Should we start a regular student wellbeing survey?


Surveys are everywhere.

There isn’t a week that goes by where I am not asked to complete a survey. Some are scientific research studies. Some are just a little bit of fun. Some are essentially marketing for a product or service. Some are an attempt on the part of an organisation to improve their service or product offering.

As I’ve got older, I’ve actually got more likely to complete a survey when I receive one. I think this reflects having been a researcher and knowing how important surveys have been to my career and hence feeling some empathy for those conducting a survey. I’m also mindful that many organisations/companies are genuinely interested in the views of their customers (happy customer = more spending), so their surveys are part of delivering a better service or product which I may benefit from.

As both a surveyor and a surveyee (made up a word) I’ve learned that people are often very generous with their time in terms of completing surveys, particularly if it is made clear to them how the information is going to be used. It is even better if they get to actually see the changes being made as a result of the survey. When a company highlights the changes it has made to how it does business on the basis of information it collected from its customers, it encourages me to further engage with that company but also with surveys more broadly.

But surveys can also be helpful to the person completing them. Through surveys, we can often learn something about ourselves. This is particularly the case when we complete surveys as part of psychological research. Our answers to questions might illuminate our attitudes or views. Surveys might spark an interest in a new topic. Surveys can bring to our awareness important issues that we’ve otherwise remained ignorant of.

This understanding of a survey as being both an agent for change in an organisation but also valuable to the individual completing it has resulted in me getting very interested in the idea of a Flinders University Wellbeing Suvery  (FUWS). Such a survey would provide the underlying data on which the university could make incremental improvements to its wellbeing strategy but also be of direct value to those completing the survey.

Let me explain.

I’ll start with a few observations about the role of universities in promoting, sustaining and building wellbeing in students.

  1. Universities are a place and time in our lives where opportunity and challenge collide. We can gain the skills necessary to advance our lives but doing so can be hard work and stressful.
  2. 50% of students are under 24 and in the highest risk bracket for mental ill health.
  3. Universities have (rightly so) been trying to increase access to university for those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.
  4. The combination of 1, 2 and 3 mean that mental health and wellbeing are significant considerations for those studying a university degree.
  5. Universities can’t avoid having to think deeply about how to support the health and wellbeing of their students. Students will be at a university for between 3 and 10 years. It is inevitable that they’ll struggle at some point during their candidature and if universities want to maximise completion rates, they’ll have to think about how to support them during those times. Furthermore, students expect that universities will offer the support services necessary for them to complete their degree. It is what they consider they are paying for.
  6. Flinders, like many universities invests in a range of support services. Health, Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS) is one of them that has a strong wellbeing focus.
  7. Despite these investments, Flinders (as far as I can gather) doesn’t have an overarching mental health and wellbeing plan across the university, although I am mindful that one is taking shape at the moment which is very encouraging.
  8. At the simplest level, a mental health and wellbeing plan would involve a) measuring wellbeing in some way and then b) using that data to inform changes that could be made to increase wellbeing (or remove barriers to wellbeing).
  9. Whilst students are surveyed on a range of topics (e.g. student experiences, student evaluation of teaching), we don’t have a university wide approach to measuring mental health and wellbeing.
  10. This means services like ours (HCDS) doesn’t really have particularly good data (except from the students that visit our service) on which to make service improvements or changes.
  11. I’d like to change that.

This morning, I got to sit down with the Wellbeing Ambassadors to talk about this topic. They had expressed an interest in considering .

We started brainstorming what a wellbeing survey for students might look like.

Lots of questions and options were considered.

  • What do we want to know?
  • What questions would we ask?
  • How would we use the data from the survey?
  • What is it we want to change about the university? Is a survey the best method?
  • How often should we survey?
  • Do we send it via email, or do students get too many emails?
  • What other options are there?

We didn’t arrive at any firm conclusions, so I sent the ambassadors away to think about how they would design a survey. I gave them some prompt questions to help the process.

In the process of answering those questions for myself, I realised I did have a fairly clear picture on how I’d design a Student Wellbeing Survey, so I’ve outlined it below.

Note that the ideas below are simply my first crack at describing what a Flinders Wellbeing Survey might involve. I’m not particularly attached to the specifics, but would like to see increased discussion about the possibilities of such a survey.


