Why won’t students talk to staff?

Just six in ten students feel part of a community on campus. Livia Scott considers how we might rebuild the relationship between staff and students.

Livia Scott is Wonkhe's Community and Policy Officer

Much of the debate post-pandemic about teaching and learning has been about the extent to which teaching should be “blended”, how much time students should be in rooms alone or with each other, and how independent their study ought to be – and how early that independence should kick in.

But outside of formal pastoral care schemes like academic or personal tutoring, the relationship between students and academics has received hardly any attention.

That’s strange given the significant number of SU officers that highlighted “email response times” as a big issue for students in their manifestos in the spring.

It’s also strange given the National Student Survey results this year. One of the weakest scores is for “I feel part of a community of staff and students”. We’ve thought a lot about student social and academic connections with eachother. But what about with staff?

In higher education folklore, as well as lectures and seminars, we imagine opportunities for students to interact with teaching staff in a more informal setting and receive some 1-to-1 guidance away from the large lecture halls or seminar rooms.

We suggest that “office hours” are a chance for students to ask questions about the content they’re learning, get advice on upcoming assignments and chat to someone who is an expert in their field. We project such encounters as an intrinsic part of the traditional university experience.

But are they?

If we asked the average academic what was one of the most memorable parts of their time at university, I’m sure many would say – apart from a beloved SU or college bar – that their interactions with a specific staff member had a huge impact on their learning experience. Yet, for students graduating this summer, I doubt few of them would say the same.

My thoughts are with you

During my time as an SU officer, one thing I was continually alarmed by was the sheer number of students who said they had never had a 1-on-1 conversation with one of their lecturers. It seemed baffling to me – as someone who regularly waited in a busy queue outside my lecturers’ door to chat about an upcoming essay – that students not only were not doing this, but they did not know this was even an option.

Undergraduates frequently expressed the difficulties they had in understanding course content and feeling uncertain about what was expected of them. But few of them seemed to consider arranging a meeting or dropping into their module leaders’ office hours as a viable option. For many, they either did not know that they could, assumed that if they did they would be rebuffed, or even the whole idea of knocking on an academic’s office door was incomprehensible.

This phenomenon is something I think many in the sector may write off as students being their dramatic “millennial” selves, but I think it needs a deeper look. Why is it that so few students feel able to speak to those teaching them?

Our souls were signing

The obvious place to start is the pandemic and the prevalence of online learning. For those graduating from undergraduate degrees this year, most of their teaching in at least first and second year was entirely online. As we saw in this years’ Student Academic Experience Survey, anxiety levels amongst students remain worryingly above their pre-pandemic levels, particularly with those identifying social-based anxieties. Additionally, the report confirmed that four in ten reported feeling lonely “all” or “most” of the time.

Given the dire state of student mental health, it is pretty unsurprising that so few feel confident enough to go out of their way to strike up conversations with staff.

During my time in office, I was often asked by various staff members why their students seemed so reluctant to get involved in learning. I remember an academic relaying to the committee how they were struggling to get students to engage in seminar discussions or volunteer answers, even in smaller group teaching sessions.

But while every students’ circumstances are different, one thing I do believe is fairly common is that students just find academic staff intimidating. And when that’s coupled with higher than usual levels of anxiety, the results are deadly.

Do you remember never a cloudy day

Even without a pandemic the transition to university is known to present challenges – moving fresh-faced from a sixth form or college where often you knew the majority of people in your class, the teaching staff knew your name and the style of learning was familiar.

But when you get to university, the style of teaching and learning is wholly different, the environment totally new and likely full of faces you don’t recognise. Plus, the person teaching you is likely someone who you’ve been told is “leading in their field” or has lots of abbreviations next to their name so is clearly very important and clever. Double that for international students.

I think we as a sector we can forget how utterly terrifying and imposter-syndrome inducing that feels.

Now, imagine the above, but add in that most of your university experience began on large awkward zoom calls, full of people with their cameras turned off, while you try to get to grips with your new degree. I don’t know about anyone else, but it’s hardly surprising that, when coupled with the state of students’ anxiety levels, so many of them are lacking in confidence to go out of their way to get involved in interactions beyond those that are timetabled.

