Céline van der Heijden
Céline van der Heijden
The double-edged sword of a large university program attracting hundreds of students per year is that as the program increases in size and renown, its students can start to feel a lack of connection to the academic body at-large. Thus, assessing the inter-relational needs of a diverse pool of students can present quite a challenge to even the most well-equipped of faculties, necessitating a two-step approach to first evaluate the depth and dimensions of a potential empathy issue, and then detail potential multifaceted “hacks” that maximize connectedness given real-world financial and human-capital restraints. Herein lies the heart of our research question, and the journey to crack this puzzle has led to some interesting insights, hopefully applicable to academic programs in general, in addition to the Business Studies faculty at-hand.
Many university bachelor programs are high in demand, resulting in large student populations, as is the case for the Bachelor of Science in Business Studies (NL: Bedrijfskunde) at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. This program’s yearly inflow has been increasing over the past few years, with the current yearly influx at about 550 students, often equating to 600-700 students taking a particular course concurrently.
A few months ago, the possibility of an empathy issue within the program was raised, and we were tasked with diving deeper into the issue, investigating what empathy means to students, how a lack thereof can manifest itself, and what possible interventions exist for the administration to lessen any negative impacts. It was emphasized that the formulation of a better problem-statement for this case was at least as important as any potential solutions.
One existent attempt to tackle this issue was the newly-implemented (as of academic year 2020-21) mentor program for first-year students, where every participant was assigned to a mentor group led by a second- or third-year student of the program. The first-year students have individual conversations with their mentor at the beginning of the year and (depending on their mentor) group meetings as well. Due to the corona pandemic, all meetings were held online.
Our approach to the case was threefold. First, we interviewed a number of people directly involved with our investigation, including the program director (our stakeholder), students from all three years (including mentors), and the head-director of the mentor program.
Second, we perused the results of prior surveys about student wellbeing at the School of Business and Economics. And third, we searched for literature as scientific back-up to better inform our redesign.
Before we dive into our observations about empathy, we want to highlight some broad observations made during our investigation:
Our recurring observation about empathy is that it is different for everyone. When asked what empathy within the program meant to them, students’ answers fell into a few common categories regarding the following:
We found that the empathy issue is less a true “problem” per se, and more simply one of a number of complicated outcomes common to large programs. We believe it is quite normal for students in such a program to not always get the attention they would like to receive. After sifting through surveys and interviewing many people involved, we concluded that things are largely good but also see value in focusing on potential low-cost/high-impact improvements. We therefore rephrased the problem statement as follows:
How can a broad and large bachelor program like Business Studies give the optimal amount of personal attention and motivational help to students who have different preferences, taking into account budgetary and human capital constraints?
Here, personal attention implies interaction with both other students and teachers, and motivational help refers to the fact that many students are undecided about their future career. We also stress the existence of individualized preferences, concluding that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t accurately capture the question at hand.
While the empathy concern in the Business Studies program might not truly be a “problem” per se, things can always be better, and as such, we have some suggestions to create more empathy in the program. To better refine our solutions, we have divided the matter into three categories representing different relationship types within the study: student-teacher, student-student, and teacher-teacher.
It is important for students to have contact with their peers, both within and outside the study. The first suggestion is to create fixed tutorial groups in the first year, addressing the issue that the transition from high-school to university can be quite hard for students, especially if they don’t already know any of their colleagues. Having tutorial groups remain the same across multiple classes effectively shrinks the perceived size of the program and reduces the sense that a student has to navigate everything alone.
The next suggestion is to create a larger social component in the mentor program. While the program effectively enables students to ask practical questions, we’ve heard that in a lot of mentor groups, there is a lack of social interaction between students. Implementing monthly meetings for each group should give students more opportunities to develop meaningful academic connections and friendships.
One final suggestion is to make ‘clubs’ for students with similar interests regarding the various specializations within Business Studies. We noticed that some students don’t know what they want to do with their education in their future careers, while other students already have a clear idea of where they are headed. Creating a club for say marketing would also effectively shrink the perceived size of such a large program while simultaneously act as a try-out stage for students before committing to the specialization. Similarly, a generic club for people who don’t yet know which specialization to choose could act as a try-out for all fields in general.
We believe it is good for teachers to know how students experience the courses they teach and if they have suggestions how the course can be improved while it is ongoing. Right now, students can participate in end-of-course evaluations, but the response rates on such surveys are underwhelming, largely because students don’t have the feeling that the evaluation can make a difference for them. One solution could be creating mid-course evaluations, where response rates will likely be higher because there is still time for students to see effective changes to the course at-hand (Overall & Marsh, 1979). These evaluations can take the form of a survey, but can also operate via smaller subsets of students acting as an advisory board for their peers, interacting with the teacher directly. In this manner, the teacher can also ask direct questions about the anonymous input provided by the students, allowing for a more dynamic feedback system. Examples of such reciprocal student-teacher relations can be found in a study by Springgay & Clark (2008).
