Imperial College London

Imperial researcher explores what it means to be an ‘ideal’ university student


Students by Queen's Tower

A new study of five English universities explores staff and students' interpretations of what it means to be an 'ideal student'.

The two year study involved 75 university staff and students and was conducted by Dr Tiffany Chiu, Senior Teaching Fellow in Educational Development at Imperial, and Dr Billy Wong, University of Reading.

Dr Chiu and Dr Wong argue that exploring definitions of the 'ideal' student can encourage students and staff to discuss more openly what the explicit, implicit and idealistic expectations of students are in the modern higher education system.

Dr Chiu said: “What we found from our conversations is that most staff and students across the five universities thought that the ideal university student is not about perfection, nor being the brightest or the best.”

‘Ideal’ university student: a difficult definition?

Dr Chiu and Dr Wong's study set out to establish staff and student definitions of the 'ideal' learner. Through their conversations they found that students are not always familiar with what is expected of them in their course, and that this can have a range of knock-on effects on how comfortable and easy the transition from school into university can be.

To explore the topic further and to deliver a practical toolkit for colleagues, Dr Chiu has been working across the College to promote a survey she's created which helps staff and students bridge their respective expectations early on in a course. The 'ideal' student survey was most recently trialled in the Dyson School of Design Engineering with a short activity during students' course induction.

Contentious and contested

"We can think of the ideal student in a different way, which is that the ideal student is the one who we see as progressing…and not already perfect”. Staff respondent

In interviewing 75 staff and students Dr Chiu and Dr Wong discovered a wide range of viewpoints. Many respondents felt that the 'ideal' student is not necessarily a student that has significant levels of knowledge and skill, but a student that is open to challenge, feedback and progression.

One staff member said: "I wouldn’t be thinking of a perfect student…[because] in some ways we’re looking for the idealised student…the ones that we would like to teach”, while another added: “We can think of the ideal student in a different way, which is that the ideal student is the one who we see as progressing…and not already perfect”.

In comparison students were more likely to be unsure of what was expected of them, and whether their actions amounted to being an ideal learner or otherwise. Some students acknowledged and appreciated that ideals can be contextual, meaning being an ideal student may be more possible in some settings over others.

According to one student: "What is ideal shifts according to who we’re being taught by". Another student agreed that while "there are things that they [staff] want us to be at the end of the day", the ideal student can "vary from where in the institution you are studying".

If higher education staff would like to learn more about the research or are interested in using the 'ideal student' survey during student inductions, they are encouraged to contact Dr Chiu.

"Exploring the concept of 'ideal' university student" by Tiffany Chiu & Billy Wong, published 21 August in Studies in Higher Education


Murray MacKay

Murray MacKay
Communications Division


Equality, Research, Comms-strategy-Learning-and-teaching, Strategy-educational-experience, Students, Comms-strategy-Inclusive-community, Education
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