We Hear You: Incorporating Student Voices into our Work

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.  

Image credit: Seattle Timeshttps://www.seattletimes.com/education-lab/are-you-a-student-with-something-to-say-apply-for-the-2018-student-voices-program/

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.

Content credit: Victoria Romano

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.

U Pick the Conference Proposal – Transatlantic Gaming for Higher Ed Student Success

Rather than a group of faculty members determining which proposals make it on the conference program, potential attendees at SXSW EDU review proposals and vote on what they want to see presented. Think academic conference meets American Idol; crowd support is paramount for being selected.

Kirsty Wadsley (@KirstyWadsley) and Tricia Seifert (@TriciaSeifert) wish to share the Blueprints college transition board game we have been playing with high school students on both sides of the Atlantic but WE NEED YOUR VOTE!

Voting for our proposal is easy but best done on a computer than phone.
1. Click on the this link: https://www.sxsw.com/apply-to-participate/panelpicker/

2. Create an account. You can do that by clicking Sign In or Sign Up in the upper right. Then you’ll need to verify the account via a link sent in email. If your link isn’t hyperlinked, copy and paste it into the browser.

3. Select “Vote Now”PanelPicker-Select Vote Now

4. Search “Transatlantic”

Search Transatlantic

5. Click “Vote Up”. While you are there, check out the additional supporting materials.Click Vote Up

6. And then leave a comment if you are so inclined.

We are absolutely thrilled to share what we have learned from students who have played the @_blueprints college transition game thus far. Comments like, “this game helped me realize there is more than one way to be academically successful in college” to “the game gave me an idea of what time management will really be like.” Students have raved about the games’ fun, interactive nature.

The Blueprints post-secondary/college transition board game is experiential learning at its finest. Students play, fail, learn, and advance. They strategize around time management and learn of the amazing people and programs that exist to help students succeed.

Going to college and/or university is a tremendous change for students. We hope to share the game with high school counselors and student affairs & services professionals. If the old saying “practice makes perfect” holds into today’s post-secondary context, then there is no better way for students to be successful in college than through practiced play.

BUILDing Well-being

By Crystal Hutchinson, Health Promotion Specialist, Simon Fraser University

While attending Supporting Student Success research team’s (@CdnStdntSuccess) presentation on “Principles for Creating Student Focused Postsecondary Organizations” at CACUSS this summer, I was thrilled to see physical space emerge as a key area influencing organizational culture in higher education. My excitement was due to my role at Simon Fraser University (SFU), where I lead the Well-being through Physical Spaces project on behalf of the Health Promotion team (@SFUhealth_promo). This project aims to improve the well-being of SFU students by enhancing the physical campus environment. There is a growing body of literature that demonstrates a connection between built environments and mental, social and physical health. As a result, physical environments within higher education settings present a strategic opportunity for us to impact student learning, engagement and well-being.


SFU’s focus on well-being through physical spaces is innovative and leading within Canada. Although it was developed prior to the release of the WELL Building Standard (Delos Living LLC, 2015), it similarly focuses on considering psychosocial well-being in the design of built environments. Physical Spaces is one of six areas for action to impact student well-being in SFU’s Healthy Campus Community initiative which is informed by health promotion theory (World Health Organization, 2010; Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, 1986). The project also aligns with the Okanagan Charter for Health Promoting Universities and Colleges (2015) that identifies creating supportive campus environments and working cross-departmentally to enhance student well-being.

About the Well-being through Physical Spaces Project

The Well-being through Physical Spaces Project was developed in 2013 through a literature review that indicated the quality of physical learning environments has a significant and measurable impact on student achievement, productivity, satisfaction and well-being (Earthman, 2002; Hill & Epps, 2010; Lippman, 2010; Whiteside, Brooks & Walker, 2010; Young, Green, Roehrich-Patrick, Joseph & Gibson, 2003). However, most research has been within corporate and health care sectors as well as in education at the elementary and secondary school level, suggesting that the interplay between the built environment, student well-being and learning within post-secondary settings is emergent. Data collected from focus groups and existing undergraduate surveys at SFU was also analyzed to inform the project and to explore how students perceived various physical spaces on campus in relation to their well-being.

SFU Health Promotion Physical Spaces Infographic_Page_1 Continue reading

Supporting student success at the graduate level

In recognition of “Careers in Student Affairs” month, Jacqueline Beaulieu shares her perspective as a new doctoral student looking to make the most of her educational experience and the opportunities for future career development in student affairs. 

