DRAFT Working with Learner Voice
Experts in their own lives
If an international student had an idea for how to improve services, where could they go with it? Who would follow up with them about any action taken in response to their idea?
The Education Code of Practice 2021 calls on providers to “understand and respond to diverse learner voices and wellbeing and safety needs in a way that upholds their mana and autonomy” (NZQA, 2021). When students are active partners in their education, learning outcomes and wellbeing improve. The phrase ‘learner voice’ is now common in education, and it’s important to remember that how students communicate is also diverse. ‘Voice’ could be written online or drawn on a whiteboard; it may include physical gestures and expressions or use of adaptive technologies. ‘Voice’ can look or sound like many different things.
Similarly, your ‘response’ includes many responses, from everyday interactions to addressing formal complaints to rethinking procedures. Strong processes to share student voices can help to address issues before they become complaints, and to grow and expand the practices that students value.
Your institution will already have some student voice processes in place. What types and level of participation do these offer students? How well do they represent international student perspectives that differ from the majority?
This diagram shows how different types of participation offer different opportunities. Where students have more active voices in making decisions, participation deepens and the ‘brightness’ or success of the collaboration increases. ‘Co-agency’ then develops, where students and institutions both shape decisions.
How do international students participate at your institution? Take a look at this one-pager and consider their roles: The Sun Model for International Students
This model helps illustrate your institution’s strengths and limitations with student voice processes. Institutions are increasingly keen to form partnerships with students. However, without building students’ agency or sharing decision-making, the term ‘partnership’ will seem empty. Meaningful processes for student voices to shape decisions will plant the seeds for partnership.
Let’s explore this further and break down what activities and processes can build towards more shared decision-making.
Whiria Ngā Rau – A framework for partnerships
Whiria Ngā Rau is an educational model developed by tertiary student groups for the Ministry of Education, with principles that apply across school levels. It visualises partnership as a harakeke (flax) bush, growing upward and outward across its layers.
The framework identifies four rau (leaves) for growing partnerships:
Whakapakari – Strengthening students’ voices
Whakawhanaungatanga – Building connections with each other
Akoranga – Learning with and from each other, and
Mahitahi – Working together
Each rau is fleshed out with processes and suggested activities for implementation. You can read more about implementing this model here.
Throughout, the framework values relationships and exchange between students and providers. They argue that the term ‘student voice’ creates abstract information that gets separated from the real people involved – students and practitioners. They encourage multiple forms of communication: formal and informal, planned and every day. Whiria Ngā Rau also demonstrates how accountability mechanisms for both students and institutions encourage action.
The framework encourages reflection from yourself, your colleagues, and international students. Consider Whiria Ngā Rau for your mahi, in meetings with colleagues, and ask international students/groups for their reflections. Ask colleagues and students to respond to the same reflection prompts to compare their similarities and differences.
You may find this reflection activity useful for mapping out your institution’s possibilities: Applying Whiria Ngā Rau
One voice cannot speak for all
“A common question student representatives get asked is ‘what do students think?’, as if there’s such a thing as a single student voice. Although there are things that bring us together, we are an incredibly diverse community” (Whiria Ngā Rau, 2021).
The phrase ‘student voice’ can misrepresent the range of student voices and the importance of how they differ. International student experiences can be overlooked within their cohort, and smaller cultural or religious groups inside the ‘international’ label may also be overlooked. Whatever processes you use to understand student voices, none of those options by themselves will be able to represent everyone.
They don’t need to! Clarify which viewpoints have been represented and give attention to those who have not been given that platform. Research shows that the best processes encourage ‘learners talking to learners. Consider how students themselves can be involved in opening more spaces for underrepresented views to be expressed.
Students’ experiences should also be compared alongside the many other forms of data your institution collects about students. Broad survey results can show what certain groups experience, while their specific voices paint deeper pictures of how and why.
Student representatives – joining committees and other formal groups
“Students are the primary stakeholders of the university and its decisions, so it only makes sense that we play our part in those decisions” (NZISA et al., 2020, p. 8).
Student representatives in courses and committees have been a long-standing mechanism for incorporating student voice into decision-making. Their effectiveness depends on investing in some key inputs to encourage successful collaboration.