Changing the minds of pretenders

One thing we can all do is to remember that this “normal” university experience we all keep wanting to get back to, is a completely foreign concept to current students. As we are repeatedly seeing from student surveys, students do not know what is expected of them when it comes to their learning. To me, this seems to be part of a bigger issue that universities do not make it clear to students what is expected of them. The more information we give students about how learning in higher education may look, the more they are able to set realistic expectations of what is their responsibility, and where staff come in.

But we can prepare students better too. I remember a seminar I had in my second year where the academic spent the first 10 minutes explaining how it would work, how it differed from his lectures and what he expected from us. He made it clear he expected us to actively participate in discussions and, while you may feel uncomfortable doing so, that without this, the seminar would not benefit us all as much.

The best part, however, was that he really emphasised that there was no such thing as a “stupid question”, we were allowed to challenge him and the literature we were discussing, and that this room was a judgement-free space for us to explore the topic more deeply. Unsurprisingly, the change this simple preamble made to seminar participation and enjoyment for us all was huge.

It all helps. Should I wait until the lecture finishes if there is time for questions? Should I email the staff afterwards? Do they have office hours that afternoon they can come to? Or can they stay behind after the lecture to ask questions without other people being around? These are questions that prey on the mind.

All of these seemingly small things contribute to breaking down the barriers between students and staff. It helps create an environment where students feel comfortable and therefore able to participate. The more students can see that academics are not some sort of alien breed of “intimidatingly clever people”, but actually people just like them, with a shared interest in learning more about the subject they’re studying, the more confident they will feel interacting with them.

And yes, I understand that doing all of this might raise expectations around time and capacity that academic staff don’t have. But unless we take deliberate steps to build the relationship between students and staff, the solidarity and understanding that academic staff crave from students about those issues will be absent.

Chasing the clouds away

Not all students require counselling or therapy for that anxiety. Knowing they have someone they can speak to about any university-related worries, for many with general anxiety and low-confidence, may be a big boost in that students’ overall wellbeing.

So as we head towards a new academic year, I think it’s important that we remember how overwhelming the university environment can feel, and think about the small things we can do to help build students’ confidence and attempt to quell some of their anxiety.

As we’ve covered on the site before, students feeling as though they belong is an essential part of their welfare at university. Feeling able to approach a staff member with any queries, big or small, is vital to ensuring students enjoy and succeed at university. And it may well reduce the clog in the inbox.

14 responses to “Why won’t students talk to staff?

  1. There is another aspect that has fundamentally changed – Covid, pay cuts, pension freezes and mass redundancies is changing the relationship between staff and the University.

    More than ever – Staff come in they teach their classes, and they leave the building. My shiny building is empty most of the time. This will get worse as more academics are employed by a third-party company which instantly distances them from the University.

    Talking to peers some have tried to impose again the idea that academics are on campus four days a week but to variable success.

  2. What’s also interesting is that feeling part of a community of staff and students used to be a predictor of overall course satisfaction. For the last two years, this has no longer been the case; not only do fewer students feel a part of this community, but perhaps students have less of an expectation to be a part of a ‘learning community’ as captured by the questions in the NSS.

    1. Oh that’s interesting, Sally. It might be that this is varied between different unis. At my institution over the last two years ‘being part of a community of students and staff’ was the question with the third highest correlation to the overall satisfaction question.

  3. My daughter just graduated form a prestigious university with a first. It wasn’t easy for her and she worked incredibly hard. I asked her if she had got in touch / sent an email to any of her lecturers to thank them for their help and support. Her answer was “No. I hardly ever met them. I doubt they even know who I am”. Interestingly she has emailed two teachers from her Sixth Form to thank them for their inspiration and encouragement. Sometimes I think we forget that HE is a ‘people business’ and human connection at every stage of the student journey is critical.

    1. ““No. I hardly ever met them. I doubt they even know who I am”.”

      I often have no idea who my students are – it’s impossible with a class of 600 or 800.

      1. A growing problem, here some course lectures are delivered several times a day to get as many “bums on seats” as possible, with Academic and support staff working extended hours, some start at 08:00 and don’t finish until 22:00 with no breaks beyond the absolute legal minimum.

