The Student Experience In Higher Education Education Essay

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The key factor in the assessment of quality in higher education is the student experience. This is not restricted to the student experience in the classroom but to the total student experience. (Harvey et al.,1992, p. 1). Increasing attention is being paid to the student experience at higher education institutions across the UK, both by institutions themselves and by the agencies that fund them and support them. This new focus is driven partly by growing interest in what students think about their experiences and a commitment to developing a more informed and nuanced understanding of what the student experience means and what factors shape it. The key underlying driver is enhancement of the student experience, both as an end in itself, and as a means to the end of gaining and maintaining competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining students(Chris, 2008).In this study a phenomenological method was employed to explore the individual experiences as a postgraduate student in the University of Ulster.


Evaluation of what is becoming universally known as the "student experience" is one of the dominant themes of higher education research at this time. This term embraces the notion that learning does not only take place in the classroom and that students' time spent in higher education is about a whole range of experiences (City University, 2002).

All aspects of students' university experience have an impact on their learning experience (City University, 2002).

Purdue University (2004) refer to the 'Pillars Supporting the Total Student Experience' and Thompson (2000) writing in the Kansas State eCollegian stated that: The total student experience encompasses teaching and learning, curriculum, student life, advising and mentoring. The University of Edinburgh (2004) also refers to a wide set of student experiences in which it was stated that achievements are derived from the total student experience whether academic, extra curricular or work experiences. More recently however the focus has shifted to the evaluation of the total student experience, which would include issues such as the facilities available within the institution, relationships with the academic staff and fellow students, and attitudes towards the teaching style offered by lecturers and tutors. Increasingly, students' attitudes and perceptions towards the institution as a whole are seen as central issues in determining the total student experience. (Savani, 2003)

The study entails an individual's experience as a postgraduate student.


The study, which was conducted as part of an assignment of NUR816 module, aimed:

To explore a fellow student's experience while undertaking a postgraduate study.

To examine the kind of problem faced by a postgraduate student.

To establish whether postgraduate student enjoy their studies all through the semesters without any problem from home or work place for those working.

To enable me to know whether they were able to acquire some intellectual skills through their programme.

Research Questions/objective:

To explore a fellow student's experience while undertaking a postgraduate study, in terms of the challenges of such study.

To determine the impact of a postgraduate study on a student day-to-day life.

The methodology for investigation was based on the aims and objectives set.

The research question shall be answered by using the phenomenology methodological approach instead of the ethnography and grounded theory. This methodological approach is chosen because the research topic is centred on the perceptions and interpretations of the world held by an individual. The accent within this perspective is on the individuality, even the uniqueness, of each person's set of perception which is located in a specific social context (Shepard et al., 1993).

Phenomenology evolved from Husserl's philosophical endeavours to explore the full meaning of individuals' lived experience of a given phenomenon through reflection on the reality of their experiences (Morse and Field, 1996; Koch, 1999; Jones and Borbasi, 2003; Racher, 2003). The researcher observes and attempts to interpret the meaning of the observations made (Jones and Borbasi, 2003). In understanding what is 'real' there is interpretation of the meaning of people's relationships with their life experiences

Phenomenology approach stands in stark contrast to ethnography and grounded theory (Julius and Chris, 2002, p.9). In particular, it takes a very different view of the relationship between experience and knowledge. For positivists, and for post-positivists, experience is a means of accessing an objective reality that lies outside the individual who is experiencing it (Julius and Chris, 2002, p.9).

In phenomenology, however, the world as experienced by individuals, or by a group of individuals, is the real world. Social reality is constructed by individuals in the process of interacting within a particular context (Anderson, 1991).

In addition, phenomenology recognises the fact that social phenomena are rooted in a specific context (Julius and Chris,2002, p.10).Similarly, phenomenology, deals primarily with the 'micro' rather than the 'macro' features of social life (Lassman,1974). Using this method enabled the individual student to describe a lived experience of gaining 'knowledge' as a postgraduate student and pertaining to her day-to-day life. Through adopting a post-positivist, phenomenological inquiry, the researcher aimed for objectivity in collecting and assessing data. This involved actively recognising and clearing the mind of pre-existing thoughts, beliefs and values (Holloway and Wheeler, 1996). This is contentious, and not easily achievable. However, in this research such objectivity was desirable, since the lead researcher was a colleague to the interviewee.



The research was conducted with a fellow student from within the NUR 816 module class in the University of Ulster. Ethical approval was obtained from the University of Ulster Ethics and governance Committees. Piloting was in a site unconnected with the main study.

The methodology was qualitative in design. In particular it drew on phenomenological principles which "seek to understand, describe and interpret human behaviour from the perspective of the person or participants being studied (Finlay, 1999). The aim of the interview was therefore to gain an understanding of the interviewee's own position in relation to her experience has a postgraduate student.