Active and thoughtful recruitment
Advertise representative positions widely and encourage international students to apply. High achieving and majority students are more likely to take on these roles, but your institution can benefit from the perspectives of those who overcome learning obstacles. More institutions now recognise the importance of making some committee positions specific to key student groups, such as Māori, Pasifika, and students with disabilities. What decision-making group(s) at your institution would benefit from an international role?
Training and support
Reviews of student representation processes most often identify training and support as the most important factors for the success of these roles. Make sure there are clear processes for representatives to escalate any issues raised by students who come to them (Te Pūkenga, 2021). Pair the student with a friendly mentor on the committee and provide training. If possible, arrange handover activities with the previous representative. Be sure the wider student body knows how to contact their representative.
Make use of existing meeting times
Decision-making groups and student groups at your institution already organise regular, routine meetings. Have institutional representatives ask to attend a student group’s meeting from time to time, and vice versa.
It is also helpful to review where these good practices should be happening, to make sure that is the case – as this practitioner reflection illustrates:
“A university Students’ Association at a uni I worked for had, for many years, been very domestic focussed. So much so that it only elected domestic students into the role of International Student Representative on its board each year. In 2021, the domestic student elected into the role made it a priority to ensure the position was held by international students only going forward. As a result, in 2022 the university has an international student on the association’s board.”
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At Ara Institute of Canterbury:
(As cited in Te Pūkenga, 2021, p. 11).
Key questions for successful student representation:
Resource for students
This handover guide developed by the NZ International Students’ Association and other student bodies, supports tertiary student representatives to engage with their institution’s systems. This guide can also give you a window into representatives’ experiences and inform how you create institution-specific guidance.
Key principles for using student voice tools
The sections above show how diverse relationships and communication channels enable your institution to better understand international students and collaborate with them to create effective practices. Better communication helps make sure everyone has appropriate expectations as students’ learning journeys progress.
Student voice research provides more channels and tools for international students to communicate. There are many types of tools that serve different purposes, depending on the context of what you want to know and how students want to engage. These include:
We’ll look further at some of these tools below. Working with a range of tools gives students different ways to participate, and can uncover different solutions to improve the international student experience.
Just because a tool looks appealing, it doesn’t make it effective or fit for the purpose you want to achieve. Whether your institution needs new methods for drawing out international student voices or improvements to your existing ones, follow some tried-and-tested key principles for success.
Involve students throughout your process where possible – in design, early testing, conducting interviews/focus groups, making sense of findings, and reporting back. Students know how to engage their peers – work with them to build your partnerships.
Students should feel comfortable and able to be fully honest. International students may be especially cautious about criticising authority figures, so choose facilitators/interviewers with this in mind. Be sure to take time to build rapport and warm up when you start any process.
Make sure the purpose and value of the research is clear to students when inviting them to participate.
E.g. facilitate in-person and online focus groups
A one-hour group discussion takes a few days to review and analyse. Be realistic about your capacity to use what you collect.
‘Open’ can be applied in many ways, from a focus group discussion to an open box question on a survey such as “What did you enjoy the most?”. Students use open spaces to raise insights you never thought to ask about. Making this space also shows students that the process is worth their time.
Students need to be fully aware of what they will participate in and how their information will be used in order to give consent.
Students’ time is limited and valuable. How can you show that their time is valued? This might be providing lunch, gift vouchers, credit for a course, raffles, etc. ‘Credit’ also applies to students’ ideas. In some cases, it may be best to give credit to a student or student group for their work, rather than keeping them totally anonymous. Again, informed consent and thinking through the context of these ethical decisions is vital.
The biggest gap in current student voice processes is closing the feedback loop. Students need to see that what they spent time on had a purpose. Your process may take a long time or need to change, but reporting back is still vital.
Working with student voice tools requires in-depth planning – expert input will go a long way in making them effective. For example, you may see that international students are not well-represented in your institution-wide survey, and plan to conduct some focus groups to bring out their views. Is there a researcher or student services manager at your institution with experience in running focus groups? Or perhaps you know someone with those skills through a professional network? We often do not need to start from scratch to fill a gap.
