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How can student reps gather feedback?

STUDENT REP GUIDE

John Choi

John Choi

There is no single, ultimate way to gather feedback. Every method has its advantages and limitations, and some may be more applicable than others in certain circumstances. Moreover, it might also be helpful to use a diverse range of feedback gathering methods throughout the entire academic year, to limit the fatigue experienced by students.

This article will explore 9 common communication methods that course representatives can use to elicit feedback from students.

1. Survey or questionnaire

A survey, or more accurately, a questionnaire, is a list of predetermined questions that students can respond to.

PROS: For the most part, surveys are easy, quick and free to create. They allow the course representative to reach the highest number of students possible, as every student can be invited to complete it with no cap on participants. 

Surveys are also incredibly flexible and versatile, as they can be completed through a laptop, a phone, on paper etc, whenever and wherever most convenient for the student. Moreover, if the survey allows for anonymous responses, students may feel safer and braver to provide their honest and genuine opinions.

CONS: Survey fatigue or survey nonresponse is unfortunately a common phenomenon among students. In the course of their degree, students are invited to participate in a wide array of surveys from different departments in the university. Moreover, even if the number of surveys is kept to a minimum,  the timing of the surveys could be such that two surveys may overlap or be administered back-to-back.

In their haste to complete the survey as quickly as possible, students might give inaccurate answers without reading the question carefully or skip over optional questions. This could lead to inaccurate and unreliable results. Moreover, the reliability of a survey is also heavily dependent on the wording and framing of the questions on the survey. A biased survey will result in biased responses.

2. Focus group

A focus group is where a group of students come together to embark on a discussion about, or provide feedback on, a predetermined theme.

PROS: Since focus groups involve face-to-face human interaction, the data collected is usually qualitative and are far more meaningful than just numbers and figures. Course representatives can better understand the student experiences of their peers at a deeper, less superficial level. This can strengthen the representatives’ evidence of student issues, by offering more personal and distinctive anecdotes.

Since there will usually be more than one student participating, any thoughts and ideas can receive the validation, scepticism or critique of others in the room. A healthy exchange or debate between students can lead to more refined ideas and suggestions to improve the student experience.

CONS: The outcomes of the focus group may not necessarily be representative of the entire student cohort. As such, a lot of care has to be put in when recruiting the members of the focus group. Recruiting biases can occur, and it’s important that when recruiting for participants, representatives should ensure that the process is fair and equal.

Biases can also creep in during the focus group as well. Representatives, if untrained, may inadvertently or even intentionally, inject their own personal thoughts and biases into the discussion.

There is also the issue of confidentiality. Due to the in-person nature of most focus groups, some students might feel uncomfortable disclosing information that they would have otherwise revealed in a more anonymous platform.

3. Drop-in session

Course representatives can organise regular drop-in sessions, where students can visit if and when they need to communicate an issue with someone. 

PROS: Drop-in sessions are generally cost free. Like focus groups, the face-to-face nature of drop-in sessions may encourage more meaningful and personal insights into the student experience.

CONS: The effectiveness of drop-in sessions is dependent on the voluntary attendance of students. Its purpose will not be fulfilled if students choose not to make use of these sessions or if they are unaware of its existence.

4. Lecture shoutout

Representatives can politely request their teachers or lecturers if they could use five minutes of their time to stand on stage (or in the case of a virtual lecture, to unmute their microphone), in order to gauge student opinions about a certain topic (“raise your hand if…”) or deliver an announcement about an upcoming feedback opportunity.

PROS: This method avoids the situation where students are unaware of a feedback opportunity because they do not check their emails regularly. Since most students will attend their lectures (at least, in theory), this method can ensure a wide reach.

CONS: However, the reality is not everyone would have attended the lecture during which the shoutout was made. Unless the lecture is recorded, there is a real possibility of students missing out on the announcements.

Secondly, not every lecturer is willing to give up their time for representatives to conduct these shoutouts.

5. Ballot box

With the permission of their department, representatives can set up ballot boxes in their departments. Students can then write their concerns on a piece of paper and slip it into the box.

PROS: There is flexibility in providing feedback, as students can write in about their concerns if and when they arise. 

CONS: Representatives would have to regularly monitor and check in on the ballot box to see if there are any new entries.

Moreover, a box like this would take up physical space, and would not be possible to do if the course was based on distance learning and students do not have to be physically on campus.

6. Social media

Student representatives can make use of social media to elicit the feedback from their peers or communicate announcements of feedback opportunities.

PROS: Students, on average, spend more time on social media than they do checking their email inboxes. Hence, responses on social media are usually quicker than emails or surveys. Social media is also more engaging and can result in greater input.

CONS: It should not be assumed that everyone owns a social media account. There are valid reasons why students may not or choose not to have a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account. Therefore, there is no guarantee that the information gathered will be representative of the cohort as a whole, as may only reflect the opinions of a specific group of students (i.e. those who use social media regularly).

7. Informal conversation

Representatives could also simply gather what student issues could be through causal conversations with their peers.

PROS: This method is the easiest and simplest to execute, and comes at virtually no cost.

Notwithstanding the disadvantages of this method (below), this method can, at the very least, provide the representative with a clue on which issues or areas to focus on. Using information gathered from informal conversations as a starting point, the representative can then use other methods (surveys, focus groups etc.) to dwell deeper into the issue and gather more supporting evidence.

CONS: Feedback gathered through casual conversation is not the most reliable. It is unlikely that the opinions and thoughts of a few friends will be representative of the campus community. The information gathered may also lack the credibility necessary to make a compelling case for your university to take action.

8. Secondary data

This is perhaps one of the lesser known, yet extremely informative methods. Many universities and student unions will have published reports of student experience, based on previous meetings and surveys, and are usually accessible for download by the student community. Alternatively, representatives generally have access to the minutes of previous staff-student meetings. Representatives can use such secondary data to find inspiration on what issues to focus on, or cite these reports to strengthen existing arguments.

PROS: Secondary data, such as student unions’ reports and meeting minutes, are usually readily available and can be accessed with ease. It can be used to pick up any existing trends of issues that have yet to be resolved, or whether there exists any common problems across various faculties.

CONS: Secondary data, by its very definition, means data collected by another person from a different time. Data collected from a different year may be less applicable now. Moreover, not every university or student union may have such data readily available. 

9. Unitu

Unitu is an award-winning online platform that helps universities and student unions to collect and analyse student feedback in real time, and deliver faster improvements to the student experience.

PROS: The effectiveness of Unitu has been grounded in research, notably through Dr Emma Mayhew, Academic Director of the University of Reading’s work. According to her research, “this form of online engagement, together with the functionality of the platform, has the potential to encourage student feedback, indicate how representative this feedback is, support the role of student representatives, enable timely staff–student dialogue and enhance the visibility of institutional responses in order to help improve teaching and learning provision.”

CONS: Not every university or department may have subscribed to Unitu, and so the availability of this method to course representatives is restricted. Moreover, engagement is dependent on whether students have actually activated their Unitu accounts.

A combination of methods

Any single communication method has its limitations, as indicated above. In recognition of this, it is important that representatives make use of a combination of different methods throughout the year. This will help prevent response fatigue among the student cohort and ensures a mix of qualitative and quantitative feedback.

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About the author

John Choi

John Choi

John, Unitu's communication officer, is a final-year student at University College London (UCL). He was an elected Course Representative and then Lead Department Representative for the Faculty of Laws, and has won the UCL Students' Union Academic Rep of the Year Award 2019 and 2020.
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