Third-level students ‘need more high-end skills’

Third-level colleges may not be developing enough of the high-end skills in students that are wanted by employers, a major student survey finds.

The findings in the first national study of student engagement are mostly positive about their college experiences. However, they appear to raise questions about the success of colleges in developing the same skills they complain are not being engendered in students by schools.

The pilot Irish Survey of Student Engagement (ISSE) received more than 12,700 responses earlier this year from first-year and final-year undergraduates, and students of taught postgraduate courses.

These higher-order thinking tasks (such as applying theories or concepts to practical problems or in new situations) were done least by students of institutes of technology, although they also believe themselves more career-ready than those in universities or teacher-training colleges.

Across all colleges, fewer than two thirds of students said they often or very often apply theories or concepts to practical problems or in new situations. The frequency of such activities barely increases between first and final-year students, although there are clear increases over time in the use of skills such as judging the value of arguments, analysing ideas and problems, or organising information into more complex relationships.

The study also found that just half of students were regularly solving complex real-world problems — another kind of ability considered critical in graduates by business and industry.

Project manager Sean O’Reilly cautioned that some of the seemingly small increases in skills between first and final-year can be educationally significant. The rise over time in higher-order thinking was slightly bigger than that in a similar measure on a corresponding survey in Australia and New Zealand, although such skills were used more often in those countries.

The full results are published today by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), Irish Universities Association (IUA), Institutes of Technology Ireland (IOTI), and Union of Students in Ireland (USI).

It also suggests students are not getting enough support from academic staff, particularly in first year, and more so in universities than in other colleges. While such a measure is also low in other international studies, Mr O’Reilly said the finding of low student-staff interaction suggests a need for closer examination.

“First-years appear to be having significant interaction with support staff and student services and all of that nature, but perhaps they are sitting in lectures with larger numbers than for other year groups,” he said.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland warned this week that lecturers have less time to give academic support because of rising workload due to 8% fewer staff and 15% more students in five years. “A lot of students would have lectures in large groups in first-year, but for practical subjects or postgrad students you would probably expect them to have more direct interaction with individual academic staff,” said Mr O’Reilly.

Positive experiences

The survey highlights mostly positive aspects of student experiences at college:

* 84% would probably or definitely go to the same college if they could start all over again

* 82% of students had positive relationships with other students

* 79% selected “good” or “excellent” when asked how they would evaluate their entire educational experience at college

* 76% of students spend “quite a bit” or “very much” of their time on study and academic work

* 72% reported positive relationships with teaching staff, finding them available, helpful and sympathetic.

* 62% often or very often improve knowledge and skills that will contribute to their employability

* 60% often or very often used an online learning system to complete an assignment

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