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We need to be able to see students even when they are not in front of us

Ahead of The Secret Life of Students Nicola Watchman-Smith reflects on the initiatives at Teesside University that enable students to be supported even when they are less visible on campus
This article is more than 1 year old

Nicola Watchman-Smith is Acting Director of Student Learning and Academic Registry at Teesside University

This year’s Secret Life of Students event has the tagline “being real, getting real.” At the event, we’re being encouraged to consider the reality of the student condition in 2023; a year in which we’re still reeling from the turmoil of the pandemic and plunged into a cost-of-living crisis.

As a sector, we are in no doubt that students are feeling the impact of all of this – the recent Sutton Trust report on cost of living helpfully quantified this for us – but we would have known just by looking into those half empty classrooms that are becoming more and more frequent in universities and colleges across the UK.

At the core of all of this is what I would term a juxtaposition of effort. Those of us working in higher education continue to look for ways to help our students succeed, to support their wellbeing, to explore avenues to enhance the student voice. We continue to review the accessibility of our curricula, to map and re-map our learning and teaching strategies to iron out any perceived bumps that are hinted at in our TEF metrics or NSS data, and so on, and so on.

All of this is exactly what we should be doing – but the truth is, our perceived solution to all of this is that we need to reach our students more effectively. We are asking students to spend more time with us so we can hear their voice; we want to learn from them, collaborate with them, support them, match them with fellow students or student groups so they can bond, build networks, feel connected, feel like they belong. In short, everything we offer is dependent on the student being there with us.

In 2023, however, many of our students are not there. They are instead working part-time jobs so they can afford to be a student. They are choosing not to travel onto campus because petrol or public transport costs are eating into already tight budgets. And why would they travel onto campus if we have told them throughout lockdown that they can effectively learn remotely? This is a perfect storm.

If we are to get real, we need to understand the lived reality of our students. We need to lean into the insights that we already have at our disposal, to see the truth of our current student experience. We need to be open to moving away from established systems, cycles, academic rhythms and be ready to stagger our offer at a pace that is meaningful and impactful for our learners, and that is aligned to the pressure points within that 2023 student experience.

Mapping students’ needs in real time

But all students are equally likely to feel that pressure, how do we know when those pressure points are having a particular impact on any given student? At Teesside University, we have put two new initiatives in place to attempt to harness that student insight without placing too heavy a strain on student time.

The first Teesside initiative has been to adopt Solutionpath’s StREAM learner engagement analytics system that shows our students – and their personal tutor – the trends in their engagement with university life. This focuses on more than attendance: it involves several proxies for engagement, ranging from checking a book (or e-book) out of the library to time spent across campus or on digital platforms. The system allows us to channel existing data into a dashboard that tells a personal tutor at a glance if a previously engaged student is having a wobble. In real time, that personal tutor can refer that student for an academic support intervention or it can prompt a supportive conversation with context that might not have been previously available. The system aims to cuts through the noise to show us directly where the student need is.

Our second initiative has been to introduce a student transition survey which students complete before they arrive at university. This pre-arrival survey – the STEP survey – is completed at the same time as a student enrols onto their course and it’s all online and relatively quick. The survey process allows us to reach out to anyone with an urgent need before they start their course, and it gives us the chance to explain any key steps in the student journey before any need to perform is placed on the students. They can revisit that transition guidance information at their own pace, as and when they need it.

What the survey also allows us to do is use data to understand the self-perceived barriers to learning our soon-to-be-students are personally grappling with. For instance, our survey this year told us that 77 per cent of our students have or are considering getting a part-time job alongside their studies, and a good slice of them are nervous about getting into debt or managing their finances. Knowing that this is a reality for our students enables us to prime our provision so, for instance, we have specific financial student support suited to real student needs.

By filling out the survey our learners have a named point of contact before they arrive on campus which we hope helps them feel prepared for what lies ahead. This won’t fix the price of petrol, but it does give some predictability in an otherwise uncertain period of transitioning into student life.

Nicola is speaking the The Secret Life of Students on 14 March 2023. Follow all the action at #secretlife23

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