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April 26, 2023

Listening Lab: Dlevating student voices to improve equity

By Kate Birnbryer White

As researchers and educators, it is easy to get lost in the reams of available data on student success. A new MSU-led project called the Listening Lab for Higher Education Transformation is uncovering data from student populations that can be hard to discern in large survey datasets. Funded by the Kresge Foundation as a scale project of the University Innovation Alliance, the Listening Lab delves into the student experience to gather the opinions and insights of students of color, low-income students, and first-generation students. The project is currently in the pilot phase that assembles data from MSU and the University of California Riverside, Purdue University, and Georgia State University. According to project leader Chelsea Noble, Ph.D. the goal is “to design, implement, and scale a humanizing approach to elevating student voices through focus groups” with the funds that have been made available for this project.

Noble, one of the University Innovation Alliance Fellows at MSU, is a scholar-practitioner committed to creating more equitable and just higher education institutions. The key outcome of the Listening Lab will be an adaptable, systematic, and scalable model for uncovering student insights, which can be translated into digestible reports and actions for each campus to improve the student experience. The focus groups being conducted for this project are the differentiating factor in this student success research.

Transfer students are a small slice of the MSU student body. In Fall 2022, transfers represented 1,378 or 12.47% of the 11,054 new undergraduates. The number of transfer students of color is a smaller subset. The Listening Lab’s first round of focus groups sought out transfer students of color to record and lift up their experiences. While the results of the focus groups are currently being compiled and analyzed, Noble shared some early observations. “I was pleasantly surprised by how much students felt supported by faculty and staff — that those were the folks they turned to for advice to help navigate MSU. They reported some very positive experiences. Listening to them was really affirming,” says Noble.

Transfer students and transfer students of color have a different journey than the majority of MSU students. “There are real challenges to entering a very large school. These students are not coming in with other first-year students. They might not be having a residential experience. Figuring out how to get plugged into social and co-curricular supports is important,” Noble explains. “It's a really tough moment to be a college student. The students that we talked to were thoughtful and funny and earnest. They're really doing the best they can, and they're facing some really challenging contexts. The more that we can understand that, and meet them in those spaces, the better. Focus groups are great way to learn about our students as whole people with lives beyond the classroom,” says Noble.

Conducting focus groups can be difficult to arrange, but MSU students are interested in participating. “I think students were really excited to be asked. We heard that at multiple interviews,” says Noble. Students that couldn’t participate in the focus groups due to class conflicts were still interested in sharing their experiences and offered to be part of the project in any way possible. “That’s really moving. It is a good indicator that it is feasible to use focus groups with students of color, low-income students, and first-generation students. That’s the first step to elevating their voices,” Noble explains.

The Listening Lab project is funded through May of 2024. Additional focus groups will be conducted with new subpopulations identified by APUE in the fall. The Listening Lab project includes a platform to share information with universities all over the United States. Look for more details on the Listening Lab’s findings later this summer in the Student Success Newsletter.