December 19, 2019

Lessons from 50+ Institutions on Improving Student Experience

Designing Experiences

By Elliot Felix

Colleges and universities want to better analyze, improve, and compete on student experience. But many barriers stand in their way. Maybe there’s no clear definition of what they mean by “student experience,” or it’s conflated with “student success” or “student engagement.” Perhaps their organizational silos are getting in the way. Or they may be struggling to adapt to systemic changes in higher education like online delivery models or waves of first-gen students with new needs.

We recently taught an online course for EDUCAUSE on student experience in which more than 50 institutions participated.

In this post, I’ll share the tools and advice covered in our course, as well as the insights we learned from the academic technology and student affairs leaders who participated. This will provide a useful snapshot of how many institutions are feeling about the subject of student experience today. We’ll review assessment methods, common student experience challenges, proven strategies for addressing these challenges, ways to prototype and pilot ideas, and our lessons learned.

How Are Institutions Assessing Student Experience?

In this previous post, we provided an overview of student experience tools and formats. These include:

  1. Mining existing data
  2. Looking at ratings and review sites
  3. Conducting surveys and observations
  4. Facilitating forums, focus groups, and interviews
  5. Engaging students in journaling or photo essays

As colleges and universities pick their preferred right combination of methods, our advice is to combine quantitative and qualitative data, campus data with external peer / industry benchmarking data, and subjective data like satisfaction with objective data like utilization.

Perhaps predictably, institutions in our EDUCAUSE course used mostly surveys and data mining, with some focus groups and interviews. Many expressed an interest in more generative research methods like journaling to be able to co-create solutions with students. For instance, a tool like dScout can be used to send students on “missions” where they answer research questions with photos and comments.

One of the most useful parts of the course was helping institutions distinguish between student success, student experience, and student engagement. We find that these are conflated or confused on most campuses.

Defining what student experience is and what it is not is a great way to start:

  • Student Success is an approach defined by focusing on the student and their persistence working toward completion of a credential and placement in a career.
  • Student Experience is a composite over time of a person’s activities and interactions with technology, spaces, information, and other people.
  • Student Engagement is the degree of student investment in their learning as measured by their participation in purposeful activities and/or the degree of connection to these activities, their community, and their institution.
Sample Student Experience Canvas, a tool to understand and improve the student experience

Who Are the Students and What Are Their Experiences Like?

Data only becomes wisdom if you put it in context and make connections. The central focus of our course was brightspot’s Student Experience Canvas. We created this free tool to help institutions better understand and improve their students’ experiences as they encounter all touch points from applicant to alum. Our course began by creating personas for each segment of the student population. We then used the Student Experience Canvas to map the persona’s experience to academic programs, student services, technology, facilities, and the campus community. This empowered our participants to organize and evaluate the experience data for each segment of their student population – either developing their own personas or referencing these personas from the Lumina Foundation or these personas from Jeff Selingo and Pearson.

What Are the Common Student Experience Issues?

As the 50+ participating institutions completed Canvases, three critical challenges emerged:

  1. Data silos. Gaps in data and organizational silos were common. Many participants only had access to a small percentage of the information needed to complete a full assessment.
  2. Changes in higher ed delivery models. Many participants realized a one-size-fits-all approach wouldn’t work. They required greater flexibility to support academic programs and provide student services at different times of day/week/year and at different locations.
  3. Communication needs. Many participants identified opportunities to better communicate expectations to their students about important adjustments they’d need to make as part of adapting to campus life, like being away from home, studying online, or pursuing a new discipline to shift careers.
  4. Service awareness. Many students are not aware, can’t access, or have difficulty navigating the different academic and administrative student services in place to support them.
  5. Distributed services and staff. Students get the runaround from office to office between staff and service that could be centralized.
  6. No online community or culture. Many institutions noted that community and a sense of campus culture was lacking for online programs — they’d made an effective online classroom but not an online campus.
  7. Support unique needs. There are also specific groups such as first-gen students, international students, and low-income students with specialized needs. Many institutions sought greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in their communities.
  8. Outdated technology. Many felt behind with legacy systems and platforms that were not mobile-friendly and so not meeting students where they are while still others were experimenting with virtual assistance (i.e., chatbots) and wondering how to apply and assess them.

What Are the Common Strategies for Addressing Student Experience Issues?

The good news is all of our participants voiced a commitment to putting students first. They simply lacked a shared definition of “student experience,” and they didn’t have a way of assessing and benchmarking data to understand how their students’ experiences compare to other institutions. These and other improvements can thus inform how other colleges and universities make progress.

To give institutions a sense of how a variety of institutions are addressing their student experience challenges, we discussed a variety of examples:

One other important role that significantly influences student experiences is faculty. Everyone agreed staff should not be solely responsible for reinventing student services and rethinking technology. Faculty can improve the student experience by better engaging students in the physical and digital classroom with more interactive, active learning strategies in which students work in teams to solve real-world problems that will make an impact, tie to their passions, and put them on a career path.

Mentoring and advising are also critical. The Gallup-Purdue index showed that students who reported that they “had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams” were 1.9 times more likely to be engaged in their work after college. Likewise, students working on long-term projects such as a capstone project or a faculty research project are 1.6 times more likely to be engaged in their work after college in the same study. These kinds of projects are also what the National Survey of Student Engagement identifies as “high-impact practices.”

Sample Student Experience Roadmap, the Student Experience Canvas’s companion tool

How Can You Get Aligned on Student Experience to Turn Your Insights into Action?

Colleges and universities should address these issues and apply these strategies in a way that makes sense to them – which likely means at least some assessment as to your capabilities and capacities. For the institutions in our course, when we asked what their biggest implementation challenges were besides funding, there was clear consensus on organizational silos, limited staff capacity, limited staff capability, and legacy systems and processes.

Once institutions have assessed their student experience, synthesized that data, and built consensus among their team, they’ll need a tool to implement change. We created the Student Experience Roadmap for that purpose so that colleges and universities can get aligned and organize themselves for action. Institutions can use it to create a vision, identify goals, and assign actions by department/group in an effort to put their plans for improvement into action. As you implement, look for opportunities to learn as you make incremental changes through prototyping and piloting so that you can test ideas, build momentum, and make the case.

To move ahead improving the student experience at your college or university, we recommend that you start by creating a shared definition of student experience. Then seek a commitment to student experience across the institution – especially among your senior administration – and work to ensure your organizational structure reflects this focus. From there, you need regular assessment of experience internally and comparisons to peers and industry-wide benchmarks externally in order to create insights about what’s working, what isn’t, and what’s missing. Take action on these insights in the short-term with a pilot project and in the long-term with a vision that can help you focus and serve as your “north star.” You can you use our Student Experience Roadmap to make your plan, and as you move ahead, treat this not as a one-time journey, but rather part of a culture of continuous improvement. Good luck as you move ahead!

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