Student diaries as a tool to improve the university experience

Do you really know what your students experience during their studies? It is more complex than many surveys suggest. Using student diaries may support deeper understanding to improve student experiences, as Dan Herbert explains

Dan Herbert's avatar
University of Birmingham
5 Oct 2022
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A female student writing in her diary

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Open any university strategy, government policy paper, thinktank output or edition of Times Higher Education and you’ll read about the “student experience”. Measuring and improving it has become one of the main priorities of universities. But what do we really know about it?

Typically measured by responses to closed questions on end-of-year or module questionnaires, the student experience has become narrowly defined. Issues such as teaching, assessment, feedback and communications are the focus of large student experience surveys such as the UK’s National Student Survey. Institutional student experience studies often ask similar narrow questions, and this leads to limited insight. And that insight is historic. At the University of Birmingham, we have been trialling an approach using student diaries that provides a more timely and less restrictive look into the issues affecting students. Our aim has been to get a deeper understanding of what students experience and how we might respond.

How we designed the study

We had 750 students apply to be part of the study. We read all the applications and selected a sample of 150. The sample is not perfectly representative but includes home and international students, commuting students, first in family, a range of ethnicities, and under- and postgraduate students.

Each week the students write a short free-form diary entry about their week. We do not give them prompts or questions we’d like them to write about. The aim is to allow them as much freedom as possible to write about their experience. The entries are anonymous but can be identified by course, year of study, gender and school. The diaries are collected using an online form. It is a simple process for students. If a student writes about issues such as extreme mental health problems, we have reserved the right to break confidentiality and intervene.

Diary studies are usually small as analysis of data is so time-consuming. Our work uses a simple analysis tool, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC), that allows us to analyse the large quantity of text data collected quickly each week. The diary entries are analysed to highlight issues that are leading to anxiety and negative emotions as well as to identify factors leading to positive emotions. The basic analysis allows focused reading of selected entries to explore issues in more depth.

What did we learn?

Students were overwhelmingly positive about their experience, according to the analysis. But we could see that those who are positive tend to be students who:

  • have made friends, maybe through membership of a good student society
  • are doing well in their studies with assessment grades that match their expectations
  • feel that they are managing their workload well
  • have balanced work and leisure.

Those displaying negative emotions or anxiety tend to feel:

  • lonely or isolated (about a quarter of students write about this issue)
  • dissatisfied with aspects of teaching and assessment (feedback and timetables are common areas of discontent)
  • that they are behind in their studies or not sure that they are keeping up
  • that they are doing worse than their peers (international students put great store by comparative grades).

An issue that has been highlighted in positive and negative terms is communication. Many students write about not getting replies and feeling their issues have not been taken seriously. Others write about how a thoughtful reply made them feel seen and supported.

How might this lead to improved student experience?

Using student diaries has provided a more nuanced picture of what students experience during their studies. Simply focusing on the items that generally form part of student experience initiatives such as feedback and communications may not shift students’ perception of their experience.

We have learned that other, less tangible factors are just as important, including:

  • Answering messages quickly and accurately. Responding in a supportive tone has a huge impact on students. This applied to everyone who communicates with students. It is a quick and easy fix that would seem to have a big impact.
  • Clearly communicating expectations. Giving students clear guidance about what they need to do for a given module, assignment, activity or class is important.
  • Checking individual student progress. Making space in personal tutoring sessions or module workshops to check individual student progress would reduce anxiety levels for both those who are struggling and those who are simply worried. Students without family or friendship networks to guide them would benefit most from this.
  • Support for the social side of learning. For many students, course-based social activities are spaces where they can make friends. Not all students, especially commuting and international students, feel able to join societies or mix informally. In our study they write about how much they value organised social activities and trips. These events can help overcome isolation and loneliness.

We need to broaden our understanding of the student experience and how we manage it. Using student diaries can help to build this understanding and break out of narrow conceptions.

Dan Herbert is a professor of management education at the University of Birmingham Business School.

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