UK case studies: listening to students

It can be a challenge to think creatively about how to engage the student voice, especially when we consider the many pressures on both time and resources at vocational education institutions. We have compiled three case studies taken from research conducted by a group of UK universities which demonstrate a range of approaches. We hope this helps to inspire you to engage your  your student voice within technical vocational education and training (TVET).

'Not another bloomin’ essay': students take control of assessments

Assessment is at the heart of the student experience. If it often ‘defines’ the experience of the curriculum for students, how can they be encouraged to take a deeper approach to their learning? One way might be to let students decide how they are assessed. After students complained about not wanting to write ‘another bloomin’ essay’ on an Early Years Foundation course at Birmingham City University, they were asked to design their own assessment. 

After the initial shock, students entered into a series of conversations between themselves and teachers exploring appropriate alternatives to essays. During one brainstorming session, a student asked whether they all had to decide on the same assessment or whether they could choose from a number of options. Teaching staff decided that it would be possible for different students to undertake different kinds of coursework as long as the time and energy required to complete the coursework and the skills and knowledge each would demonstrate were comparable. 

A range of assessments were created by students in partnership with teachers. Students were encouraged to think deeply about what the module was teaching them and how they could demonstrate knowledge of the subject. 

The process of designing assessments encouraged students to think carefully about their course. This came to fruition when undertaking assessments. Students achieved a high level of quality; a reflection of their interest and commitment.

When asked what it felt like to be given control of the design of assessment, one student said: ‘Fantastic, exciting. I was shocked at first, but I had a lot of ideas to choose from.’ 

While it might not always be practical to give complete control to students at all stages of study, it can be helpful to include students in the design of assessments. 

A ‘big conversation’ on feedback

Good feedback is crucial for good learning. However, students in the School of Life Sciences at Edinburgh Napier University routinely expressed dissatisfaction with the feedback they received. This dissatisfaction was also mirrored by frustration among teachers who felt feedback they provided was not read and sometimes not picked up. 

Teachers decided that it was important to include students in the review of the feedback process. However they had concerns that writing a survey for students to fill in may have drawbacks. Students had stated in the past that they thought surveys wouldn’t change anything and had little motivation to fill them out. There was also concern that surveys can sometimes distort the student voice. 

The university wanted a method that would be easy, accessible and transparent; that could capture nuanced views expressed publicly. 

It was decided that a two stage process would take place: first, a school conference attended by student representative would begin to outline the issues and explore possible solutions; second, all students would be invited to participate in a ‘big conversation on feedback’. 

The conference took place on one day, with a series of workshops providing a space for students and staff to explore their ideas. Following this, over 300 students from across three years and different subjects engaged in a week long big conversation with each other and teachers. The university hoped to create a ‘buzz’ among students and teachers who were encouraged to facilitate conversations in classes.

Conversations were recorded and analysed by staff. While many views were specific to particular courses, similar themes emerged which stressed the need to:

  1. make feedback legible
  2. offer more feedback 
  3. more specifics on how to improve
  4. use examples and exemplars 
  5. give positive as well as negative feedback.

Having engaged with the student voice in this way, teachers were able to make a number of changes to the feedback procedure. Among other things, students were encouraged to give feedback prompts on their work, which would indicate to a teacher areas where students wanted extra feedback. The school was also able to make sure that all feedback was legible. 

Conversation about feedback between students and teachers combined with the demonstration to students that they are listened to by the university, reminded students that they can ask for help, and that teachers are only able to help if they know which areas are problematic. The big conversation contributed to a change in culture at the university opening up lines of communication between students and staff.

Using online surveys to engage the student voice

Two large modular courses at the University of Westminster undergoing a five year review sought feedback from students. Teaching staff decided that in order to capture a representative student voice, they needed to reach as many students as possible.

An online questionnaire of Social Science and IT students would form the basis of a redevelopment of the modules. The survey would ask both qualitative and quantitative questions, and would be supported by a series of focus groups involving self-selecting interested students.

It was felt by teachers that significant effort should be made to design survey questions that would encourage detailed and helpful responses. Students who had completed their summer exams were asked to fill out the survey anonymously. Teachers felt that ensuring anonymity – and importantly, letting students know that all responses would remain anonymous – would yield honest reflection and higher levels of engagement. 

High numbers of students did respond and many in their own voice, using colloquial language. Responses were so rich that the university decided the focus groups they had planned were not necessary. Although there was no noticeable difference in the answers of IT and Social Science students, there were recurring themes raised by respondents. Useful comments were obtained from students on both the content and other aspects of the delivery of the curriculum, which were used in staffs’ redevelopment of the courses. 

The university felt that conducting a survey was a useful way of engaging a large proportion of students to build a representative student voice. Key to their success were:

  1. thoughtful design of questions
  2. open ended questions prompting rich answers
  3. ensuring anonymity encouraging completion.

Read research containing information about all of the case studies featured and more.