Background to Research
Adequately meeting the varying needs of an increasingly diverse population of students is a major challenge for education. To face this challenge educational researchers have explored a variety of areas within the students’ educational experience to examine the effects on students. Many studies of the experiences, characteristics and needs of students at various grade levels and age groups have been conducted. There is a general consensus that the needs, interests, preferences and characteristics of the students change with the social, economic, and technological changes around them. Provision of the best environment and conditions that support better learning and development of students is on the educational reform agenda worldwide (UNESCO, 1998). Research has emphasized the need and importance of students’ views and opinions about their learning experiences, while planning and providing supportive conditions and facilities for learning (Leckey & Neill, 2001, Nicholls, 2002).
The Islamic Republic of Pakistan came into being in 1947. It has an estimated population of 164.8 Million (Population Census organization, 2008) with an overall literacy rate of 51.6 %
(Government of Pakistan, 2005). Education in Pakistan is divided into five levels, Primary (grades one through five), Middle (grades six through eight), High (grades nine and ten, leading to Secondary School certificate), Intermediate (grades eleven and twelve, leading to a higher Secondary School Certificate), and Higher Education (education above grades 12) leading to a bachelor degree (BA/BSC) after two years of study mostly at affiliated colleges. A Masters Degree or Postgraduate degree is mostly undertaken at universities and requires another two years of study. At the time of independence in 1947 there were only two universities, the University of the Punjab, Lahore and the University of Dhaka. At present there are 67 universities in the public sector and 57 in the private (Higher Education Commission, 2005). Currently there are approximately 32, 8603 students enrolled in postgraduate programmes (MA/MSc) with more females (53%) than males currently enrolled (Government of Pakistan, 2003).
Since independence the quality of education at all levels has been a concern in Pakistan. Most of the efforts directed at quality enhancement have been targeted towards primary and secondary education, but during late 1990s higher education became the major concern of the government and this has been expressed in its policies and plans (Government of Pakistan, 1998, 2004, 2005). Responding to unprecedented expansion in higher education, formalized and systematic quality assurance mechanisms began to evolve in the early 2000s, with the establishment of Higher Education Commission (HEC). Most of the efforts at reform designed to improve the quality of higher education have been directed toward physical inputs, teacher training, and material resources (Government of Pakistan, 2004, 2005). There has also been increasing recognition that conventional approaches to curriculum, pedagogy and organization in higher education do not always lead to excellence and quality (Government of Pakistan, 2001). However what is missing in these discussion concerning strategies for enhancing quality of higher education in Pakistan is students’ opinions about their learning and their learning experiences.
Being a part of the higher education community in Pakistan, issues of higher education quality have been of increasing concern and interest to me. My experience of teaching at the University of the Punjab (Lahore), Pakistan, during the last ten years have led to the development of an interest in the study of motivational beliefs and learning experiences of the postgraduate students. The University of the Punjab is one of the oldest and largest universities of Pakistan. Established in the 1882, the University is comprised of 4 Campuses, 13 Faculties, 9 constituent colleges, and 64 Departments and Centers. Currently students’ feedback about their learning is obtained at the level of individual units or courses but there is no systematic procedure for evaluating students’ overall experience of learning at the level of whole course or degree. In Pakistan postgraduate students join the university after completing 10 years of study at school and 4 years of study at college. Postgraduate students who attend university in Pakistan are thus engaged in higher education for a minimum of four years. Their long academic experience means they are in a position to judge the nature and quality of their experiences of learning at university but they are never given a chance to do so except at the unit level and they are not asked about their goals, aspirations and motivations.
