For some decades now, systematic analysis of the learning environment, otherwise called the academic environment, has been on the increase in American universities and colleges and to some extent in British and European universities. There have also been attempts to use certain criteria to delineate the extent of the academic environment. For instance, some investigators have used quantifiable characteristics of the environment such as the number of students, the size of the university, among others (Winteler, 1981), while Stern (1970) measured the learning environment by an `Organisational Climate Index'. Another early attempt to delineate the academic environment was by Pace (1960, 1972), who developed and measured students' perception of their environment by means of the `College and University Environment Scales'.
It is pertinent to note that extensive efforts to measure the academic environment were made at the lower levels of the educational system, where Frazer (1986), Frazer and Walberg (1991), cited in Frazer (1993), among others, did many research studies and their findings have provided great insights into classroom learning environments. However, studies of the university environment are not as numerous as those of the lower levels of education. Frazer (1993) attributes the trend to a dearth of measuring instruments at that level.
The role played by students by way of expressing their views through selfreport is crucial in analysing the environment. For instance, Paulsen and Feldman (1995) observed that teachers, the courses they teach and how they teach can be evaluated through classroom assessment. Also, students' perceptions provide information on subtle but important aspects of classroom life (Frazer, 1994). Similarly, the validity and reliability of students' assessments of their teachers and learning environment are no longer a bone of contention (Onocha, 1995, 1996; Ramsden, 1979). Frazer (1993, p. 494) puts it succinctly:
Students have a good vantage point to make judgements about classrooms because they have encountered many different learning environments and have enough time in a class to form accurate impressions ... even if teachers are inconsistent in their day-to-day behaviour, they usually project a consistent image of the long-standing attributes of classroom environment.
Research on students' perception of their academic environment (Ramsden, 1979; Gaff et al., 1979; Winteler, 1981) indicates a consensus that distinct and varied cultures exist in the environment. Frazer (1994) observed that the environment, climate, atmosphere, tone, ethos or ambience of a classroom exert a strong influence on students' behaviour, attitudes and achievement. Recent studies such as Lamport (1994) and Baird (1992) also found that the factor of 'student-faculty interaction' as perceived by students has a positive influence on their personal and intellectual growth, career and educational goals. Consequent upon this, the authors advocated increased and improved student-faculty interaction in tertiary institutions. In spite of these established facts, students' views on the learning environment are the area which has been least investigated in Nigeria. There is a dearth of literature in this area of study in Nigeria. This seems to suggest that, in spite of the outcry about improving the environment for students, nothing much has been done to focus systematic research on the area.
Studies such as Onocha (1995, 1996), which serve as forerunners, concentrated largely on students' evaluation of the teaching effectiveness of university teachers. Moreover, these studies are localised within one university and are therefore somewhat restricted. In view of these shortcomings, Okwilagwe (2000) developed and applied an instrument to identify the factors that influence the academic climate in the Nigerian university system. The study found that six factors - the commitment to teaching of lecturers/commitment expected of students; personal attention to students; relations with students; freedom of students' learning; academic guidance and respect for students - appeared to dominate the academic environment associated with undergraduates.
In the light of the foregoing, the purpose of the present study, a follow-up of the aforementioned one (Okwilagwe, 2000), examined, comparatively, the perception of students of their academic environment in five departments (Mathematics and Chemistry, Faculty of Science; Teacher Education, Faculty of Education; Economics, Faculty of Social Science; English, Faculty of Arts) in three Nigerian universities. The study also examined the similarities and differences between these departments in the different universities and suggested ways in which academic/administrative practices and academic environment could be improved to engender effective teaching and learning in the Nigerian university system.
In order to effectively carry out this study, the following research questions were examined:
1 What are the students' perceptions of their academic environments?
2 In what areas does the academic climate in these environments differ?
3 What are the areas of similarity in the academic climate in these environments?
4 In what ways can university practice and the academic experience of students be improved?
Sample. The subjects were 348 final-year university undergraduates selected through stratified and judgemental sampling procedures. They were aged between 20 and 29 years.
