By Diliana Peregrina-Kretz
If you have been following our blog and research, you probably know that we love talking to students. We believe that students’ perspectives are crucial in our understanding of how to improve academic and co-curricular services and incorporating their voices and experiences in our work is essential.
During phase II of the Supporting Student Success study, we spoke to 128 students across 12 institutions in Ontario (4 colleges and 8 universities). We held both focus groups and individual interviews where our main questions focused on students perceptions of student success at their institution. We learned so much from our conversations with students; from their understanding of how organizational structures promote (or hinder) their success, the role of peers in their lives, to their own definition of student success. Speaking to students energized us, not just as scholars but also as practitioners. Interview after interview, we learned so much from speaking to students; their perceptions provided us with a different angle from which to understand how colleges and universities can improve and simplify their organizational structures to support their success. We left each interview wanting to know more, wanting to hear the voices of more students in order to incorporate these findings in each of our institutional reports and publications to highlight how important their opinions were for our research.
Student voices enhance our knowledge and understanding of what is working and not working at a college campus. Students have an insider perspective that is invaluable in designing, revamping, and improving both academic curricula and student services. More importantly, students have particular knowledge about the trends, culture, and values of our institutions, making them essential partners in any effort to design or re-design programs and services that will improve the student experience. As educators and practitioners, we need to take the time to listen.
There are many ways that college staff and faculty can gather student perspectives to improve programs and services. Surveys are a powerful tool that are commonly used across colleges and universities to gather student data. One of the benefits of student surveys is the flexibility one has to administer and analyze the information. Surveys can be sent electronically to hundreds (even thousands) of students at once, or they can be administered in-person. If your institution does not have a “home-grown” survey tool, there are some options for survey development like SurveyMonkey, SurveyGizmo, and Qualtrics to name a few. While we are not going to get into details about survey design or usability (see Lesley Andres), we can agree that surveys can be a powerful tool to gather and analyze student input. However, surveys can often be a little rigid; that is, that students must choose from very specific response options that have been carefully crafted by the researcher. Even where there are opportunities for respondents to write-in a response, we are often unable to follow-up on that response to gather rich data to help us understand what the respondent truly meant. Thus, if you are looking to gather rich and thick data to design, revamp, or improve a program or service, consider interviewing your students.
There is tremendous value in speaking to students and gathering their perspectives and input through student interviews. In particular, focus groups can be an amazing tool to allow students an opportunity to provide both their individual perspectives and collective experience. Like with surveys, you have the ability to develop the questions you will ask them, but you have the advantage to ask participants to expand on their responses to get deeper into the topic at hand. Additionally, as you probe participants to expand on their answers, you may find that there is new information that needs to be explored that you had not considered when developing your interview questions. This flexibility allows you to gain a deeper understanding that may better equip you as you incorporate student feedback into your programming. Finally, in our experience interviewing students for phase II of our study, we found that students appreciated and valued the opportunity to be heard. While many students are accustomed to being surveyed by their institution, few have been asked to voice their experiences and perspectives in detail. There are several things you should consider if you are thinking of conducting student interviews/focus groups:
1. Explore your institution’s Ethics Review Board (ERB) to ensure that you are following appropriate policies and procedures to conduct student interviews. While ERB is typically required for research-based studies, you want to make sure that you are following the appropriate protocol to ensure the safety of your participants.
2. Develop a list of questions that get at the heart of who, what, when, where, and how of students’ experiences/perspectives.
3. Promote focus group participation to students and explain why their input is important for the program/service.
4. If you are able, provide an incentive for students to participate. An incentive can be lunch during the interview, coffee and donuts, or a gift card to the school’s bookstore.
5. Keep the focus group manageable (6-10 participants) and if possible, enlist the help of a colleague to help you manage the logistics (e.g. sign-ins, food set-up, note-taking, etc.).
6. If you are recording the interview, you should identify and be comfortable with the technology that you will utilize. Always ask participants’ permission to audio record before doing so.
7. Consider transcribing the interviews (or at least portions of it). Incorporating students’ direct voices into reports, flyers, or grant proposals, can play a strong role in highlighting students’ opinions and perspectives.
Like with student surveys, conducting interviews/focus groups with students has some limitations. One thing to consider is how time-consuming conducting interviews and focus groups can be. Planning, promoting, recruiting, and conducting the interviews can take a substantial amount of time. Once the interviews have concluded, you also need to consider how you will move forward in capturing what students shared (e.g. transcription, notes, reporting, etc.). Another possible limitation to focus groups is that you cannot generalize your participants’ experiences as a shared experience of all students at your campus. However, what focus group data can provide you with is a window of knowledge of what your students experience, perceive, and understand about your programs and services and how you may enhance these. This information can be invaluable from a programmatic perspective as you design or re-design programs that are student-centered with students’ voices at the forefront.
One example of how I have used focus group data to improve a new initiative was at my previous institution at a California State University. The institution, piloted a college-level course for local high school students, where students would have the opportunity to receive both high school credit and college credit at the same time (dual enrollment). With the help of graduate assistants, we interviewed 30 students who had participated in the dual enrollment course. The purpose of the interviews was to learn about the experiences, challenges, and student opinions on how to improve future course offerings. From the interviews, we identified several themes that helped us understand students’ motivation to participate in the course; their experiences in the course, including what they found most valuable and most challenging; and the support that students wished they had received from both their high school and the university. From the interviews, we were able to pull direct examples to share with administrators and faculty that would improve students’ experience and success in the course. One main finding was that while students thoroughly enjoyed learning about the subject matter and engaging in dialogue with their peers and their instructor, they had limited knowledge about how to read and write at the college level. Students wished that there was more information at the beginning of the course about the expectations to read and write as a college student (as compared to their high school curriculum) and timely support available to help them in the process. Another finding was that some students were not aware that because they were “dually enrolled” that they had access to the university’s resources (for example, library, tutoring, etc.). This information was extremely useful for administrators who incorporated the feedback in subsequent student orientations and informational materials. Additionally, administrators and faculty got a better sense on how to provide resources for students to help them gain academic skills in high school to read and write more proficiently in their college-level courses.
Whether you want to develop a new program, improve a service, or you want confirm that what you are doing is working to promote student success, consider talking directly to your audience (consider this as a form of market research). Focus group interviews provide you with an excellent avenue to get direct feedback from students and incorporating this feedback can have a remarkable impact on their success.
If you would like to learn more about how to conduct successful focus groups, consider reading Successful Focus Groups: Advancing the State of the Art.
We would like to hear from you. What ways have you reached out to students to gain their perspective? How have student voices informed your work? Please reply and let others learn from you.