Student Voice

Obstacles to students voice in curriculum design

By Eve Bracken-Ingram

Student voice is often described as collecting feedback from students. However, we at Student Voice understand that it involves not only providing students with a means to voice their views, but also empowering students to take an active role in the decision-making processes that affect their education. A 2021 paper by Tuhkala, Ekonoja, and Hämäläinen (source) explores this concept through a study conducted at a Finnish university. In this study, students were actively involved in curriculum design in the IT faculty. Students were tasked with providing recommendations for the new curricula based on their experiences from the previous curriculum period. The study aimed to answer two research questions:

  1. How were the recommendations of the team implemented in the new curricula?
  2. What hindered student voice in curriculum design?

Curriculum can be defined as either a product or a process. Product described curriculum as the set of instructions which underlines the learning goals, content and teaching methods for a program, while process refers to curriculum as the interaction and collaboration of students and teachers throughout the learning process. Student voice within curriculum could be incredibly beneficial due to the unique perspective of students in the learning environment. Student participation in curriculum design has the potential to improve student development, academic outcomes and perceptions of the module.

Students involved in curriculum design in this study made several recommendations including:

  1. Reducing size of programs.
  2. Removing compulsory classes.
  3. Editing learning outcomes.
  4. Adding classes to address common knowledge gaps.

These recommendations reflect common student concerns with curriculum such as workload, interest, relevance, and customisability of program.

Several student recommendations were implemented in the new curriculum, demonstrating the value of student voice within curriculum design. However, the first recommendation was not implemented as staff resisted the change. This highlights that although student opinion is considered, there is an unequal power dynamic between students and teachers. Another reason quoted for not implementing student recommendations was lack of time. This may suggest that student recommendations are only seriously considered when they are convenient to staff.

Through interviewing students, four factors were identified that may hinder student voice in curriculum design:

  1. Insufficient perceived experience
  2. Negative expectations about project significance
  3. Negative attitudes towards student involvement
  4. Lack of personal interest

Students felt that they lacked the necessary knowledge and skills to be involved in curriculum design. However, curriculum is not only related to content but also the teaching methods and organisation of the course. In this respect, students are the perfect candidates for curriculum design as they have a unique perspective on how content is delivered. Students also reported that they did not view their contribution as important. They believed that their comments would only be considered if a staff member also suggested the change. This belief leads to a negative attitude towards student participation. This may result in students’ unwillingness to participate in student voice, as they feel that their views are ignored. Resultantly there is a lack of interest towards student voice in curriculum design.

In conclusion, there are several challenges involved with student voice in higher education curriculum design. Although literature indicates the clear benefits of student participation, it may be difficult to implement in a meaningful way. Further work is required to overcome these barriers to student voice and to facilitate better collaboration between students and staff.


[Source] Ari Tuhkala, Antti Ekonoja & Raija Hämäläinen (2021). Tensions of student voice in higher education: Involving students in degree programme curricula design. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 58(4), 451-461
DOI: 10.1080/14703297.2020.176318

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