Experiencing student experience

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I recently started a web editor job focusing on first-year student experience. So what exactly does ‘student experience’ mean and why is it so important?

What is student experience?

Student experience is broadly defined as ‘all aspects of student life’. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Why is student experience important?

That’s easy too: universities are focusing on student experience in response to an increasingly competitive market with a more informed, demanding and diverse customer base. (Clue: the term was first coined in 1992.)

In today’s funding environment, providing a good student experience is often seen as the key to survival – the best way to increase recruitment and/or retention rates. At the very least, it’s a way to make your university stand out in the crowd.

So what’s the problem?

A good student experience is fundamentally an integrated experience which takes into account academic, social, extra-curricular and all the other elements of being a student – like how easy it is to get a part-time job, or a flat, and how likely you are to get a job at the end of it all.

The problem is, universities just don’t operate that way.

Why it’s not as simple as it sounds

Here are some issues the sector might need to address if it’s serious about improving the student experience:

Should academic and administrative staff have different governing bodies?

It’s noticeable that many reports distinguish between student experience and the ‘student learning experience’, reflecting this division.

Should faculties operate autonomously?

This can mean that students doing different subjects have a radically different experience – in the same institution.

Important aspects of student experience are outside university control

Some, like transport links or shopping facilities, might mean increased involvement in local government, business or community interest groups. Others, like a good social life, have traditionally been the province of the students’ union – the 2012 Times Higher Education student experience survey shows that universities with strong students’ unions tend to perform well generally.

Things have changed since 1992

University engagement with social media has been slow – the sector is nervous about its anarchic nature and reluctant to provide open platforms for existing and potential students. Meanwhile sites such as The Student Room are hugely popular and students’ union Facebook pages and Twitter feeds are often more in tune with the zeitgeist than their institutional counterparts.

The advent of the first UK-based MOOC in 2012 (FutureLearn) may make those universities not yet involved think more about the online learning opportunities and OERs they provide. The fact that the National Student Survey consistently rates The Open University in the top three UK universities is a clue that this might be popular.

What do students really want?

Surveys and research show that academic issues (especially teaching and well-structured courses) are definitely the top concerns, along with social life and extra-curricular activities. But good job prospects (and ensuite accommodation with wifi) are also up there.

The ten top issues raised by University of Bath students for 2012/13 include three that can be categorised as academic (including a demand for more online learning materials); two that relate to pastoral support and four about issues such as accommodation and jobs.

So what’s the other one?

Tellingly it’s about taking student feedback seriously – reflected in recent increased interest in student engagement as a part of student experience.

If taking student experience seriously means giving students more real influence and decision-making powers – as the QAA advocates – universities may have to change more than their organisational structure.

How the web can help

Back to being a web editor – here are some of the ways I think the web can positively enhance the student experience:


Staffing and responsibilities might be organised in silos but the university’s online presence doesn’t have to be. Websites can provide user-focused, topic-based, information which cuts through jargon and the need to know who deals with what.
(This means integrating online systems too, of course. Students shouldn’t seem to have to access different systems for different tasks – a VLE for lecture notes; a website for news; something else to submit assessments or fill in forms – even if, in practice, they do.)


The best interfaces are customisable. They show students the minimum they need, structured around their status and subject, then allow them to, for example, build their own bookmarks and choose what other information to opt in to.


Optimising everything for mobile means access to information and functionality when students need it.

Social interaction

Forums, blogs, IMS and social networking sites can help with a vast range of needs from peer mentoring to homesickness to finding a flat.


Polls, forums, wikis and online surveys are all good for promoting engagement. Instant feedback options online can mean that ‘trivial’ operational issues are addressed too.

Co-curricular learning

Students are more diverse than ever: some may have technical, academic, communication or work-related skills that others lack. Optional online activities and resources can help to level out the playing field and give students more confidence and control.

My focus is on the ‘first-year student experience’ – more about those particular needs in my next post. Meanwhile, let me know if you’re working in a similar area and would like to swap success stories (or frustrations).

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