L. Davis, Students Focus on What They Want, Loughborough

Students Focus on What They Want
Lesley Davis
LTSN Engineering, Loughborough University
As part of the Needs Analysis for LTSN Engineering, three focus groups have been facilitated to
provide a snap shot of student opinion on learning and teaching in engineering subjects. The
three institutions visited were a campus university and two city universities, one post- and one
pre-1992. The pre-1992 institution had a high proportion of local students from an ethnic
minority group. Although there were some local differences, there were some comments that
were repeated during all three sessions.
This paper will report the results of the focus groups, identifying the common themes that were
of importance to the students within their own learning experiences, including methods that
helped them to learn. It is interesting to note that the students had fairly low expectations and
identified easy to implement activities.
In September 2000, LTSN Engineering commenced a major consultation exercise to establish the
issues that are of concern to the stakeholders in engineering education in the UK. The exercise
consisted of interviews and workshops with academics, student focus groups and a widely
distributed questionnaire based survey. This paper briefly reviews the consultation exercise and
presents the main issues identified. It then goes on to describe the process that was used to
consult a sample of the student population. The consultation of students consisted of facilitating
three focus groups at three different institutions covering three engineering disciplines.
The Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN), launched in January 2000, comprises of
24 subject centres, a Generic Centre and a programme director to manage and co-ordinate the
network, based at the ILT at York. The Network was established following a review (1) of
existing learning and teaching initiatives, which acknowledged that academics best appreciate,
assimilate and implement a pedagogic approach when presented to them within their own
discipline. It recommended establishing a subject-based support network with a broad focus
across all learning and teaching activity.
LTSN Engineering, hosted by Loughborough University, promotes quality learning and teaching
within engineering disciplines by stimulating the sharing of good practice and innovation through
the provision of subject-based support. The Centre’s three key aims are to:
• co-ordinate and support learning and teaching in engineering disciplines in higher education.
• create a national focus which is the point of contact for all involved in engineering disciplines
in higher education.
• collate and disseminate good practice and innovation in learning and teaching in engineering
disciplines in higher education.
The consultation exercise was designed to enable all major stakeholders in engineering education
to contribute their opinions but with the main thrust being on reaching engineering academics as
it is to this group that LTSN Engineering is seeking to provide its prime services. To achieve the
best results from a questionnaire survey, a pilot study was carried out to hone the format of the
questionnaire. The pilot study consisted of telephone and face-to-face interviews with nominated
contacts from fifteen engineering departments in the UK. These results were then used as the
basis of two workshops held as part of the staff development programmes at two universities. A
draft questionnaire was also produced and distributed at the IEE’s Engineering Education
Symposium in January 2001. The findings from these activities were consistent and therefore
LTSN Engineering felt confident that they had identified the issues that were of concern to
engineering academics and designed the final questionnaire, which was widely distributed, to
establish the relative importance placed on the issues by the different stakeholders.
Stakeholders Consulted
Institutions, etc
Focus Groups
Questionnaire (Engineering Education Symposium, January 2001)
Major survey (distributed through professional journals and departmental contacts)
Figure 1 – Development of the methodology used in the consultation exercise
The questionnaire was divided into five sections; Issues in Engineering Education, Priorities for
the Work of LTSN Engineering, Services and Activities, Communication Methods and Expertise.
The findings of the survey include demonstrating that the major concerns are centred on
delivering an effective education to students with decreasing mathematical knowledge and
motivation with fewer resources available. Academics demonstrated their desire to have readily
accessible solutions to their current problems and their lack of interest in debate about the issues
by prioritising identifying and sharing good practice and preferring email communication and the
use of a website over journals and conferences. Industrialists wish to develop strong links with
academia so that “suitable” graduates can be produced. (2)
Although it was possible for students to complete a questionnaire, it was recognised that only a
small number of students would receive a questionnaire (they were mainly distributed through
the magazines of some of the professional institutions) and feel motivated to complete and return
it (thirteen out of over 700 responses received were from students). LTSN Engineering
recognises the importance of students as stakeholders in engineering education and therefore
sought a simple and efficient method to gain a reliable impression of student opinion. The
method selected was to conduct focus groups that would be held at a range of universities
covering a range of subject disciplines.
