Listening to students over time surfaces complexity and depth

Most student feedback is a snapshot in time - but what happens if we listen over a longer period? Ria Bluck gets longitudinal

Ria Bluck is an Educational Research and Evaluation Specialist at Nottingham Trent University

Student feedback is an important feature in higher education, enabling us to understand what is and is not working on a course, while empowering students to influence their own academic experience.

Most established feedback channels act as quantitative snapshots of the course, which are scalable and allow for robust comparisons to be made.

But it is arguable that, alone, these snapshots are not enough to explore the complexity and breadth of the student experience – and because of this, we often make assumptions about why changes over time have occurred or why certain groups of students might be more, or less, satisfied with their learning than others.

So recently there has been an emerging focus upon the benefits of using longitudinal qualitative data to add value to snapshot feedback in higher education.

At Nottingham Trent University (NTU) our Student 2025 project has been designed to provide the much needed detail and context to student feedback and ratings – following a sample of 100 NTU undergraduate students throughout their university experience.

It involves interviewing and surveying students once a term on topics relating to their academic experience, social experience, and sense of belonging. It forms part of the activities articulated in NTU’s Access and Participation Plan, and aims to build an understanding of the factors that influence disparities in outcomes and experiences, from the perspective of the student.

So how can longitudinal methods enhance student feedback?

What contributes to change over time

The first, and most obvious, reason for using longitudinal feedback is that it allows for comparisons to be made over time. We are able to understand a student’s position on a topic before and after an event, and understand what factors contribute to feeling satisfied or dissatisfied.

This is especially valuable for areas that are less understood, or those experiences that might be recalled differently in retrospect. An example of this is how student expectations might compare against reality, such as key transition periods, assessments, and placements. By holistically investigating how students perceive their academic journey, we can begin to make conclusions about variables contributing to the growth, maintenance, or decline of their academic experience.

And we expect this to help academics and professional services to offer nuanced and context-specific support to improve student experience.

Understanding and responding in real time

A longitudinal design also allows issues to be explored as they occur and progress. Student 2025 has found this to be extremely beneficial for topics that are unexpected but significantly impactful on a students’ academic experience e.g. the cost of living crisis.

Structuring feedback in this way helps to contextualise a students’ time at university, in ways that might be missed in snapshot feedback. It provides researchers with the ability to follow up on topics and to understand if students have accessed support, found a resolution, and how they feel about that topic a few months down the line.

The complexities of student experience

Taking a longitudinal approach places considerable focus on the individual, helping to highlight the complexities of the student experience through their own unique perspectives.

Across the sector, we are eager to better understand why certain student groups are more, or less, satisfied, have different outcomes, or progress differently than others. Capturing the student voice in this way not only helps us to recognise how identity can influence experience, but also to understand any impacts relating to a students’ intersectionality.

For the Student 2025 team, this has already proven valuable in understanding the complexities of being a mature student from a lower socio-economic background. For instance, one student told us they felt a low sense of belonging as childcare, financial, and full-time work responsibilities left them little time to engage in social opportunities.

Closing the feedback loop

Longitudinal data collection also offers students the opportunity to understand how their feedback has or will be used. This helps students to see value in providing their feedback, in turn, encouraging open and honest responses.

The Student 2025 team send regular newsletters to update students on general themes that arise, and what has and will be done with findings each term. As a result, students tell us that they value and enjoy seeing the impact that they are making by taking part in the project.

Self-reflection and contextualising success

By providing longitudinal feedback about their own experience, students have the chance to reflect on their academic journey and identify any successes that have formed their experience so far – both personally and academically. It also encourages students to reflect upon their learning and articulate where they can make personal changes that will improve their academic experience.

Student 2025 provides time, space and structure that is dedicated to reflective thinking, supporting students to make conclusions about their experience and expectations going forward.

There is currently little in the way of exploring the student experience through a longitudinal lens, whilst prioritising the voice and perspective of the student. This approach, of course, is not suitable for every aspect of feedback, or for every institution. It comes with the caveat that longitudinal methods are not easy.

Student 2025 has a dedicated and experienced team behind it, which is key in ensuring that the project runs smoothly and tangible change is conceivable.

The first year of Student 2025 has been received very positively, especially in relation to its design. Students value the time and space put aside for them to talk openly and extensively about their university life, and enjoy feeling heard and valued – not only as an individual, but as a voice of the group(s) they identify with. They also recognise the importance of their contribution and feel they are effecting change, quite literally, as they speak.

We will continue to share our learning from the delivery of this research in line with the OfS prioritisation for “sharing and learning from evidence about what is working to make higher education more equitable.”

There is a lot that the sector can learn from longitudinal methods of gaining student feedback. Having the potential not only to provide answers to complex questions around the role of identity in education, but also in raising new questions that may not yet have been considered – adding further value to snapshot feedback mechanisms already in existence.

3 responses to “Listening to students over time surfaces complexity and depth

  1. Great article Ria. Would love to see some more examples of what has been observed and how they were responded to.

  2. Yet again another excellent contribution from you Ria. Informative and as always, positively representing the growth of the student experience directly within the Nottingham University space, naturally having a positive impact on the greater area. Please continue your excellent work!

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