This blog is a guest post by Professor Jon Scott. Jon is a higher education consultant with extensive experience in quality assurance and developing practice in learning and teaching. His most recent academic roles were as Professor of Bioscience Education and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience) at the University of Leicester.
Last week, a group of academics and professional services staff from higher education institutions across the UK met in London to discuss:
- Concepts of student engagement
- How student engagement is changing
- The inter-connections with student wellbeing and satisfaction
Considering student engagement, wellbeing and satisfaction as a whole
At the event held by Enlitened (a part of The Student Room Group), Chris Newson, the Founder and CEO of Enlitened and The Student Room, began by setting out the history of the Enlitened platform and its core objective of providing real-time feedback from students, along with an opportunity for them to put forward ideas for improvements, thereby enabling institutions to deliver more targeted and continuous enhancement of the student experience.
Critical to achieving this is the transition from reliance on periodic surveys (termly or yearly), often with large data sets and feedback through the committee structures, to provision of continuous, real-time feedback. This enables much closer monitoring of students’ perspectives on their experience.
Underpinning this approach is the recognition that student wellbeing, satisfaction and engagement are all closely entwined and need to be considered as a whole in order to make sure that all students can thrive and be successful through their higher education studies.
How student engagement is changing
One of the challenges that was discussed during the day was unpacking the concept of student engagement and the extent to which that has changed in recent years.
It is well recognised that the student population has become much more diverse, making the conversation more challenging for institutions. As a result, students engage with their institutions in many differing ways and to differing extents. For some, it may just be with their course. For others, membership of societies, sports clubs or the Students’ Union may also be focuses of their engagement. Some students who choose to live on campus may be wanting the ‘full’ student experience with the associated social life, whereas others, such as some commuter students, may have very different objectives and levels of engagement.
There have also been long-term changes in the ambitions and aspirations of students, some of which are certainly linked to payment of tuition fees and which impact on the ways in which students engage with their institution. For example, there has been a relative increase in the proportions of students whose motives for studying are now more closely linked with getting a good job rather than their love of the subject and desire to learn more.
The challenge for higher education institutions
The challenge for institutions is how to engage with all these different student voices and respond effectively.
Positively, there are more data and sources of information available nowadays. In particular, data regarding student attendance and academic performance, which are often taken as proxies for engagement. These can be combined with the periodic surveys and the traditional representative system of student reps and SU sabbatical officers, to provide insights into the student experience.
However, it is also evident from the NSS that many students are not clear about how their feedback has been acted on and do not agree that their unions effectively represent their academic interests.
It must also be recognised that many of these processes are very slow in operation, which significantly undermines students’ perceptions of their effectiveness and the extent to which the institution is actually listening to the student voice.
Connecting with students
The experience of universities that have piloted the Enlitened platform is that the ongoing feedback regarding the experience of their student populations can facilitate more effective, and timely targeting of responses and support. This can enhance the student experience, as well as the feeling students have of belonging to an institution that is listening and that cares about them. A strong message from research into student retention reinforces that last point: most students want to belong to an organisation that knows them, cares about them and listens to them.
For many students, that isn’t ‘The University’, which can be perceived as a rather distant, amorphous structure, rather it comes down to more local identities with their course and the staff who teach them. This is often discipline-specific, for example in subject areas where the students have a strong cohort identity, such as medicine, or where they spend a lot of time together in labs, workshops or on field trips, the students commonly report a much greater sense of belonging compared with those disciplines where there is relatively little contact time. As universities have grown, that identification with the department rather than the university can also be pervasive amongst many staff, acting to reinforce the local, rather than institutional sense of connectedness felt by the students. This can be particularly the case in universities that are dispersed across several sites that are geographically separate.
Sharing experiences and better supporting students
A further message regarding wellbeing, that is linked to the sense of belonging, is the importance of helping students realise that they are not isolated in terms of their experiences. When they may be feeling low in the middle of a semester or stressed as deadlines approach, it is easy for individuals to feel that they are the only one who ‘feels this way. This is a view that can be reinforced if there are loud, more confident voices around them articulating their own perspectives.
In reality, these students won’t be alone in feeling low or stressed and if universities are more aware of these factors at the time, through ‘temperature checks’ of students’ perceptions, they can target their communications and support their students more effectively.
Creating a culture for every student to feel known and supported
Many universities have worked very hard at smoothing the initial transitions to higher education and supporting their students during the early periods of their study but, in reality, the higher education experience encompasses a whole series of transitions, within and between years of study.
Many universities will have a student body of over 20,000 distributed across different departments, over different years of study and perhaps spread over different locations. So, the challenge for universities is to create a culture in which each individual student feels they are known and can be supported.
In this context, the traditional personal tutor system, whilst often cited as being pivotal to student support and guidance, is under enormous pressure in many universities. This is commonly due both to the number of students who may be supported by each tutor and also the lack of confidence many tutors have in dealing with the complex issues that their tutees may present, particularly when these are in relation to poor mental health.
Provision of a system that can push timely advice and guidance to students in response to their individual feedback or questions offers a powerful means of enhancing the support at that critical individual level.
Student engagement as an ongoing focus for universities
The discussants at the Enlitened Insight Event fully recognised that there have been significant changes in the ways in which students engage with their institutions over recent years. Many of these can be seen to be reflective of the increased size and diversity of the student body, the changes in students’ aspirations and expectations, the changes in the ways in which they live their lives and engage socially, and the pressures that they experience which can impact on their wellbeing and success.
Student engagement is an important factor in that picture of wellbeing and success; the picture of a student who is positive and thriving, feeling that what they are doing is worthwhile so that they want to do it and feeling that their life is worthwhile for doing it. The challenge for the sector is how to foster a culture and approach that can support each student in achieving that objective.
Also on the day, Enlitened shared the findings from new primary research conducted in December with UK undergraduate students into how connected, engaged and supported they feel. These results will be made public soon.