Study environment survey 2017: Things are going well, but…

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87 per cent of AU’s students generally feel comfortable as students at Aarhus University. But the number of stressed students has increased again despite a targeted effort. One in five students experience severe stress symptoms on a daily basis.

2017.04.07 | Marie Groth Andersen

Click to enlarge. Illustration: Astrid Reitzel

The Study Environment Survey 2017   

All Danish universities are obliged to carry out study environment surveys at least once every three years.

Aarhus University has completed the study environment surveys in 2007, 2011, 2014 and 2017.

A questionnaire was sent out to the university's more than 30,000 Danish and international full-time students. 15,491 students responded, which gives a response rate of 46.    

 

Emil Outzen, who is chair of the Student Council, points directly at a sore spot in reply to a question about what he noticed most when reading the new study environment survey. 

"It’s the huge increase in the number of students who feel stressed. It's really lamentable and very critical."

The proportion of students who almost always or often experience severe stress symptoms such as headaches, heart palpitations, anxiety and insomnia, has almost doubled from 11 per cent in 2011 to 17 per cent in 2014 and now 20 per cent this year. The proportion of students who feel stressed during the exam period has also increased from 32 per cent in 2011 to 38 per cent this year. The increase in both figures should be seen in light of the fact that following the 2011 and 2014 study environment surveys, AU has had focus on reducing stress among students.

Pro-rector: Thought-provoking and worrying

Pro-rector for Education Berit Eika also regrets that the figures have once again increased despite the initiatives, which included the development of the website trivsel.au.dk – which focuses on well-being – and the supplementary training of supervisors.

"It's thought-provoking and worrying," she says and continues: 

"The students state different reasons for why they feel stressed. Some comments are aimed at the organisation of exams and the way the degree programme is organised. Here we can help by creating a better structure, for example with the help of a shared timetabling system. Predictability is important. We can't expect the students to plan long-term, if we don't provide the structure to do that."

In addition, Eika points out that there must be a clear alignment of expectations with the students.

"Traditionally we’ve made an effort to be very clear in connection with the commencement of studies. But what we are looking at moving forward is: How do we retain the students? Here we can be more conscious about the transformation that the students experience during the first academic year, where they go from being pupils to students, and what that demands of them. Another thing we can look at is how we can expand our mentor programmes even more."

Finally, she mentions that AU will also increase its focus on when the students are particularly hard-pressed during their studies.

"This is particularly during the first year of study and at the end of the Master's degree programme, which is where anxiety about whether they can find a job after graduation arises. In relation to what we can call career stress, one initiative we’re working on is the Career Ready project, which will ensure there’s a better transition to the labour market," explains Eika.

That being said, she emphasises that stress is a general challenge faced by society, which the university cannot solve alone.

Tell the right story about what it means to be a student

Emil Outzen has some specific suggestions about what could be done with regard to stress among the students. He proposes e.g. a strengthening of the whole student counselling area.

"We know that there are long waiting times at both the Student Counselling Service and the university chaplains."

And he also proposes a more frequent follow-up in relation to stress, so it is not just something that is only measured every three years.

"You could for example ask about it in connection with teaching evaluations."

Like Berit Eika, he also points out that it is a question of equipping the new students adequately by telling the right story about what it means to be a student.

"Studying can be hard. It’s not always fun, and the exams are hard. We also need to tell them about what they can do to get through the difficult times, and what a student can do to create a good environment at the degree programme," he says.

The study progress reform causes stress

On the basis of the students' comments, it also appears that the study progress reform is a stress factor; both the uncertainty that the reform creates, and the specific requirements it places on the students.

Outzen can recognise this himself.

"It creates a great deal of uncertainty, for example in relation to whether your grant can be stopped if you are delayed too much. Or whether you risk being chucked off the degree programme. It was also easier to embark on internships, work placement and exchange programmes before the reform. Now you have to be really careful and make certain that you secure enough ECTS credits so you don’t fall behind."

Berit Eika agrees:

"There’s no doubt that the study progress reform places enormous pressure on the students after it’s come fully into force. And unfortunately we can’t do anything to relieve this pressure."

The student council chairman also acknowledges that it is difficult for both the university and the Student Council to do much about the reform.

"Perhaps we can come with some input to AU's implementation of the reform," he says. But most of all, he would like to take aim at the politicians behind the reform.