Research in western higher education systems shows that the students are best placed to comment about many aspects of quality of education and their ratings are considered to be valid, multidimensional and reliable (Marsh, 1987; Ramsden 1991; Leckey & Niell, 2001). Many studies have also been conducted on students’ motivational beliefs and learning in higher education and well developed instruments such as Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ) and Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ) have been employed to explore the motivational beliefs of the students and to study the impact of various other factors on the students’ experiences of teaching, curriculum and assessment and learning in western higher education. A systematic use of the findings of these studies has provided a strong basis for the improvement of the quality of student learning in higher education (Watson, 2003; Harvey, 2003). Much of the research on student learning and higher education has been conducted in developed countries like the USA, UK and Australia (Watson, 2003; Harvery, 2003, Pascarella& Terenzini, 1998; Wilson .Lozzio & Ramsden, 1997; Diseth, 2003; Diseth Pallesen, Hoveland & Larsen, 2006) with very few studies be conducted in the Asian contexts (see Salili, 1996). No studies of this nature have been conducted in the Pakistani context. However the researchers in the field of motivation and learning have increasingly highlighted the importance of conducting research in different cultural and social contexts (Byrne & Flood, 2008; Schunk, Pintrich & Meece, 2008; Kaplan & Maehr, 2006).According to Pintrich and Zusho (2007) cultural and social context can have mojor effect on the motivational beliefs as well as on the outcomes of education and research is needed to explore whether various models of learning and motivation can be generalized and do the various motivational constructs operate similarly among various cultures. Therefore findings and implications of the research on higher education in western contexts, need to be explored further in the social, economic and cultural context of Pakistan. Such research is needed to get an insight into motivational profile and learning experiences of the student at the postgraduate level in Pakistan, where the percentage of female students at postgraduate level (53 %) is higher than male students. These figures for females sit in stark contrast to the lower literacy rate for females (39.2%) across the country (Government of Pakistan, 2005) and where future job prospects for qualified people are very low (Husain, 2005).The overall unemployment rate in Pakistan is 7.8 % (Government of Pakistan, 2008) whereas no statistics are available for different groups such as people with bachelors degrees, masters degrees and professional degrees.
There is hardly any research conducted in Pakistan that could provide an insight into students’ motivational beliefs and their experiences of learning at the postgraduate level. A literature search identified just two recent studies about student’s approaches to learning in higher education in Pakistan. Siddiqui (2006) investigated ‘study approaches’ of Pakistani students in tertiary institutions by using a revised version of the Study Process Questionnaire (R-SPQ-2F). The sample comprised 13,331 students who appeared at 15 centers for National Postgraduate Scholarship Examination in December 2003. The results showed that the students predominantly had higher scores on deep approach. No statistically significant differences were observed on the basis of gender, age and highest qualification, but there were significant differences for various fields of study. Akhtar (2007) conducted a comparative study of ‘approaches to study’ used by students in pre-service teacher education programs at the University of the Punjab (Lahore), Pakistan and the University of Edinburgh, UK. The study showed that the students from both universities perceived their learning environment in a similar way, but that a surface approach to learning was found to be more dominant among the Pakistani students.
Due to lack of research on higher education students in Pakistan, my proposed study of the motivational beliefs and the experiences of learning in various disciplines of study at the University of the Punjab is expected to be the first in Pakistan to investigate the relationship between the motivational beliefs and learning at postgraduate level in Pakistan. This study will provide an understanding of the factors affecting the learning processes at the University of the Punjab and may serve as a basis for the improvement of academic programs and students’ learning experiences in Pakistani universities more generally. In a range of Western countries, many research studies have established the impact of motivational beliefs on self regulation and educational achievement (Pintrich & DeGroot, 1990; Eccles, Wigfield & Schiefele, 1998); Pintrich & Zusho, 2007) but no research has explored the relationship between motivational beliefs and experiences of learning at postgraduate level. This is an important issue in Pakistan where postgraduates do not necessarily expect to find suitable work after completion of their qualification. The results of the study will also help to understand and suggest to the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, some practical and feasible initiatives to highlight the importance of students’ views in the current efforts of the Government to enhance the quality of university education.
The following section discusses and examines the concept of students’ learning experiences in higher education sector. After a brief review of recent changes in the higher education and how the exploration of student experiences have been used to improve the quality of education, this review discuses various perspectives on learning to provide an account of how experience of learning has been conceptualized so far and what is needed to be explored further to develop our understanding of student learning in higher education.