The purpose of the focus groups was to canvass student opinion about the learning and teaching
experiences in which they had participated. Final year students were chosen to make up the
groups, as they would have several years experience of learning and teaching activities on which
to reflect and would be well placed to understand their degree programmes in the context of
trying to obtain employment. It has been shown that six focus groups are sufficient to generate
approximately 90% of the potential ideas in a product development process (3). In this situation,
where the groups are congruent and the subject of concern well understood by the participants, it
was felt that a smaller number of groups covering a range of disciplines would be sufficient to
explore the issues of concern to the student population.
Three focus groups were convened and facilitated by the author, with the cooperation of a
member of the academic staff within the department concerned. The students attending a single
focus group were all drawn from the same academic department at a particular institution (see
Table 1). At two of the institutions, the students were invited to discuss their experiences over a
free lunch, however in the third case, the students were not informed prior to the event and the
discussion took place at the start of a revision lecture (thus ensuring a high level of attendance!).
Table 1 – Description of the Focus Groups
Type of
Group Size
Campus, pre-1992
Manufacturing Engineering
3 (1 female)
City, pre-1992
Chemical Engineering
7 (3 females)
Industrial Information
City, post-1992
11 (1 female)
Method of
Free Lunch
Free Lunch
Groups A and B were predominantly white, middle class students but Group C had a significant
ethnic mix with only one white student in the group. The proportion of female students was low,
as would be expected in an engineering group; the higher proportion found in Group B, the
Chemical Engineering students, reflects the national statistics for this discipline.
The focus groups were conducted around a table so that the facilitator could maintain eye contact
with everyone and that there was no overt hierarchy at play within the group. The discussions
were taped and later transcribed for analysis, this enabled the facilitator to concentrate on keeping
the discussion flowing rather than taking copious notes. The facilitator used a list of questions to
stimulate discussion (see Table 2) and ensure that a common set of issues would be addressed by
all of the groups. The conversation was allowed to deviate from the prescribed list when it
contributed to fulfilling the aim of the focus groups and the order of questioning was not strictly
followed to prevent abrupt changes of direction.
Table 2 – Questions used during the focus groups
1 What is the best thing about your course?
2 Which teaching methods work best for you?
3 Which assessment methods do you prefer?
4 Do you think your maths skills are sufficient for your course?
5 Do you think your maths skills are sufficient for your proposed career?
6 What skills do you think you have developed during your course?
7 Are there any skills that you would like to develop further?
8 Are you a member of any of the professional engineering institutions?
9 Do you aim to achieve CEng?
10 Will you do any further study?
The sessions with each group lasted for approximately one hour each although Group C (the
opportunity sample from the revision lecture) was a little shorter which may be due to them not
being pre-warned about the discussion and therefore not having the opportunity to consider the
subject before the session.
The findings from the focus groups are discussed under six headings, which correlate with the
questions from Table 2. Quotes (shown in italics) are taken from the transcript when they
illustrate the points made.
Course highlights
The students enjoyed the variety of topics they covered in their courses and mentioned design
projects, which exploited any of the skills and knowledge that they had acquired. They were also
keen on any industrial contacts to which they were exposed, including from guest lecturers, sitevisits and placements. They unanimously felt that this industrial contact was essential to
developing their understanding of and maintaining their interest in their courses.
Teaching experiences and lecturers
The students felt that they needed plenty of opportunity for practical applications of the theory
being presented. They wanted to be able to practice applying what they were told in a lecture
theatre to “real-life” examples and wanted the material placed in an industrial context.
“I find I need to apply what I learn in examples otherwise I just don’t take it in or if you can’t see
how it’s related to being a chemical engineer.”
“If you’ve got examples it focuses your mind more and you want to do it. If you just get loads of
notes then you’re not going to look at then.”
“Make it more relevant so it’s not just a random bit of theory. Say why you are being taught it
and why it would be useful to you.”
On the subject of the lecture, the students felt that lecturers often overestimated their knowledge
and abilities when preparing their material. They felt that lecturers should talk to them and try
and interact with them rather than simply talk at them. Having a sense of humour and being
prepared to have some fun was seen as an asset for any lecturer. They wanted clear supporting
handouts that they could find their way around easily. They felt that lecturers should respect
them enough to be organised for the lecture and also not to see students as an inconvenience,
which got in the way of their research activities.
“Their expectations are high and when they give you lectures, some of the basics they think you
know already, you might not know.”
“If they pitched it a little simpler you would learn it instead of sitting there, thinking I will never
know this.”
“I think what they did at A-levels and what we did at A-levels has changed a lot. They always
think ‘you should have done this at GCSE’.”
