It all started with a conversation with one of my final year psychology students, almost 10 years ago. She wanted to understand more about student motivations for attending university in light of the changes to tuition fee funding in England. This change meant that students, not the government, were now responsible for the full £9,000 cost of their university tuition.
Degree vs. the learning process
In an initial focus group, my student asked three of her peers what was more important to them, the end product – the degree – or the learning process? Their conversation was very interesting, and subsequently inspired a programme of research and development to try and understand these issues.
Part of their discussions went as follows:
P1: The end product. I do like learning but the reason I’m doing it is so that I get a well-paid job afterwards. If I could have got a well-paid job without doing it, I wouldn’t have done it. I wouldn’t have put myself through the stress.
P2: Yeah, and employers don’t look at what we’ve done in the learning process, they look at what degree we’ve got. So, like, what our grade is.
P3: No, for me, I think the process of learning is more important than the product, definitely. I think, I never think about the fact that I’m getting a degree.
P1: Really?! But don’t you want to, like, show it off, like, ‘Oh, I’ve got a degree’.
P3: That’s not the main thing; I like the individual challenge of each assignment. I never think of it, like... ‘Oh, I’m gonna get a degree. I’m doing it to get a degree’.
P2: That’s probably why we don’t get good grades, (laughter) that’s what I need to do!
Students as consumers
During the discussion they also commented on having worked out the cost of each lecture. One student stated:
P1: The third week of year one… I knew how much each lecture cost.
P2: How much is it?
P1: It’s, like, £120 each lecture.
P2: It’s probably more now.
These issues informed my student’s project in which we found the first ever evidence that the more strongly students identify as consumers, the poorer their academic performance. This was successfully published in Studies in Higher Education (Bunce, Baird and Jones 2017), and is now in the top three most read articles for that journal.
Subsequent research, also co-produced with my students, investigated links between a consumer identity, motivation and information processing strategies. We found that student ‘consumers’ were more likely to engage in superficial or ‘surface’ level processing than deep level processing (Bunce and Bennett 2021), were less intrinsically motivated (King and Bunce 2020), and were less likely to have strong social identities as student learners (Taylor Bunce, Bennett and Jones 2022).
Toolkit and workshop
Based on these findings, there was an obvious need to create a practical tool that educators could use with students to surface some of these tensions and create more fruitful pedagogic relations. Balancing students’ identities as learners and consumers provides materials for educators to lead a 90-minute workshop with their students. In the workshop, students first assess the strength of their identities as learners and consumers by completing a short questionnaire and discover their student type (see Figure 1).
Students then learn about some of the research from a small educator-led presentation (using PowerPoint slides and notes provided) on the impacts of strong consumer identities on learning experiences and outcomes. Next they get into small groups to consider eight discussion questions. The final part of the workshop enables students to develop and strengthen their social identity as a student of their discipline (eg Music student), which psychological research shows improves student outcomes.
The workshop, therefore, has the potential to support students to balance their identities as learners and educational consumers as well as support their intrinsic motivation for learning and academic outcomes. It also creates a structured space to facilitate inclusion, allowing students to develop their sense of belonging by working together as a cohort to understand how to get the best value from their higher education.
If you are interested in running the workshop with your own students, please get in touch with me via email or Twitter @L_Psychol. To date, the materials have been accessed by students from at least 30 higher education institutions across the UK, as well as internationally (see Figure 2), and the toolkit has had more than 250 downloads.
Advance HE members can download 'Balancing students’ identities as learners and consumers' here
For more information or advice on implementing the toolkit in your course, please email the author firstname.lastname@example.org.