First-year students’ feelings matter

PhD thesis School of Business and Economics


MAASTRICHT. Brains are important, but we shouldn’t ignore the influence of emotions such as hopelessness or enjoyment on students’ learning process, says Alexandra Niculescu, a Romanian psychologist who will defend her PhD thesis tomorrow, Friday 16 October, at Maastricht University. “We need to invest in how students feel, but not by sending them to a study counsellor right away. We can support them at course level by giving them frequent and structured feedback.”

“In higher education we know the importance of emotions, but we do very little with that knowledge”, says Niculescu. Before starting her PhD research at the Department of Education and Innovation at the School of Business and Economics, Niculescu had already worked with the faculty to solve a problem encountered at UM in general and SBE in particular: dropout among first-year students. At SBE, the dropout rate stands at around 30 percent.
In her PhD research, Niculescu investigated the role of emotions in students’ learning. In one of her studies, involving 2337 bachelor’s students over three consecutive academic years, she tried to identify the predictive value of four ‘academic’ emotions: enjoyment, anxiety, boredom and hopelessness. The participants filled in a questionnaire at different points in time asking how they felt during one of the SBE’s most feared courses: Quantitative Methods 1.
The more hopeless they felt, the worse students performed in the final exam, Niculescu concluded. In addition, some of the students who had negative emotions towards the course did not even show up for the first exam. “You could already spot those emotional differences halfway through the course, which suggests it may be possible to intervene early to decrease these negative emotions.”
Niculescu also found that female students, on average, feel more hopeless and anxious, while male students are more likely to feel bored. Further, international students enjoy the course more than Dutch students, with the latter feeling more bored and hopeless on average.
Having a mathematical background turned out to play an important role as well. Between 25 and 33 percent of all participants had previously received training in mathematics, and these students enjoyed the course more. So should SBE be more selective and make having a mathematical background a precondition for admission? “No, that scares people”, says Niculescu. “I think you should be working on publicising the mathematics summer courses at SBE aimed at improving that knowledge.”
Intervention in the form of feedback provided by tutors helped to improve results, some experiments made clear. “Feedback helps students to gain control over their activities. The frequency with which tutors provide structured feedback can make a difference of half to 1 point on the final exam.” Niculescu stresses the important role of tutors: “They should be trained to pay special attention to how students feel, not only how they perform.”
Niculescu has been based since April in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she works on curriculum design in the Department of Education at the headquarters of the European Respiratory Society (ERS).

First-year students’ feelings matter
Author: Wendy Degens
Behrooz Nobakht/ Flickr
Categories: Science, news_top
Tags: SBE,dropout

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