“Her lectures are always much more fun. She does involve us, she does get a lot of examples,
and people out on the front and stuff.”
“Hand-outs should have bullet points and be self-explanatory and you can read through, straight
to the point.”
“If a lecturer makes you feel like we’re not getting in their way then that will make a huge
There was a mixed view on the preferred mode of assessment. Some students preferred exams
but others preferred coursework and groupwork. The message coming through was that a
mixture of methods should be used to ensure that all students could have an opportunity to excel.
“I prefer exams because I can’t be bothered to do all the reading.”
“I find I’ve learnt more doing coursework than when I have exams. Exams are just
“Group assessment is evil. I can see its worth definitely, but it causes so much argument.”
Mathematical Skills
Most of the students felt that they were taught mathematics at too high a level and it was divorced
from the applications where it might be useful. They felt that they came to university with such a
variety of knowledge and skill in maths that the university should identify those that needed help
early on and provide them with extra tutorials from the start. They also felt that extensive
mathematics classes were not necessary as once they got into industry they could always look up
any mathematics when and if they needed it.
“They teach you all this algebra but you hardly ever use it.”
“You get taught it in your first and second year when you don’t need to use it. By the time you
get to your third year when you need it you’ve forgotten it all so we may as well have not
Transferable Skills
The students did feel that there were plenty of opportunities to develop their presentation, group
working and computer skills. Some felt that there should be specific teaching of these skills, or
at least some consistent indication from lecturers about what was expected, but others felt that
they would receive that type of training duirng their graduate training from their employers.
They did feel that these skills were important and would make them more employable.
“You need people with life skills. I know people who will get a first but will struggle to get far
because their interview technique is appalling and they don’t know how to communicate with
“Presentation practice is definitely a bonus on our course.”
Professional institutions and further study
Most of the students in Groups A and B from the core engineering courses were student members
of their respective institutions and intended to work towards achieving their CEng. Group C who
were studying Industrial Information Technology had very little interest in joining any
professional institution. None of the students were very interested in further studying unless it
was job specific.
“I’d rather go and do a job, get to know what it’s all about and work up.”
“I’m just sick of learning stuff and not really knowing why.”
The views expressed by the students in each group were very similar and the actions that they
suggest making to improve their learning experiences are quite restrained and not beyond any
member of academic staff. They want to be treated with respect and for lecturers to take the time
to understand their needs and to make the courses relevant to them and their chosen careers.
They want lecturers to fully prepare their lectures and arrive on time with clear overheads and
handouts. They want lecturers to find out what they actually know before making assumptions
about their level of knowledge, which could leave them completely at sea. They want lecturers to
make eye contact with them and ensure that they can be heard in the lecture theatre. They want
lecturers who are willing to spend some time with them when they have problems. They want
the course content to be placed in an industrial context and they want lots of opportunities to
place the theory into practice through tutorials and laboratories. In fact, what the students want is
simply good practice and it is a sad commentary on engineering education that these are the
things that these students apparently so rarely experienced.
All of the groups were enthusiastic about being asked for their opinions, although they were a
little disappointed that they had not been asked in earlier years when they might have been able to
influence their own courses. The focus groups ran very smoothly and were successful in meeting
the objective of obtaining a snap shot of student opinion on their learning experiences. Group C,
who did not have any advance warning of the session, were less expressive and required more
prompting than the other groups. As this was the last of the three groups, the prompting may
have influenced their responses as the author had her own expectations derived from the previous
two groups which were very similar in their composition. Given the similarity in the findings
found from the three groups, it is likely that they fairly represent student opinion in the
engineering field. It would be interesting to contrast these opinions with group studying a degree
programme where different teaching methods are common, such art or drama.
Through the focus groups conducted, a group of engineering students have expressed their views
on their learning experiences. It is apparent from their comments, that they have expectations for
their learning that it is perfectly possible for higher education establishments to meet. Simply by
employing good practice in their lectures, lecturers can improve the quality of the students’
learning experience.
“An Evaluation of the Computers in Teaching Initiative and Teaching and Learning
Technology Support Network”, 1998, HEFCE Report 98/47
“Engineering Education Issues in the UK”, 2002, Davis, L E, Eley, R M and Lamb, F M, to
be presented at the IEE Engineering Education Symposium
“The Voice of the Customer”, 1993, Griffin, A and Hauser, J R, Marketing Science. Vol 12,
No 1, pp1-27