Instruments. The Scale of Academic Environmental Factors (SAEF) consisted of twenty-seven items which were subdivided into six scales by means of factor analysis. It measured the quality of the academic climate as perceived by students. The students responded to a five-point Likert scale questionnaire in which the polarity was reversed for negative items. The six dimensions of SAEF were adapted from Gaff et al. (1976) and Ramsden (1979). As explained in Frazer (1993, 1994) the dimensions of SAEF are closely related to the 'University Environment Scale' classification scheme of Moos (1974) in that his dimensions of relationship, personal development and system maintenance and change between students and their environment are reflected in the items that make up SAEF. Construct validity and internal consistency were established for SAEF using Cronbach coefficient alpha, and the reliability coefficients for the dimensions were between 0.53 and 0.77. SAEF accounted for a total variance of 51.6 per cent on the criterion of academic environment (Okwilagwe, 2000).
Procedure. The instrument was administered to the students in the last semester of their four-year programme. By implication, the timing presupposed that the students would have adjusted to their academic environment to the extent that their perception of the learning environment would be relatively stable.
Data were analysed using descriptive statistics such as percentage frequency counts. This enabled the information gathered to be presented in profiles. ANOVA and Scheffe's comparison of means were used to test for significant difference between the academic departments.
Results and discussion
The results illustrating students' perception of their academic environment are presented in Table 1 and in profile in Figure 1. Only the items which characterised a greater number of students' departments, in terms of whether they were present or absent, were analysed. In order to avoid duplication of common responses given by students, only those items whose percentage response ranked above average across the four faculties/departments were discussed. These items and their corresponding responses in percentages are denoted b in Table 1.
The results in Table 1 and Figure 1 indicate the various academic cultures in the different faculties/departments. For instance, the majority of students in the sciences (Mathematics and Chemistry), education (Teacher Education), the social sciences (Economics) and the arts (English) indicated that they are 'expected to be very committed in their work' (96 per cent, 96 per cent, 93 per cent and 95 per cent respectively), 'be absolutely committed to work' (95 per cent, 97 per cent, 89 per cent and 96 per cent respectively) and 'regularly attend classes' (89 per cent, 73 per cent, 69 per cent and 87 per cent respectively). Also 'they indicated that the courses they offered made them confident in facing the demands of their vocation' (87 per cent, 75 per cent, 86 per cent and 84 per cent respectively). Similarly they indicated that 'they were to submit course assignments on time or be penalised' (95 per cent, 97 pet cent, 89 per cent and 96 per cent respectively) while 'clear information was often given with respect to course assignments and tests' (68 per cent, 58 per cent, 74 per cent and 67 per cent respectively), and that 'commitment to teaching of lecturers gave them a modest feeling of great worth' (68 per cent, 67 per cent, 50 per cent and 55 per cent respectively). In addition they indicated that 'students have fair access to information' (60 per cent, 69 per cent, 60 per cent and 60 per cent respectively) and that 'lecturers were modestly innovative in teaching' (76 per cent, 66 per cent, 60 per cent and 55 per cent respectively).
Besides the positive aspects of the academic climate as denoted b in Table 1, students equally revealed the lack of some positive characteristics of an academic climate in their departments. The results, presented in Table 2, show that except for Education, students in other faculties expressed the view that 'there was no room for students' interaction with lecturers outside their faculties' (52.3 per cent, 50 per cent and 50.7 per cent for students in science, social sciences and the arts respectively), while those in the sciences and social sciences indicated that there was no time to concentrate on courses of academic interest to them (48 per cent and 51 per cent respectively) and that there was 'very little contact between lecturers and students outside the classroom' (46 per cent and 49 per cent respectively). With the exception of social science students, a small percentage of other students asserted that 'they hardly discussed career plans and ambitions with faculty members' (49 per cent, 49 per cent and 47 per cent for sciences, social sciences and the arts respectively). Students in the Faculty of Arts expressed the view that 'they were not allowed a free hand in course selection' in their faculty (45 per cent) while 60 per cent of students in Education 'do not discuss their academic problems with lecturers'.