The Changing Face of Higher Education
Worldwide there has been shift in the nature, structure, function and the financing of the university system (Biggs, 2003). In universities in developed countries these changes are quite evident through the expansion of technology, more diverse student population, increased demand for accountability and emphasis on research and performance related funding.
Studies in Australia and other countries of the world serve to highlight some of the significant changes in the nature of student population over the last decade. For instance, in the UK 21% of full-time students at the start of their degree in 2005 were over the age of 21 (Robotham, 2008). Similarly, Studies by McInnis, James & Hartley (2000) in Australia reveal other important changes when they note an increase in the proportion of full-time students who are working part-time and students seeking more choice in the subjects, delivery modes, assessment activities and facilities provided by the universities. Due to this growing diversity of the student population and rapidly changing social, technological and economic contexts, mass systems of the higher education in USA and Australia are now faced with the challenge of complexity of the student learning (James 2001, Pascarella and Terenzizni, 1998).
According to Biggs (2003) a greater proportion of school leavers with diverse experiences, socio- economic status and cultural backgrounds are now joining higher education, they have to pay more tuition fees, study in large class sizes with fewer teachers and have to choose from more vocationally oriented courses. While discussing the challenge of the growing diversity of the student population and the influences of a number of demographic, institutional, economic and technological forces in the context of the USA, Pascarella and Terenzizni (1998) argue that these changes have significant implications for understanding the impact of college on students and require us to rethink about students’ experiences of learning. They further argue that these challenges require us to rethink students’ experiences of learning and redefine the outcomes of college and university education.
In developed and developing countries like Pakistan more students are now aspiring to join institutions of higher education and there is a significant increase in the number of universities accommodating this new student population. Over the course of the later part of the twentieth century there was a world wide expansion of higher education institutions and enrollments. In 1900 roughly 500,000 students were enrolled in higher education institutions world wide, representing only one percent of college age population, whereas by the year 2000, this number had grown two hundredfold to approximately 100 million people, or 20 percent of the cohort worldwide (Schofer & Meyer, 2005).
At the time of the creation of Pakistan in 1947, there were only two universities, but after 1999-2000 there was a sharp increase in the number of public and private universities as the government showed the clear commitment to improving the higher education (Government of Pakistan 2004)., There was a significant increase in the spending on tertiary education (15.7% of the total Ed. Expenditure). At present there are 67 universities in public sector in Pakistan and 57 in the private. Despite the fact that only 3.7 percent of the 18 to 23 age cohort participates in higher education, the student enrollment at the University of the Punjab alone has increased from 10,000 to 30,000 over the last eight years (Iqbal, 2008). There are no empirical studies and little literature available on the demographic and economic characteristics, expectations, and experiences of students in Pakistani higher education institutions.
To sum up, it can be said that as a consequence of the changes in the nature and context of higher education, the relationship between universities and students has also changed (James, 2001). Further, learning at university has become far more complex than it has been before. With the changing face of higher education, the factors that can have an impact on student learning in higher education have also become manifold, including personal factors (e.g. age, gender, prior experience and motivation of students) and contextual factors (e.g. teaching and learning activities, courses and content of study, facilities, resources and social environment. In other words, the impacts of wider changes in the context of higher education appear to be filtering down to the level of the individual student.
Student Views and Quality of Higher Education
Changes in the nature and provision of higher education have meant that the collection of feedback from students and the importance of students’ views and experiences of learning is on the agenda world wide. Students’ evaluations of courses and teaching are considered to be an important measure and indicator of educational quality (Marsh, 1987; Leckey & Neill, 2001, Harvey, 2003). Universities in the UK, USA and Australia regularly collect student feedback to improve the quality of higher education. According to Leckey and Neill (2001) many papers have been written about students’ evaluation of teaching quality and many authors (such as Marsh, 1987, Kuh, 1999, Vesper & Kuh, 1997) have published the review of these thereby supporting the continuing use of student evaluations. The importance of student feedback to universities can be seen in the growth of student involvement in university decision-making. For example in Sweden the Swedish government passed a bill in 2000 to give representation to students in university decision-making bodies (Swedish Government, 1999)
In the UK a variety of mechanisms is being used both at the local level (faculty, school, course, and module) and institutional level (for example, graduate surveys) to get students’ feedback (Leckey & Neill, 2001). At the national level, student surveys were introduced in 2005, to collect feedback from students on the quality of courses in order to contribute to public accountability, as well as to help inform the choices of future applicants coming to higher education (Harvey, 2003).
