For those of us working with (and on) large-scale student surveys like the National Study Survey (NSS) or the UK Engagement Survey (UKES), it is important to remember that they describe students’ experiences in a high-level shorthand, they do not even begin to exhaust how anyone experiences their life as a student in higher education.
I was recently at a seminar on black and minority ethnic (BME) student experience and attainment, run by the Society for Research into Higher Education. I was particularly struck by a presentation by Neil Currant (head of academic professional development at the University of Bedfordshire) on how BME students experience belonging and engagement at a predominantly white institution. It was a useful reminder that student engagement as conceptualised by our engagement survey, UKES – and other surveys based on the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) – may be a very useful way of thinking about the engagement of students in general, but should not blind us to the complexities and nuances of how students interact educationally with their studies. Neil argued that for some groups of students, common concepts like academic challenge, staff-student interaction and collaborative learning, may manifest themselves in very different ways. Neil was talking particularly about the experiences of BME students; for those that have experienced racism on campus (16% according to a recent NUS survey) their collaborations with other students and interactions with staff take on a very different nature. (Neil’s presentation is available online)
It is a useful reminder that students experience their education in very diverse ways, shaped by factors related to personality, ethnicity, economic background, familial background, cultural background and a whole host of other influences. Conceptual frameworks that are developed to help us understand students across HE, like the conceptual framework underpinning UKES, necessarily condense and simplify the phenomena under investigation. And in large-scale mass-administration surveys like UKES, that process is taken even further. The value of those surveys is that they provide high-level indicators of broad aspects of students’ experiences, as a starting point for further investigation. They cannot and do not capture the detail of students’ experiences, nor do they match the optimal way of understanding the experience of every student - they are successful if they accurately capture the experiences of most students, in a way that is useful.
One of the developments in the sector that can probably be laid at the door of the NSS is the sense - at least as reflected in the prevailing discourse - of “the student experience” as a singular common experience had by all students. The power and visibility of the NSS seems to have given rise to a belief that every students’ individual experience can be captured by 22 questions on teaching, assessment and feedback etc. The reality is that students have very diverse experiences; individually, and as sub-groups within the student body. The fact that the NSS can capture - in a way useful for some purposes - the multiplicity of students’ individual experiences in a shorthand way should not mislead us into overestimating their homogeneity.
Similarly, the fact that UKES - following NSSE - captures individual students’ engagement in a way that is useful for enhancing learning and teaching, and that is empirically linked to effective learning (also conceptualised in particular ways for particular purposes) should not conceal the fact that students engage differently; as individuals, and as groups. It is often useful to summarise their engagement, but that should not be misunderstood as meaning that that is all there is to know about their engagement.
A good example of this is “negative engagement”, highlighted by Vicky Trowler in a publication for the HEA, where students have to battle or struggle against a culture they perceive as “foreign, alienating or hostile”. The scales in UKES offer an effective way of understanding the engagement of key student groups, but there is no single right way for any individual student to engage, and the questions in UKES do not offer a prescriptive picture of how every student ought to participate in their studies. As with any large-scale survey, UKES is just a starting-point, a shorthand way to explore the way that students are engaging with (and creating) educational provision. Uncovering and understanding the engagement of particular communities and types of students is part of the essential follow-up work.
Along with Barbara Howard-Hunt from Birmingham City University, Neil and I are planning to run a symposium on the engagement of BME students at this year’s annual conference of the RAISE group, presenting qualitative institutional research alongside national data from UKES. The aim will be to think about how to develop a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of student engagement.
How do our conceptual frameworks disguise or mis-represent the experiences of particular groups of students? How do we balance the need to abstract, condense and simplify with a recognition of the diverse experiences of students?