This past weekend, I took advantage of the warm weather and enjoyed a lovely walk at the Toronto Beaches. I am new to the city, having recently moved from Kelowna, British Columbia to begin full-time Ph.D studies at OISE in the Higher Education program. If I had one tip for new graduate students, it would be to steal quiet moments like this whenever possible. And if I could offer another tip to those of you who are supporting new graduate students: encourage them to find and take that time in a way that works well for them.

From my experience, the first month of graduate study represents an exciting time. It’s about taking the academic plunge and immersing yourself in topics that you enjoy. If you’re new to the school, city and/or country, there’s the excitement of getting to know your surroundings. There are plenty of people to meet and multiple ways to get involved. It can be a bit of a whirlwind: lots to read, write and think about. As a result, sometimes your mind just feels really ‘loud’. Giving yourself time to be still, reflect and strategize can really tip the scales in favour of your learning and success.

I am regularly asked about my reasons for pursuing a doctoral degree in Higher Education. Here are a few of my answers:

  • I was asked to engage my research skillset more often in the workplace
  • I experienced a huge spike in my own curiosity levels
  • I am excited to meet and be mentored by people who share passions for research, student affairs and international education
  • I love teaching and would like to gain experience in this area
  • Above all, a doctoral degree is for you and the people with whom you will share the learning and experience (present and future); it’s not about you

I have learned so much in the past month. Here are a few more of my tips for new graduate students:

  1. Know why you are here and the rules that you are willing to play by

Take some time to reflect on this and write it all down. It can be extremely helpful to have access to your own clarity of thought during moments of intensity. I have found my own list to be very helpful and am adding to it as I go.

  1. It’s ok to initially focus on academics

From my perspective, graduate school has a tendency to turn Maslow’s hierarchy of needs on its side. Academically, it can be quite demanding from the moment you step out of the starting gates. Of course, feeling comfortable in one’s surroundings and fostering friendships are equally important and you’ll want to start this process right away. That being said, it is important to be patient with yourself and realistic about the process. It will take time and effort to achieve a degree of comfort and confidence with your academics. I made this my primary goal for the first six weeks and it feels great to have reached a point where I can comfortably spend additional time on other aspects of the transition.

  1. Play ‘offense’ over ‘defense’

As a graduate student, it is easy to feel pressured to perform to the highest of standards. Similar to a defensive player in hockey or soccer, you can find yourself worrying about messing things up for yourself and/or your team. From my perspective, approaching graduate studies with a ‘defensive player’ attitude only enables you to get in the way of your own success and possibly that of others. Refuse to be tricked into ‘defense-mode’ by your assignments, thesis or dissertation. Instead, choose to play offense! Dream big. Run towards your goals. Just go for it! Know that you won’t have all of the skills that you need right away, but that’s why you’re here and all part of the fun. Take risks and allow yourself to be vulnerable to mistakes and struggle. Stay positive. It’s all about maximizing the opportunities for learning, however you can.

  1. Treat graduate school like a team sport

Although you will spend a lot of time on your own reading and writing, it is wise to approach graduate studies like a team sport. Allow people to join your team and do the same for others. You will need them and they will need you. Build a community that includes faculty, fellow students, departmental staff, the librarians, the person who runs the local coffee shop and of course, your family and friends.

I am pleased to report that I am enjoying my time at OISE. I am learning a lot from my classes. The diversity of life experience in a place like this is incredible. I have also joined the Supporting Student Success research team, which represents a great opportunity to apply what I am learning to research topics that are of importance to me. As a new Ph.D student, my research teammates have offered and provided a lot of help and for this, I am thankful.


Interested in pursuing graduate studies at OISE? Join us at the upcoming Fall Info Session! Tuesday, October 21, 2014 at 5:15 pm in the OISE Library. For more information, click here.

Students Who Inspire

I woke up this morning to learn Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize. I had just finished Malala’s book when I wrote my last blog post. I was floored by the power, presence and peace by which Malala told her story of passion for education in the face political turmoil and violence in her community, her region, and her country.

_68703870_68703869 Credit to the BBC

Prior to reading, I Am Malala, I knew little about the history of political strife in Pakistan. I knew little about the state of education in Pakistan and the extent to which girls, under the Taliban, were limited from gaining anything but the most basic education. Malala Yousafzai opened my eyes and I hunch, the eyes of many in this world.

