What I’ve learned about getting student voice right

Gail Pringle shares her top tips to ensure student voice activity engages the whole college community and leaves a genuine legacy

Gail Pringle shares her top tips to ensure student voice activity engages the whole college community and leaves a genuine legacy

20 May 2024, 17:00

Most colleges run some form of survey to find out the views of their students. Most also have a student union, who act as the students’ voice and a sounding board for new initiatives and policies. Some even have student representatives. Box ticked.

Well, not quite. Student voice is critical to enhancing the learner experience, but only when it leads to meaningful change.

Research has shown time and time again that we should be ‘designing in’ ongoing student voice mechanisms in the classroom, not just sending out mammoth surveys once a year that many students don’t complete or take seriously.

If you’re ‘doing student voice’ to compare your students’ thoughts and feelings with a college in another city or down the road, you’re not really doing it to find out what they want and need. They will sense that.

But when students feel their opinions are valued and play a role in shaping the organisation, they are much more likely to be engaged, motivated and committed to their studies. Just like us at work.

Allowing students to contribute to decision making and really making an effort to hear their voices creates a stronger sense of belonging and community. It makes students feel like they are an integral part of the college and not just passing through.

FE colleges are rooted in their communities; They make up the fabric of a place. Given the well-documented rise in poor behaviour in and out of the classroom, whatever its cause, the solutions must come from the students themselves.

Let’s face it, we’re not really down with the kids – no matter how much we like to think we are. Colleges that listen to students’ fresh perspectives and innovative ideas will be better equipped to develop policies and practices that improve satisfaction – and outcomes.

At the heart of this work must be genuine accountability and transparency – a two-way dialogue instigated by the college with a view to creating a more inclusive environment. In that regard, it’s crucial to seek out the voices of minoritised student groups, especially if your staff (and senior staff in particular) do not reflect the students your serve.

At the heart of this work must be genuine accountability

Minoritised groups often face systemic inequalities and discrimination inside the classroom and in society. Hearing their views helps address unconscious bias, identify issues and create pathways for change. It won’t do to say “I don’t see colour”. If you don’t, then you don’t see the whole of me and what I am experiencing every day in college, on placements and on the street.

For these reasons, we can’t let student voice be skewed towards majority groups. We do this every time we brush aside feedback as the views of ‘only three or four students’. If those three or four are wheelchair users who can’t access parts of the college, we need to address this. Likewise with three or four students who experience discrimination of any sort.

This work is hard and it can cost, financially as well as in staff time. But as my mother used to say, “nothing good comes easy”. Students need to trust the process. If you say responses will be anonymous they must be. Invest in external support if necessary.

Here are my top tips for getting it right. Perhaps they can save you some of the effort:

  • Be transparent and honest about what you are going to do as a result of feedback – and equally about what you might not do.
  • Reach out to all students, and put in the leg work to involve minoritised groups.
  • Offer incentives for engagement to ensure you hear from as many students as possible.
  • Get the support of the whole staff to promote and explain the opportunity. (Students come and go. This is their chance to leave a legacy.)
  • Give students the time and space to participate, and don’t be scared that they might say something negative. In this instance, you are the learner.
  • Make participation easy and flexible, bearing in mind your adult learners and apprentices.
  • Do run an online survey, but don’t limit yourself to it. It takes longer, but you will get richer data and feedback from one-to-one interviews and focus groups.
  • And finally, keep it simple and not too long.

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