To choose or not to choose (a Change Makers module)

I’ve been taking a look at some of the qualitative data to come out of the Great Expectations project from 2019/20. It’s given me an interesting insight into student decision-making and wanted to share some of my findings.

By Cleo Bowen
Great Expectations

In the 2019/20 academic year I had the pleasure to work with a group of enthusiastic imperial students on a StudentShapers project called ‘Great Expectations’. In a student-staff partnership we researched what students anticipate, and then experience whilst taking one of our Change Makers modules. Seventy Imperial Horizons students were surveyed in October 2019 as they embarked on in their initial class in one of the following modules:

  • My World: Be Happy/Smart/Sustainable (Year 2)
  • Lessons from History (Year 3/4)
  • Creative Futures (Year 3/4)
  • Global Village: Innovation/Creative Arts Challenge (Year 2)
How did you choose your Horizons module?

I have been focusing on the responses to just one question (of eleven) in the survey. In question 4, students were asked HOW they chose to enrol on their Horizons module. Some potential sources of information/influence were included in a word cloud as a prompt:

Types of Decision-Making

The responses indicate an evaluative process is key for students determining which modules to choose. Having looked through the responses of those who directly answer ‘how’ they made their decision, they loosely fall into three categories of decision-making.

1. Analytic – personal, evaluative approach, based on the self. 

Many students show an understanding of themselves and apply this in their Imperial Horizons module selection process. They think about their strengths, their preferences and their objectives. In this analytic approach, there is a wide range of module aspects students assess against their personal criteria. Examples include:

  • building on/deploying existing skills
  • assessment types and compatibility with deadlines and capacity
  • interest in particular topic eg. sustainability
  • chance of failure
  • whether good for career prospects
  • desire to challenge themself/personal fulfilment           

One student summed it up in “What can I do? What can I learn and achieve? Who can I meet?”. In short, a student is asking themself ‘how does this module interact with me as a person?’

2. Instrumental – outward analytical approach, abstract, information based.

Unsurprisingly most students used the Imperial Horizons website. Yet students were also analytic and categorical, looking beyond the basic, seeking out supplementary information through further online research, reading the almanac (one module), or contacting the module leader. One student describes filtering the modules by desired features: 

“I read the web page for courses that sounded interesting […] filtered down to ones with good content. Read about ow the modules are assessed and filtered even more. Ended with a ranking of options for Horizons modules.”

This creates a picture of an unrushed process to reach the best outcome, a scientific one (unsurprisingly), a bit like online shopping for a commodity available in many varieties. This is supported by other responses – others make lists and weigh up pros and cons of a module. At the other end of the spectrum, another used “only the website”, chose 3 and submitted.

Key words play a part. The standout module for this is Global Village Innovation Challenge, the only module where respondents referred to the module’s name specifically. Students were drawn to both the word “innovation” and “challenge”. The feelings evoked by these words clearly influenced their relationship to the module and went some way to creating in the student’s mind the idea that they could achieve a personal goal and have an impact. For Global Village Innovation Challenge, the desire to make a difference, challenge oneself and see change was cited multiple times in the survey.

3. Social – friends, peers, word of mouth.

The third category of decision making demonstrates students putting faith in the opinions of their peers. Some students actively undertook their assessment process with friends, holding a discussion over Horizons modules. Others trusted in student feedback that reached them via online testimonials or discussions heard “during lecture breaks”.  The latter is particularly interesting to consider. A student may base their decision on the opinion of another student whom they do not know personally and cannot guarantee has similar objectives to them (as per decision type 1, above). Yet perhaps the recommendation from another Imperial student that a module is enjoyable and worth being part of is sufficient to allay their concerns when choosing a module to follow for an academic year.

Change Makers: Born and Made

Seventy responses were received for this initial question and I am surprised by the range of answers, the brevity of the process for some, contrasted with the effort taken by others to reach a shortlist or first choice. Naturally, many respondents did not actually answer “how” they chose their module but instead “why”: because they liked the sound of the module and deemed it relevant to their interests. These “why” responses can be explored separately, nevertheless, the volume of responses that cited an interest in sustainability, making an impact in the world and challenging themselves was quite striking. Some cited news, books, well-known personalities, and National Geographic as influencing their decision to take a Change Maker module. This could well support the notion that Change Makers students tend to have an existing interest in real-world issues prior to taking a CM module. Of course, Change Makers can be made as well as born. We’ll have to look at our follow-up Great Expectations survey to learn about that.

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