Data collection process

Design - Ethical and research governance Issues

Qualitative research is based on the premise that in order to acquire knowledge about people, we need to give them the opportunity to define and describe their experiences as these were lived by themselves (Polit and Hungler ,1993). This approach allows the exploration of humans by humans acknowledging the value of a holistic view and the worth of individuality and subjectivity (Chinn, 1985).

Nursing and phenomenology share the same beliefs in viewing people holistically as entities who create meanings and in valuing them as unique persons (Omery, 1983; Taylor, 1994). Using a phenomenological approach however holds various difficulties such as 'method slurring' (Baker et al., 1992) and the recognition of the researchers effect upon the study and the interpretation of the findings. The lack also of defined guidelines highlights the issue of rigor (Hallet, 1995). This stresses the need for detailed documentation of the study and the need to incorporate the validity of the findings within the data analysis. However, the interpretation on any research has to be considered tentative rather than absolute (Walters, 1995).

Sampling process

Participant numbers within phenomenological studies are typically small, for example, less than 10 (Morse and Field, 1996; Parahoo, 1997; Kleinman, 2004), and interviews are in-depth with much rich data (Whimpenny and Gass, 2000). The sample used for this study was a convenience sample drawn from a target population of NUR816 module class. A fellow student was approached and she agreed to participate. Participant was informed about the right to withdrawn from the study at any time and was assured that in written reports they would not be able to be identified as pseudo names would be used. This approach was agreed by the ethics and research governance committee as being acceptable.

Data collection method


Contact with the fellow student was made by telephone with a follow-up participant information sheet, consent form given to her in class. A week was allowed from the telephone call until the time agreed for interview, thus giving time for participants to read and discuss the information with others if they wished. Final consent was undertaken immediately prior to interview. Participants were offered the school area that is mall or lecture room. She opted for the lecture room (Dashiff, 2001). Prior to the interview, the purpose of the study was discussed. This served to relax the interviewee and the interviewer (Morse and Field, 1996).

The interview that lasted for about 30 minutes was audio - recorded and hand written and subsequently transcribed verbatim (Streubert and Carpenter, 1995). An un-structured interview guide was used (see Appendix 4), although questions were asked in different ways to elicit all possible thoughts from participant. Time for discussion was made after the interview. This was again agreed as part of ethical approval for the work. Beginning the Interview (Appendix 5).

As for the method of data collection, individual interview have been used. The purpose of the phenomenological interview has been defined as an attempt to gain insight into the other person worldview and to understand shared meanings through active listening (Sorrell and Redmond 1995). However the pilot interview was not used in the final analysis of the data.

Unstructured interviewing is described as "reflexive" (Hammerseley and Atkinson, 1993).In a large degree the precise topics on which the interview will focus, and the way in which it is conducted, emerge in the process of the interview, and are responsive to the perceptions, concerns and priorities of the informant. The control of the data collection process was surrendered partially to the informant (fellow student) (Julius and Chris, 2002, p.54).The unstructured interview is conducted according to an interview guide (Arksey and Knight, 1999).

Topics in an unstructured interview may be raised in different ways or in a different order

Since my intention in this form of interview is to gain insight into a topic from the perspective of the informant, the agenda for the interview was not imposed by the interviewer, but was negotiated between interviewer and interviewee (Jones, 1985).

Rubin and Rubin (1995) described such interviews as a "guided conversation".

Data Analysis

The analytical process began during data collection. Analysis of interviews was concurrent with data collection so that new themes could be identified for inclusion in subsequent interviews. Data collection continued until saturation occurred, whereby no new or relevant material emerged. The researcher made notes after the interview of key points that arose in the conversation with the participant. These helped to clarify the emerging issues and allowed minor adjustments to be made to the interview schedule. The transcript was then read through carefully to identify the perceptions and attitudes of student toward the postgraduate study. The data were then explored in relation to the available literature and checked against the research notes to ensure that issues perceived as important to the interviewee had been addressed. A draft copy of the review was sent out to interviewee inviting her comments and allowing for some minor adjustments to be made. Quotes from interview are given because they represent the views or to highlight a specific point. Pseudonyms are used throughout the paper to maximise interviewee anonymity.

Data was analysed using a framework that is geared towards phenomenology methodology of Colaizzi's(1978) seven stage process, reflexivity in data collection and frequent re-analysis of data as new themes emerged (Miles and Huberman ,1994).This model of analysis fosters transparency and rigour in the analytical process(Mays and Pope ,2000).

The analytic process of Colaizzis (1978) was modified to provide a more feasible framework for the analysis of the data. Firstly tape - recorded interview was played and re - played and written transcripts were read in order to acquire a 'first feeling'. The very first replay of the cassette took place immediately after the interview, it was recorded and a copy was kept separately for safety reasons. Additionally notes were written after the interview and during the first replay to capture initial ideas. Initial data clustering was achieved using underlining for the participant significant statements. This enabled data immersion and assisted an overview of the participant's contribution to each cluster.

