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It’s amazing what we can learn from students when we listen

What happens when students tell us about their lives rather than their opinions? Nick Glover, Rachele Salvatelli, Tobias Palma and Dilvin D Usta ask us to sit comfortably.
This article is more than 2 years old

Nick Glover is Student Voice & Insight Manager, University of York SU

Rachele Salvatelli is a PhD researcher at the University of York

Tobias Palma is a PhD researcher at the University of York

Dilvin D Usta is an associate lecturer at the University of York

One missing component from the otherwise excellent HEPI collection of essays on the student voice is a critical reflection on the value of student stories in helping universities understand students’ needs, views and experiences.

Students’ personal and emotional narratives – told in their own words and with full creative licence – tell us a lot about students’ identities and the pathways and barriers to academic engagement.

Crucially, personal reflections on remote learning and teaching during the lockdown revealed a lot about the emotional, cognitive and social processes of learning – as well as the range of factors influencing students’ diverse experiences of the pandemic.

Insights like this can enhance our understanding of how to design learning environments that are authentic, student-centred and engaging – whether face-to-face, online or blended.

Here we report on key findings and recommendations from a storytelling project we undertook at the University of York called Life in Lockdown – but there are lessons for providers everywhere, both in the approach and the findings.

Lives not just opinions

We often poll students on their opinions on a service or an issue – and we often invite representatives to contribute to decision making and policy development. But a lot of those student voice processes tend to have a service, course, project or issue as the “object”. What happens if we just focus on the reality of students’ lives?

With that question on our mind, in spring 2020 the SU at the University of York (YUSU) launched something called the “Life in Lockdown” project – using personal narratives and storytelling to identify the complexities of students’ lived experiences during the first lockdown.

Funded by the University of York via the access and participation plan, the project aimed to engage particularly with students identifying as BAME, working class and/or disabled.

Forty three students shared their experiences, digitally, using a range of mediums – including written narratives, combinations of text and images, artwork, photovoice and personalised video stories. This approach, often called digital storytelling (DST), allowed students’ greater space to influence the research and produced highly personalised and creative narratives.

This rich data enabled us to grapple with issues of identity and explore the impact of lockdown on students’ everyday lives, particularly their experiences of learning and teaching within remote environments. We aimed to shine a light on unseen struggles, challenges and experiences and also to inform future approaches to student engagement, learning and teaching and access and participation.

Shared across the stories was a focus on the ways in which lockdown changed or influenced students’ engagement with their learning. The stories highlighted the complexity of engagement for each student – uniquely influenced by where they lived and learned and the interplay between their backgrounds, identities, skills and motivations and the decisions made by the University. They helped us learn more about the unequal impacts of lockdown on the ‘less represented’ students we targeted.

Teaching and learning

Many of the stories represented a kind of nostalgia for the social dimension of teaching and learning – the physical rooms, the face-to-face discussions, meeting and seeing friends.

Students talked about feeling disconnected from their learning:

However, I still never seemed to adapt to the virtual learning space and teaching online. I felt so switched off even though the laptop was fully on. I just could not seem to engage in anything my lecturers or seminar tutors were telling me, never mind the reading I had to do with whatever self-motivation still lingered”

….and from each other:

It’s the fact that I can see them, but I can’t really see them. What about her facial expressions; the incline of his chin; the way she twirls her hair around her finger when she’s nervous? I can’t pick up these clues anymore”

High-profile polling has tended to simplify messages about post-pandemic preferences for the student experience – but the narratives we found were more complex than simply longing for face-to-face teaching.

Many students described how the lack of connectedness and sociality within virtual classrooms triggered a lack of belief in their capacity to learn in the remote environment, which in turn caused a lack of motivation.

Conversely, some students found the online classroom liberating – “like a level playing field” – and others enjoyed being able to watch lectures at their own pace, finding motivation in the task of re-watching sessions and filling in the gaps.

The key implication from our research for teaching was not just about students wanting to get back into the classroom – although we know that’s what they favour on the whole – but about refocusing on courses and pedagogies that effectively engage students emotionally, socially and cognitively.

Space matters

Another common theme across the stories was the depiction of the university as a motivating environment contrasted with the family home, which was often associated with a lack of productivity:

Why do I feel like I’m entitled to the whole day off at home’ and ‘the home is so comfortable and familiar that work inevitably ‘invades’ the space”

Interestingly, being away from traditional learning spaces made students more critical about their learning strategies during lockdown. They grappled with “being a student” in a domestic setting, often feeling like they were suppressing aspects of their student identities, particularly in relation to learning and social opportunities.

This raises interesting questions about how to develop online and distance learners’ sense of being a student and their connection to the university.

The stories also reminded us that students’ social and physical environments can influence their emotions, thoughts and behaviours, which can in turn influence their capacity to motivate themselves. Space clearly matters – and universities should be concerned about where students are living and learning and particularly whether university accommodation and spaces are positive environments for learning and fostering belonging.

