July 23, 2019

Improve Your Student Experience—From Assessment to Action

Designing Experiences

By Elliot Felix

Improving the student experience is a priority for universities, but many are not happy with how they assess it or how they act on those assessments. Efforts may start with a goal in the strategic plan like at Cornell University, Rutgers University, the University of Georgia, or the University of Kansas, to name a few. Universities may use the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), the Student Experience at a Research University (SERU), or create their own survey. But, no matter how focused a university is on student experience, we hear too often that data are typically collected in departmental silos, in too much detail, with low response rates, and without clarity on who is responsible for acting on the results.

So, in this article we’ll define student experience, summarize existing assessment instruments, identify the gaps and limitations, and offer suggestions on what Universities can do differently to better assess and improve their student experience.

What Do We Mean by Student Experience?

To define student experience, let’s first step back and define what an experience is—the product of three things: People x Interaction x Time. That is, an experience is the composite of a person’s activities and interactions with technology, spaces, information, and other people, over time – and how these interactions impact that person physically, emotionally, and socially. So, a student’s experience is a kind of mosaic built from his or her physical and digital interactions with academic programs and facilities like dorms and classrooms, with administrative services like registration and financial aid, with academic services like advising and tutoring, with technology systems for everything from paying a bill to taking a course, and with students, faculty, staff, alumni and community.

Example of a Student Journey Map, Portland State University

An experience is the composite of a person’s activities and interactions with technology, spaces, information, and other people, over time – and how these interactions impact that person physically, emotionally, and socially.

How Is Student Experience Assessed Today?

Colleges and Universities typically measure student experience through a combination of three different approaches: online surveys; qualitative research methods like interviews, focus groups, and photo essays; and mining data from social media, learning management systems, or other “data exhaust.”

Online surveys generally fall into three categories: national surveys administered by a government, a publication, or a consultant; surveys to groups of institutions such as consortia or state systems; or bespoke surveys that are specific to a single institution. The UK and Australia both have national surveys. Times Higher Education also has a national survey for the UK. In the US, there is the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) but that focuses on academic engagement and doesn’t address other large parts of the student experience. We also have the Student Experience at a Research University (SERU) survey but that doesn’t provide a full view either and only goes to the members of that consortium. The Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE) also runs a student experience survey for its members. Then, there are individual institutions like the City University of New York (CUNY) or state systems like the University of California that have their own student experience assessment tools.

The table below compares some of the “dimensions” of experience assessed by a few of these existing assessment instruments.

What Are the Limitations of Today’s Assessment Methods?

All of these tools have many benefits but there is room for improvement. Beyond general student survey fatigue, there are a variety of recurring themes regarding the limitations we have heard in our conversations with and consulting work for dozens of institutions:

  • Surveys tend to be very in-depth and so they also tend to have low response rates and produce a mountain of data that takes a long time to analyze.
  • Many surveys, such as NSSE have too strong of an academic focus. The more we learn about the student experience and what enables student success, the more we know it’s beyond academics.
  • In the desire to dig into great detail about issues that may be particularly of concern, institutions create bespoke surveys that don’t enable comparison to other institutions, making it harder to put the data in context and interpret the results.
  • Institutions often assess experience in silos, with separate surveys; for instance, academic affairs, residence life, food service, or the Office of International Students may all conduct their own surveys which makes a holistic view harder to accomplish and produces even more data.
  • Data aren’t readily acted upon; for instance, too much data in too much detail means it may take a year to analyze (thereby missing the opportunity to help a good portion of the respondents) and the survey may not be organized in a way that provides clear accountability for acting on the results.

What Should Institutions Do Differently?

Colleges and universities need a holistic assessment of their student experience that enables them to benchmark against peers, see changes over time, and provide insights they can act on. How can they address the limitations of the above? We have a few ideas:

  1. Mix methods: Even the best online survey only provides part of the picture and can benefit greatly from activities like interviews, focus groups, and data mining to help interpret and validate results. The ideal experience assessment combines quantitative and qualitative data, from inside and outside the institution, while pairing subjective data like a satisfaction score with objective data like first-year persistence statistics.
  2. Organize for action: While many questions like overall satisfaction or a net promoter score will invariably cut across different departments of a college or university, where possible, for each question try to identify in advance whose responsibility it will be to act on the results so you are building in accountability.
  3. Put the data in context: Whether it’s through using a national or consortium survey with benchmarks or using a bespoke survey longitudinally to uncover trends, use assessment instruments that enable comparisons to help interpret the results.

Making the Most of Your Assessment

Colleges and universities are seeking to differentiate themselves through their student experience, yet many campuses lack a shared definition of experience, an adequate way to assess it, and the organizational will to regularly review and act on the results. While using existing assessment instruments or developing new ones, there are several things institutions can do organizationally to make an impact:

  1. Shift to a student-centered mindset: Being able to empathize with students and think from their perspective is the foundation, otherwise you’ll end up with processes that are designed around the technology instead of the students.
  2. Decide who owns student experience on your campus: Is it student affairs, is it everybody’s job, or will you appoint a Dean of Student Experience like George Washington University did as the equivalent of the CXO (Chief Experience Officer) that you’d see in Fortune 500 company?
  3. Apply the tools and methods of service design: For instance, you can create personas that embody different types of students, map the journeys of these personas as they use different spaces and services, “blueprint” the services you offer to think through their delivery, and prototype new ideas to get feedback.
  4. Identify pain points and create quick wins: Work with students and staff to identify some pain points and then to create some quick wins that build momentum and make the case for broader change. Sometimes something easy like a pop-up service point at a table in a building lobby can make a big difference and demonstrate your commitment to meet students where they are.

If you’d like to learn more, check out our upcoming EDUCAUSE online course on defining, assessing, and improving student experience. Good luck as you move ahead!


Related articles