Nigerian Students' Perceptions of Academic Departments as a Teaching and Learning Environment
Okwilagwe, E. A., Research in Education
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. …