What is it you want to change about the university or about the experiences of students within the university?

I want us to have a widely known and widely used process for measuring student wellbeing as well as harnessing the views of students on how to make the university more wellbeing focused. I’d like all students to be aware that the university has committed to ongoing improvements in the wellbeing of students and that the survey is part of the process by which that is done.


How might a survey help you in this process?

If delivered through the right channels, a survey would be a way of reaching a large number of students, across all campuses to get a representative set of views on how to improve the university. A survey is low cost and can be delivered to all students via digital means. We could make an ‘event’ of it with widespread promotion of when the survey is being conducted. This would be matched with widespread promotion of the results of the survey (for that year) and what is being done as a result of what we’ve learned.


Who would you survey? – students, staff, academics etc

Initially my focus would be on students. However I would like to expand that down the track to include everyone in the Flinders Community. We are all in this system together. All of our wellbeing is important.


What would the survey look like? – number and type of questions

To get widespread completion, I think the survey needs to be brief – less than 5-10 minutes to complete – maybe even smaller. There are a number of short and reasonably well validated wellbeing instruments that could be used (example). I’d supplement these with a few ‘thematic’ questions that change each year and reflect a specific focus of the university in that particular year. For example, one year we might focus on nutrition. Another year we might focus on sustainability. The only requirement is that the chosen theme be logically connected to mental health and wellbeing.


How would the survey be delivered? – paper, digital, installation

The university already has the necessary tools to construct an online survey, and link to it from emails, social media etc. This is where I’d start.

In the future, I’d possibly look at a dedicated app that students can download that notifies them of when the survey is being conducted and can also act as a hub for wellbeing related information (e.g. contact details for health and counselling etc).

Extensive promotion of the survey would be conducted via existing communication channels with students – e.g. Ping! newsletter, digital screens, beginnings of lectures, pamphlets etc. We’d look to get university wide endorsement and promotion from all the colleges.


How often would you do the survey?


In terms of timing, I would probably aim to do the survey in the first half of the year. That way we could use the second half of the year to implement changes based on what we learn from the survey.

Repeating the survey each year would help us track our progress towards increasing student wellbeing.


What would you do with the data collected from the survey?

First, we would set up the survey to have some basic ‘intelligence’ built in. So each student, having completed the survey, would automatically have some recommendations made for university/online/community services that might be helpful to them. For example, if a student indicates some welfare related issues (e.g. financial problems), they’d be informed of the various financial advocacy services available to them.

Then we need someone to take the de-identified data, analyse it and prepare a report. I’d like to do that, and I think that would make sense in the context of my role. My job is to write and talk about student wellbeing. The survey would be a critical part of that. I have the background experience in research to make a reasonable go of this. I’d publish what we found on our various wellbeing channels and share it with other groups in the university that might like to promote it as well.

The report would outline domains which the university could focus on in its ongoing service improvement efforts. The report would go to a Wellbeing Action Committee who would decide on some practical and achievable changes that could be made to how we deliver or promote academic and support services. These changes would be widely promoted, so students can see that the results of the survey actually inform changes to how Flinders does business. The survey the following year might pick up the benefits of those changes.

Finally, with the appropriate ethics processes in place, it would be good to publish the data more widely, perhaps in scientific journals or share with other universities to help them guide their service improvement efforts.


How would you motivate your target audience to complete the survey?

Basically, we have to demonstrate that the survey is:

  1. Very short and easy to complete
  2. A good way to get to know the different services available in the university (i.e. you’ll get a customised set of recommendations based on your answers)
  3. Anonymous, so you can share your views without fears of repercussions
  4. A good way to have your views heard on how to make the university more wellbeing focused
  5. A means by which the university can get an accurate feel for what students need
  6. Supported by the university as a key annual activity that informs ongoing service improvement efforts

We’d also have to convincingly show that the answers to the surveys lead to actual change in the university. So if students identify ‘X’ as a problem, then they will be able to see that a series of changes have been put in place to address ‘X’.


Final thoughts

Do you think there is potential value in a Student Wellbeing Survey?

What would encourage you to participate in an annual survey of wellbeing?

Feel free to share your thoughts below or in the Wellbeing for Academic Success FLO topic.

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