The areas in which the academic climates in the faculties of the universities were different are presented in Table 3a and Figure 1. These differences were significant at (F ratio 4.5127,3.8806 and 4.0894; df = 3.344, p < 0.05) respectively.
The results in Table 3b-d further show that these significant differences reflect in the way Mathematics/Chemistry and Teacher Education give 'personal attention to their students', the way Teacher Education and English departments 'relate with their students', and the way the Departments of Economics and of Teacher Education 'give academic guidance' to their students.
The academic climate in the departments was similar in some ways. Table 4, in conjunction with Figure 1, indicates that there was no significant difference between the departments in the commitment of lecturers to teaching/the commitment expected from the students (as indicated by items 1, 3-7 and 8), freedom in students' learning (indicated by items 19 and 20) and respect for students (indicated by item 27) at F ratio 2.3323, 1.1430 and 1.2281, df 3:344, p > 0.05) respectively.
The results with respect to research question 4 indicate that suggestions for improving practice and students' university experience are clustered largely around eight areas.
On the issue of student-faculty interaction, 63 per cent of the students advocated 'an open-door policy which allows a more cordial relationship to develop between students and lecturers'. According to them, this would encourage a situation where academic problems could be discussed in the universities. A good proportion of the students, 20 per cent, also indicated that lecturers should be more interested in students' problems, 'making themselves approachable outside the classroom', while 15 per cent expressed the need for an improved student-lecturer classroom interaction'.
On academic performance-related matters, 43 per cent of the students indicated a need for improvement in teaching standards, the provision of teaching and learning facilities and equipment for practical work, 23 per cent indicated that 'lecturers should be punctual to lectures and provide valuable feedback on tests and examinations', 3 per cent indicated that 'a review of the academic content of some courses was necessary to make than relevant in modern times', while 18 per cent indicated that 'students should be allowed to make a substantial contribution to issues relating to their academic courses'.
On students' attitude to academic work, 23 per cent indicated that lecturers should emphasise the need for regular and punctual attendance at lectures and for students to show more commitment to their academic work, while lecturers should refrain from generalising about students' not taking their studies seriously enough because not all are guilty. The results also show that 15 per cent expressed the 'need to impose stiff penalties on students who fail to submit assignments or engage in examination malpractices' while only 3 per cent indicated that students whose performance is outstanding should be encouraged.
With respect to the provision of academic resources and other support systems, 23 per cent are of the view that 'the libraries should be stocked with up-to-date books, journals and reference materials'. As many as 13 per cent of the students expressed the need for ' guidance on registration for courses so as to avoid registering for irrelevant courses' and a review of 'the recently introduced Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) method of assessment'. In addition, 8 per cent wanted tutorials to be organised for students, while 5 per cent felt that 'existing counselling services should be improved and put within easy reach of students'. Only 5 per cent of the students indicated that 'enlightenment programmes on career prospects in their chosen discipline should be organised for them early at the 100-200 levels of their programmes'.
On the provision of information and the effectiveness of the approach to communication, 10 per cent of the students said that there should be a 'free flow of information between students and lecturers on the one hand and between students and administrative staff on the other', while 3 per cent felt that there should be 'effective communication between the university administration and students on student-related matters'. Moreover, 13 per cent said that 'non-academic members of staff should be more responsive to students' needs and they should be made more responsible for them'.
On the provision of accommodation and other amenities, 20 per cent of the students felt that their accommodation, hostel facilities and amenities such as lighting and running water should be improved, while 3 per cent felt that adequate recreational facilities should be provided in addition to the physical environment being kept clean for aesthetic reasons.
