David Gilani, HE Innovate Academic Lead for Student Experience provides insight into how and why using learning analytics, student data and student unions can strengthen your relationship with students.
Responding to the student opportunity gap caused by the pandemic
A lot of co-curricular activities within universities are often student-led – e.g. societies and sports teams. These activities provide opportunities for students to continue existing hobbies, discover new passions, make friends, maintain positive wellbeing, and develop important employability skills. Unfortunately, due to the significant gaps in engagement that we’ve seen over the pandemic, a number of these student-led activities within universities may stop. These activities rely heavily on current students as committee members not just to keep up the running of student societies and sports groups, but also to recruit more students each year.
Universities and students’ unions can work closely together to encourage students to take on student group committee positions, which will help keep these student-run activities alive. This can be done through giving space within student communications channels to promote such opportunities, close working with Employability teams to emphasise the potential for skills development that these opportunities bring, and recognising the contribution made by these students through student volunteering awards, micro-credentials, and digital badging schemes.
Helping elected officers to join and build on existing projects
Each July, students’ unions begin inductions for the new cohort of elected student officers. Each of these student leaders, having successfully won their elections, will be bringing with them a manifesto filled with ideas about areas of students’ lives that can be made better. To help take these manifesto ideas and turn them into meaningful plans, students’ unions organise thorough induction programmes for newly elected officers.
I believe that university colleagues have an important role to play in supporting these induction programmes, especially when it comes to helping officers understand how to shape existing projects. There are usually dozens if not hundreds of ‘projects’ taking place within a university at any one time. This means that there is lots of progress already being made to improve the student experience, a high chance there’s someone already working on something that a newly elected officer is interested in and thus many opportunities for collaboration.
The challenge is that it can be hard to know what’s going on, which is why proactive sharing of existing projects by university staff members and how elected officers can shape them is so important. This can help ensure that projects being run to improve the student experience remain a meaningful collaboration between university and students’ union, avoiding the chance that separate, potentially conflicting, projects get created looking at the same area. For elected officers, this can also massively increase the chance for them to create meaningful impact within their one (or two) years, as they don’t have to start all their work from scratch.
Gathering mass student feedback quickly, whilst maintaining nuance
Near the start of the pandemic, the situation for students was changing very quickly. Across the UK (and more broadly globally) there were several students who set up online petitions, concerned about the experience they would be receiving. These included petitions about moving teaching online, refunding fees, and changing assessment marking approaches. Students were, quite rightly, concerned about how quickly things were moving and felt that existing methods of providing feedback, either via students’ unions or universities, weren’t fast enough.
Since then, we have seen some great examples of how universities and students’ unions have worked together to implement new methods of gathering student feedback. The University of Bath is one such example. During the pandemic, they implemented a series of ‘check-in’ surveys with their students. These short surveys (between 3 and 6 questions long each) have provided the University and Students’ Union with rich insight into the views of students, allowing them to work together to quickly make positive improvements. Interestingly, this feedback mechanism relies most heavily on the qualitative responses that students provide. As noted on the University of Bath website, “the detailed and constructive feedback you give in open free text comments is most useful for staff to reflect upon and partner with your Academic Reps to make changes and improvements.”
Capitalising on the growth of learner analytics systems
In the last few years, we have seen many higher education institutions begin to implement learning analytic systems, tracking the behaviours and ‘engagement’ levels of students, so that more personalised support can be provided. Through these systems, universities are understanding more about the needs and behaviours of their students than they ever had before. This ability to learn about students in real time has brought into question the suitability of other ways of learning about our students, such as student representation systems.
Firstly, it should be said that whilst behavioural analytics may be very useful at understanding what students do, they cannot replace the rich insight provided through representative student feedback mechanisms. However, the two systems do not need to be in conflict if universities set up their learner analytics systems so that students’ unions are part of how that data is utilised.
This means being open about sharing data across students’ unions and universities. This will then allow you to collectively understand where your biggest participation gaps are across different types of learning, opportunities, and different demographics of students. It will also then mean that you can better work together to tailor supportive interventions for students.
Partnering around student wellbeing
Student health and wellbeing has always been a very important topic that universities and students’ unions have worked on together, but this has become even more crucial because of the strain the pandemic has placed on students.
At Middlesex University, we’ve implemented a new partnership project around student wellbeing. Our Mental Health Quick Polls project emerged as a collaboration between our Students’ Union and Student Engagement and Wellbeing teams to better understand how students’ mental health changes throughout the academic year and provide more immediate support.
Since December 2020, we now ask our students about their mental health on a monthly basis through our student mobile app (on the ExLibris, CampusM platform). Based on how students respond, they receive immediate feedback on activities and support services that might help them. The insights from this have been shared openly between the University and Students’ Union. Beyond this, the tailored resources that are linked to students based on how they respond to the poll also reference both University and Students’ Union support mechanisms.
David Gilani, Academic Lead for Student Experience