A Survey of Graduate Student Academic and Psychosocial Support Service Needs

Dec 16th, 2010 | Category: Research in Education
By Donna A. Blaess and Cynthia Grant

Abstract

The authors report on an effort undertaken by the Concordia University Chicago, College of Graduate and Innovative Programs’ Care and Concern Task Force to explore and determine the academic and psychosocial support service needs of graduate students seeking master’s and doctoral degrees. A survey was developed and administered to on-campus, cohort site, and fully online program students through the University’s webmail system. The survey consisted of both closed-ended rating scale items and open-ended qualitative items. The survey was designed to determine students’ awareness and current use of as well as level of satisfaction with existing services and how services could be improved to better meet student needs. A majority of respondents were not aware of existing support services. When a service had been used at least once, students reported being somewhat or fully satisfied. No significant differences were found in satisfaction among the on-campus, cohort site, and fully online students. Recommendations for infrastructural and qualitative improvements in graduate student support services as well as the future direction of the Care and Concern Task Force are discussed in the context of CUC’s core values.

Keywords: graduate students, support services, student needs, student success, academic transitions

For the past 50 years, the study of student development has informed the examination of retention, attrition, and student satisfaction at the undergraduate level (Pascarella &Terenzini, 2005; Pascarella, 2006). In contrast, graduate students and their specific academic and developmental needs have been remarkably absent in ongoing discussions and the professional literature in higher education (Gardner, 2009).

Since the 1990s, largely due to initiatives undertaken by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (Golde & Walker, 2006; Walker, Golde, Jones, Bueschel, & Hutchings, 2008), the Council of Graduate Schools (2010), and independent, academic researchers such as Lovitts (2001; 2007) and Nettles and Millet (2006), much more is known about institutional structural and process variables that contribute to completion rates among doctoral students. Similar to the syndrome of the middle child, however, the needs of master’s degree level students are all but dismissed in the literature. The apparent dismissal and scarcity of knowledge about the needs of students seeking master’s degrees and the variables that may ultimately influence degree completion are noteworthy. Still, relatively little has been reported about the specific academic or psychosocial support services needed or desired by either master’s level or doctoral students to assist them in the transition from undergraduate status to that of graduate student in achieving academic success (Gardner, 2009).

The Care and Concern Task Force

In the spring of 2010, the Concordia University Chicago (CUC), College of Graduate and Innovative Programs’ (GIP) Care and Concern Task Force (CCTF) was charged with exploring academic and psychosocial support services needed and desired by students to ensure academic success. As one initial step, a 39 item survey was developed by the authors (both members of the CCTF) in order to determine students’ awareness and current use of identified existing services as well as satisfaction. Academic and psychosocial services that were determined by the CCTF to be available to graduate students on campus (“ground based”), at cohort sites, and to fully online learners were included in the survey.

The CCTF survey items addressed eight areas of student support: student support services (called Graduate Program Specialists, GPS’s), online writing support (My Writing Lab, administered by Pearson Education, Inc.), online tutorials for the web-based course management system (Blackboard), computer and online support services (provided by the CougarNet Helpdesk), library services, business services, career services, and clinical counseling services. The survey contained closed-ended rating scale items and open-ended qualitative items. The closed-ended items allowed respondents to indicate frequency of use and rate existing services; the open-ended questions allowed respondents to describe how CUC services could be improved. In addition, students were asked to provide demographic information, such as age, ethnicity, enrollment status, number of years enrolled within GIP, employment status, and living situation. A final write-in question asked, “What services would you like to see made available to GIP students?”

The survey offered a mixed method approach to allow the CCTF to explore, describe, and determine the current use of existing CUC academic and psychosocial support services as reported by graduate students. At the same time, graduate student respondents were given an opportunity to provide suggestions for how services could be improved to better meet their needs.

In May 2010, the survey was emailed to all currently enrolled CUC graduate students, 3,920 master’s level students and 239 doctoral students, via the CUC webmail system. Students were given two weeks to respond and return the survey.

Results

Two hundred seventy six or 15.1% of the GIP students completed the survey. Of the 276 respondents, 13% (n=36) were on-campus students, 76.1% (n=210) were cohort students who meet off-campus at various locations throughout the Chicago area for coursework, and 10.9% (n=30) were fully online, distance learners. Consistent with GIP enrollment, the majority of respondents, 86.6% (n=239), were female and enrolled full time.