Additionally, a Turkish study (Bozkurt & Ozden, 2010) found that while no correlation could be proven between teacher’s perceived academic and empathetic competencies, the latter had a much greater impact on students’ scholastic performance, further legitimizing the need for student-teacher connectedness.
Lastly, we think it could be useful if there could be more interaction between teachers, where a “learn from the best” system leans into successful teaching strategies rather than highlighting those less-promising in a corrective manner. Most teachers have common teaching hurdles to overcome, for example, finding ways to increase interaction in large lectures. By creating opportunities for teachers to share such insights, the quality of teaching will be improved at-large. While this can be accomplished by having forums for teachers to talk with each other, another approach could be attending lectures from colleagues and/or sharing links to online teaching resources they have found useful.
With these suggestions, we think the gains with regards to empathy and interaction in the program can be obtained with relatively little additional resource expenditure, mostly via increasing communication and dividing the community into more manageable, self-run subsets to create a stronger sense of community.
In our case, the philosophical perspective concerns the individual perspectives of both the teachers and the students. Both parties see things from their own standpoint, causing them to experience the issue in different but equally-valid ways, as suggested by Wittgenstein (2019). Though the concept of empathy may be rather general, both parties’ understanding of the phenomenon can differ, and moreover, these experiences will often vary within the student and teacher bodies as well. Different perspectives lead to different needs, and thus striving for a single ideal situation should not be the main goal. Rather, the maximized fulfillment of as many different interests within subgroups of the entire academic population is a more pragmatic solution to this problem. The main caveat here is that finding the perfect balance of all such perspectives can be difficult, if not impossible, but this need not preclude any attempts towards this endeavor.
Self-determination theory suggests that people become “self-determined” when their needs for competence, connection, and autonomy are fulfilled (Deci & Ryan, 2012). To achieve this, we suggest introducing the aforementioned ‘specialization clubs’ and further expanding the existing mentoring program. This customization of the academic experience will lead to a greater sense that one is steering their own educational journey, and as such, take more ownership of not only their interaction with their teachers, but also their social networks amongst peers.
The mentor program has already proven an effective solution despite being in its first year, but it can be further expanded to better ensure that students do not feel alone by developing a sense that they belong to a stable group. The mentor can also help the students overcome obstacles they encounter or have questions about beyond just introductory concepts helping them acclimate to their first weeks at school. Ideally, the expansion of this project should largely center around building opportunities to make new friends and develop interconnectivity.
The business model of “Leerlevels” can also be replicated by VU’s Business Studies faculty. The idea behind Leerlevels is to record and share mini-lectures of certain easily-replicable course material in-advance so that teachers do not have to spend considerable time preparing lectures and slides (el Bouhassani & Voorzanger, z.d.). This saved time can better be used explaining more difficult parts of lectures, giving more personalized attention to students, and even further expanding a teacher’s own skill set and expertise by researching pedagogical techniques and new professional material. A recurrent problem is that there are too many students and not enough teachers, but by using atomization in a clever way, this issue can be solved in advance with recorded lectures and other community-vetted teaching tools. Finally, because the teachers have more time, there is an opportunity for more connectedness between teachers and students, and in this way, both parties will experience more empathy.
As not all research we found was directly linked to our exact case, there were still a few avenues left to explore. Of particular interest, a study at Sheffield University (Cox, 2011) explored the impact that physical spaces and architectural design on campus can have an impact on students’ feelings of belonging to their school and studies in general. In addition, seeing as our case was centered around pre-Covid survey responses, we chose not to put the lockdown at the forefront of our investigation, but one report (WeWork, 2020) offers insights into students’ experiences in Fall 2020 versus similar survey results from 2019.
In conclusion, we hope that the insights gained from our initial exploration into further improving student experiences within a specific program can be applied further in a broad sense to more schools across The Netherlands, Europe, and abroad. Thank you to all that helped along the way!
Bozkurt, T., & Ozden, M.S. (2010). The relationship between classroom climate and students’ success. In Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences (Vol. 5, pp. 231-234).
Cox, A.M. (2011). Students’ Experience of University Space. In International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: Volume 23 (Number 2, pp. 197-207).
Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (2012). Self-determination theory. In P. A. Van LangeA. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins Handbook of theories of social psychology: volume 1 (Vol. 1, pp. 416-437). SAGE Publications Ltd, https://www.doi.org/10.4135/9781446249215.n21
el Bouhassani, Y., & Voorzanger, J. (z.d.). Onze missie. LeerLevels. https://leerlevels.nl/missie
Overall, J.U., & Marsh, H.W. (1979). Midterm Feedback from Students: Its Relationship to Instructional Improvement and Students’ Cognitive and Affective Outcomes. In Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 71 (No. 6, pp. 856-865).
Springgay, S., & Clarke, A. (2008). In Collective Improvisation in a Teacher Education Community (Chapter 13: Mid-Course Feedback on Faculty Teaching: A Pilot Project, pp. 171-184).
Wittgenstein, L. (2019). Philosophical Investigations.
Unknown Author. WeWork (2020). The Impact of Covid-19 on the University Student Experience.https://www.wework.com/ideas/worklife/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-the-university student-experience