Thorbjorn Jagland, the Nobel Peace Prize committee chairperson, recognized that Malala “has shown by example that children and young people, too, can contribute to improving their own situations.” [Visit the New York Times website for more information on this year’s prize and Malala’s story.]

Improving their own situations and those of others.

Yesterday, I learned the University of Toronto would host one of the regional finals for the Hult Prize – a competition in which postsecondary students develop ideas and strategies to solve the world’s seemingly intractable social problems, like non-communicable diseases and famine. The prize comes with a US$1 million award as well as a host of networking and mentorship opportunities.

The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to a 17 year old activist, who has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of girls’ education, surviving a shot to the head by the Taliban in 2012. The Hult Prize entices postsecondary social entrepreneurs to work collaboratively to “tackle grave issues faced by billions of people.” In both cases, young adults are being recognized for their ideas, initiative and innovation.

I’ve been thinking a great deal these past months about the role that students can play in co-creating a college and university environment and experience that supports their peers to achieve their academic and personal goals and climb to new heights in their learning and understanding of complex issues.

I fear that the media stories of negative student actions, detailing very real and serious situations of discrimination, harassment and/or assault, clouds the view of the positive student actions that take place on our college and university campuses every day. While I fully support the need to confront negative student actions, I encourage those in the higher education community to notice and praise the student actions that take courage, require compassion, and are examples of students engaging to improve their own situations and those of others.

In honour of the inspiration that Malala’s story has given me these past weeks, I invite you to share a story of student action that has inspired you. Please leave a comment in the space below. I would love it if we could populate this blog with a multitude of examples trumpeting the great work of our students.

By Tricia Seifert

Simplifying the Experience Building Process + Networking

The last couple months, we’ve been sharing posts about the incredible ways that students support their peers’ success. Recently, one of the Supporting Student Success research team members introduced me to Aly Madhavji, a University of Toronto alumnus who wrote “Your Guide to Succeed in University.” Aly exemplifies the student who connects his peers to opportunities and coaches them through tough times. He is definitely a role model and one worth copying.

With convocation upon us and summer just around the corner, I invited Aly to guest blog and share tips for staff members who work with students during this busy season of job-searching. I invite you to share his post both with your staff and students.

Simplifying the Experience Building Process + Networking

Two of the biggest things that students miss out on during their post-secondary education are building career experience and learning how to network. Regardless if a student is a recent graduate or has simply finished a year of college or university, building experience and networking are vital to a successful long-term career. As with anyone, sometimes students need to learn and hear about these topics multiple times, in different ways, or from various sources.

Over the summer months, it’s critical for students not leave a gap in their resume. The main possibilities are: taking summer courses, part-time/full-time work, travelling, developing a skill (dance, languages, sports, etc.), or volunteering. I would recommend a combined approach but we’ll focus on developing skills through volunteer or work experience. My distinction between volunteer and work experience is that volunteering generally provides flexibility, leadership opportunities and more personal development; whereas, work experience will supplement income and build independence related skills.

What are the first-steps for students?
Start by putting together a refined resume. Be sure to incorporate feedback from the Career Services Centre, peer feedback, and reviewing various online formats & templates. Once a student has a refined resume, they are competitive for the job searching phase.

Let’s break down job searching into a few different avenues for what a student should do:

1) Have others search for them (Recruiting Firms)
a. Contact recruiting firms or recruiters through online searches, LinkedIn, and through their network.
b. Students should meet with the recruiters, and explain their credentials and what type of position they are looking for.
Results: Get access to new job portals and even while they’re not looking, recruiters will be looking for them.

2) Post their credentials (online resume for numerous companies)
a. Ensure they have a LinkedIn profile and update it with their resume.
b. Find job portals to create a profile, such as Workopolis, Monster.ca, Career Centre portals, etc.
Results: This will allow individuals, companies, and opportunities to find the student, even if they didn’t directly search for them.

3) Apply to positions of interest
a. Find specific positions of interest through their college/university, Career Centre, LinkedIn, job portals, networks, etc.
b. Try to seek opportunities to personalize the process through coffee or lunch meetings.
c. Submit a tailored cover letter and resume for each position
d. Follow-up with friendly phone calls or emails.
Results: This will allow the student to target specific opportunities build relationships with staff from the specific entity.