  4. If knocking on an academic’s door is intimidating, it is even more so when that person is in a shared office. I benefitted from a lot of spontaneous chats when I was passing by a lecturer’s office at the end of the day. I sought to make myself available to my students in the same way. Those conversations were private and wide-ranging. These things are more difficult to achieve when overhearers are present, or if the meeting has to be booked in advance. Often the most important conversations happen without a reason.

  5. Is the problem with ‘office hours’ the name? I’ve encountered students who didn’t realise that office hours = time dedicated to student questions and thought that they’d be disturbing an academic’s other work. I think it’s really important to explain their purpose!

  6. Really good analysis. As a student, I think what I observe most among my whole friend group is that a student’s relationship with their personal tutor determines their engagement with lecturers. When reaching out to your tutor feels like talking to a (very overworked) brick wall, or they never check in apart from their mandated annual reminder about a meeting you have, you really do get into a “this corporate machine doesn’t care about me, I’m on my own” mentality. SU’s end up trying to pick up as much of this slack as possible.

    Bothering your lecturer, outside of class, is interpersonal. Relationship building can’t be ignored because there are a lot of students. Learning is such a pastoral activity, and a learning community needs constant infrastructural maintenance. If we keep plugging “speaking out loud is good for everyone’s information retention and grades” students aren’t going to feel like staff on their side the way school teachers are.

    1. On this, I want to add that it’s the reason unis like Imperial invest so drastically in tutor-tutee ratio and in societies and socials that allow students to build relationships; although you’d expect them to socialising more moderately. They know it improves grades. Similarly, women-led adult learning communities, in which members provide each other with some level of emotional support, there is generally more knowlege sharing.

  7. A missing piece of the puzzle here often forgotten about is how useful technical staff are in these situations.

    Lab and Workshop technicians are normally on-site all the time, assist with many lab and practicfal classes and are normally a lot more approachable than academic staff. You will find many of them are working on larger research projects and are full of useful nuggets of information, academic or otherwise.

    They are not bogged down with out-of-hours marking/prep and thus you might find they also reply to out-of-hours emails! Of course not every course requires technical support but if there are any around, get them involved. If your course is non-practical (ie you are not in the workshops) it can be quite intimidating approaching technical staff as there is an assumption from students that the workshop spaces are only for the courses that normally use them, however this often isn’t the case.

    1. Technical staff are often the life savers who spot students in distress, in my time as a tech I’ve talked several students out of taking their own lives, along with providing a listening ear to those actively seeking help, the problem is technicians are put in a position they’re not trained for and have little protection if they in good faith do something wrong. Dumping extra responsibility on them without training and proper payment for taking that responsibility on is unfair and potentially legally actionable should the worst happen.

      As for out of hours, Technicians are often their own worst enemies working extended hours, taking project design work home, and studying for further useful qualifications in their own time, we have our own CPD targets as well!

  8. Returning to academia after a long absence, I was surprised to find that we now work in large communal spaces, often hotdesking. When I asked about meeting students I was told that there were small meeting rooms I could use, but those had to be booked. When I suggested to someone to get hold of the lecturer after the lecture, he said there were usually 20-30 people queueing for that every time, because they were a cohort of about 300. Many institutions rely on hourly paid lecturers who won’t stick around for no pay. Imagine being a student. It is clear that there is nowhere to talk to a lecturer, let alone get hold of them.

  9. I’m sure you’re right. Conversations with academics who care about their students transform students’ experience. Just listen to students talking about individuals, as opposed to institutions. To do this well requires staff time. For academics it’s not always a welcome message, as it is not common for it to be routinely rewarded (and sometimes the opposite), and most have the conflicting pull of having to demonstrate research success. Universities would undoubtedly like there to be cheaper solutions.
    ‘Not just academics’ – agree strongly with that in comments above. We want students to feel that the whole institution cares, that staff of all types want them to do well.
    One common university response to the pressures has been to compartmentalise and professionalise institutional interactions with staff. But by hiving off enquiries, and maybe handling of low-level distress, to specialist services, instead of dealing with them through staff in courses and schools, we may be sending a message about that kind of thing not being our core business.

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