Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

How can we both structure and validate the role of the academic as 'support' for students in their university endeavours?

Eve Voysey
Department of Information Technology
Murdoch University
This dilemma accepts the proposition that students require a level of academic 'support' during their time at university, separate from administrative support services. This proposition is born of the experience of the author in supervising small group and individual Information Systems projects. However, it has a far wider application, encompassing the interaction of all academics with their students, whether in small or large groups and regardless of discipline. Delivery of this support is likely to become more vital as modes of academic delivery change and student profiles broaden.

The dilemma is to find a way of both structuring and validating the delivery of support. Attempts to define the academic 'support' role frequently carry negative and gender-laden overtones of 'mothering' and 'nurturing'. Boundaries to the role and the responsibilities within it are clearly required and yet encounter difficulties and dangers because the academic/student relationship is necessarily 'personalised' to some extent.


Introduction

This dilemma starts from two basic assumptions. The first is that most, if not all, students require a level of assistance, or 'support' during their time at university which is over and above the teaching program. The second is that the role of the academic necessarily includes the provision of this support to some extent. Both are open to challenge. By accepting and dealing with some of these challenges, this paper defines the nature of what is being discussed. This in turn makes it possible to suggest ways to structure the nature of this support. At this point, the challenges themselves are met and answered.

Do students require 'support'?

Literature exploring the university experience from the student's perspective suggests that that this experience is both challenging and stressful (Earwaker 1992, McInnis and James 1995, Promnitz and Germain 1996). In addition, there are 'the many extraneous variables which have an impact on the lives of students' (Promnitz and Germain 1996: v). On the one hand, then, students, like other people, experience stresses and problems in their lives. On the other hand, both the university course itself and the whole student experience produce pressures which test and tax the student (Earwaker 1992). The intersection of these is such that students have special support needs over and above the day-to-day support required by all human beings.

The student population which comes to mind as an extreme example are young, first year students. The particular needs of this group were revealed in the First Year on Campus study (McInnis and James 1995). The first year experience is difficult generally (McInnis and James 1995, Earwaker 1992). However, for some the problems of transition from school to university are exacerbated by studying away from home, studying overseas and studying in a second language.

Interestingly, while the first year experience may be crucial, it is often not the point at which failure to adjust results in withdrawal. Rather, this may come during second year (Promnitz and Germain 1996) when students are over the first flush of excitement about the experience and beginning to question their choice of degree program.

My own experience of students requiring particular levels of support is with third year students engaging in project work. In the Information Systems program at Murdoch University, the third year project represents the culmination of the course. These students have, of course, far more confidence in their ability to manage the university experience than first year students. They probably have more confidence in their choice of degree program than they had in second year. However, at this point of departure from the university system, they are once again facing a transition - the transition from student to professional. They feel very keenly, and so does the Department, that the project indicates their right to this title.

Apart from these groups of students, it may be helpful to consider a number of individual cases of students who have needed support from me in my role as unit coordinator or project supervisor.

These are cases which I can recall without any difficulty. There are probably many more such cases that I have come across over the years.

Changing needs in changing times

Many authors, discussing the need for student support, emphasise the fact that this need is increasing as the population of students changes (Earwaker 1992, McInnis and James 1995, Promnitz and Germain 1996). There would appear to be at least three factors of change which impact on this issue. Firstly, the number of students in universities has increased and continues to increase. Secondly this necessarily means that we are dealing with a far wider range of competencies and capabilities in our students. Thirdly, there is a diversity amongst the student population not previously experienced.

The impact of increased numbers is mainly being felt in the pressure on academics to change their modes of delivery. The search for new and innovative ways of teaching, together with the use of technology as a partner in the learning process, can be linked to the need to deal with large classes (McInnis and James 1995). Such changes and innovations can only go so far to overcome the fact that as classes get larger, universities get more and more impersonal and the student is more and more alone with her problems.

The other two factors are both a matter of diversity within the student population. The First Year on Campus study emphasises the fact that this diversity means that the range of problems experienced within any student population has increased (McInnis and James 1995).

A community of equals?

I have suggested that students have personal problems and problems which emanate from the experience of being students. I doubt if any academic would disagree with me about this. No doubt any academic could identify many cases such as the ones I have outlined above.

However, I went one step further and suggested that students need support if they are to succeed at university in the face of these types of difficulties. This, I think, can be challenged. Many academics would argue that a university is a community of equals to which both the academic and student population belong; that students, unlike school children, are adults and that therefore the stresses, pressures and problems of their lives are their own responsibility. In fact, it might be argued that to attempt to meet their needs with 'support' is patronising and takes from them their right to control and manage their own lives.

In addition, to argue that the student requires support can be contradictory. Is the first year student who cannot cope actually ready for the rigours of three years of university life? And to what extent is it valid to argue that on the one hand, third year projects are an indication of the professional readiness of the student, and on the other, that in order for this experience to have a successful outcome, students need careful support from the project supervisor?

Is this support the responsibility of academics?

The second assumption made by this dilemma is that the provision of support to students is, to some extent, the responsibility of academics. Again, this is open to challenge. At the very least, it can be argued that student support is not the role of the academic; that specialised services are provided by most universities; that academics are overworked as it is; that they are not trained for this role.

All of this is true. Yet I would contend that academics have no choice in this matter, because we are there. It is our role to teach and to provide an environment in which learning can take place. The problems, needs and difficulties that students experience play a vital part in preventing or inhibiting that learning. It hardly seems possible to avoid having a position within the situations in which our students find themselves.

