This article is more than 6 years old

When student data isn’t student voice

Leigh Spanner draws on her research with students to warn about the dangers of confusing student data and student voice.
This article is more than 6 years old

Leigh is Sector Improvement Lead at Student Minds.

In an increasingly outcomes-driven regulatory environment, HE providers are under pressure to capture more student feedback data. However, it is important not to confuse collecting more data with listening to students or empowering individuals to have their voices heard.

Student feedback is often described as empowering. The National Student Survey (NSS) website, for example, claims it gives students “a powerful collective voice.” Overall, the assumption is that collecting more student feedback data is a fundamental good: for students, for the institution, for everyone.

Yet up and down the country, piles of feedback forms are left untouched at the front of lecture halls. Meanwhile Amazon rakes in thousands from increasingly lavish incentives to get students to fill out surveys and academics throw their hands up in despair, asking “can’t they see we’re doing this for them?”

Is it that students are apathetic, uncaring consumers? Or is the madness in the method?

As part of my master’s research, I ran focus groups with students and asked them what they thought it meant to have a voice at university. It’s probably no surprise that students were less than enthusiastic about feedback surveys, but they raised some important points about current practice that the sector would be wise to consider.

Who benefits?

Through data, students have very few opportunities to change things for themselves. Feedback surveys tend to be distributed at the end of something – a unit, a semester, the final year of a degree – asking students to evaluate something they’ll likely never experience again.

That’s all well and good for future cohorts and for institutions concerned with demonstrating continual improvement – but “what about me?” students rightly ask.

Who decides?

Where their feedback does lead to changes for their benefit, students have little say in discussing their evaluations, or deciding what happens as a result. Students didn’t see handing in feedback forms, just so other people can make decisions on their behalf, as particularly empowering.

Worse still, in regards to the NSS, students’ lack of control around what happens as a result of their feedback is decidedly disempowering. The highly politicised nature of the NSS leaves students conflicted about whether to give overly positive responses – to improve the standing of their department and enhance their own employability – or to be honest and put those things at risk.

Then there’s the issue with the link between the NSS and fee levels through the TEF and the post-18 review. The idea that their voice could be manipulated to support something they fundamentally disagreed with is the reason many students in my study rejected the NSS altogether.

What is it for?

Finally, the students I talked to recognised that they had some authority when seeking personal support or making a complaint, but less so when it comes to decisions about pedagogy or national policy.

In other words, after all the important decisions have been made, students can have a say when something starts to goes wrong. Far from being partners in decision making, students feel as though they have all the influence of a commuter rating their last Uber trip.

Safeguarding student voice

Despite the rhetoric, feedback forms fall short of providing opportunities for individuals to discuss what is important to them. Or to enhance their own experience before any real problems occur. The students I talked to felt as though they had a voice when they could sit down with a staff member they trusted and engage in dialogue about their studies.

With increasing class sizes and pressures on teaching staff, feedback data is useful in enabling staff to monitor the student experience as face-to-face interactions become less practical. However, we mustn’t forget that this is an impoverished version of rich conversations that are truly empowering for students.

There are ways institutions can safeguard student voice. They can engage students in discussions around feedback data, support student representatives to be a voice for students (as opposed to a form of ‘student experience consultant’), and provide opportunities for students to shape the pedagogy and policy that actually affects them.

In recent weeks, the data-driven Office for Students has started to welcome more dialogue with students and it is looking as though the new Quality Code will include something meaningful about student engagement after all.

So the picture is not quite as bleak as it was a few months ago. But, as the pressure mounts to collect more data and measure outcomes, institutions can’t lose sight of the processes that enable them to truly listen and respond to their students.

8 responses to “When student data isn’t student voice

  1. What is the evidence that students benefit from shaping their own pedagogy or indeed want to, while they are grappling with their own subject specific academic progress?

  2. Good question, Una.

    You’re right. There is some evidence around the academic benefits of students shaping pedagogy but it is limited and, on the face of it, some students I talked to weren’t interested. They just wanted to get their degree and get out of there or didn’t see the “point” as there were no serious issues.

    However, once students were sat in a room together, it was hard to shut them up about aspects of curriculum/ teaching/ assessment/ support they did or didn’t like. And the overwhelming view was that they had very little say in these things, or that no one listened.

    If we want to empower students (that is, give them real agency to achieve an educational experience that is valuable to them) institutions should be engaging with students about these things. If doing this is laborious for students and they’re not getting anything from it (as with feedback forms), we’re doing it wrong.

  3. And if empowering students is a little blue-skies, it makes perfect sense to me that the more opportunities we have to understand what’s working/ not working and respond, the better everyone’s experience will be.

  4. The place where I work runs mid-module evaluations; they’ve been useful in alerting us to any problems (or flagging up when things work). It means we can run some changes in the module while it’s going on, if we need to.

  5. Hi Tamara, there were a few suggestions:

    1) Some students had “forums” that enabled course leaders and students to get together to discuss academic issues and ideas. However, they didn’t get the feeling that staff were taking on board their ideas and actually making changes. They suggested that staff actually engage in dialogue with them about the feedback and possible solutions, instead of the one-way conversations they were used to.

    2) Strengthening the student rep system seemed an easy way to promote student voice. They were really positive about reps who were easy to talk to and who they felt could get their concerns heard at the right level, whereas some didn’t know who their reps were.

    3) Relationships with staff was a biggie. Where students had a staff member they had built a relationship with, who listened to them and gave them advice, they were pretty confident they could effect change. Others weren’t sure their tutors even knew their name.

    Here’s a brief summary and a link to my research:

    The study was only small scale and we didn’t get much time to talk about practical solutions, but there’s no reason why others can’t have similar conversations with their students and come up with some good ideas!

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