"The figures reflect a justified criticism of the political reform. There needs to be some political intervention, that’s the only thing that will work here. We see the same again with the degree programme cap, which also creates a lot of uncertainty for the students."

Student want to see more feedback – for the third time 

There are also other elements in the survey which cause Emil Outzen to frown.

"It’s the third time in a row where we see the students calling for more feedback. This is also supported by the figures from the nationwide study survey carried out by UddannelsesZoom," he says.

48 percent of the students answered that they feel it is difficult to know whether they are doing well and learning what is required. On the other hand, 28 percent do not think this is the case. 38 per cent stated that the possibilities for receiving feedback regarding their academic performance at exams are good. 39 per cent stated that this was not the case. It should also be noted that half of the students state it is easy for them to see how they should move on when they receive feedback on their academic work.

But, according to Pro-rector Berit Eika, there is no immediate prospect of more feedback from lecturers.

"The wish for more feedback from lecturers is a recurring challenge. I fully acknowledge that feedback is important for becoming better at your subject. But teaching is a scarce resource and we have already increased the number of lessons and the lecturers’ working hours are under a lot of pressure, so it’s not realistic to expect to live up to the students' wishes for personal feedback in all subjects. We’re therefore working continuously to develop other methods which can ensure the students receive a good response to their work."

The pro-rector instead points out that it is possible to work with peer feedback, where the students give each other feedback on assignments, and also to share experiences with different feedback solutions across degree programmes and faculties.

Fierce competition between the students

In addition, the student council chair is also worried about the fact that one in four students find that there is fierce competition between the students. The study also shows that students are experiencing fierce competition, feel less comfortable with their degree programme, find that they are to a lesser extent able to get help from fellow students, experience severe stress symptoms more often and more often feel lonely. 

The competitive element relates to both being able to do well on the degree programme and to being able to succeed in the job market. There are also considerable differences across the faculties. The element of competition is most pronounced at Aarhus BSS, where 36 per cent have stated that they experience fierce competition between the students. And least pronounced at Arts, where 16 per cent find this to be the case.

"Competition is not necessarily unhealthy, but when you look at the figures you can’t help being concerned. As a university, there are elements of this that we can’t do anything about, because they’re passed on from the labour market. But we should ask ourselves whether we have a study environment that promotes unhealthy competition between students," says Outzen.

Eika notes that the majority of the students indicate that they have a good relationship with their fellow students and that bullying is virtually non-existent at the university.

"But it's about how we get spot those students who find it difficult and how we help them," she says.

What happens now? 

Berit Eika says that the next stages of the work with the study environment survey will be carried out on the individual degree programmes in the study boards and degree programme councils. Funds have not been earmarked specifically for work with the study environment in addition to the projects that have already been launched, which include Educational IT and the Karriereklar project.

"But if someone has an outstanding idea for how we can strengthen the study environment that doesn’t cost too much, then I certainly won’t rule out being able to find funding for it," says the pro-rector. 

Chair of the student council Emil Outzen points out that what is required is ongoing efforts.

"We mustn’t lose focus on the study environment in the horizon between the surveys. We need to keep asking ourselves questions, for example in the boards of studies: Are we now doing something that is going to stress the students? And vice versa: Can we do anything to help reduce the stress levels of the students?”

It is actually going quite well

In the interest of fairness, it should be noted that the study environment survey 2017 shows that things are actually going quite well with the study environment at AU. 87 per cent of the respondents generally feel comfortable as students at Aarhus University. Only five per cent stated that this was not the case.

88 per cent would recommend their degree programme to others and 90 per cent look forward to graduating and applying their education.

Relations with fellow students are also good, judging from the survey. 87 per cent answer that they can receive help and support from fellow students when they need it. And 86 per cent say that they get a lot of benefit academically from talking to their fellow students.

"I'm really, really pleased that we have a study environment that is characterised by a high degree of well-being despite all the issues we’ve been through. And I think it’s worth noting that satisfaction with the physical environment has increased. That’s one of the things that we’ve done a lot to develop, and this has borne fruit. It’s positive that the survey has given us a good tool for continuing our work on the study environment," says Eika.

Satisfaction with the physical study environment has increased from 67 per cent in 2011 and 72 per cent in 2014 to 83 per cent in 2017.    

Translated by Peter Lambourne

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Revised 24.11.2017