The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) Department of Law was first founded in 1895, and has now evolved into one of the most renowned law schools in the world. It was ranked first for research outputs in the most recent Research Excellence Framework and in the top five law departments by The Complete University Guide in 2018. With over 800 students, its community is one of the largest in LSE and has played a major role in policy debates, policy-making and the education of lawyers across the globe.
With an open mind in adopting new solutions to improve their student engagement system, the Department of Law became one of the earliest departments at the LSE to pilot Unitu with their 850 students. The department started using Unitu in January 2020. Some of the challenges they had were improving the communication between students and staff, responding to students’ feedback quickly and increasing transparency in the feedback loop.
Gaining insights into what students are thinking
There was a need to encourage students to step forward and voice their concerns, in order for them to identify what action needs to be taken promptly. Matt Rowley, Department Manager at the Department of Law, cited that a lack of student voice, and the necessity to improve communication within the feedback loop between staff, course reps and students were major concerns in the department:
“My department felt like we weren’t hearing everybody, we weren’t reaching everybody, responding potentially as quickly as possible in time.”
Laura Carseldine, Service Delivery Manager at the Department of Law, also highlighted that particularly for postgraduate programmes, which are shorter and more fast-paced, being able to interact with all students in any given cohort was a challenge.
“There’s so many of them and they’re so busy as it is quite a demanding programme, so you get to know a few of the students, but not all of them.”
Respond to issues promptly
Student concerns are brought up during staff-student liaison meetings hosted by the Department once a term. However, since the duration in which students are on the course is notably short, they needed a way to receive feedback in a more timely manner, ideally as and when issues arise. “If the issue was highlighted early enough, we can fix those things for them” said Laura. Matt stressed the importance of responding to student feedback by emphasising that…
“If a student’s got a problem enough to post it, it deserves a response.”
Lack of transparency
Responding to isolated queries individually lacked transparency, and there is a risk that students might receive different and inaccurate versions of the message. Laura notes that,
“If someone emails you and you email that person back, and then you’re relying on that one person to disseminate that information, you don’t know where [the message] has gone or whether it’s gone to everybody.”
Matt also recognised the frustration there was on “how much of that [discussed feedback in meetings] was fed back to the whole student body”, which was exacerbated by the fact that different departments had slightly different processes in how they feedback to students, and there was a consequent varying level of interaction and engagement between reps, staff, and students.
In the academic year of 2019/20, Unitu was successfully implemented two feedback boards in the LSE Department of Law: one for undergraduate students (540 students) and another for postgraduate students (310 students).
Through Unitu, staff members were able to receive updates on student issues in real time, and respond to them in a prompt manner. Laura said,
“The issues that they [students] brought up to us [on Unitu] were all things that we were able to change in their favour, or at least explain the reasonings of why we had made certain decisions. And so it’s a really good way of getting the students to let us know if there are issues straightaway.”
This meant that students did not have to patiently wait for their course representatives to raise an issue in the next meeting, and as Laura commented,
“It enhances the existing platforms that we have in terms of working with reps.”
Furthermore, in targeting student concerns more effectively, Matt referenced the advantages that the organisational functionalities of feedback posts on Unitu. He highlighted that he perceived another value of Unitu, apart from facilitating transparent feedback, to be its ability to potentially improve NSS results, particularly through enabling the Department to pinpoint areas for improvement,
“It [Unitu] categorises feedback where you can link it to NSS categories”.
The ability to communicate with students was important because oftentimes, as Laura explained, “students don’t know, and I don’t expect them to understand, why we do the things that we do and why we have deadlines that we do.” Therefore, Unitu enabled staff members to help students understand the reasoning behind the decision-making processes within the Department, which understandably students would have limited knowledge about. This was especially important when lockdown measures were put in place as a result of COVID-19, with Matt highlighting that Unitu was instrumental in helping “respond to students and send the message out quite easily” in dealing with concerns and worries students had.
The platform also increased transparency, as every student can read the same response on any issue. Matt highlighted that Unitu offered a “web of transparency” that centralised and organised feedback, pinpointing that “rather than getting five different emails on the same topic, things can be grouped together.” Matt also recognised the potential for this transparency to be increased throughout the university using Unitu, indicating that
“On a macro level across an institution, the whole university can see where issues have occurred.”
As a corollary to that, Laura said that it has made them more accountable. When an issue arises,
“We actually have to do something, we actually have to think about why we’re doing things, so that we can relay to them… It’s about communicating clearly with students, so that students can understand where you’re coming from.”
Laura also further recognised that this communication is facilitated through the accessibility that Unitu now offers the Department, commenting that “It’s a system that they’ve all got access to, so they can all see the answers.”
Additionally, Laura reported that Unitu had the effect of empowering students to voice their concerns courageously.
“Sometimes they might not feel confident coming in to see us. And the thing is they are probably not going to come and see us this year because we’re not going to be there most of the time, we’re working from home. So it’s, I think, an inclusive platform for all.”
LSE’s Department of Law’s success with Unitu has led to several positive outcomes. For instance, Laura had concluded about Unitu that
“I think it’s a really good system and I want us to keep using it.”
The Department’s success in using Unitu to improve student voice can thus be characterised by the following statistics:
The Department witnessed significant improvements in all student voice items on the National Student Survey (NSS) 2020, compared to results from the previous year. Notably, Question 23 (I have had the right opportunities to provide feedback on my course) received a staggering 15-point increase from 2019. There was also a 4-point and 8-point increase on Questions 24 (Staff value students’ views and opinions about the course) and 25 (It is clear how students’ feedback on the course has been acted on) respectively.
User survey results