post being in management, very few of the applicants had any experience of working with others to achieve a goal, let alone managing others. Too often in universities work is conceived of as a private activity while people think the word social is a synonym for leisure.

    05 Jul 2007, 20:25

  5. I agree with this observation, and think it’s an important one. Too often academia can feel like an isolating experience rather than an opportunity to bounce ideas around and share expertise, which is what you’d do anywhere else. It’s something that made me quite unhappy whilst in academia (particularly as a postgrad at Warwick) but I never fully recognised as important to me until I left.

    I think the culture of collaborative v. individual learning probably varies from department to department at Warwick, and more broadly from discipline to discipline, so my experiences may not be representative of others’. While the actual seminars in my department (sociology) were a really good opportunity to share learning, these only lasted for a couple of hours a week and did not really succeed in embedding a collaborative learning environment beyond the seminar classroom.

    This is probably why my overriding memory of Warwick is a sense of isolation, too much time spent on my own struggling with confused thought processes, sitting in the library or in my room by myself surrounded by lofty tomes and reams of paper… It is something that can partially be addressed through the lived environment, but the culture change that is needed goes deeper than buildings and office space.

    It is only now that I work full-time that I recognise the importance of developing good interpersonal skills and teamwork ability. If this cannot be achieved through academic study, which is a sad idea given everything else that academia can offer, it is really important that students look elsewhere (voluntary work, positions of responsibility, sport, art etc) to gain these vital skills for their futures.

    08 Jul 2007, 23:10

  6. My impression is that a lot of postgraduates do feel isolated.

    I also think that a lot of mature undergraduates do as well; providing a bit of contrast between their experience of work and what happens at university. A lady I met this morning provided an exception. She had been a secretary, which I think is a pivotal occupation in organising meetings that the participants must take seriously. She met with two or three others on the same courses as herself once a week (in the Learning Grid as a matter of detail) and discussed various themes which they had well prepared. The initial core of the group seemed to be two students who had been on the same foundation course and lived so close together to make car sharing a useful option.

    09 Jul 2007, 15:46

  7. I’ve been asked by loads of people whether I would recommend Warwick and I’ve never let it be as simple as “yes, go there” or “no, go somewhere else”. I’ve always described my own experiences and those of my friends (most of which doing completely different subjects from me) and then tried to find out more about the person I’m supposed to be recommending to. I think Warwick is great for several types of people, but there are others who may be better off elsewhere. Of course, I always stress that without going to multiple universities myself, I don’t really have anything to grade them against.

    It always seems odd how people think that anyone who has been to university is an expert on them, but, in reality, most people only go to one for their undergraduate degree, so it’s not like they’re qualified to do any more than recount their personal experiences and those of their peers.

    09 Jul 2007, 21:58

  8. Simone

    I think its true that team work is something that seems to be lacking in many university courses and this can lead to a feeling of isolation. It is a shame because I find that working as part of a team is one of the most rewarding parts of my job. Some universities have mentoring schemes which help to prevent feelings of isolation. Mentors act as a sounding board by listening with empathy, developing insight and encouraging students. It is a good idea because people do not have to go and actively seek somebody out. The trouble with the counselling services that are available is that the people who need them most are usually the the ones who are least likely to make use of them. Its like assertiveness classes, the people who go are never very unassertive, most unassertive people have not got enough assertiveness to make it through the door. I have been to assertiveness classes and I have been a mentor so I speak from experience.

    12 Jul 2007, 21:39

  9. Group work is the antithesis of serious study.
    Any of it in a proper field is too much.

    13 Jul 2007, 01:52

  10. I was told the other day the Albert Einstein “only” created the general gist of the theories associated with his name, his wife worked out the mathematical detail.

    An example, and I’m sure there are countless others, of successful collaboration.

    According to Association of Graduate Recruiters:http “graduates are realising that academic achievements are not enough to secure a position and are focusing on developing softer skills, such as team-working, when applying for graduate-level positions.”

    I don’t think team-working is a skill that comes naturally, many people don’t get very far with it at all during their working life. All they do is develop some way of working with their boss, leaving their boss the task of working effectively with lots of other people.

    I once had the idea that people on management courses should be given projects of managing students on non management courses. At the end of the project both manager and sub-ordinates would be assessed on their contribution to the team’s effectiveness.

    13 Jul 2007, 09:37

  11. I know someone who chose to go to Warwick because it had an advanced Internet network. As the US army recruitment ad says (quoted from Family Guy) “Your experience may differ”. So I’m really not sure just how helpful these surveys are.

    21 Jul 2007, 03:44

  12. I must write that I’ve no reason to suspect that Warwick is any different from any other UK university on the issue of developing its students’ teamworking skills. I put “Warwick” in the title of this entry just to be provocative.

    I choose the first university I attended because I thought it gave more flexibility than the others. But I suspect I misread the prospectuses.

    Still in those days (1974), UK universities weren’t graded in the same way as they are nowadays. There was just Oxbridge (strictly for the upper classes and those trying hard to appear upper class) and the rest.

    Overall I suspect that the results from some of the survey questions won’t be much use, as there’s too much scope for people to interprete them in different ways.

    21 Jul 2007, 09:57

  13. Robert McGonigle

    Now this entry sounds more like the George Riches I remember than the one at lunchtime questioning the tutorials. Or do you not see your tutorials as collaborative? (I do regulat checks on the term collaborate and this entry popped out of Google this afternoon!)

    14 Jan 2008, 16:22

  14. Oh. Perhaps my thinking is getting more dialectical? What exactly did I say which you felt was in contradiction to the above?

    14 Jan 2008, 19:09

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