One hundred thirteen or 41.2% of the respondents had been enrolled at CUC for less than one year. One hundred nine or 39.8% of the respondents had been enrolled for more than one, but less than two years. Forty-seven or 17.2% had been enrolled for between two and three years; and, finally, five or 1.8% of the respondents had been enrolled at CUC for more than three years.

A majority of respondents reported that they had never used My Writing Lab (87.7%), Blackboard tutorials (62.8%), career services (93.5%), or clinical counseling services (99.8%). Student support services (i.e., GPS’s) had never been used by 47.4% of the respondents; 49.8% reported that they had never used the CougarNet Helpdesk; 45.3% reported that they had never used library services; and, 16.7% reported that they had never used business services.

Students who reported using academic support services at least once were asked to rate how well the services met their needs. As depicted in Table 1, when students used a support service, the service was described to have “somewhat” or “fully” met their needs.

Table 1. Student Satisfaction with Academic Support Services

Blaess and Grant Survey of Grad Student Support TABLE 1

Due to the limited availability, general lack of awareness of availability, and use by only one survey respondent, satisfaction with the clinical counseling services on campus is not reported above.

Between-group comparisons were analyzed to determine if significant differences existed in academic services meeting the needs of on-campus, cohort, and online learners. The response categories on the survey to determine if services that had been used met students’ needs included “did not meet my needs,” “minimally met my needs,” “somewhat met my needs,” and “fully met my needs.” Due to the rank ordered categories of this item, a Kruskal-Wallis test was completed to compare on-campus, cohort and online student satisfaction. Results indicated no statistically significant differences in satisfaction among groups with respect to My Writing Lab™, business services, or the services of GPS’s. However, Blackboard tutorials best met the needs of online students, X2 (2, n= 276)= 11.09, p= .004. Similarly, the CougarNet Helpdesk best met the needs of online students, X2 (2, 274)= 17.78, p < .001. Library services best met the needs of on-campus students, X2 (2, n= 273)= 8.02, p= .018, while career services was reported to “minimally” or “did not” meet student needs in any group.

Open-ended survey questions allowed students to describe how each support service could be improved. Across all services, students provided numerous recommendations for improvement. For reporting purposes here, only general qualitative themes that emerged are described.

With regard to My Writing Lab™, Blackboard™ tutorials, career services, and clinical counseling services, respondents requested that greater awareness of availability be established through increased outreach and communication. Numerous respondents indicated that they did not know that the aforementioned services were available to graduate students (e.g., “I didn’t know that they existed.” “I didn’t know there was any … advertise it more.”).

The need for improved customer service to students emerged as an overarching theme. Suggestions from students included requests for greater “friendliness,” “willingness to help,” “individualized communication,” “promptness in responding,” and “more sensitivity and concern” to student needs with regard to the CougarNet Helpdesk, business services, and the GPS’s. Issues of greater availability, alternative means of availability (e.g., email and electronic forms and submissions), and convenience also emerged for the CougarNet Helpdesk and business services. Respondents requested that the GPS student support services providers be better informed and more accurate in communicating current CUC policies and procedures.

Suggestions to improve library services included “a webinar on how to access library services online,” greater ease in navigating the library website (e.g., “It was difficult to find things online”), and access to more full-text databases. In addition, respondents recommended that an information day be held “one Saturday morning each semester” and “more information on what it [the library] offers” be provided.

The final item on the survey asked graduate students what academic and psychosocial services that they would like made available. Although responses were diverse and detailed, six patterns were consistent and discernable. Respondents indicated that the following actions and services were desirable: (a) enhanced communication about existing services, (b) more frequent, consistent, and reliable  programmatic communication, (c) explicit CUC contact information for services and representatives, (d) increased attentiveness to graduate student needs, (e) more informative and individualized academic advising, and (f) improved digital resources such as library databases, technology support, online access to CUC at cohort sites, and e-textbooks.

Discussion

As Walker et al. (2008) assert the doctoral experience is “a complex process of formation.” It is a process that entails “not only the development of intellectual expertise but [also] the growth of the personality, character, habits of heart and mind, and the role that a given discipline is capable of and meant to play in academe and society at large” (p. 8). This assertion is no less true in the master’s degree experience.