With respect to suggestions about other issues relating to administrative and policy matters, 3 per cent felt that there should be a more restrictive policy on admissions so as to reduce the pressure on facilities, while 3 per cent felt that the culture of accountability should be absorbed by university administrators. In addition, 18 per cent of the students felt that university staff should be adequately motivated by the authorities to meet their demands in time.
On the issue of technological development, 20 per cent were of the view that computer education should be provided for all students while the whole university system should have adequate computer facilities and be connected to the internet in order to keep abreast of global development.
One of the major findings of the study was that different academic climates exist in the various departments of an academic institution. For instance, in the Mathematics and Chemistry Departments (Faculty of Science), the consensus of the majority of the students is that relations between lecturers and students are formal and less friendly than they might be, as there is little or no contact outside the class and faculty. This corroborates Ramsden (1979), who found that students were expected to be very committed and dedicated to their academic work, doing assignments and examinations and attending lectures regularly. The students, however, felt they did not have enough time to concentrate on the courses of most interest, although they had been given a free hand in selecting courses. Students were quite accessible to information, while lecturers had a strong influence on their intellectual development. In addition, the courses offered were full of the practical issues relevant to the students' vocations. These findings corroborate Gaff et al. (1976) and Ramsden (1979).
In the Teacher Education Department (Faculty of Education) students held the view that the relationship between students and lecturers, unlike in the English Department, was very formal. However, there was a consensus that, unlike in the Economics Department, less academic guidance was given by their lecturers, despite the seemingly informal, co-operative learning environment outside the class and the faculty. The personal attention paid to students by lecturers on academic matters and the availability of information differ considerably from the situation in the English Department. In addition, the students were not convinced that the courses on offer included enough of the practical skills necessary for a vocation.
Students of the Department of Economics (Faculty of Social Sciences) were of the view that the process of learning is formal. This finding contradicts Ramsden's (1979) findings. Student-faculty interaction was minimal. Academic guidance was adequate compared with the Faculty of Education, as feedback on examinations, discussion of academic study plans and problems was possible. However, students said they had not enough time to concentrate on the courses of their choice. This finding corroborates Ramsden's (1979) view that 'students think that they have too little time to concentrate on subjects that really interest them'. The students felt also that it was difficult for them to know how they were doing academically. It was their perception that the lecturers were not very committed to their lectures yet total commitment was expected of them. The students were expected to attend lectures regularly, do their assignments and submit them on schedule, and sit their tests and examinations
In the Department of English (Faculty of Arts) students were of the view that the relationship between lecturers and students was very formal. Few were sure they had enough time to concentrate on the courses they were interested in or that students doing poorly received help in the form of counselling or guidance, although they were expected to be very committed to their academic work, attend lectures regularly and cope with assignments, tests and examinations. The students also indicated that they were not free to select their own courses, nor was there adequate guidance in terms of giving them feedback about examinations and close supervision of their work.
Another significant finding of the study was that some deficiencies were common to many departmental cultures. The consensus among students would seem to suggest that in more than one department lecturers were not seen as sufficiently committed to teaching yet students were expected to be completely committed, attending lectures without fail, submitting assignments on time and taking tests and examinations. Most students also had a considerable amount of discretion in choosing and organising what they want to learn. It is worth observing that two teacher qualities - punctuality at lectures and innovativeness in teaching - were consistently rated low by students in English and Economics Departments as against Education, Mathematics and Chemistry. This spells a negative implication for teaching and learning in the two departments.
The study equally revealed that a significant difference does exist between faculties/departments on pertinent aspects of the intellectual, social and psychological climate in the academic environment. Differences exist between some departments in the personal attention given to students in terms of student-faculty interaction, the academic guidance students are given and relations with students in terms of the help and understanding they are given. These are strong indications of the existence of different cultures in the academic environment, and the extent of the rapport that is established between students and lecturers. Whether these differences exist because of the distinct curricular requirements peculiar to each discipline/department or are 'man-made', as suggested in Gaff et al. (1976), is a question that would require further investigation. The findings tend to suggest that a formal and businesslike academic climate exists in Economics Departments (social sciences) unlike the informal climate reported by Gaff et al. (1976) and Ramsden (1979), while the formal and businesslike atmosphere pervading the sciences (Mathematics and Chemistry) seems to corroborate the findings of previous investigations.