Also consider whether you can offer to add on to existing student voice mechanisms by facilitating some tailored international student input. Connecting existing activities and people can be more effective than creating new separate activities.
Sending better surveys
Student surveys are a common way that institutions seek students’ voices about their courses and experiences. Surveys can uncover wider patterns and point to issues worth exploring more in-depth. Nevertheless, students may not feel they have time to respond to all surveys, nor be convinced that responding will make a difference. Institutions often believe that low survey response is due to ‘survey fatigue’, or students being surveyed too often. This belief has not been tested in our Aotearoa New Zealand context. One study from Otago Polytechnic found that most of their students believed the number of surveys was right (Terry, 2020). What was often missing for their students was knowing the purpose of the survey, and receiving survey invitations at appropriate times.
Is your survey relevant to international students’ concerns, and does it follow up on their previous feedback?
You can improve the level and quality of survey feedback you receive with these practice-tested tips:
Here’s one example of putting these principles into action:
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“Focus more on us because English is our second language and our pronunciation and how we say or call that stuff are different, and also making fun of us.” (Offshore high school student, as cited in NielsonIQ, 2021)
NielsonIQ’s 2021 international student experience survey was sent to students in New Zealand and offshore through multiple channels and practitioners to encourage participation, along with a prize draw to win one of 24 gift cards. They also translated the survey into seven other languages that students speak.
Three open questions enabled students to explain their points of view in their own words. The survey report uses direct quotes from students to shed more light on their responses to the other ‘closed’ multiple-choice questions.
See the International Student Experience Survey 2021 for more.
Enhancing collaboration in interviews and focus groups
Any student voice tool you use will have its strengths and limitations. As noted above, surveys are useful for getting feedback from a large group of students, but cannot offer more in-depth information about student experiences, or how or why an experience happens.
Interviews and focus groups are often used with smaller groups to create those deeper insights. As above, if you don’t have experience with running focus groups and interviews, it’s best to collaborate with others who do. You may draw on colleagues, or professional support like Ako Aotearoa or the NZCER [email protected] toolkits. Nevertheless, if you are keen to learn more about effective interviews, this chapter on Interviews with Individuals from the Handbook of Qualitative Research in Education is available to download for free. (Your institution may have access to the full handbook.)
If you have more experience with interviews and focus groups, then you know that how they are structured can create more or less active student participation in the process. Here are some examples of how practitioners use tools to increase student collaboration in interviews and focus groups:
Some institutions are increasingly using interactive workshops with students to (re)design services, testing prototypes early and working with students through cycles of review and implementation.
“[T]he overwhelming insight that [international] students valued and desired peer advice more than any other and for all aspects of student life was critical.”
This example outlines how advisors at The University of Melbourne used co-design to improve advising services, including international student onboarding. The project led to the creation of a peer-led pre-arrival virtual platform for international students. The paper puts the co-design methods and outcomes they use in the wider context of education services’ move towards more active student voices and partnerships over the last decade (Mann, 2020).
Dialogue circles differ from focus groups in that participants have a more active role in raising discussion topics and collaborating to explore issues. The project here collaborated with international students studying social work at University of the Sunshine Coast. This action research project was designed so that cycles of student participation identified the project’s focus and informed its ongoing evolution. The project made key changes to programme support, tutor training, peer mentoring, and admission requirements. Students were involved in the project in different ways, from co-researchers for course credit to paid peer facilitators.
“At first, [international students] thought these sessions would be about getting ‘information’ from us, top-down fashion. However… we encouraged a co-learning environment where we… encouraged students to help each other… This process also helped them build trusting relationships and develop confidence.”
The paper also provides practical background information about how the project was structured and funded (Lathouras, 2020).
Online tool – Miro Board
This practice report outlines a process for using a collaborative online tool to get feedback from students. These types of tools may be useful for offshore (or any other remote) students, and students with varying levels of English language proficiency. It also provides a fresh approach to structuring surveys. The short report (Bogdan, 2021) also outlines how the project reported back to students.
“I love engaging with students face-to-face and creating a physical community, but this became impossible due to COVID-19 lockdown. So, on top of gathering feedback remotely, Miro helped me create a digital community.”
