Evaluations for Better Education Policy and Practice: What Do Students Say?
Student voices can provide powerful insights to inform education improvement, and yet too often evaluations of education programs overlook students’ perspectives and experiences. At EdInsights, we often learn from California Community College (CCC) and California State University (CSU) students through focus groups and surveys, and we’re sometimes surprised by what we find. I’ll start with an example, and then I’ll provide some context.
We heard from a wide range of those working at community colleges or CSU campuses about the importance of encouraging students to explore both career opportunities and the subjects they want to study. The general consensus was that it’s good for students to take a variety of classes, even though that might prolong the time it would take to earn a certificate or degree. From our evaluations in two- and four-year colleges, however, we find that students do not express a deep desire to spend time and units exploring options. What the students want, rather, is guidance in identifying, early on, a suite of courses that match their general interests, followed by a clear structure to get them through expeditiously. We know from earlier research studies that students are more likely to complete a certificate or degree when they participate in streamlined pathways that include support systems.
At EdInsights, our evaluations typically examine policies and practices that support cycles of improvement, and most are informed by the perspectives of stakeholders, including students. The studies range from examinations of campus-based student support programs to assessments of cross-campus initiatives seeking to redesign program pathways. Our evaluation reports are confidential, but across this evaluative work over the past several years, we note several key findings from students’ perspectives. In general, students appreciate taking part in or voiced strong interest in:
1. Cohesive and structured program pathways;
2. Cohort models or learning communities;
3. Student supports and resources targeted specifically to their programs; and
4. Opportunities that connect classroom learning to the workplace
I’ve already provided some information about students’ preferences for structured pathways. Students also told us, as part of several evaluations in the CCC and CSU, that they appreciate progressing through a program with a cohort of students. They said that their shared experiences helps them bond with other students and form study groups. This peer support, they said, helps them engage more deeply in classroom material and builds a sense of belonging at their institution. As with our findings on program pathways, these are also consistent with other research, including Tinto’s “Classrooms as Communities” in The Journal of Higher Education (1997).
Third, we heard from many CCC and CSU students who said they’d received conflicting advice from multiple advisors about courses and program requirements. Many students said that, as a result, they tried to “figure things out” on their own—including courses they needed to take or transfer requirements at other institutions. What students prefer is access to advisors associated with their academic program (such as a health or environmental program). These advisors know the programs well and take a stronger role in guiding students through key hurdles, like proactively referring them to resources. They typically know the students by name, are in touch with instructors about student progress, and are available at convenient locations without long wait times. For other resources, students also value easy access to study spaces, tutoring, and financial aid advising.
Our fourth major finding across our evaluations is that students strongly appreciate experiences that connect classroom instruction to professional workplace opportunities such as internships and apprenticeships. The students we spoke with said they felt more engaged with the material and better able to retain course information after having applied it to situations they might experience at work.
Each of these findings is borne out by existing research—and so, you might ask, why should colleges and universities spend time and resources asking students for their perspectives on these issues, if we already know some of the basic tenets from the literature? What we’ve found is twofold. First, as with the example about coherent programs of study, faculty, staff, and administrators, are often surprised by the extent to which their students articulate clear preferences for structured programs. Second, compelling feedback from students and other stakeholders can serve as impetus for action and improvement at the campus and system levels. The research itself may tell us what we need to know, but the students are telling us what we need to hear.