Although capable and talented adults, graduate students continue to develop. Master’s degree and doctoral students undergo a number of transitions or developmental phases representing significant changes in their approaches to learning, understanding, and skills as well as their autonomy, self-concept, self-efficacy, maturity, and capability to effectively serve the needs of others through the formation of professional identity. The changes may be positive or negative (Gardner, 2009; Hussey & Smith, 2010). As Hussey and Smith (2010, p. 156) maintain, “It is the chief task of an institution to ensure that the desirable transitions are achieved and the undesirable ones avoided.”

In keeping with the charge set forth for the CCTF, an initial step was taken to craft a purpose statement aligned with the CUC mission and core values as well as a holistic conceptual framework of student academic success and well-being. Additionally, the survey described in this article was developed by the authors and emailed to all GIP currently enrolled students to determine current use of existing services, satisfaction, recommendations for improvement, and service recommendations.

Upon completion of the initial tasks, survey data were collated and analyzed. An enumerated list of 22 specific recommendations was submitted to GIP administration. The categorical dimensions under which recommendations were submitted included intellectual, psychosocial, physical, and spiritual needs of graduate students.

The CCTF concluded that major infrastructural and qualitative improvements are necessary in existing academic and psychosocial support services to ensure graduate student success. The general recommendations of the CCTF are twofold. The first is to secure the services of a qualified Director or Coordinator of Student Services. The role and responsibilities of a Director or Coordinator would include (a) ensuring that quality support services are provided to on-campus, cohort, and online graduate students in a timely and caring manner across all dimensions of services, (b) serving as a key point person for faculty, students, or referrals in need of academic, psychosocial, physical, or spiritual assistance, (c) ensuring that students are directed to appropriate services and service representatives and that services are coordinated and timely, and (d) involving all stakeholders  in the ongoing maintenance, evaluation, and improvement of services.

The second general recommendation is that the participation of a CCTF Task Force be ongoing and evolving with representation and input from each GIP department. Coordination, management, and direction of student support services would reside with the Director or Coordinator of Student Services in conjunction with faculty representation and ideally students from each GIP department.

The survey identification of academic and psychosocial support service needs of graduate students to successfully transition from undergraduate to graduate level status offered the CCTF valuable input and insights. On campus, cohort, and online learners identified similar themes with regard to a desire for greater communication about existing services as well as concomitant needs for increased support and availability of academic advising services, writing assistance, web-based course management, and technology assistance. Also expanded library services, business services, career services, and clinical counseling services emerged as important support needs.

Given CUC’s core values, most particularly the value of service, and the broader intentions of the CUC faculty community as well as the CCTF, it is incumbent on all that the reported needs of graduate students be incorporated into continuous planning for and the future provision of improved academic and psychosocial services. Perhaps, most importantly, the voices of graduate students should be incorporated on an ongoing basis into administrative decisions regarding programmatic service needs.

References

Council of Graduate Schools. (2010). PhD attrition and completion: Policies and practices to promote student success. Washington, DC: Author.

Gardner, S. K. (2009). The development of doctoral students: Phases of challenge and support. ASHE Higher Education Report, 34(6), 1-14.

Golde, C. M., & Walker, G. E. (Eds.). (2006). Envisioning the future of doctoral education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hussey, T., & Smith, P. (2010). Transitions in higher education. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 47(2), 155-164.

Lovitts, B. (2001). Leaving the ivory tower. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Lovitts, B. (2007). Making the implicit explicit Creating performance expectations for the dissertation. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Pascarella, E. T. (2006). How college affects students: Ten directions for future research. Journal of College Student Development, 47(5), 508-520.

Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. (2005). How college affects students (Vol. 2): A third decade of research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nettles, M. T., & Millet, C. M. (2006). Three magic letters Getting to PhD. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Walker, G. E., Golde, C. M., Jones, L., Bueschel, A. C., & Hutchings, P. (2008). Theformation of scholars Rethinking doctoral education for the twenty-first century. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Author Information

Donna A. Blaess, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Leadership, Leadership Department, Concordia University Chicago. She can be contacted at donna.blaess@cuchicago.edu.

Cynthia Grant, PhD, LCSW, is an Assistant Professor of Research, Department of Foundations, Social Policy & Research, Concordia University Chicago. She can be contacted at cynthia.grant@cuchicago.edu. 

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