It is my experience that this necessary involvement of academics with student support is rarely admitted or discussed. As a result, it is not seen as a valid academic role. Indeed, when it is discussed informally, it frequently carries negative overtones of 'carrying the student', of 'pushing him through', of being manipulated by students or of encouraging a 'learned helplessness' in students. It has been my own experience that this negativity can also have gender overtones in which words like 'mothering' and 'nurturing' students are used, and women academics are suspected of 'babying' the students if they attempt to meet their individual needs in a holistic way. Earwaker warns of the possibility that

...the promotion prospects of staff could be adversely affected by their willingness to take their student support function seriously. This might occur directly, either in straightforward discrimination against those who were seen as student-centred rather than research-centred or by drafting into the support role those who were of lowest status, thereby making their career progression more difficult. (1992: 51)
The problem is that by not validating the support role of academics, we deny the possibility of structuring it appropriately. As a result, academics certainly do not have any training in this role, for there are no structures within which that training can take place. There is a constant tension between the acknowledgment of the role and not knowing what it should be or how to play it. As a result, support is likely to be a matter of reacting to a given situation because of a lack of knowledge about to be proactive within it. My own experience has been that I sought out the Disabilities Counsellor on campus only when I had a student in a wheelchair in my class and the counselling service only after dealing with a student who appeared to be suffering some sort of psychological breakdown.

The dangers of engaging in unstructured support

Most academics are aware of the possible dangers in engaging in the support of students and this must surely be a primary reason why many would rather deny the role altogether. There are risks both for the academic and for the student here. In addition, the general teaching program can suffer.

One of the major problems is the nature of the relationship between the academic and the student. Becoming involved with the student's problems necessarily introduces a personal aspect into this relationship. This, in its turn, can produce tension in the academic's role as assessor of the student's work. At its worst, there is the risk that the academic becomes less than objective about assessment. In addition, there is the risk that the student's expectations with regard to assessment will be misguided and conflict introduced.

Student support is frequently, although not always, a matter of dealing with individual situations rather than meeting the needs of the class as a whole. There is a danger, then, that an inequality of service provision will be introduced or, at least, perceived.

There is a risk also that academics may become involved in situations with which they are not qualified to deal. The risks here are high, from doing more damage than good to being blamed or even sued if something goes wrong.

I mentioned above the very real risk that attempting to support the student can result in, or be interpreted as, patronising the student, robbing her of the right to manage her own life.

It must also be admitted that there are many students who will take advantage of any show of empathy on the part of an academic, manipulating either the system or the individual in order to gain 'advantages' such as extended timetables or a sympathetic approach to marking.

Lastly, there are the personal costs to the academic in both the time given to supporting students and, as Earwaker points out, the possible discrimination which may result from being seen as being 'student-centred' (1992: 51).

All of these risks are very real and the costs are high. In the majority of cases, however, they are less an argument for not engaging in student support than for seeking appropriately structured ways of doing so.

Exploring structure for supporting students

Once the role of academics in the provision of support to students has been established and accepted, it becomes possible to structure and bound this role in ways which may avoid many of the dangers inherent in it.

Probably the first boundary that should be placed around academic support of students is whether the situation in which support is required has any impact on the student's educational experience. While this may need to be interpreted widely to get a holistic picture of the situation, it is beyond the brief of an academic to attempt to support the student in any situation which is not directly or indirectly affecting course work (Earwaker 1992: 131).

A second major aspect of this bounding is to separate the use of support from an academic from that more appropriately (and safely) provided by specialised support services. The academic is at the front line when the student needs support, and in many cases, the situation calls only for a decision to be made about an aspect of the student's work. However, in many other cases, as, for example, the student who was clearly experiencing a 'breakdown', support from an academic should probably extend to referral to a professional trained for the situation.

One of the costs examined above, is the time lost to course preparation or research work and given instead to student support. This, too, may best be bounded by a clear delineation between 'student consultation' time and time which the academic can reasonably expect to be student-free. Many academics are willing to relax this timetabling in a real crisis while still clearly indicating that the timetable is absolute in all other cases.

Both Earwaker (1992) and McInnis and James (1995) strongly indicate that students want to take responsibility for their part in the support relationship and that, indeed, they should be made to do so. Earwaker writes of the balance that is necessary in order to ensure 'both that the student is exercised sufficiently and that the student is not hurt' (1992: 131). Part of the bounding of the support role is the drawing of boundaries around the responsibilities of both parties. And, indeed, there may be other stakeholders in the situation whose responsibilities need to be understood and articulated. Under these circumstances, concerns about 'babying' the students or, for that matter, allowing them to manipulate the situation, fade away.

Conclusion

This paper sets out to explore the assumptions on which the dilemma is proposed and some of the challenges which can reasonably be levelled against them. This will, I hope, clear the ground for a fruitful discussion of the underlying issues in the dilemma which concern ways in which academics can, or should, support their students.

References

Earwaker, John (1992). Helping and Supporting Students. Buckingham: The Society for Research into Higher Education.

McInnis, Craig and James, Richard (1995). First year on campus: Diversity in the initial experiences of Australian undergraduates. Parkville: Centre for the Study of Higher Eduction, University of Melbourne.

Promnitz, Jenny and Germain, Carmen (1996). Student Support Services and Academic Outcomes: Achieving Positive Outcomes. Queensland: James Cook University.

Please cite as: Voysey, E. (1998). How can we both structure and validate the role of the academic as 'support' for students in their university endeavours? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 336-340. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/voysey.html


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