Push Me, Pull You: Personalising the Learning Experience in Higher Education

According to Winston Churchill, ‘There is no sweeter sound in the English language than that of a man’s own name’. Leaving aside the lack of awareness of gender balance in this quote the central point is still a valid one. Child psychologists such as Jean Piaget have focused much of their work on cognitive development, a process that tends to involve a personally centralist approach to new situations. Whilst Piaget was talking about child and adolescent development, other psychologists, notably Kristina Frankenberger, noted that this approach, known as egocentrism, extends much further into adolescence and into adulthood, with people understanding new situations with reference to fixed points in their past, and hence their own construct of the world. Put simply, everyone sees new experiences through different eyes.

In general, UK Higher Education has understood the importance of making sure that students have a learning experience (often characterised as a journey) that is tailored to the needs of an individual. This tends to be characterised by references to ‘personalisation’, ‘freedom of choice’ and ‘the student experience’. Yet, whilst the principle is well established, the difficulties of translating the theory into practice is rather more problematic and involves working with two separate conundrums.

The first is how to change the traditional, monolithic bureaucracies of many UK Higher Institutions into agile, responsive and innovative organisations. At Coventry University, within the School of Strategy and Leadership where both authors work, modules are likely to have several hundred students registered on them. Lectures of 200+ students are not uncommon, and it is highly unlikely that lecturers will be able to remember and utter all of their names.  Yet, if personalisation is to exist, it is vital not to lose sight of students as individuals as it is far easier to push students on to greater heights if students feel valued, are known and their journey is relevant to them.

The second conundrum often feels like an even more intractable problem. It is easy to lapse into clichés such as ‘you can lead a horse to water’ when describing the limitations of the university’s role, but that oversimplifies the issue. The reality is that, for personalisation to truly work, the students have to be at the centre of the process and have to take some control of their learning. They are the ones who know how what they want on their learning journey, and the key is to provide structures in which they feel able to take the opportunity to control it, and so “pull” themselves along.

At Coventry University, these conundrums are being addressed by radical changes in the structuring of courses and also in the growing mantra of ‘students as partners’. Gone is the one-week immersive experience that was Fresher’s Week, a week which often saw information overload as new students were herded between classrooms with barely time to digest the information given to them. Instead it is “hello” to a tailored six-week introductory programme; induction is drip fed to students over this period, and students are given the opportunity to attend future sessions as the need arises. Alongside this, the traditional Academic Personal Tutor role, whereby students would be allocated a tutor at the start of their studies without reference to their needs, interests or most importantly, whether they had a rapport with that person, has gone to be replaced by Progress Coaches. These academics are there to support students but the onus is now on the student to approach and work with a Coach that meets their needs and that they get on with.

There have been other changes, to module teams, to the dissertation module and to working with the student’s union, all predicated on the belief that the student’s journey will be more beneficial if it is tailored to their own individual needs. Perhaps the biggest change has been to the employability modules. Singular, skills based modules have been replaced by an individualised approach which involves students selecting subjects they want to study. Each subject is worth a set number of points and the only requirement is that students need to reach 100 points and carry out a reflective writing piece in order to pass the module. The actual makeup of their journey through these modules is up to them.

These changes are not without problems. The changes to the push factors have resulted in added complexity for induction, the necessity of convincing staff that this new approach is the right one, and the need to ensure that university systems are geared up for the change. The pull factors are also key to the success of the approach. Sometimes the egocentrism that the approach is based upon does not lead students to take control, and instead leads to students becoming lost in a culture that they are not used to, or even worse, don’t want to be a part of.

However, despite these challenges, the system does work.  As the students progress through their studies they become used to taking control of their learning, seeking help when they need it and generally feeling part of the process, and, most of all, being in control of their journey. They pull their studies along and take ownership in constructing their own world whilst lecturers help to refine the push mechanisms, monitoring processes and making sure that every student is seen as an individual.

By Peter Wolstencroft, Associate Head of School (Student Experience), and Mary Crossan, Assistant Professor, at the School of Strategy and Leadership, Coventry University