supporting

student 

consultation

Improving processes of consultation between students and administration at the University of Toronto using Design Thinking research and interview methods.

TEAM

5 staff & 4 students (including me) selected from various faculties & departments 

METHOD

Qualitative Research

TIMELINE

3 months

MY ROLE

Designer

Researcher

The Challenge

Student engagement and feedback is essential to the university in developing programs and policies within the institution. However, with a student body of more than 60 thousand, student voices can get lost in the process. In this project, we focused on gathering insights about current methods of student consultation across campus and discovering potential areas for improvement from students and relevant stakeholders.

Rather than collecting quantitative data and mapping the consultation procedures at every unit within the university, the project focused exclusively on qualitative research approaches to gather more meaningful insights.

My reflections and notes 

will go here. 

We started by defining "student consultation" as any process that involves getting student feedback, from mandatory course evaluation surveys, interactions between student councils and the administration, to special task forces with focused group interviews. In our recruitment plan, we made sure to list contacts of under-represented groups and cover all stakeholder groups involved in the consultation process.

Over 2 weeks, we interviewed 22 participants who can be categorized as such:

  1. Students who are already engaged (e.g. involved in councils/ advisory boards/ student groups)

  2. Students representative of varied backgrounds

  3. Staff/faculty member with in-depth knowledge of governing bodies (e.g. people who run student advisory boards)

Here are some questions we asked:

  • To staff/faculty

    • What are the current methods used at your unit to gather student feedback?

    • Is student representation accounted for in decision-making processes?

    • On what sorts of issues do you find it important to have student input? 

  • To students​​

    • Who/what is your first point of contact to ask questions about, or voice your concerns regarding the University? Why?

    • Do you find these processes worthwhile? 

    • If you haven’t participated in consultation before, are you aware of any that has been happening on campus? 

It was difficult to grasp the concept of "student consultation" because each unit defines it differently and there were no standardized processes across U of T.

We relied on each members' personal connections, gathering people like student council leaders, student residence staff, a special task force researcher, a college principle, and more.

Key Insights
  • Students want to feel heard. Whether students feel their feedback matter relates to how strongly they feel connected to the university. A sense of belonging, community and other deeper needs must be addressed for consultations to be meaningful.

  • Infrastructure for communication is varied and decentralized. Each unit at the university operates in its own ways. Top-down initiatives to increase student engagement may not trickle down to front-line action. Smaller communities may have closer connections that foster stronger feedback loops, but may not be in touch with the university at large. Marginalized groups might also be hard to reach or not typically included in university decision-making processes.

  • Consultation fatigue kicks in when the input doesn't lead to meaningful changes. In such a large institution, communication may get lost in the process and changes come slowly. Students feel doubtful about whether their feedback makes a difference, and staff feel powerless when they are not able to respond to students with concrete actions.

  • Consistent relationship-building is key to addressing power imbalance in the consultation process. Even if students are invited to the table, they may not feel comfortable speaking their minds if there wasn't an existing relationship between the student and institution. 

We gathered in a room to create an affinity map for common themes raised by the participants. It would have been helpful to also create a journey map to contextualize the pain points and insights gathered.

Reframing the Question

After uncovering insights from our research, we wanted to narrow the scope of our project question to focus the direction of our ideation process. Taking into account different stakeholder interests and structural limitations of the institution, we reframed the question as follows:

How might the university engage students in a meaningful manner that feels safe and comfortable to them?

Design Principles

We synthesized our research findings into the following points as design principles to guide us through the ideation process:

  • Be mindful of accessibility and power imbalance. Account for the power dynamics between students and administration, and how that might play out in the consultation process.

  • Recognize diversity in the student body. Students come from varied backgrounds, and different methods are needed to cater to different needs.

  • Address structural limitations at the institution. The scale of the university is a huge challenge to standardizing operational and communication methods. Other mitigating practices like more collaboration across units and consistent ongoing programs should be in place. 

  • Maintain strong relationships with student groups. Ensure avenues for feedback and involvement are sound. Make sure students know how their inputs are included by following-up after consultation processes and sharing project reports or progress updates. 

Brainstorming

We started by imagining what a "typical student" may experience in the process of student consultation, some pain points include:

  • Feeling like their voices don't matter, so why bother?

  • Fear of speaking freely in formal spaces

  • Who to talk to? What resources are available?

We also considered other stakeholder positions and their challenges:

  • Administrative staff who are students' first point of contact may feel powerless when they don't have means of channelling the student feedback and responding with concrete actions.

  • The people in positions of power may be disconnected with the student body and need means of interacting with students.

Here are some of our best ideas:

  • Mandatory workshops during Orientation to set the stage for awareness around policy, self-advocacy, methods of consultation, and resources available.

  • Speaker corners/pop-up booths strategically placed in high-traffic locations, scheduled for a set time period each term. A semi-formal consultation platform that could capture important topics that can be further addressed in more formal settings.

  • Critique sessionsinviting students to openly critique the university on various selected topics.

  • Regular check-ins with students, e.g. personalized emails, paired staff mentors, drop-in meal sessions with faculty members.

  • A landing page that redirects students to a repository of feedback and changes made over the years of corresponding projects after surveys are completed.

Shortly after our ideation meeting, the pandemic struck and the city went under lockdown. The abrupt transition disrupted further developments to the project.

Further Reccommendations

Throughout the process of ideating, we kept coming back to the same issues of the institution's decentralized structure and a lack of a specific target group that makes it difficult to cater the solution to specific needs. Due to the nature of the project being a high-level, explorational approach to investigate the current consultation landscape, there were areas we could not cover, and leave the following areas as suggestions for further research:

  • Mapping existing resources: What are students' first point of contact in each unit? What are resources that are under-utilized?

  • Communication among staff: How might we create opportunities for staff across different units to gather and share their experiences? Could there be best practices developed through such conversations?

  • The follow-up: Could there be standardized reporting templates to expedite the follow-up process?

moving

forward

The project ended quite abruptly because the pandemic struck and the stakeholder presentation that was originally planned became more of an informal sharing session among the program participants. If the project was to continue, we could select one idea to develop low-fidelity prototypes of, and invite the community to test the solutions, which can then provide feedback for further improvements.

Lessons Learnt
  1. Meaning is not universal: It is impossible to create a solution that feels "meaningful" to everyone. More work could be done to investigate what "meaningful" entails to different groups of people on campus. From there, more targeted projects can be carried out to better serve different needs.

  2. Quality vs Quantity: The project was limited to qualitative research methods due to how the program was designed. This provided us with valuable insights from specific individuals recruited through our personal contacts. However, some quantitative approaches would have complemented the insights to provide us with a broader picture of the demographic and nature of the current landscape. 

  3. Communication & commitment matter: Working with staff and student members with affiliations to different parts of the campus was a great learning experience. However, as each member also has full-time obligations outside of the project, it was difficult to coordinate times for all 9 members to meet. We used tools such as Slack and Sharepoint as compromise, but more face-to-face discussions would have benefitted the project more.