‘The student experience’ is a phrase much used but, if anyone had doubted it, the Covid-19 pandemic has made clear that we don’t have ‘the student experience’ – we have as many student experiences as students.
Of course, this was always true, but the reaction of students to learning in the pandemic has made this very clear indeed. To illustrate, a snapshot survey recently looking at how our students feel online learning is going gave us 2.9% in the bottom two categories (worst imaginable/awful) while in the top two categories (best imaginable/excellent) we had 26% of our students.
In between those extremes there was a curve of normal distribution. If the sector ever doubted it, there can be no doubt now: there is no such thing as ‘the student experience.’
So, capturing student voices has been critical in planning going forward. At the University of Westminster, we have taken a multi-layered approach to doing that, working closely with the Students’ Union. Together we have made use of student voice panels, pulse surveys, Q&As and digital representation tools to understand students’ different experiences. And, of course, we also make use of module evaluations.
Module evaluations are obviously very valuable in giving us an insight at modular level into how students are feeling. And while quantitative data provides a useful benchmark and comparator, the qualitative feedback for us has been crucial because it gives a rich insight into different experiences.
For example, for those students who are positive about online learning, the reasons for this vary. Some are anxious about their health – or their loved ones’ health – and are grateful to us for allowing then to learn online. Some cannot get to the UK, so learning online is a necessity. And some have loved it because they have been working or caring while doing their degree – and this means that probably for the first time ever they can manage things without too much of a struggle.
In terms of closing the loop on students’ feedback, the more you understand different student needs, the greater the challenge. So, working very closely to understand high level themes in student feedback is valuable and we have used the qualitative feedback to identify these.
For example, ‘digital poverty’ (which we prefer to describe as ‘digital inclusion’) was a theme in our feedback. Some students reported lack of an appropriate device, connectivity, study space or expertise. Once we understood the detail, we were able to respond by increasing laptop loans, mailing out dongles for internet connectivity, developing online support and creating bookable study spaces on campus. Drilling into the qualitative feedback has enabled us to respond to those individual needs.
Just thinking about those different student experiences in depth really drives thinking about why some students can find it harder to achieve than others, what the barriers are, and what can be done to lift them. And that can only be a good thing.
About Dr Sal Jarvis
Dr Sal Jarvis is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Education at the University of Westminster. Dr Jarvis was a panelist on Explorance’s ‘Engaging the Student Voice in Our New Normal’ webinar, which was held on March 3rd 2021, and which can be viewed here.
Guest blog•Higher education•Student Experience Management•Student feedback•Surveys•