The students who participated in the study made suggestions for improvements in practice and their university experience (academic environment). Their suggestions touched on varied aspects of university, from academic issues to student-lecturer relations: the provision of better resources and other academic support systems, the need for students to show commitment to their work, improved accommodation and amenities, more information, effective communication and responsiveness on the part of non-academic staff, other issues relating to administrative and policy matters and issues of technological development.
There is no denying that frequent student-faculty or student-lecturer interaction, formal or informal, according to Endo and Harpel (1982) and Lamport (1994) is essential to the realisation of the academic aspirations of most university students. A sympathetic ear now and again can go a long way towards therapy for physical and emotional problems well before actual remedies suggest themselves. To a large extent these claims seems to be confirmed to by most of the students' suggestions. Students value an academic environment where lecturers take an interest in their problems and are accessible and approachable, and a classroom atmosphere conducive to effective teaching and learning through proper student-lecturer interaction.
Students put a high premium on a learning environment where facilities are modern and adequate, teaching standards are high and lecturers are committed to their work, information is readily available, the physical surroundings are attractive, halls of residence are comfortable and modern recreational facilities are provided. Perhaps, since they know what it means to have a sound education, they are concerned about their prospects, as some courses are out of date and have little real utility, given the way practical classes are handled and the state of the laboratories.
Students recognise that if they are to win better academic conditions they have a significant role to play in bringing change about. They recognise that their success depends heavily on the level of commitment they bring to their academic work. While not all guilty of indolence, they admitted that some needed to face up to the challenges of academic work, attending classes more conscientiously, writing term papers/assignments on schedule, desisting from exam malpractices or face the stiff penalties meted out to those guilty of cheating. In addition, they expect academic support systems - in terms of organising tutorials, guidance at appropriate times, improved and accessible counselling services, encouragement for outstanding students, non-academic staff responding to their needs, feedback on examinations, functional libraries and opportunities to contribute meaningfully in matters relating to their academic well-being.
Students are encouraged by a university system where effective communication and dialogue with them are top priority in resolving issues, and administrators are firm on policy issues such as admission control, where a maintenance culture is imbibed, where accountability is the watchword and where a responsible administration is sensitive to their teachers' welfare. Students are, however, concerned at the slow pace of technological progress as reflected in the continuing failure to computerise the universities and open up the Internet to them.
In conclusion, the study indicates the existence of distinct cultures in the various disciplines/departments in an academic environment. Students' responses on the academic environment scale served not only as a measure of their perceptions but as a device for assessing the quality of courses, lecturers, and the organisation and management of the programmes designed for them. The findings in respect of lecturers' commitment to teaching, attention to students, academic guidance and regard for students have implications for teaching and learning in Nigerian tertiary institutions. It is reasonable to expect that in addition to giving quality academic guidance lecturers should be fully committed to their lectures, as they have the motivational power to get students interested in the courses they teach. Faculty members (academic and non-academic) should provide an enhancing and supportive academic environment which encourages students to develop a positive attitude to academic work as well as high academic achievement.
The students' suggestions for improving practice and the university experience are further indications of the need for change and modernisation of the university environment in Nigeria through the restructuring of programmes, policies and procedures to make the system more dynamic. The university personnel (lecturers and administrators) students and other stakeholders in tertiary education should develop a seriousness of purpose that would enable the Nigerian university system to attain its desired goals.
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E. A. Okwilagwe University of Ibadan, Nigeria
Address for correspondence
Institute of Education, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria. E-mail email@example.com…