In the USA there are three major types of surveys used to gather data on students’ experiences of learning, namely the College Student Experience Questionnaire (used since 1983 by about 500 colleges and universities), the College Students’ Expectation Questionnaire (used since 1996, with over 61,000 students at more than 60 institutions) and the National Survey of Student Engagement (began in 1998). The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) obtains, on an annual basis, information about student participation in programs and activities that institutions provide for their learning and personal development. The results provide an estimate of how undergraduates spend their time and what they gain from attending college (NSSE, 2003).
Similarly, in Australia, since 1993 all graduates in universities have been invited annually to complete the Course Experience Questionnaire. As a result of various investigations and analyses of these surveys since then, many important aspects (e.g quality of teaching, availability of recourses and social climate of the institutions) of learning in higher education have been discovered. Differences in students’ evaluations have been noted within different subject areas and disciplines (Ramsden, 2003). The Graduate career Council of Australia (GCCA) considers students’ perceptions of curriculum, instruction and assessment as key determinants of their approach to learning and the quality of the outcomes of that learning. The CEQ is considered a valuable instrument for the purpose of improving the quality of teaching in universities and also for informing student choice, managing institutional performance and promoting accountability of the higher education sector (McInnis, Griffin, James & Coates, 2001).
A synthesis of the literature from the above section shows that students’ self reported surveys and questionnaires are the most commonly used method for getting feedback from students and evaluating their experiences of learning. Self report questionnaires are considered to be very useful for assessing those outcomes of higher education that can not be measured by achievement tests (Kuh & Vesper, 1997, Watson, 2003). Further Pike (1995) has argued that self reports of experiences were found to be highly correlated with relevant achievement test scores.
The literature shows that student evaluation of teaching quality in higher education is a well-recognised practice in the developed countries. There has been growing support for the use of student satisfaction surveys as an indicator of teaching quality (Alridge & Rowley, 1998). Furthermore, Murray (1997) reports that the use of these surveys has led to measurable improvements in teaching quality. As such, student feedback can be used as an effective tool for quality enhancement. Harvey (1995) also emphasised that student satisfaction goes hand in hand with the development of a culture of continuous quality improvement. In contrast to developed countries the concept of inclusion of the students in the mechanisms of quality improvement is comparatively new to the developing countries like Pakistan. Currently students’ evaluations of the individual teachers at the University of the Punjab, Pakistan are generally used as a means of providing feedback to the teachers rather than as means of improving the quality of student learning. According to Byrne and Flood (2004) the evaluation of teaching at the course level (i.e. full course of study such as degree program) rather than at individual unit/module level is more positively accepted by staff and is considered to be more appropriate for maintaining and enhancing quality at institution level .My study of students experiences of learning may provide basis for the development of a systematic way of obtaining student feedback at the level of whole course/degree, on regular basis and to use it as a means for the improvement of quality of student learning at University of the Punjab.
