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Lockdown and the taught postgraduate experience

19 Nov 2020 | Jason Leman Jason Leman, author of Advance HE's Postgraduate Experience Survey 2020 which was published earlier today, 19 November 2020, shares his insights about the report findings.

Lockdown landed in the middle of the Advance HE student survey period. The question on our minds was “how much would this impact on the student experience”. For taught postgraduates, the majority of whom are on one-year courses, lockdown would cover a significant proportion of their course. I thought this would define the survey results. When the results of this year’s Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES) came in, there was the expected dip in overall satisfaction. However, the 28,000 taught postgraduates who responded during lockdown seemed to have an experience differing little from the 13,000 who responded before lockdown. The change due to lockdown seemed barely separable from other factors, such as the industrial action in Spring 2020 and random changes in participation. In my analysis of PTES, I wanted to dig into why.

The student experience bounces back

The first reason the difference overall seemed slight was that the most important elements of the student experience recovered relatively quickly. Whilst there was a very significant dip in overall satisfaction in March and April, by up to six percentage points, this had largely recovered by the end of May. It was clear from comments the extent to which all staff in higher education had worked hard to transfer teaching online and maintain contact with students. At the same time, most taught postgraduates were able to continue engaging with their learning. Comments illustrated how the programmes that coped most successfully had the staffing and processes in place to flexibly meet the challenge of lockdown. Clear and consistent communication from teaching and administration staff also helped, as did a listening ear for student questions and concerns. Finally, there needed to be the capability and ability to deliver teaching online.

Lockdown hits some people harder than others

Perhaps the most important lesson from lockdown is that the impacts of such challenges are not evenly spread. Just one out of ten students mentioned lockdown when commenting on their course, but these students were significantly less satisfied than others. The learning experience of taught postgraduates was hard hit if their discipline relied on resources that were on-campus. Studio space for creative and performing arts, rare books for language courses, specialist computing software for architecture or engineering. For many of these students, their learning experience and outcomes were completely altered by lockdown. Some respondents to PTES wished they could have postponed their studies. Others struggled to adapt to radically changed assessments. Another group particularly affected by lockdown were those students already facing challenges. For taught postgraduates who declared a mental or learning disability, issues with organisation and communications had an especially severe impact. This was for a cohort who already had a negative experience compared to their peers. The shift to online learning appeared to present a particular challenge to some students who had declared a learning disability.

Lockdown wasn’t bad news for everyone

Whilst the shift away from in-person interaction was a loss to many, it was a benefit to those who already did not, or could not, be present on-campus. There was a positive movement in the experience of taught postgraduates already on distance learning courses. Some found a sense of community and responsiveness from teaching staff that had been lacking previously. More resources became available online. This also benefitted some taught postgraduates with long-term illness or physical disability. Whilst these students faced other challenges, the greater availability of staff and learning materials improved their experience. It would be hoped that some of these positive impacts can continue and create a better learning experience for these cohorts. However, it was also clear that some changes in practice might not be sustainable in the long-term. One such change was the increased flexibility and lower workload during lockdown. This provided a respite for some taught postgraduates on challenging courses such as PGCEs, or those faced with competing work and caring commitments. A silver-lining for a difficult time.

What could the sector do next time?

That the taught postgraduate experience was largely maintained through a period of great disruption is a testament to the positive learning relationship already existing between many taught postgraduates and staff, and the hard work done across the sector in adapting to lockdown. The upskilling of staff and the greater availability of online resources could have long-lasting benefits for students on distance learning courses and those for whom attending in-person can be a challenge. Yet, the continuing disruption due to COVID-19 and longer-term causes of instability, such as the climate crisis, suggest lessons could be learned. Responses to PTES indicate that:

  • Good communication is vital. This is probably the case for any group of students, but for taught postgraduates with caring and work responsibilities, knowing what is happening and being able to discuss options is especially important.
  • It was clear from comments that some programmes and departments did not have the processes or staffing to cope well with the impact of an unforeseen challenge like coronavirus. The higher education sector may need to invest so that programmes and departments can cope with the unexpected, not just the everyday.
  • The loss of on-campus resources had a big impact on some disciplines, where courses struggled to provide resources and adapt assessments. Sharing good practice around what works needs to be supported for these disciplines.
  • The support offered to taught postgraduates was generally very positive, from teaching and administration staff, and from central support services. However, some students faced very challenging situations, particularly those who declared a disability. These students rely more than most on institutions being resilient and responsive in times of crisis.

While the sector was not expecting a global pandemic to hit in 2020, it managed to adapt in ways that maintained, and even improved, the learning experience of most taught postgraduates. However, what was unexpected in 2020 may be less accepted as a reason for a disrupted learning experience in 2021. The Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey has demonstrated its value in gathering evidence in the strangest of times. Hopefully this will contribute to the learning that institutions will need to do in meeting future challenges.

Download PTES 2020

We are currently inviting proposals for Surveys & Insights Conference 2021: Adapting to challenging times that consider themes such as 'Measuring the quality of learning' and 'Supporting students', 28 April 2021. The deadline for submissions is 28 January 2021. Find out more here.

PTES 2021 will be running from February to June. To find out more, please contact surveys@advance-he.ac.uk

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