Student Voice

The challenges of engaging students in student voice

By Eve Bracken-Ingram

We, Student Voice, understand the value in empowering students to act as agents of change within their education experience. The Teaching Excellence Framework and National Student Survey provide higher education institutions with great motivation to increase the opportunities provided to students to express their opinions and ensure that appropriate action is being taken in response to feedback. A 2019 case study by Herdan, Reilly and Warren (Source) explores the challenges associated with asking students to provide feedback on their higher education learning experience.

In this case study, year one students studying finance and accounting at a UK university were asked to evaluate their experience of using online learning platforms in their modules. This project was based on Dunne and Zandstr’s (2001) theoretical framework for engaging students as change agents. This model categorises student voice under four forms:

  • Students as evaluators – Students provide feedback, often via surveys, so that the institution can bring about change.
  • Students as participants – Students participate in decision making processes, often via committees, so that the institution can bring about change.
  • Students as partners – Students actively collaborate with institution to bring about change.
  • Students as agents for change – Students actively promote and bring about change.

The student voice form ‘students as evaluators’ is particularly relevant in this case study, as students are asked to provide feedback so that the university may improve the learning experience for students. This study collected student feedback via multiple surveys at various points during the program and the use of forums. The use of forums was particularly important to capture student opinion throughout the academic year. This ensured that the effect of a negative experience (e.g., a challenging assignment) on student opinion could be identified.

Students were greatly encouraged throughout the academic year to take part in the project. The importance of being an agent of change within their education was emphasised and examples were given to highlight the impact that student voice had on the program in previous years. The first survey had a high participation rate of 85%. However, student engagement dropped significantly survey to just 11% in the final survey. Student comments were analysed to identify potential reasons for this decline in participation. It was determined that the timing of surveys had a great impact on participation, with the final survey taking place during deadline season. Additionally, students were asked to complete 5 surveys are the same time, leading to ‘survey fatigue’. This results both low participation and poor-quality evaluations. Finally, students commented that when they had no issues with the program, they felt that they had no value to add and therefore did not participate.

Low engagement leads to additional challenges regarding how to respond to feedback received. As the whole student cohort’s perspectives are not heard, the resulting conclusion drawn from feedback will be biased. It becomes difficult to act on evaluation as it is not clear how changes will affect the broad student population. Therefore, it is essential that the discussed challenged are addressed so high student engagement is achieved. This will allow universities to obtain and act upon a student voice which reflects that of the whole student population.


[Source] Herdan, A., Reilly, D., Warren, L. (2019) Getting the blend right: listening to the wide student voice to enhance the online learning experience. Journal of Educational Innovation, Partnership and Change, 5(1), 1-8.
DOI: 10.21100/jeipc.v5i1.884

[1] Dunne, E. and Zandstra, R. (2011). Students as change agents: New ways of engaging with learning and teaching in Higher Education. ESCalate.
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