Why students are not consumers

One of the buzz phrases in modern education is “independent learning“, which emphasises that students need to take ownership of how they work towards achieving a qualification and not expect “talk and chalk” teaching.  I am generally in favour of this approach and aim to support students as much as possible.

However, I’m beginning to wonder if many fail to understand that being “independent” isn’t the same as being a consumer.  Some recent experiences make me feel that it is time to reinforce some rules rather than offering choice – to underline that education is about taking responsibility not expecting the right to make demands from those supporting the learning.

For example, we have recently acted on student feedback to accept submission of CIPR assignments by email – this offers a number of benefits to candidates and also helps reduce the cost and time involvement in the assessment process to an extent.  Meeting student needs should be a good thing – evidencing two-way communications.  But there has been a minority response demanding choice – or criticism that the students weren’t advised of this change earlier (it is still over 3 weeks until their deadline) as apparently studying is stressful enough without even minor alterations being made.

Given that this is a professional PR course, I am surprised by such reactions – in the real world, a client or boss is likely to make changes at any time.  Who hasn’t been up half the night re-writing speeches or changing press information prior to an important event?  I also expect most reports and proposals are circulated electronically these days (or should be) rather than being printed, bound and posted. 

We are not offering choice, because that will complicate rather than simplify the assessment process.  Some students might not like this, but the majority do – so the rule has been changed.

Likewise, some students fail to recognise that when it comes to assignments, the real meaning of independent learning becomes evident.  It is not the job of the tutor to determine a student’s topic, do their research or advise on whether they have understood a question correctly.  Where we are allowed, we will provide guidance and tutorial support.  But ultimately, work has to be produced independently by candidates.  In exam conditions, it is clear that you are on your own – the move towards “course work” has perhaps confused this point.

Independence is also important at this stage because the study centre assesses the submissions against the rules and regulations that have been laid down.  We adopt a very professional and independent position in evaluating submissions – students do not have a right to pass, but must demonstrate they have achieved the required level of knowledge, understanding and application – and adhered to the rules.

Increasingly students want to see previous submissions and expect to be able to use this as a model for their work or to benchmark any feedback they are given on their own submission. 

This implies there are “right” answers – but higher education in public relations involves demonstrating independence of thinking, based on independent reading and independent reflection on existing knowledge and practice.  Questions and assignments are intended to be challenging rather than prescriptive – so assessment is subtler than right or wrong, yes or no. 

Even a category such as word count is not a simple “was it or wasn’t it within the allowance?”- as markers are looking at how the limited word count is used in a submission.  Did every word count – or was there waffle in expressing ideas or imbalance in the structure?

Despite the qualitative nature of assessment of such assignments, there is a robust process at work – with first markers (who we ensure are not the candidates’ tutors), internal moderation and review by external examiners appointed by CIPR.  The level of experience and expertise involved is extensive, but not all candidates seem to appreciate this either.

Increasingly, grades awarded and feedback given is challenged – and although it is right that the process can be justified, there is a trend to demand re-marking or expect exact line-by-line breakdown analysis of a submission that is unwarranted.

Sometimes, rules are rules – which might go against the “marketisation” of education.  However, you do not buy, but earn a CIPR qualification.  Students may not like what they are required to do in an assignment – they may find it hard and stressful – but this is the pain, the sweat and tears, that make the qualification worth having at the end.

It is the independence of marking, and the fact that rules are applied, which makes independent study really valuable.  Because when you have passed, you know it is all down to your own hard work. 

Fortunately, the majority of students do appreciate this and are grateful for the support they are given by their tutors, finding feedback informative and ensuring they meet all the requirements specified by assessment.

They know that as tutors we can help and support – but taking ownership and responsibility for studying is what is really valuable for any candidate.  That’s the same in the real world, where those who get on and do what is required – yet demonstrate what real independent thinking can achieve – will succeed, and know they have earned something that money cannot buy.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.