Old and new modes of exclusion

Whilst the family home was represented as both a site of struggle and support in the majority of stories, there were of course differences in lived experiences.

Access to resources – wifi, laptops, work space – was a key influence on some students’ capacity to engage in learning:

My Dad is a key worker, and so has to work from his office some days, but now it’s gradually transitioned to more work at home. Now this working from home involves a lot of Zoom calls, emails, phone calls and other things involving the internet connection. This ended up taking up even more time from my studies as I could access even less from the internet, and on some occasions my Dad would have to take my laptop entirely as his wouldn’t work and he’d use mine…..”

These narratives remind us that education does not occur within a vacuum, it is entangled with the material and social worlds of students. Inevitably, some students struggled to engage more than others during lockdown. Several students directly highlighted issues of disadvantage:

I must say though, it really is not that inclusive to assume everyone has the facilities to engage in online working, it is a privileged perspective to guess that everyone has working internet, a free and quiet work space, or just a fully-functioning laptop at all”.

Covid-19 and the transition to emergency remote teaching has reinforced the usual lines of disadvantage in higher education, but has also created new modes of exclusion:

I also have faced some barriers. Due to growing financial uncertainty, my family and I have struggled to maintain food costs and other household bills. As money has been tight for my family, we have been strictly budgeting to ensure other costs can be upheld. Having this burden has been stressful for us all……


The stories shone a light on how policy decisions and assessment strategies can have major impacts on students’ learning engagement.

First year students expressed the challenge of motivating themselves when all their assessments were changed to formatives and they were automatically passed for the first year:

…..I am a first year student and all my exams and assessments were cancelled. I can not lie, I was very relieved. However, without the panic and extrinsic motivation from exams and assessments, a small part of my brain questioned if doing online university work was worth it”.

Other students linked their lack of motivation with the university’s decision to implement a “Safety Net” policy. Whilst the consensus across the narratives was that the “Safety Net” was extremely welcomed, providing reassurance and comfort during a difficult time, it was also depicted as a barrier to motivation – “an excuse not to revise”.

Finally, whilst students talked of the challenges of doing assessments at home, they were largely positive about the university’s use of open book exams, which were associated with deeper learning and engagement:

Never did I think I would be sitting my university exams in my room, on my laptop, in my own time. This presented both challenges and opportunities. Rather than cramming countless information and producing revision flash cards, I did not have to worry about my memory turning into that of a goldfish during my exam! Instead at times I was left feeling really assured knowing that the exams were now open book. All the information would be presented in front of me. I simply had to apply it”

Covid-19 has presented the Sector sith a wonderful opportunity to re-examine (pun intended!) the way we think about assessments. We’re saying it proud and loud – unseen timed exams should only be used if there are good learning reasons. They should not be the default.

Implementing the learning

Key recommendations from our research include:

  1. We must foreground the idea that engagement with the university – courses, resources, staff and activities – will always be impacted if students do not have effective and equitable access. For universities and SUs, this means recognising that student engagement is impacted by space, place, time and a whole range of personal and structural forces.
  2. Practically, universities must create flexible mechanisms to systematically identify and respond to students’ diverse access needs and continue to fund resources such as laptops, WiFi and accommodation.
  3. A renewed focus on accessibility in learning design is required. Universities must explore how student-centred approaches can develop inclusive and flexible learning environments, moving away from fixed timetables, spaces, equipment requirements and modes of assessment.
  4. The post-lockdown moment has offered an opportunity to think holistically about the value of student-centred approaches in higher education. Student-centeredness demands a focus on what students actually need to lean, how to enhance student-student and student-staff connections, and how to better involve learners in co-designing learning environments.
  5. In terms of assessment, we were particularly inspired by Sally Brown and Kay Sambell’s ideas on transforming assessment approaches post-Covid. Supporting their key recommendation, our stories highlighted the need for assessment strategies that are authentic, life-relevant, flexible and enable students to develop and demonstrate skills as well as knowledge. We love their radical idea of providing students the choice of doing their summative assessments when they’re ready.

Stories are powerful

It’s positive to see universities like Exeter critically exploring the impact of policies – such as “no-detriment” – on students and the awarding gaps. It’s even more positive to see them acknowledge that assessment design has a major influence on both maintaining and transforming existing awarding gaps.

But how do we truly come to know how certain assessment strategies or policies impact specific groups of students? How do we access those lived experiences, those differences, that complexity?

Datasets only take us so far. To avoid narrow assumptions about causality, performance indicators need to be supplemented by student stories.

What if we explored the impact of post-lockdown assessment strategies by listening to students’ narratives, systematically, at different points of the lifecycle?

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how their experiences and perceptions change, over time, and explore the dynamic factors impacting their engagement.

We could even integrate these reflections into their assessments, couldn’t we?

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