A new way to get inside the mind of a student

Shadow students to learn how they navigate campus

We like to think that our campuses are student-friendly, but many put unnecessary obstacles between students and their goals.

Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard Culatta and Sandy Speicher suggest that a strategy borrowed from the tech world can help college leaders understand the student experience and create a more student-friendly campus.

User experience (UX) teams at tech companies seek to asses and improve the ways users interact with their apps or websites. A user's experience with the tool should be positive—the tool should be intuitive and enjoyable, not complex and difficult to navigate.

An institution, the authors argue, should be same for its students: easy to navigate, positive, and user-focused.

"Colleges may say they care about their students, but caring isn't the same as understanding their needs and designing for them," write the authors. If schools prioritize their students' experience, they will have a better chance at meeting the students' higher education needs.

In order to optimize the student experience, Culatta and Speicher encourage schools to do the following:

1. Understand student groups

The first step in UX design is to understand your users, and Colatta and Speicher say this is the first step for colleges too.

They encourage higher education leaders to figure out what makes their students tick and what students hope to get out of using a particular office or service.

Try to understand what kinds of students come to campus generally, but also of students who visit specific services or participate in particular activities. Culatta and Speicher suggest looking for factors such as traditional versus non-traditional, transfer versus returning, or full-time versus part-time.

Demographics aren't everything for understanding students

2. Shadow students

The next step for many UX teams is to observe users interacting with their product or service. This helps them understand what users expect to see and where they might get frustrated.

Similarly, shadowing students can reveal things like how students balance their coursework with their home responsibilities, what they do with their time outside the classroom, or how they physically get to and from campus.

For example, a shadow team might discover that some students must wait an unreasonable time to catch a bus to campus, that others struggle to pay for her textbooks, or that another group feels confused by the wording in financial aid instructions.

3. Identify trends

After shadowing students, Culatta and Speicher encourage teams identify patterns in the students' behaviors and needs, and then create "personas" that represent specific groups of students. A persona is a fictional student character who shares many characteristics with some of your students.

Personas can make the student trends seem more concrete and can help teams think through how proposed changes would affect students with these characteristics.

For example, the authors imagine a persona called "James," a first-generation, full-time student who has not yet chosen a major.

When consider a change to how students declare a major, for example, a team can now step in and ask: What does this mean for James? Or one section of the team might devote their work to helping James and students like him choose a major. 

A field guide to the student mindset

4. Create prototype solutions

"Just as apps can be prototyped, so can educational experiences," say Culatta and Speicher. Using a prototype for a new educational approach could help the UX team to detect problem areas before spending money and resources to implement the approach.

Prototypes should allow for student feedback, which would in turn allow them to make necessary adjustments (Culatta/Speicher, Chronicle of Higher Education, 10/23).

3 tips for applying design thinking principles on your campus


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