This method invites students to take photographs in response to a theme or open question. This process of student reflection and sharing a visual can create windows into students’ worlds and serve as a powerful advocacy tool. Working with photos may also make participation easier for students with diverse mother tongues.
In this example, researchers from University of Otago reflect on the merits of using this method with international and other students in higher education research.
“The student described [effective teaching and learning] as a smooth process like ‘playing the piano with four hands’. The student explained: ‘… It’s like teamwork … some things are really difficult, are not easy to teach and [you] need to be able [to] put yourself into someone else’s shoes sometimes and even to have the same perspective the student has’ (International student, postgraduate).”
(Wass, Anderson, , Rabello, , Golding, , Rangi, & Eteuati, 2020)
In another project (Park, 2020), Photovoice was used with two young Korean students in New Zealand (Year 7 and 8) to explore what “student wellbeing” meant to them and what their school was doing or could do to support them.
“By choosing what to photograph, Kylie and Olivia were able to lead the follow up discussions. The use of photography and Korean decreased the reliance on English and provided a practical tool to capture abstract ideas related to the complicated concept that is ‘wellbeing’.”
As with any other student voice tool, comparing interview and focus group data alongside other information about international student voices and experiences will show how those sets of information confirm or challenge each other. Bringing sets of information together creates fuller pictures of the international student experience.
Sharing and responding to student voices – “You said, we did”
“We don’t appreciate it if you are going to ask us how we feel and we voice our concerns. Are you going to do something? Because I find there is a lot of talk here. A lot of meetings but nothing ever comes out of it.” (International student cited in Nielson IQ, 2021, p. 61)
The purpose of student voice processes is to take action with what you learn, and that requires reporting back to students about your institution’s response. Across studies of student voice in Aotearoa, students report that they do not know what happens with their feedback (Ako Aotearoa, 2013; Te Pūkenga, 2021, Terry, 2020). This creates an environment where students do not participate and/or do not believe that participating will make any difference.
Student voice mechanisms should be designed from the beginning to report back to students and across your institution. For any student voice process, answer these questions as part of your design:
It may seem tricky to report back to students about ‘action’ given the time that institutional processes require. International students may leave your institution before any changes are implemented. Be honest about those timelines, and let students know how current practices are built on prior student contributions. Clear communication about your institution’s planning processes demonstrates your transparency and commitment.
Consider how you can involve students in reporting findings to decision-makers. When students are part of the process as facilitators or co-designers, they can communicate findings from the investigator and student perspective. You may also ask participants to sign up to present findings. Offering incentives such as training for advocacy and research presentation can help make the experience valuable for students and your institution.
If you present findings to a decision-making group that includes student representatives, connecting with those representatives and their usual reporting schedule is a great way to link student voice mechanisms together. If a particular committee does not have a student representative, reporting student voice findings can be a great opportunity to start bringing students into those spaces. Make sure these decision-makers provide clear commitments and timelines for how they will respond to findings.
Make use of students’ regular meeting times to have Q&A sessions and review your planning with them. This could be at student group meetings, special events, or in the first five minutes of courses. Continue to work with student groups regularly about how to take action and collaborate on planning. This supports students’ ownership and responsibility for their role in implementation. You may also get better insight into how students advocate for themselves.
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During my time in student accommodation, one place I worked had 80% international student occupants. The residential agreement stated a ‘reasonable fee’ would be charged to students who missed their weekly rental payments, but in fact this fee was $25 for a week and increased after two weeks. International students didn’t often read the many pages of terms and conditions and it wasn’t explicitly brought to their attention until they missed a payment.
So the students’ raised this with the university and the accommodation provider to state that it was unreasonable. They made it known that often there was a simple reason they missed the payment, e.g. were experiencing financial difficulties, often their employers paid them late or in cash (which they had to deposit), or funds from overseas took a bit longer to process, or bank fees created a short-fall, etc. The university agreed and the fee was reduced to $5.00, and once the debt was cleared the fee was reversed. (Practitioner reflection)
From providers to the Ministry of Education to the updated Code of Practice, our international education sector is recognising how ‘student voice’ processes need to deepen in order to understand and improve the international student experience. This topic outlined frameworks for improving that collaboration with international students, using The Sun Model to look at their roles and Whiria Ngā Rau to grow collaborative relationships across your institution.
