Ensuring all student voices are heard

Case study
Talking about
Student voice

Enablers Priority 4: We will listen to our students and consistently evaluate our work to drive continuous improvement – Access and Student Success Strategy 2025, University of Leeds.

Our University Strategy recognises that seeing students as equal partners in their education is key to building the leaders of the future.

Just as important is making sure that all students have an opportunity to be heard. It is vital that we gather opinions and information from all student groups, particularly from those who are underrepresented and may lack the confidence to speak up. We value unique experiences and all students. 

As well as surveys, and student representation on decision-making bodies on programmes and within schools, we are using and leading research in innovative ways to reach out to students from diverse backgrounds and abilities to ensure more authentic data to help us improve our teaching and identify best practice. 

Listening rooms – informing policymaking and driving systematic change 

The method offered students the opportunity to talk freely, without influence, providing us with an honest and more accurate reflection of their real thoughts.

Teresa Storey

‘Listening rooms’ is a method of collecting data from conversations between pairs of students, often classmates or friends, facilitated by a researcher who introduces topics and prompts but otherwise stays out of the conversation and the room. The ‘Listening rooms’ technique, originally devised by Sheffield Hallam University (Heron, 2019) and inspired by BBC Radio 4’s Listening Project, won a Guardian University Award for Student Experience in November 2020.

Stacey Mottershaw, Faculty Director of Taught Student Social Mobility at Leeds University Business School (LUBS) ran a one-off project using underrepresented students focusing on access, continuation, attainment and progression — the four pillars of the institutional Access and Student Success Strategy. By having a conversation between peers, some of the trickier issues could be discussed freely without the usual power dynamics of a staff/student conversation.

19 pairs of students took part in the project, across both LUBS and the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Culture.

“The reports from this Listening Rooms research have been taken through the governance process to inform proposals and changes,” says Louise Banahene, Director of Educational Engagement at Leeds. “In some cases, it reinforces the needs for change in areas where there is work going on such as inclusive assessment. It’s been invaluable in adding a qualitative dimension to what can often be a very data-driven discussion.”

Listening Rooms have since been used across the University as a key method for collecting and incorporating student voices. A Listening Rooms toolkit has been created to help staff who are considering running their own activity. Via the University’s Michael Beverley Innovation Fellowship, Rachael is also using reverse mentoring to bring together law students and the legal profession

Teresa Storey, a Lead Outreach Officer based in Educational Engagement, used Listening Rooms in her LITE Fellowship ‘Student Ambassadors’ Perceptions of University’. “I employed the Listening Room method as part of a study looking at the impact of student ambassadors’ work on their perceptions of university,” she explains. “I felt that the method offered students the opportunity to talk freely, without influence, providing us with an honest and more accurate reflection of their real thoughts. The two pairs of students we worked with greatly valued the time in the Listening Rooms. They highlighted how beneficial they found the conversations as a reflective tool allowing them to appreciate and understand how much they had achieved and grown as ambassadors.”

Reverse mentoring – a different perspective for staff and students

Student voices should play a role in actioning change across the University and be embedded into everyday practice, and reverse mentoring is a very effective way of bringing less-heard voices to the fore.

Rachael O'Connor

The practice of reverse mentoring subverts the traditional ‘top-down’ mentoring dynamic, which sees an experienced senior person with expert knowledge imparting their wisdom to a less experienced junior. Instead, reverse mentoring provides a safe environment where both can learn from each other, but the ‘junior’ participant is recognised as the one with the specific expertise and takes the role of mentor.

The Reverse Mentoring Pilot, run by Rachael O’Connor, Associate Professor in the School of Law, involved eight international student/senior staff pairings and aimed to gain an insight into students’ lived experience and build stronger relationships between staff and students. Rachael joined the University of Leeds after working in commercial law, a sector in which reverse mentoring is common, and was keen to discover if the technique could work in a higher education setting.

The pilot was very successful and led to Rachael supporting the initiation of reverse mentoring on a university-wide scale in partnership with our Educational Engagement team, focusing on underrepresented students, including those who identified as ethnically minoritised, mature (21+), international or from a widening participation background. The project aimed to discover students’ sense of belonging and being valued and give staff and senior leaders/management at the University an understanding of challenges they faced. In addition, it explored how it could affect the daily practice of teaching and evaluation, as well as higher level decision making and policy for senior leaders.

25 student/staff pairings completed the project and post-mentoring feedback showed that students felt an increased sense of belonging, that their value was more widely accepted in the University, and that they had more confidence that staff understood them, their background and experiences.

“We discovered we both had working class backgrounds,” said one. “It was nice to see that someone so high up in the University came from these backgrounds and wasn’t forgetting where they came from. It gave me more confidence that the University has people’s best interests at heart, and I think it’s giving me more confidence in my teachers.”

Staff feedback was equally positive, with a greater understanding of student challenges and how they affected engagement. 

“This really made me think differently about what inclusion means in the classroom and how complex it really is,” said a staff mentee. “It’s made me much more authentically engaged with the issues of underrepresentation because I can think about something I’ve discussed in depth with someone in a friendly, positive space.”

Rachael has a LITE fellowship aimed at furthering the use of reverse mentoring at Leeds. “The findings will be relevant to a number of important debates around the student experience, student well-being, diversity and inclusion and staff/student relationships,” says Rachael. “Student voices should play a role in actioning change across the University and be embedded into everyday practice, and reverse mentoring is a very effective way of bringing less-heard voices to the fore.”

Read more about Rachael's work: 'Challenging the ‘traditional’: how ‘micro-communities’ can bring about big change', part of our World Changer essay series.

Listening Rooms and Reverse Mentoring are just two approaches we use to gather authentic student voices to help evaluate and improve the student experience and outcomes at Leeds. For more information on our student voice programmes, contact the Student Success Team: studentsuccess@leeds.ac.uk