It’s important to remember that job searching isn’t easy, especially in this tough economy. A student ought to know that they are not alone if they’re having trouble, but perseverance is the key to success.

A critical area of the job searching process is building relationships, which forms the networking component. Networking is a give and take relationship. One of the biggest misconceptions related to networking is that networking is limited to a specific time and place. Networking is something you can practice anywhere, anytime!

Here is a brief introduction to my networking formula which comes in 4 key pieces and it is very useful for students:

1) Network up and Down

  • Networking shouldn’t be confined to superiors, think about the people both within or outside of your circle; every single person has a talent, skill and a connection that could be beneficial.

2) Help others including your competition

  • Remember the people around you aren’t your competition; working together to refine your applications, tag-team networking, and practice interviewing is more beneficial.
  • The key here is that being genuine and helpful pays-off.

3) Make friends not “Networks”

  • Approaching the networking process as a way to build friendships will help you enjoy the process and you’ll be more successful.
  • Networking is a 2-way street; make sure you’re “giving” at least as much as you’re “taking”.

4) Be yourself but don’t be nervous

  • Remember that this is just a learning experience and you’ll get better from observing the people around you and through trial and reflection.

Remember, this is only a snapshot into building experience and networking skills. Feel free to get a Free copy of Your Guide to Succeed in University, rated the #1 Hottest Study Aid in Canada and #2 in the US, which discusses these topics in more depth. It is available on all major e-platforms (iBooks, Google Play, Amazon, etc.) at http://www.SucceedinUniversity.com . There is also a free downloadable poster on the “About the Guide” section of the website, which is permitted to be customized with your institutions logo and used in print and electronic format.

Posted by Aly Madhavji, Author of Your Guide to Succeed in University
Email: alymadhavji@live.ca

Share Your Blueprint: Student Experience Video Competition

We are officially launching our ‘Share Your Blueprint’ student experience video competition! We know that you interact with postsecondary students on a daily basis, and as such we invite you to encourage them to create videos showcasing the blueprints they have developed throughout their education. 

Please share the following call for submissions with students who you think would be willing to share their college and university involvement experiences.

Thank you for your support.

Tricia Seifert & Christine Helen Arnold (Youth Outreach Coordinator)

Ink Blot3

Share Your Blueprint

Student Experience Video Competition

The Supporting Student Success research team invites submissions for our 2014 ‘Student Experience Video Competition’. In the format of a short 4-5 minute video, we would like students to depict and discuss the blueprints they have created for themselves during their time at college and/or university. What initiatives and programs have you participated in, who have you engaged with, how did you get involved and how do the pieces fit together to support your success? Student blueprints may include but are not limited to: interactions and/or relationships with college and university staff, advisors, counsellors, faculty and peers; study groups; learning skills workshops/programs; career training; community outreach; leadership opportunities; peer helper programs, employment on campus; residence life; student government; clubs and sports.

The contest carries a first prize of a $75.00 Pizza Pizza gift certificate and a second prize of a $50.00 Starbucks gift certificate. The top 5 videos will be featured on the Supporting Student Success research team’s new youth outreach website, entitled Blueprints for Student Success. The website is dedicated to educating high school students about the services and programs offered on college and university campuses.

Contest Rules:

  • Video creators must be current students in a college and/or university.
  • Students are to be creative, humorous, ingenious and authentic in conveying the blueprints they have created.
  • The video must be original material between 4-5 minutes in length and not submitted previously for any event or contest. The content must not infringe on any person’s third party rights.
  • Individual students or groups may submit videos.
  • Prizes apply to both individual and group submissions (groups are responsible for determining how to distribute/share winnings).
  • The Supporting Student Success research team reserves the right to disqualify any videos that contain advertisements or contain any unlawful, misleading, malicious, discriminatory, sexually explicit or other objectionable content.


  • Please upload your completed video to YouTube. Once successfully uploaded, please submit the following items to shareyourblueprint@gmail.com:                 1) Title of submission, 2) Names of all participants and 3) YouTube video link.
  • The deadline for all submissions is Friday, March 14th 2014.
  • Any inquiries can be directed to Tricia Seifert tricia.seifert@utoronto.ca or Christine Helen Arnold c.arnold@utoronto.ca.