This week I have decided to have a pop at the practice of asking students about their motivations for study in student experience surveys. It is not a particularly topical issue – but then, if we waited for some aspects of higher education policy to appear in the news cycle before talking about them we would be waiting a long time.
Every student experience survey I have seen, including some conducted by me, includes a question on motivations for study: ‘Why did you decide to apply for this course/subject/higher education?’ And, because you can’t unpack the open-text responses of thousands of respondents, unless you have a substantial research grant or a very understanding manager, you offer pre-packaged choices of motivations such as ‘interest in the subject’, ‘enhanced career opportunities’, ‘location of institution’ and as many others as you can think of.
My first problem is ethical, in that I have reservations about reducing a complex phenomenon such as motivation to a range of pre-determined statements, even where respondents are invited to ‘tick as many as apply’. Motivation is complex; surveys are not, and I fear that by asking this question in such a simplistic way we somehow deny our survey respondents a little bit of their humanity. Why should people have to account for their basic human impulse to learn and develop? Why should we perceive motivations for higher education to be mysterious in the first place?
My second problem is pragmatic, in that when you ask the question you always get the same response. Students, in my experience, claim in large proportions to have entered higher education because of a personal interest in a particular subject and in slightly smaller proportions to be interested in gaining a qualification and in career enhancement. These, by and large, are the reasons that society frames higher education as A Good Thing, at least at the level of individual good, so these results are hardly surprising.
Which makes it all the more peculiar when survey analysts overdetermine the meaning of certain motivations, attributing a motivation towards career development to an instrumentalist approach to higher education, for example. This, I think, is sometimes why we ask the question: more for confirming our own perceptions of the zeitgeist than for enhancing knowledge or understanding.
The other reason why we might ask the question is to support marketing of particular courses to particular students – focusing mature student recruitment advertising on career benefits, for example. Market research is one thing, but when surveys are undertaken for a purpose ostensibly other than market research, the question becomes de facto redundant and probably in contravention of research ethics.
There may be an argument that by understanding what students hope to gain from a course in higher education their needs can be better served, but then why not ask that question instead? Why frame it in terms of motivation?
One final problem: the question seems to rely on an underlying assumption that motivations cannot be changed. A student might enter a course of higher education with one intent, only to find that the course serves a host of other needs that the student was only hazily aware s/he had at the point of application. In fact, if higher education is not having that effect, there would be a solid reason to ask what the point of it is. Asking the question chips away at the idea that higher education changes people.
So, the next time I sit down to draft a survey, I might pause over the motivation question and think about other questions I could ask that get me to what I actually want to know, rather than what I think I want to know.