Imperial College London

Great expectations

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A new student arriving at Imperial

As new students join the College, find out how Imperial is enriching their experience

As the new term kicks off, a fresh cohort of undergraduates joins Imperial; the first students to begin their degree courses in an era of higher fees. With student experience consequently high on the education sector’s agenda, and the media giving added emphasis to the results of the National Student Survey (NSS), Reporter finds out how departments across the College are listening to student views and enhancing their learning experience.

Setting the agenda in Aeronautics

In this year’s NSS, the Department of Aeronautics gained an increase in overall satisfaction of 18 per cent, which is being seen as the outcome of a number of specific measures.

Departmental student representative for Aeronautics, Sam Lishak, who is in his fourth year, explains that the Department started reassessing the service it provided after discussing its performance in the 2011 NSS results at the Student-Staff Committee (SSC) meeting held at the start of the last academic year.

“Student satisfaction is a measure of how much students are enjoying their time at Imperial,” says Sam. “If students feel like their needs aren’t being catered for, they won’t be as enthusiastic as they’d otherwise be, and therefore they won’t be motivated to learn.”

The main issues highlighted during the meeting mostly related to coursework and feedback. “A lot of students weren’t happy about just receiving a percentage mark for a piece of work that they put a lot of effort into, and felt that it should be outlined more clearly where they went wrong and how they could improve,” explains Sam.

A new student playing cards

Dr Colin Cotter, Senior Tutor in the Department, reveals that one of the key issues to tackle was clearly communicating expectations to students. “Some of the issues students have raised include not always being sure of what they are expected to know, and how well they’re doing. As well as ensuring feedback is timely and of a good quality, we have implemented a number of steps to ensure things are clear.”

These include setting progress tests so that students have a better sense of how they are doing, together with giving them experience of sitting exams. Lecturers are also encouraged to share a list of learning outcomes at the end of lectures, so that students are clear about the essential points.

Sam says: “As averse as students are towards doing work, we mostly understand that being forced to revise in detail the previous lectures midway through the year means that the following lectures will be easier to understand. Progress tests are a good reason to revise what you might not have understood, as nobody likes to receive bad marks!”

Representation of student opinion has also featured heavily among the initiatives the Department of Aeronautics has put in place. Departmental student representatives now have the opportunity to chair the Staff-Student Committee – allowing them to set the agenda.

“This means that the ensuing discussion will address the exact issues that the student has raised, leading to solutions more appropriate to the problem in hand,” explains Sam. Representatives now also attend the departmental teaching committee, where issues relating to the curriculum and teaching are raised and, as an added benefit, they gain valuable experience and confidence of chairing meetings.A student and academic from the Department of Aeronautics

The Department is also introducing sections into staff meetings where lecturers present on their courses. “Taking this approach ensures that we can share experience and best practice,” says Colin. “Colleagues are exploring quite a few innovative approaches; one in particular has taken to using a tablet todraw out his equations. His lectures and his scribbles are all recorded simultaneously, so that students can play back both elements together after the lessons end.”

Reflecting on the NSS results, Colin adds: “Student satisfaction is a really important aim in our Department and we should always be driven by the need to improve for this sake alone, rather than being too focused on the NSS. It’s definitely useful, but it’s one of a number of measures we should be considering that include internal surveys and more direct student feedback from departmental representatives, personal tutors and lecturers.”

Building a community of physicists

The Department of Physics has also been working closely with its students to understand how to better the student experience. The Department saw increases across most NSS categories this year, including a 12 per cent improvement in assessment and feedback. As well as improving student feedback processes, it is introducing a number of initiatives for the future.

Professor Danny Segal, Senior Tutor, says “We are a very big department and increasing a sense of community both between students and between undergraduates and academic staff is a priority for us.”

One of the schemes under development to tackle this is a restructuring of student year groups into classes of 20 students, each having specific teaching staff assigned for one to two years. The Director of Undergraduate Studies, Professor Angus MacKinnon, who has been leading this change, explains: “As things stand, students are grouped as a whole year or as a small tutorial group. We are hoping that the changes will engender a more effective sense of both community and continuity for students.”

Jonathan London, the student representative for the Department of Physics, is positive that these changes will really help students to feel a greater sense of belonging. “Students will now stay with the same group and with the tutor for a number of years. We hope to build on this and organise social events around the new class system to encourage students to hang around after class too.”

A new student to the College

As well as the new class structure, the Department is also collaborating with the Physics Society on ‘Research Frontiers’ talks, in which undergraduate students can hear directly from the Department’s leading researchers about what they are working on. The idea is that this will encourage more participation and there will be refreshments afterwards, so that students can mingle with the academics and their research teams.

Incoming freshers will benefit from this new teaching system from January – allowing time to draw up timetables and for the new system to be bedded in.

In addition to the bigger project, Jonathan explains that he was really supportive of the College-wide initiative to bring in video equipment set up in the lecture theatres, so that students can use videos as revision tools during exam time. Jonathan pushed for the Department to get the equipment installed as early as possible and as a result lecture theatre one is now equipped with video recording equipment and more lecture theatres are set to follow in the coming year.

Jonathan hopes that new students will benefit from the changes, big and small. “At the moment the system can feel very much ‘sink or swim’ for students, but I really hope the structured learning and teaching system will mean there is more support and guidance for them, as they will have one point of contact. I hope, as a result, their time at Imperial will be more enjoyable, less stressful and, essentially, that they become better physicists when they graduate.”

While there is clearly an appetite for change across the College and improvements have been made in terms of student satisfaction, there is more work to be done as President & Rector, Sir Keith O’Nions, says: “Some of the brightest and best students in the world entrust their education and career possibilities to us, and deserve the very best we can offer. The mark of a truly world class institution is measured by what our graduates do after they leave and Imperial’s reputation lies in the hands of these future alumni and ambassadors for the College.”

If your department has been implementing some innovative changes to enhance the student experience which you would like to share with the community please contact: reporter@imperial.ac.uk

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John-Paul Jones

John-Paul Jones
Communications and Public Affairs

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Emily Ross-Joannou

Emily Ross-Joannou
Communications and Public Affairs

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