We looked at how to improve the most common student voice mechanisms institutions use: student representative roles and wider student surveys. We also explored other in-depth and creative options to create space for international students to express their viewpoints, experiences, and ideas.
Most important to these processes is building in ways to take action and improve the international student experience. This topic highlighted the biggest gap in current student voice processes – closing the ‘feedback loop’ and demonstrating how the institution is putting their feedback into practice.
The pathways for building accountability mechanisms between international students and institutions may not be clear at first. Nevertheless, linking a range of formal and informal student voice practices to endorse frameworks like Whiria Ngā Rau demonstrates their value – while nurturing the collaborative relationships needed over time. As expectations for institutions to respond to student voices increase through mechanisms such as the Education Code of Practice 2021, the case has never been stronger for international student voice networks.
Ako Aotearoa. (2013). Using the student voice to improve quality. Retrieved from https://ako.ac.nz/assets/Knowledge-centre/The-student-voice/SUMMARY-Student-Voice-in-Tertiary-Education-Settings-Quality-Systems-in-Practice.pdf
Irish Council for International Students (ICOS). (2015). Diverse voices: Listening to international students. Retrieved from: https://www.internationalstudents.ie/training-and-events/icos-training-services/diverse-voices
Lathouras, A. (2020). A critical-relational approach to community development that increases well-being, learning outcomes and retention of international students. In G. Crimmins (Ed.), Strategies for supporting inclusion and diversity in the academy. https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2F978-3-030-43593-6_6.pdf
Mann, C. (2020). Advising by design: Co-creating advising services with students for their success. Frontiers in Education. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2020.00099
Massey University (2018). Massey University Library Te Putanga ki te Ao Mātauranga annual report 2018. Retrieved from https://www.massey.ac.nz/massey/fms/Library/Documents/Publications/Annual%20Reports/library-annual-report-2018.pdf?4C0295EED46DC2C6245862B2B0B122AA
New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) (2021). Guidance for tertiary providers: The Education (Pastoral Care of Tertiary and International Learners) Code of Practice 2021. Retrieved from https://www.nzqa.govt.nz/assets/Providers-and-partners/Code-of-Practice/Tertiary-and-International-Learners-Code-2021/NZQA-Code-2021-Implementation-Guidance-November-2021.pdf
New Zealand Union of Students’ Association (NZUSA), Te Mana Ākonga, Tauira Pasifika, & New Zealand International Students’ Association (NZISA). (2020). Student voice handover guide. Retrieved from https://www.aqa.ac.nz/sites/all/files/Student%20Voice%20Handbook%202020%20FINAL%202.pdf
Nielson IQ. (2021). International student experience survey 2021. Retrieved from https://intellilab.enz.govt.nz/document/682-international-student-experience-survey-2021-final-report-v2
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). OECD future of education and skills 2030 concept note. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/education/2030-project/teaching-and-learning/learning/student-agency/Student_Agency_for_2030_concept_note.pdf
Park, D. (2020). Student voice: The wellbeing of our international students. Retrieved from https://www.equitythrougheducation.nz/latest-news/2020/2/2/student-voice-the-wellbeing-of-our-international-students
Te Pūkenga. (2021). Te Reo Ākonga i Tēnei Wā: Te Pūkenga learner voice current state. Retrieved from https://xn--tepkenga-szb.ac.nz/assets/Our-Pathway/Learner-Journey/Learner-Voice-Current-State-Summary-Report_Final.pdf
Terry, S. (2020). Student perceptions of student evaluations: Enabling student voice and meaningful engagement. Retrieved from https://ako.ac.nz/assets/Student-perceptions-of-student-evaluations/Student-perceptions-of-student-evaluations.pdf
Wass, R., Anderson, V., Rabello, R., Golding, C., Rangi, A. & Eteuati, E. (2020). Photovoice as a research method for higher education research. Higher Education Research & Development, 39(4), 834-850. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2019.1692791