How to help students make better decisions

Mass expansion and a diversifying student body has led to "student choice overload." Ellie Garraway and Jon Down explain how to help students navigate increasingly complex decisions

Ellie Garraway is CEO at Grit Breakthrough Programmes

Jon Down is Director of Development at Grit Breakthrough Programmes

In each of the last three years, the Advance HE/HEPI Student Academic Experience Survey (SAES) found that more than 40 per cent of students regretted their choice of course or choice of university.

This is a significant increase since 2014 when around a third of students wished they had made different choices. For students from non-traditional backgrounds, the thought that they have chosen the wrong institution can be even higher.

Telltale signs

There are often signs that students are struggling with making choices before they even get to university, and choice deferrals are at their highest for many years.

We have written elsewhere about how the mismatch between the expectations of students and the realities they experience can be debilitating. There is certainly a case to be made for how the gap between the promises of the glossy prospectus and the stresses and challenges of student life can be a factor in buyer’s remorse.

And, of course, the impact of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis cannot be discounted. But is there something else at play here too?

The paradox of choice

Along with the rest of us consumers, students are subject to what Barry Schwartz has called the Paradox of Choice. Faced with the bewildering range of choices in everyday decision-making, we are all subject to “choice overload” – constant preoccupation with the decisions we have made, the huge amounts of options that we have not been able to take, and the constant worry that we’ve made the wrong choices can lead to decreased satisfaction and diminished wellbeing this can.

The more options we have to choose from, the more sure we are that there would be a series of choices we could make that would have our reality match up to our expectations precisely… if only we could figure it out! The promise of a regret-free outcome feels ever tantalisingly close.

We expect students to make such prodigious life-changing choices – particularly at the start of their time at university. And we expect them to make these decisions with very little knowledge or experience of university life. This is especially true for students from families and communities with little or no tradition of sending people to university. So, as Schwartz points out when we don’t have much knowledge about the things we’re trying to choose from, it becomes even more overwhelming when we’re faced with a huge assortment of them.

Decisions, decisions …

Of course, making new decisions and choices has always been a key part of the student experience. Before you even enrol, there are choices to be made about the course, the university you will study at, and whether you will be better off on campus, in town, or at home. And if you’ve moved away from home, there are choices to be made about your social life, the lifestyle you adopt, how you present yourself, and the support you look for.

And as the student body becomes more diverse, decisions become more complex. As a mature student recently explained to us:

I’ve been out of education for 10 years, and there were some big questions at the back of my mind: will I have forgotten everything from school? Should I have come back into education? Is going to university right for me? Am I doing the right course?

Or the commuter student:

It’s a round trip of more than three hours every day so I couldn’t spend much time on campus. I wasn’t making any new friends and was feeling very isolated. Was I right to stay at home instead of moving away to university?

Or the black student:

I’d always be finding ways to make my opinions more palatable. For instance, in a seminar about Malcolm X, I softened my support for him for fear of being labelled radical – a term which does not fit who I am.

Then there is the impact of the cost of living crisis. More than 70 per cent of students are struggling with decisions around attending scheduled teaching on any given day, such as, “Do I prioritise my studies over earning money, saving money by not travelling, my caring responsibilities?” Which, in turn, impacts choices about how they engage with their learning online or in person, engaging with tutors or going it alone.

All of these choices are made against the corrosive backdrop of political argument around the value of going to university, and, in the age of social media and FOMO (fear of missing out) when we can see every single possible alternative (and where the grass is generally greener), the questions  becomes “Is this the best possible choice?” when students should be asking “Am I happy?”, “Can I own the choices I am making?” or “Can I back those choices for myself?”

This can lead to a state of paralysis. As one student told us,

I am always questioning life… I was less positive, less sure about what I was doing, about how I was doing. It was a struggle to actually go in to classes every day. My grades were slipping, I was missing deadlines and having to get extensions. I knew I was not doing my best but I couldn’t work out why.

Asking the right questions

Regret is a past-focussed emotion which can be useful if it inspires positive action. But when it leads to rumination, it can result in inertia and stasis. The question for those of us whose job it is to support students is: how we can use helpful coaching questions that bring students into the present, positively focused on the future they want?

When a student starts questioning the decisions they have made, remind them that fixating on the shortcomings of their choice will not bring any satisfaction or resolution. Ask coaching questions:

  • “Given that you made this choice, what’s one thing you could do now that would improve your experience?”
  • “Given the challenge you’re facing, what choice could you make about your response to that?”

Of course, alongside this goes the space for reflection, for weighing up how things are panning out. Again, coaching questions can keep things future-focused

  • “Where is it you really want to get to?”
  • “What is it that you really want out of your time at university?”
  • “Do the choices you are making enable you to get where you want to go and achieve what you want to achieve?”
  • “Are the choices you are making good for you?”
  • “Are the choices you are making helpful”

Supporting students to own their choices can empower them to actively create experiences they do want that get them where they want to go. And moving from a ruminative past focus to a goal-focused present has a direct impact on wellbeing.

As another student put it,

Now I understand who I want to be and what I want to do. I’m much more focused. I’m much clearer about the goals I have, about the things I enjoy, about what I want to do with the rest of my life. I’m much more confident that, whatever the decisions I make, they will be the ones that are right for me.

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