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Why is it so hard to use data to address student wellbeing?

Jim Keane and Andrew Cormack from Jisc address some common problems faced when using provider-collected data to help support student wellbeing
This article is more than 1 year old

Jim Keane is a Senior Analytics Consultant within Jisc’s learning analytics service.

Andrew Cormack is Chief Regulatory Adviser at Jisc.

We firmly believe that data is an important component in provider efforts to support the wellbeing of students.

However, in talking to senior leaders about this we’ve heard a few times that it is just “too tough” to get right.

We have encountered two key myths about data-supported wellbeing, and we think the widespread nature of these beliefs is inhibiting action across the sector that could help students today.

Myth 1: We can’t find out about a student’s wellbeing from the data we have

This may be true: data is not magic. But the data institutions hold can be used to build a picture that can lead to action.

What’s required is a shift in viewpoint: data is a way to help universities and colleges steadily improve their provision, rather than creating a wellbeing “silver bullet”.

Providers hold many data sets that can inform an understanding of students’ wellbeing, such as attendance data, engagements with an institution, engagement with course materials, and requests for educational or other support.

And staff can work with students to identify respectful ways to use this information. This creates a virtuous circle: students who feel their institution cares about them report improved wellbeing and develop a greater trust that the institution’s use of data is both well-intentioned and trustworthy.

Using data is also a great way to improve data and process quality. If one student responds to a question about their attendance with “I have left the course”, then their record has been improved. If another says, “the reason for my apparent lack of engagement is that I study from books, not online”, this information can help improve processes for all by incorporating access to physical resources into their engagement measures.

Myth 2: We might do something to make a student’s situation worse

This is perhaps the most potent and dangerous myth about using data to help students with difficulties, but it is understandable.

HEIs can do the most good by seeing wellbeing in broader terms: early, light-touch interventions that help students to access appropriate support and resources can prevent them from reaching a point of crisis.

Helping students appropriately – for example, pointing them to support resources, booking a tutorial, or reaching out to understand their situation – can make a huge difference. AdvanceHE found that positive learning interactions can have positive wellbeing outcomes too.

The data HEIs hold can only indicate that a student may be experiencing some difficulty. This means that ‘significant’ interventions should not be based on it. But it can and should be used to identify students who may benefit from some human contact. What route that contact leads to should be decided by humans, not algorithms.

Proper governance

To build a system which supports interventions like this, providers need to have good data governance with integrated data systems.

The first step towards good governance is a data audit, which simply asks “What data do we already have that might indicate that either the system is creating stress for students or that an individual’s wellbeing is deteriorating?”

Bringing that information together is essential before taking the next step: engagement with students and staff. It’s a vital part of this process to ask them how data might be used, what processes they want to adopt and what actions based on the data are appropriate.

Next, providers need to create, document and implement these new processes across the institution and communicate clearly what staff should do and when.

And an important element of improving services is to set regular feedback targets to review the data, the responses and outcomes. This will mean incremental improvement in both learning and wellbeing outcomes.

Taking action

These first steps towards data-supported student services for HEIs can be light touch yet make a big difference.

Institutions will already be capturing data on when students log into systems, access learning spaces, or are seen by services. Bringing these together and ensuring the teams supporting students know about them can make a significant impact.

We advise HEIs to look for patterns in students seeking information or advice: when does demand peak and can they proactively address the challenge that many will be experiencing at those times?

Another critical action is to investigate which institutional processes create stress for students. How can these be made more straightforward, or at least provide support alongside them, rather than waiting for that stress to develop into something a lot worse for some students?

Be bold with smaller steps

Providers should use data to support tutors and student services to deliver early, lower impact interventions that can benefit students’ wellbeing. We see the challenges institutions face and understand their anxieties about the actions they take – but it is important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Universities and Colleges can act today in small, simple ways to help their students. Jisc has created a wellbeing toolkit, which outlines how to develop responsible uses of data, and we recommend AdvanceHE’s Education for mental health toolkit, which gives guidance on providing support for both learning and wellbeing.

We’d also point you a mental health toolkit developed by the University of the Highlands and Islands and the Association of Managers of Student Services in Higher Education’s (AMOSSHE) for guidance on how best to talk to students in supportive ways.

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