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04 Jan 2023

Could data hold the key to supporting university students’ wellbeing in 2023?

Could data hold the key to supporting university students’ wellbeing in 2023?

With the festive season well and truly over, the third Monday in January, typically dubbed ‘Blue Monday’, is said to be the time which evokes the lowest mood – and it’s set to hit university students particularly hard in 2023.  

The return of students to learning after the Christmas and New year break will be tainted by fewer opportunities to join clubs or socialise as the cost-of-living crisis continues to bite. This is likely to leave many students feeling isolated from friends and family as they navigate their way through the new semester.

Providing the right support at the right time has become increasingly vital for student success. To achieve this, universities need to get a clear understanding of what it is students want from their higher education experience as well as what kinds of support they need to succeed, both academically and in terms of their mental health.

Striking a balance

One area where big decisions will need to be made is around how and where teaching and learning should be delivered. While campuses are now fully open, most universities have continued to deliver at least some elements of the learning experience remotely.

A mix of face-to-face and online learning can offer flexibility to an increasingly diverse student cohort, which may include those with part-time jobs or caring responsibilities. However, not every student adjusts in the same way to this hybrid approach. Some students have the independent learning skills they need to thrive learning online, others may struggle to stay focused putting them at risk of falling behind.

Similarly, there are students who enjoy the experience of learning face to face in large groups and will participate enthusiastically in learning activities and discussions. Others can find this group learning environment intimidating.

Striking the right balance is key to meeting students’ needs, so universities first need to get a clear understanding of which face-to-face experiences really matter to students and what services could be delivered digitally.

The best way to find out what students want is to ask them right? That’s certainly one option.

Student surveys

Regular surveys are a useful way to gather the views of students on many aspects of their university experience, from the caterers in the café to perceptions on new course content or the quality of wellbeing support services. However, student surveys have their limitations.

An academic could run a quick poll at the end of a face-to-face session to find out what students think about a new online source for research or a change in teaching style. However, those students who were unable to attend the session on that day would miss out on sharing their opinions.  

Running a larger student survey across a department to capture a broader spectrum of views is another option, although this can be labour intensive and responses will only ever come from those students who are willing and able to complete the questions. While it’s possible to incentivise the student body to increase the number of responses, with the offer of a shopping voucher perhaps, there is no guarantee this will result in a representative sample of the cohort.

Universities can get a good overall view of what aspects of university life are important to students from the National Student Survey (NSS) too. However, this data alone will only allow decisions to be made based on the experiences of a cohort which has already moved on to the next stage in their education or careers. This won’t help to identify and address the challenges of the students who need to be supported today.

So what can the sector do differently?

Bring data together

Surveys are a great source of insight, but there is also a wide range of data that already exists within a university that could be added to the mix.

Detail such as students’ grades, their engagement with online learning resources and even whether they have work or family commitments could also help to provide clarity on how teaching and learning could be delivered more effectively to help them progress. However, these pieces of information are often held in separate databases or recorded on spreadsheets managed by individual lecturers or support staff.

Bringing this wealth of information together and enabling it to be shared securely with those authorised to see it is key to creating a more complete picture of what students want and need from their institution.

A clearer picture

Let’s say you’re teaching a class of first year engineering students. If their schooling was disrupted by the pandemic, they may start university without the analytical or problem-solving skills they need or haven’t had as many opportunities to work collaboratively with their peers as previous cohorts. This could have an impact on their progress. Finding this out halfway through the first semester means there’s less time available to get them back on track too.

Being able to view survey responses on the students’ previous experiences and learning preferences, alongside the results of an assessment designed to gauge individual skill sets, at the start of the course, would help ensure issues are flagged much sooner. This would allow the tutor to respond in a timely way to provide the most appropriate support tailored to the individual needs of the student. They will also be able to make more informed decisions to maximise the benefit students gain from the time they spend on campus, asking students to complete reading tasks and background research remotely, for example, so that face-to-face teaching can be focused on activities that help to close skills gaps.   

Spotting the signs

Surveys are a great way to find out directly from students about prior education experiences, how they feel about their course, their individual learning preferences and their expectations of university life.  

However, this data can reveal a much more rounded picture of what students want and need from their institution when it is viewed alongside other sources of information.  

Changes in behaviour such as a student no longer coming to campus regularly, participating in social events or accessing the resources available to them when they’re learning remotely can help to identify red flags early on in their higher education journey. This enables a university to take the right action at the right time to prevent a student from struggling academically, socially, or emotionally with university life.

The first step for the sector is to ensure the appropriate leadership and governance is in place to make this vision for information sharing a reality into 2023 and beyond.

This article was written by Iain Sloan, formerly student systems development manager at Oxford Brookes University and now senior solutions consultant at Ellucian.

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