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Blended Learning Service

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Understanding the experiences of our Students

The primary objective of this research, prompted by the Service Design Programme, was to comprehensively explore the holistic student experience at the University of Cambridge. The Service Design Programme aimed to understand how different core issues across the university impact people's everyday experiences of teaching and learning to transform the educational ecosystem into one that is responsive, efficient, and empowering for all its stakeholders.

This research sought to delve into the multifaceted aspects of students' academic and non-academic journeys to gain a deep understanding of their experiences, needs, and pain points. By adopting a qualitative approach, this research sought to unearth rich, context-specific insights that go beyond mere data points. Through in-depth interviews and observations, the report brings forward the nuances of student experiences, hopes and the challenges they face. Ultimately, this research aims to provide a solid foundation for pinpointing areas for improvement, facilitating data-driven decision-making, and enhancing the overall quality of services and education provided by the University of Cambridge,

The main sections in this report (inclusivity, diversity, flexibility, collaboration, and sustainability) are enriched with several "better tomorrow" statements, barriers and opportunities. These statements convey the students' visions for a more promising and improved future at the University of Cambridge.

Executive Summary

Based on an in-depth qualitative research across multiple STEM and Arts, Humanities and Social Science (AHSS) departments, students at the University of Cambridge want to experience an 1) inclusive, 2) diverse, 3) flexible, 4) collaborative and 5) sustainable education. These data-driven concepts are interdependent, so they rely on each other for their implementation, existence and understanding. While there are pockets of examples highlighting such practices across the university, students argue that there are still barriers preventing these ambitions from turning into a complete reality. This research has looked at the students’ experience during their time at the University of Cambridge and the practices, curriculum and structures that support and stand in opposition to their expectations and hopes

The findings in this research report shed light on various aspects of the educational environment at the University of Cambridge, focusing on inclusivity, diversity, collaboration, flexibility, and sustainability. The university prides itself on attracting students from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and experiences, aiming to provide a nurturing and empowering learning experience. However, it is essential to acknowledge the challenges that students face and identify areas of improvement, constructively, to enhance their overall well-being and holistic academic success.

To create inclusive environments, the university could continue prioritising training for academic staff and support personnel on understanding the needs of students from diverse backgrounds. Enhancing support for transitioning students, particularly those from state schools and lower-income countries, can alleviate challenges during their academic journey. Additionally, clear and detailed course descriptions, along with well-defined expectations, will empower students to make informed decisions and reduce confusion. Lastly, reflecting on various teaching methodologies to accommodate diverse learning paces and preferences can mitigate student challenges and promote a more inclusive academic experience.

To create more diversity in teaching, learning and assessment, academic staff could reflect on introducing more interactive, engaging and creative teaching and assessment methods and a wider variety of learning resources and tools. Diversifying students' learning experience has the potential to help students develop more skills that are not solely limited to academic success or traditional career paths. Additionally, Moodle and other digital platforms should be utilized to their fullest potential, ensuring that learning resources are organized, accessible, and effectively promoted to students.

By embracing flexibility and adopting an adaptable mindset, the university can cultivate an environment that fosters lifelong learning, empowers students to make choices that suit their individual needs, and prepares them for success in a rapidly changing world. However, to create a truly flexible and inclusive learning environment, it is crucial to prioritize understanding and addressing the diverse needs and circumstances of its student body. For example, academic staff and support personnel could ensure that all students, regardless of their needs and backgrounds, feel supported and empowered to succeed. Additionally, clear communication and well-defined expectations will further enable students to make informed decisions and actively participate in their educational journey. Lastly, by continuously monitoring and evaluating educational practices, along with a commitment to ethical considerations when implementing new technologies (e.g., AI), ensures that the educational experiences at the University of Cambridge remain relevant, inclusive, and responsive to the evolving needs of students and societal changes.

To foster a collaborative educational environment, departments could start prioritizing interactions, shared decision-making, and collective knowledge construction among students and academic staff. Collaboration plays a pivotal role in advancing knowledge and practices, benefiting both individual students and the university as a whole. For example, the university could encourage more informal interactions between students and professors, and implement and support group work. By providing opportunities for collaborative work, students who may not have developed strong connections with their peers can engage and socialize with new people and foster a sense of community beyond the college level. Lastly, encouraging more informal and immediate communication channels could enhance the accessibility and approachability of professors, allowing students to ask questions and seek guidance more freely.

To ensure long-term sustainability of any practices and changes, it is essential to address the impact on students' mental health and wellbeing. For example, the continuous addition of content without sufficient support or time allocation has had a detrimental impact on students' mental wellbeing. Additionally, communication practices have also played a role in affecting students' mental and physical health. Delays in supervision allocation and the need to seek support, separately, from multiple staff create additional stress. Lastly, the competitive culture that some students have experienced at the university has added to their anxiety and fear of failure. The labelling and classification of student work, along with, in some areas, grading on a curve, have contributed to the perception that individual high achievement is the only measure of success. This mindset hinders collaboration, discourages making mistakes, and limits students' ability to seek help. Overall, addressing impact of academic practices on students' mental and physical health requires thoughtful, institution-wide and collaborative efforts.