The first step of engaging with students is listening to them. Whether the end goal is to help students feel comfortable on campus, succeed academically, or access the mental health services they need at school, working with students to create effective change is no small task.

Universities and colleges are understanding more and more that there’s a need for open and honest engagement between students, faculty, and staff. Education systems and campuses will improve by engaging with the students they directly impact. 

In this post, you’ll find 3 design tools for understanding student needs that will give you the insights you need to make their experience better.

1. Feedback Grid


A feedback grid is a simple and straightforward way to gather feedback from students about campus, a specific program or service, or whatever it is you’re hoping to improve.

It’s an adaptable activity that can be used for groups or individuals.

Completing a feedback grid will take 10-15 minutes. Use this two-by-two grid that asks:

  • Upper left—“What do you like?”
  • Upper right—“What would you improve?”
  • Lower left—“What questions do you have?”
  • Lower right—“What new ideas does this give you?”

Give students 10 minutes to jot down their notes in the outlined quadrants. 

Don’t stop with students! You can use a feedback grid to enact cross-campus engagement by including professors, support staff, school volunteers and anyone else that touches the institution.

 2. Empathy Map


An empathy map gives you a more well-rounded perspective of student experiences, including any obstacles they may face in their day-to-day studies or campus life.

💡 Learn more about empathy maps here.

An empathy map can be completed by individuals or in a group. If you’re filling out the map with an individual, you can treat the map like a conversation starter and talk through the steps together. This makes the experience more personable and takes some of the pressure off.

In a group setting, each person can fill out their own empathy map. Alternatively, you can expedite the process by having each member contribute to one large empathy map.

  1. What are some things you see in our space?
  2. What are some things you hear in our space?
  3. What are some things you say in our space?
  4. What are some things you think in our space?
  5. What are some things you are doing in our space?
  6. What are some things you are feeling in our space?
  7. What are some things you are trying to get done in our space?
  8. What gets in the way of you getting those things done?
  9. What single change would make the biggest impact?

3. Journey Map


A journey map allows you to look at a person’s immediate experience so that you can understand it and make improvements in the future. 

Listening to the steps they took to get where they are now is helpful for a number of reasons.  Someone’s journey greatly influences their needs now, and it may give you insight into their reason(s)—which may not all be academic—for feeling the way that they do.

Journey maps ask people:

  • What steps they took to get to where they are right now (applying for school, selecting classes, moving in, etc.)
  • What they expected or hoped would happen at each step.
  • What actually happened at each step, including both what went well and what did not.
  • How their experience at each step could be improved.

Follow along as you go through the instructions below:

You want to prompt students by asking them to describe 3-5 things that happened to them since they joined the school community, or whatever makes sense in your specific context.

Start with what they’re doing right now, and write that down in the grey box on the worksheet that says “start here.” Then follow up by asking: “What happened before that?”, “And before that?” and record those steps as well. 

For each step: 
  • Ask what they expected to happen. What did they hope to do? Did they think it would be easy, or hard?
  • Ask about the positives and negatives. What did they like? What didn’t they like? What worked out well and what was challenging?
  • Ask about how they would improve the step. What would they like to happen differently at that step?
Understanding that we need to engage with students is only the first step. Design tools can help guide the engagement process through questions that provide deep insight into what it means to be a student today.

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