At stage two significant statements were extracted from the single transcript, which was after organized into cluster of themes. Each theme was attempted to be conceptualized and contextualized (Strauss and Corbin.1990, p.61) and notes were written for each identified theme to be discussed with the participant during validation. The next stage involved the preparation of a descriptive text for the participant which included quotes from the interviews. At the validation stage participants were re - approached and alongside an explanatory note, the descriptive text was assessed. The participant fully agreed with the written descriptions and the discussion of her experiences and he signed and retains a second copy of the validation text.

Formulated meanings were devised but arranged into one grid to compare their relationship to the formulated meanings as a whole. Colaizzi supports this stance to his process of analysis. He argues his method of analysis be 'used flexibly and freely by the researcher, they can modify them in what ever way they sees fit' (Colaizzi, 1978, p.59). Further deviation arose from Colaizzi (1978) who acknowledged there will be repetition of experience and that repetitions should be eliminated.

It is argued alternatively that by identifying repetitions, greater weight can be added to significance of the meaning collectively for individuals (Hantikainen and Kappeli, 2000). To assist participant in understanding the analysis of the data, and provide her with evidence that the response could influence practice, a grid outlining the key findings was devised for her. The presentation to the participants of what Colaizzis (1978) calls the 'exhaustive description' rather than the final 'essential structure' of the phenomenon, was also recommended by Holloway and Wheeler (1996), as it could be more easily recognizable by her because it has the potential to act as a precursor to elicit more information and comments at this stage of the study. Although validity in qualitative research is multifaceted, it appears to be an advantage of utilizing a method of analysis which incorporated validation by participants themselves. The final analysis of the phenomenon can be seen as the 'product' of a shared process between those whom have experience it and the researcher (Halarie, 2006).


The study revealed a sequence of findings, which could be summarised under the following seven categories: All seven categories emerged from the participant descriptions, regardless of the length of the interview a) Aspiration in life b) Challenges of being a postgraduate student c) Time management d) Positive and negative feelinge) Library use f) Internet use g) Lecturers attitudes. Each category will be explored and implications for development discussed.

Aspiration in life: The student emphasised that the postgraduate programme was an opportunity for her to rich greater height.

"My goal in life is to aspire to reach the peak in my educational career"

Challenges of being a postgraduate student: Being admitted for the postgraduate programme was the first challenge the student faced, followed by funding the programme, cost of accommodation in school, meeting the course work deadline for submission, and plagiarism threat.

"The accommodation I got was quite expensive in school".

"Getting admitted gave me a challenge"

"I mean the funding of the P.G studies was not too easy".

"I was so conscious of the references quoted but am still afraid that I did not plagiarise".

"rush through the coursework assignment, so as to meet the deadline for submission".

Time management: The student use most of the time in the school area for attending lectures, doing course work, and personal reading while the free lecture days is used for part-time job.

"I realised that I need to do a lot of personal reading "

"My module time also gave me a good opportunity to engage in a part time work in a store". Lecturers Attitudes: it was gathered from the student experience that the lecturers were approachable and they help in solving student academic problems. " The lecturers have always been very helpful and approachable and open to suggestions and criticism".

Library use: School Library was reportedly used to achieve a lot of work through course work organisation and easy internet access, photocopying the assignment and printing relevant document. It was indeed a good resource. "I did not have a resource to get a lap-top so I spend most of my time in the school library (LRC)".

Internet use: At interview, the student reported adequate use of the Internet at school, for email communication, on-line resource from the lecturers, and for a variety of reasons. " Most of our courses had on-line resource which could only be assessed through the Webct from the library portal".

Positive and negative feeling: There was the financial influence on the family, but a lot of skills were acquired.

The investigation confirms the usefulness of applying a phenomenological method to the human side of research and to contribute to the so-called "studies-of-studies" literature, and to the growing shared experiential culture in research. It could help lessen the hold of the positivistic paradigm in the study and to find a central place for the human side of research, instead of hiding or ignoring this important facet of research.

Finally, this study was exploratory in nature and the results may be limited to the respondent who participated in the investigation, only. Thus, only general suggestions for future research can be offered. One possibility is to explore the experiences of student who have not received didactic instruction on school life, but who have to execute postgraduate study. Another possibility is to describe the experiences of students who failed to complete their studies successfully.


Postgraduate Student experience could be summarized into a deliberate and necessary effort to gain acceptance into an organized and defined educational setting. The findings illustrate the 'lived experience' of a postgraduate student about her studies, the knowledge respondents have about her school, and some consideration about responsibility for knowledge and why studying may be difficult. An overriding theme throughout the work is related to dedication to course work and funding. Key concerns included;

The funding of a postgraduate course.

Access to resources and

Proper time management.