Student Voice

Appreciative inquiry as a positive student voice practice in higher education

By Eve Bracken-Ingram

Student voice is the concept of including students in the decision-making processes which affect their education. It is built upon the belief that students have a unique perspective and can provide valuable feedback on teaching and learning processes. Typically, student voice practices are centred around identifying problems and determining solutions. Critics of this practice suggest that the negative starting point limits the efficacy of student voice and creates a divide between students and staff. By focusing on problems, students are forced to play the role of angry customer while staff are expected to defend their practice. This creates an untrusting and apathetic environment where positive change is unlikely to be created.

Kadi-Hanifi et al. (2014) (Source) suggest an alternative to the standard negatively focused student voice practices: appreciative inquiry. Appreciative inquiry is built upon the idea of “the power of the unconditional positive question” (Ludema, Cooperrider, and Barrett, 2001, p.189) and aims to engage, enthuse and enhance higher education communities. This student voice practice focuses on the strengths of current teaching and learning processes and asks participants to imagine what may be possible in the future.

Appreciative inquiry consists of four stages:

  • Discovery
  • Dream
  • Design
  • Destiny

Discovery is the primary research stage where current positive practices are identified. In order to maximise student agency and empowerment this stage should be led predominantly by students. A range of diverse students and staff should be consulted to gain a broad perspective. Feedback should be analysed in order to create a set of 'propositional statements' which describe the general consensus on current positive practices. Following this identification, the dream phase commences. In this phase, students are required to imagine the possibilities for the future if these best practices were ingrained into the higher education institutions culture. Based on this envisioned future, the design phase then utilises co-creation to develop a set of guiding values which, when followed, will result in this dream. This stage must be incredibly collaborative so ensure that all stakeholders contribute to these shared principles. Finally, the destiny phase establishes a sense of purpose by asking all stakeholders to share a commitment to change. A key observation is that this is not an action plan but instead the acknowledgement of a shared resolution.

The entire process aims to create an empowering, trusting higher education community. By replacing complaints with positive feedback, staff are reassured and inspired to continue to transform educational practices. Appreciative inquiry encourages energetic forward thinking of staff and students. The encouraging nature of this practice motivates participants to take part in, and actively listen to, student voice. There are limitations to appreciative inquiry as a student voice method, as it does make identifying major problems difficult. Additionally, the whole community approach may lead to marginalised opinions being disregarded. However, if used in conjunction with other student voice practices, appreciative inquiry may encourage a new outlook on higher education development and create a positive, collaborative community which fosters growth.


[Source] Karima Kadi-Hanifi, Ozlem Dagman, John Peters, Ellen Snell, Caroline Tutton & Trevor Wright (2014) Engaging students and staff with educational development through appreciative inquiry. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 51(6), 584-594 DOI: 10.1080/14703297.2013.796719

[1] Ludema, J., Cooperrider, D., & Barrett, F. (2001). Appreciative inquiry: The power of the unconditional positive question. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), Handbook of action research (pp. 189–199). London: Sage.

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