The Contemporary Perspectives on Learning Experiences
The experience of joining an institution of higher education is a significant event or turning point for an individual (Wintage, 2007), in that it provides for a transition to another stage of education and life experiences. Research indicates that the early experiences of students in higher education systems are vital in establishing attitudes and outlooks that are carried forward throughout the course and that these views and beliefs are critical to success (Wintage, 2007). However, these effects sometimes do not show themselves until the second year of a program of study or even later (Wright, 1982). Most of the research on learning in higher education has been focused on the undergraduate students, while postgraduate students have been a comparatively neglected group (Lindsay, Breen & Jenkins, 2002). Although a substantial number of studies (see Schevens, 2003; Meyer & Kiley; 1998; Rowley & Slack, 1998; Haggis, 2002) have been conducted with postgraduate research students and international postgraduate students exploring the issues of cultural and academic adjustment in international universities, it is hard to find studies specifically conducted to explore the experiences of postgraduate students enrolled in taught degrees – which is the case in Pakistan.
However the research on various aspects of higher education has lead to a better understanding of student’ experiences of learning (i.e students’ needs, problems, preferences and choices) in higher education. Learning in higher education is considered to be complex and multidimensional in nature and it has been viewed from various perspectives as discussed in the following section.
Approaches to Learning Perspective
The origins of approaches to learning perspective can be traced back to a series of studies conducted by Marton and Säljö in the late 1970s (Cuthbert, 2005). Using phenomenography, these researchers looked at the qualitative aspects of the university students’ learning. The group of researchers under this perspective focused on the outcomes of learning and described different categories of learning outcomes in terms of the intentions of the students in starting a learning task and the process used to carry out those tasks. Originally two approaches i.e. ‘deep’ and ‘surface’ were formulated by Marton and Saljo (1976) and subsequent research by Entwistle and Ramsden (1983) added to this pair the ‘strategic’ approach. This perspective has provided an explanation of various outcomes exhibited by students. For example, a surface approach to learning was associated with a focus on rote learning, memorisation and reproduction, a lack of reflection, a preoccupation with completing the task and extrinsic value, whereas a deep approach was associated with holistic style with an intention to understand, the use of a wide variety of information and intrinsic value (Entwistle & Tait, 1990). Approaches to learning comprise both what students do (when learning) and why they do it.
After the qualitative and experimental work carried out by Marton and Saljo in 1976, Entwisle and Ramsden (1983) and Biggs (1987) were considered to be among the first to develop quantitative tools such as Course Perceptions Questionnaire (CPQ), Approaches to Study Inventory (ASI) and the Study Process Questionnaire (SPQ) for looking at a broader sample of university students’ approaches to learning.
According to Entwistle (1997) the ‘approaches to learning perspective’ drew attention to the outcomes of learning, which are congruent with the aims of teaching and made us think about the quality of learning in higher education. This perspective is also considered to have provided a great deal of knowledge about leaning in higher education (Case, 2008). Whereas Cuthbert (2005) says that the approaches to learning perspective provided knowledge about differences in the quality of engagement of the learner such as, learning for understanding, learning for reproduction or learning for achievement and that the learner’s approach to the learning task is dependent upon his/her conscious choices for learning. He further says that intentions for different tasks depend upon the nature of the task and the context; therefore it is possible to manipulate students’ intentions and achievement by manipulating the task and the context of learning.
There have also been several criticisms of the approaches to learning perspective. One argument is that this perspective pays too much attention to the learning context and too little attention to the importance of student context such as cognitive issues, gender and past experience (Cuthbert, 2005). Therefore it is considered to have greater impact on teachers to improve their practice (Prosser & Trigwell, 1997). Similarly the recent longitudinal study conducted by Case and Gunstone, (2006) pointed out the limitations of the approaches to learning perspective in ignoring the influence of students’ emotional condition, awareness, control, motivation, and end goals.
Similarly, I am concerned about the limitations of our understanding that result from these studies that rather narrowly conceive of the students’ learning experiences. My study is designed to explore how students perceive their learning experiences taking into account personal factors such as gender, motivational beliefs, personal goals and career aspirations.
