A few months ago, I met with over 100 undergraduate and graduate students at seven different technical institutions in the Indian states of Maharashtra and Karnataka, as part of the Government of India – World Bank supported Technical Education Quality Improvement Program (TEQIP II). It took a bit of time for all of us to feel comfortable – how awkward can it get when you are summoned to participate in a meeting with a guest visitor? But, ultimately, we were able to talk freely and even joke a bit.
We got down to the heart of things: what would make their academic experiences both intellectually and personally rewarding?
While many of us now longingly reminisce about our years in school, we tend to gloss over what it was really like: being away from home (maybe even being required to speak another language), the pressure to pass exams, eating the same food over and over again, and feeling confused about your future life direction. These are universal feelings and definitely ring true for engineering and science students in India.
I also thought about how difficult it can be to navigate through the first year of university. In India, there is a complex affiliate system as well as other challenges such as figuring out who the best professors are, how to get help if you need it, and how to pursue your extracurricular hobbies while maintaining good marks.
In many technical institutions in India, transition rates from the first to second year (for undergraduates) can be quite low; the average across India is roughly 40%. To lessen the gravity of this, many institutions have come up with student retention plans. Many of these sound very good on paper but, in reality, the actual practices can vary.
To determine the most effective types of student services, I spoke to administrators, faculty members, and students. This is what I learned:
All- not just some- students need supportThere is a tendency for institutions to offer services only after diagnosing the students who are “weak” – those who fail exams, or perform poorly on tests. Institutions who have successfully improved transition rates make programs, like faculty and peer mentorship, available to any student who would like to take advantage of it. This reduces the stigma of being a “weak” student and also allows all students to access both academic and personal help if they need it. Services should be more than just remedial tutoring.
An open access campus can lead to better learningA small but noticeable difference in some of the campuses I visited was the degree of openness; that is, whether or not classrooms, libraries and labs were locked right after class.
Many institutions have ways for students to re-watch lectures. They do these by using inexpensive web cameras to record classes and then uploading them through cloud-based services like Google Drive. Giving students the opportunity to review material, and a space to study together and conduct experiments (sometimes through the use of virtual labs), leads to continuous and flexible learning.
Fostering school spirit can make a differenceWhile many institutions have various student body activities, the intangible but important characteristic of camaraderie is often overlooked.
Student clubs and associations are great ways for students to engage in extracurricular activities but they don’t really produce an overall affinity for the institution. Students self-select clubs based on their own preferences and these groups then bring together individuals with similar interests.
“School spirit” is more about treating students as valued alumni the minute they set foot on campus. One easy way to do this is to host a first-year orientation. Orientations can help set expectations for students, inform them of the various services available, and also promote friendly bonds amongst peers. Fostering school spirit and camaraderie can limit “ragging”, a type of harassment so damaging that the government introduced a national anti-ragging hotline a few years ago.
Investing in students always pays offUltimately, the main thing I took away from my trip was the importance of investing in students – not just financially- but in terms of time and energy.
All of the institutions I visited had support services that take the entire student experience- not just academic success- into account. These students will become the future researchers, business leaders, and engineers of India. Some may even one day be sitting on the Board of Governors as esteemed alumni and make important decisions that affect the next generation of students.
To read more about student support services, please see Technical Education in India: Student Success: Which Support Systems Work .
Find out more about the World Bank Group’s work on education on Twitter and Flipboard.