The importance of hearing and acting on Student Voices

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As part of our efforts to lead the conversation around student voices, we hosted Dr Liz Austen to speak at our Closing the Feedback Loop webinar.

Liz is Head of Evaluation and Research (Student Experience, Teaching and Learning) at Sheffield Hallam University, and focuses on both the practicality and ethics of gathering and using student voices. 

Why “the student voice” is a misnomer

Liz was keen to highlight that talking about the ‘student voice’ as a singular entity is misleading. When gathering information about the student experience, it’s important for senior leadership to be aware of, and respond to, the full range of student voices.

Sustainable loops

Liz offers a framework to underpin our approach to student voices. It’s important to highlight that this ‘voices-evidence-action’ framework is a continuous loop:

  • Student voices are gathered and analysed to provide evidence. 
  • Evidence needs to be understood and absorbed to lead to action. 
  • Action necessitates further gathering of student voices, and so the process begins again.

Hearing voices: How we gather student voices

With so many different options available to gather student voices, how can leadership teams choose the right method for a particular situation? Liz stepped in to help with a set of Student Voice principles, developed by Sheffield Hallam University and the Student Union, to guide how we gather student voices.

We need to be gathering student voices regularly, without asking the same questions over and over. We need to be responsive, making sure that students see the impact their voices can have.

Our overall approach must be accessible, with a variety of methodologies and a systematic overview to ensure no voices are left unheard. We need to consider the ethics of how we gather and use student voices to avoid students being penalised for sharing their experiences. 

Inclusivity is about giving students the chance to talk about what matters to them, rather than what senior leadership wants to hear about. Finally, we should be offering both formal and non-formal pathways for students to express themselves.

Evidence: What does it all mean?

When we (rightly) recognise that there isn’t one, single “student voice”, we also recognise the importance of how we analyse the voices we have gathered… as does the scale of the task. 

Student surveys might be popular, given how cheap and easy they are to administer, but analysis of these surveys often implies a single student experience. Experiences during COVID, in particular, highlighted the limitations of surveys for situations where students were having dramatically different experiences.

Liz explained the typology she formulated in ‘A Handbook for Student Engagement in Higher Education and emphasised that we need to consider analysing student voices earlier in the process to ensure we can extract the information we need effectively.

Ready for action: How we decide who needs to know

Understanding student voices is important because we can then use those voices to drive action. We need to consider who needs to see our evidence and how far we involve them in decision-making and action.

Some stakeholders are more important than others, but how do we categorise them? 

Liz suggests thinking about stakeholders in terms of their power and their interest, using a quadrant model. Some groups, such as students, have both high power and high interest. Groups falling into this category need to be actively involved in deciding future actions, and carrying them out. We can empower them to co-create based on the evidence.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, stakeholders with low power and low interest only require monitoring. Those who are interested with low power can be kept informed, and those with low interest but high power need to be kept satisfied.

Mind the gap: Understanding where we need to improve

With three sections to the feedback loop, there are three possible points of failure.

The first problem comes when student voices are gathered but not analysed.

This leaves stakeholders and leadership teams attempting to take action without having the evidence they need to guide their decision-making.

Gathering voices without analysing them isn’t just a wasted opportunity. It is unethical and can break down trust between students and universities, making subsequent attempts to understand student experiences significantly more difficult.

This problem can be avoided entirely with a more mindful approach to gathering student voices. Making sure that we have a rationale for the information we are gathering, and have critiqued the methods used to gather it, means that we have already considered data analysis. This does require a proactive, rather than reactive, approach to gathering student voices.

The second problem is when evidence is gathered but is not given to the relevant stakeholders.

“My suggestion here is that we think really closely about our communication or dissemination planning.”

Liz highlighted that some stakeholders may be more responsive to some methods of dissemination than others.

“It might be a written report for institutional leaders… [and] creative animations for the student body.”

The final potential gap in the feedback loop is if stakeholders fail to take action.

Liz pointed out that “if there’s no action, then the loop stops.” Often institutions don’t collect more student voices because there are no changes to evaluate. In other cases, the lack of action will lead institutions to repeat the existing cycle, duplicating effort and offering no new voices or learning. 

She recommended that we need to “build [a sense of] ownership and [a] partnership approach” with all stakeholder groups.

Keeping the feedback loop intact, creates a sustainable system of integrating and responding to student voices.

Practical ways to avoid a broken feedback loop

Liz provided us with several examples of techniques she has found effective at Sheffield Hallam to help keep the feedback loop intact:

  • Having a student panel to evaluate and critique suggestions for data-gathering opportunities and make suggestions about possible actions that could be considered.
  • The student panel was an important resource during COVID, as the team could gain input on questions they wanted to ask of the whole student body. This ensured that the information gathered related to real concerns held by the students.
  • Holding a roundtable with key stakeholders, and giving them the opportunity to see (anonymised and redacted if necessary) comments in students’ own words.

Key takeaways

To create a sustainable feedback loop, we need to understand all stages of that loop, and ensure that we address any gaps that prevent the flow of information and action. Considering the how and why of our efforts to gather student voices is essential if we are to have an ethical and successful dialogue with our students.

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