Alienation and Engagement Perspective
In response to the criticism of the limited scope of the “approaches to learning” perspective, Mann (2001) proposed the concepts of alienation and engagement and argued that these provide a broader and more contextualized picture of the learning experience. The concept of alienation has been very narrowly defined in the literature. Several authors (Mann, 2001; Case, 2008) have referred the concept of alienation as “the state or experience of being isolated from a group or an activity to which one should belong or in which one should be involved” (Oxford English Dictionary). In explaining the concept of alienation Mann (2001) has pointed out that several factors, such as current socio-cultural conditions, pre-existing experiences, cost to individual, loss of creativity, distribution of power, and assessment practices lead to student alienation while learning in higher education. He argued that we should reframe our view of students’ experiences of learning, from a focus on surface/strategic/deep approaches to learning to a focus on alienated or engaged experiences of learning in higher education.
In contrast to alienation, engagement is concerned with point of intersection between individuals and things that are critical for learning (Coates, 2006). While discussing the concept of engagement Fredricks, Blumenfeld & Paris (2004) refer to three types of engagement: behavioral engagement, emotional engagement and cognitive engagement with each type being associated with positive academic outcomes and persistence in education. Several factors such as classroom structure, relationship with peers and teachers, nature of task, assessment type, autonomy and support in learning, previous grades, family background and available facilities are considered to have an impact on the nature and quality of engagement in learning (Fredricks et al, 2004; Case, 2008).
The concept of student engagement is considered to be a useful means for assessing and responding to the significant dynamics, challenges and opportunities facing higher education institutions (AUSSE, 2008). This concept has recently gained considerable significance in the discussions about quality in education (Fredricks et al, 2004; AUSSE, 2008) and important reflections of this are to be found in the USA National Survey of student Engagement (NSSE) (NSSE, 2003) which started in 1999 and Australian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE, 2008) conducted for the first time in 2007. Although AUSSE and NSSE provide an insight in to the student learning in higher education by evaluating the experiences of academic challenge, active learning, relationships with staff, learning support and work integrated learning, they do not take account of motivational beliefs of the students, and how these impact on the students’ experience of learning in higher education.
Though the concepts of alienation and engagement as discussed above and provide a useful picture of aspects of student learning in higher education, the critical dimension of how the students’ experience is formed and the students’ motivational profiles are not taken into account. Despite a great deal of knowledge and research about engagement there are several gaps in the literature and the definitions of the construct, measures and designs do not capitalize on what the concept of engagement can offer about learning (Fredricks et al, 2004). Therefore students’ experiences of learning and motivational beliefs need further exploration.
The role of motivation in learning has been well established through extensive research at almost all educational levels (Schunk, 1982; Pintrich & De Groot, 1990; Eccles, Wigfield, Harold & Bluemenfeld, 1993). Motivation is the process by which goal-directed activity is instigated and sustained (Schunk,et al, 2008). Motivation can influence what, when and how we learn (Schunk et al, 2008) and it bears a reciprocal relationship to learning and performance (Pintrich, 2003; Shunck, 1995). Though the perspectives discussed above take into consideration the various aspects of learning higher education, the impact of motivational factors on the experiences of learning in higher education needs further exploration and research.
Experiences of Learning from the Perspective of Motivational Beliefs
In higher education, the experiences of learning can only be partially understood if the motivational beliefs of the students are not taken into account. There is thus a need to explore students’ experiences of learning in the context of motivation for learning.
There have been several interpretations of the motivational beliefs of students, however in the literature on student motivation three motivational constructs of expectancy, value and effect are most widely referred to (Bandura, 1997; Pintrich and De Groot, 1990; Pintrich and Schunk, 2002; Wigfield and Eccles, 2000). These constructs have their roots in the social cognitive theory and work on the postulate that motivational processes influence both learning and performance (Schunk, 1995).
Several achievement motivation theorists have attempted to explain people’s choice of achievement tasks, persistence on those tasks, vigor in carrying them out and performance on them (Eccles et al, 1998; Pintrich & Schunk, 1996). One longstanding perspective on motivation is expectancy-value theory. In general expectancy-value theorists consider behavior choice, persistence and performance to be a function of the degree to which individuals judge their capabilities to perform designated courses of action (expectancy) and how they value these activities. According to expectancy-value theory three motivational components are very signifi
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