Universities need a lens through which to view the student experience that allows them to see what’s really there, not ideologically constructed models of “consumer” or “partner”, or “future employee” that can only see the aspects of student experience that the model affords.
Data and evidence matter – not necessarily for performance management, but to deepen understanding of students’ lives and guide allocation of scarce resources. How evidence is gathered and what questions are asked matter too – if these reflect the wrong frame, then the things that matter won’t be visible. Whether it’s student pulse surveys, learner engagement analytic data, or pedagogic research, good governance of data on students and widespread data literacy informing decisions at every level will mitigate against the risk of only those that shout the loudest or conform to expectations being “seen”.
From satisfaction to outcomes
For my whole higher education career the dominant lens of understanding what students do in higher education/”the student experience” has been “satisfaction”. For much of that era I’ve been among the many higher education colleagues who have tried in different way to problematise that idea – not to suggest that educators should take no interest in students’ expectations and satisfaction with their learning experience – but to argue that students and their experiences might be rather more multi-dimensional than the satisfaction lens affords.
For a while the turn towards “student engagement” presented a more complex picture, affording students some personal and collective agency in the creation of their student experience, with the added benefit of having a body of evidence behind it linking “engagement” – or at least a set of external behaviours that credibly suggest students’ brains and hearts are invested in their courses – to education outcomes. Student engagement is useful for understanding what it looks like when students do the things that cause them to learn, but it doesn’t offer a practical lens through which to construct or measure a “good” experience, or a basis on which policymakers can exert leverage on institutions.
Now we have “graduate outcomes”, which takes as its premise that however universities construct their student experience, what really matters is what happens at the end – be it persistence, completion, or progression to employment. There’s been plenty of ink spilled on all the ways that decontextualised outcome metrics fail to take account of the complexity of student experiences – often by the same people who weren’t all that comfortable with “satisfaction” and for some of the same reasons – too one-dimensional; not in the spirit of the whole HE endeavour.
And from metrics to mattering
There’s no metric available that can accurately capture the thing in its entirety. The challenge with any kind of metric is to resist the temptation to find ways to game them for short term wins and instead think about what the spirit of those metrics affords in terms of improving what the university is doing to enrich students’ lives. Progression to employment by itself is not a robust measure of educational quality, but it points to a way of looking at the student experience that starts with the student and their developmental trajectory, rather than their opinion of what the university is doing. In that sense it’s a big step forward.
Our student belonging research with Pearson last year suggested – in some ways paradoxically – that to be able to be autonomous and learn autonomously, students need to feel connected, included, and supported. The model of the individual student interacting with learning doesn’t stack up – it’s the network, the community, the ecosystem, that foster student engagement and, ultimately, independence. The frame of “belonging” shifts the focus from what the university (or students’ union) does, to what the student actually experiences. And with that comes an acknowledgement of the whole person, and the responsibility of “seeing” and accepting that whole person into the learning community.
If universities are to construct authentic ideas of student experience that acknowledge and support the whole person then “the student experience” must be everything students experience. That means if there are students living in poverty, using drugs, experiencing racial harassment, or other uncomfortable realities, universities and students’ unions need to know how those things are affecting belonging and aim to mitigate the impacts as far as possible.
People, and how people feel, also matters. Belonging isn’t located in processes – though well-designed processes can help people not feel alienated – it’s located in connection, support, and security – for university staff as well as students. Staff and students who feel their community supports them are much more likely to be prepared to give something back to that community – and that really matters too, because when you’re trying to build a community that feels cosy and connected at scale, it requires people at every level to be self-directed and motivated to work on maintaining it.
The funny thing is that while the belonging lens for student experience looks like the opposite of graduate outcome metrics, the two can actually work in some kind of harmony. We already know that persistence and staying on course comes from having a sense of belonging in the academic sphere. You’d expect similarly that those who feel they belong are more able to do the kinds of things that tend to produce good outcomes – engage with studies, take up opportunities, build networks, contribute to the wider learning community. Security builds trust, confidence, and the willingness to take on challenges. Insecurity and anxiety breed timidity and disengagement.
But bringing these ostensibly competing ideas together into a single frame for student experience takes creativity. What I’ve seen lately suggests that forward-looking universities are working on closing the gap between the careful curation of academic curricula and scheduled contact time, and the ad hoc nature of students’ independent study and personal and professional development, through developing one single, inclusive, curriculum framework that incorporates all the different dimensions of student development.
A single framework offers a clear narrative about what the university is about and what students do and become when they study there, and a lens for analysis of the gap between reality and aspiration that can inform work to make things better. If it is implemented carefully and consistently in spirit as well as letter, then it can be the ur-text around which community and belonging form, as well as the means by which individual universities distinctively achieve and articulate education gain and graduate outcomes for their many different kinds of students. But it has to be seen to be real – as authentic and meaningful for the university community, not just another accountability mechanism or branding exercise. In other words, the frame matters at least as much as the framework.
On 14 March in London Wonkhe presents The Secret Life of Students where we’ll be getting real about student experience. Find out more and book tickets here.