Focus Group – 14th March 2012

Posted on March 15th, 2012 by Jamie Mahoney

We met with a group of students yesterday to better understand the application process from individuals that have just gone through it, and to formulate some loose user requirements in terms of datasets and visualizations / applications.

A group of eight students attended, 4 from Games Computing, 2 Computer Science students and 2 Journalism students. The session followed a loose agenda, based around the application process; data that is/is not available during the application process and the various factors that potential students take into account when considering various universities and degree programmes.

The feedback from the session can be grouped into three categories: that gained through general discussion, written responses to a set of questions and ‘post-it notes’ that were used to allow the students to state factors that they did / would take into account when applying to university, and the importance that they placed on these factors. The feedback is broken down in this post into these three categories.

Feedback from General Discussion

When applying to university, social circles tend to have a heavy influence on the choice of university and/or degree. It was stated that schools/colleges (at least in this particular group’s experience) tended to encourage going to university, but took no active role in helping to determine which university and degree course was best for the individual student.

In terms of the process undertaken to research the various universities and courses available to them, the common starting point was the UCAS website. From here various universities’ websites were viewed, along with related Google (or similar) searches. Social media also played a role in gaining information, by joining various Facebook groups, ‘liking’ various universities Facebook pages and some joining the UCAS ‘UGoFurther’ social network, although the latter was rarely used.

The discussion then covered various factors  that the students may have taken into account when considering their choice of university and degree. The main points are summarised below:

  • Open days are beneficial – gives the students an opportunity to meet staff and visit the campus.
  • Distance from home is a factor, although not necessarily meaning that the closer to home the better.
  • University league tables played a part – Lincoln seen as rising through the tables.
  • Course content was highlighted as being particularly important.
  • Extra-curricular/entertainment provision was discussed, with the Engine Shed being mentioned
  • Entry requirements to courses were obviously a big part in course selection – although it was not made entirely clear which courses ‘counted’ and there was some confusion over the conversion of grades to UCAS points.
  • Course accreditation did not play a role in selection, primarily because it was not made clear  what it actually meant. The need for accreditation was often explained after students had started their courses.
  • The experience (in industry or academic) of teaching staff was not a strong factor, but it would have been good to see alongside the course information.
The students that discussed what information would have been useful, but wasn’t always readily available:
  • ‘Real’ careers info – statistics, case studies of former students etc.
  • Being able to easily compare courses within the same institution and across institutions.
  • More information on how their grades related to the entry requirements.
  • More information about optional modules and how it affects the structure of the course.
  • More information regarding the optional placement year – some cited this option as a reason for selecting the course, but stated that  more information about it would have been useful.
The discussion progressed onto prospectuses:
  • Most, if not all, used a collection of physical prospectuses, as well as viewing course and institution information online.
  • The prospectus gives a wider range of information, based on the university and the wider city.
  • It was noted, however, that a lot of the prospectus is wasted on individual students as they will very rarely (if at all) need or want to read about all the other courses offered at the university.
Feedback from ‘Questionnaires’
A ‘questionnaire’ of six questions was used to help structure further discussion. The information below shows each question, along with a summary of the various answers provided by those taking part in the focus group. (Students will have different views, so some bullet points may appear to contradict others)
      1. What sources of information did you consult when deciding on a university and course?
  • League tables
  • University websites
  • UCAS websites
  • Open days
  • Prospectuses
  • Event sites – music gigs etc
  • Information about the city
  • Google
  • Social Networks
  • Word of mouth, recommendations etc.
    2. What information would you have liked but couldn’t find, or wasn’t readily available?
  • Lecturer profiles
  • Course comparison – within an institution and across the sector
  • Detailed information on optional modules
  • What A-Levels were accepted
  • Case studies
  • Contact time
  • Placement year information
  • Accommodation options
  • Shopping / Night life in the city
    3. What role did the prospectus have in selecting a course? Is having the full prospectus useful or would a more custom prospectus be more useful?
  • Full prospectus preferable, not wanting to miss any information.
  • Custom prospectus better – already knew chosen area of study
  • Custom prospectus preferable, but still printed (as opposed to online version)
  • Full prospectus useful for generalised info, customised prospectus could offer more detailed information about chosen area.
  • Prospectus useful for showing family / friends.
    4. Whilst at university have you been made aware of the impact that your choice of optional modules could have on the structure of your course later on? Would this information be useful earlier on in the course?
  • Module information useful for selecting course
  • Optional modules were made clear on open day
  • Aware of options, not aware of possible implications (pre-requisites at later levels of study, for example)
  • Currently a first year student, haven’t been given information yet.
  • Not particularly aware – given full text description of course but information wasn’t overly clear.
  • Only aware as a student rep and attend meetings.
    5. How much of an impact does / would the assessment structure of a module or course have in your selection process? Would you avoid a module because of how it is assessed? Would you be drawn to a particular module because of how it is assessed?
  • Did not affect deicison, but would be interesting to know.
  • Don’t think it would have too much impact unless they were all presentations.
  • Hates writing with a passion, more likely to do practical modules.
  • Prefers practical assessment, assessment structure mentioned but not overly clear, assessment structure would influence them somewhat.
  • Quite important – it would be useful to see type breakdown for each module, would influe module choice.
  • Not bothered about assessment structure, course has to be assessed, doesn’t matter how its done.
  • Avoided universities and modules that had a lot of exams, drawn to modules with more practical assessment, big impact on university and course selection.
  • Lots of exams (with a high weighting) at end of year is bad.
Question six was ‘What factors did or would affect your choice of university and degree course?’ and was used as a prelude to the ‘Post It’ task, which is described below.

Post It Notes

The final section of the focus group involved the students writing any and all factors that may influence their choice of university or degree, along with features / information that are important to them on post-it notes. A scale on the wall (0 – 10) was then used, to allow them to prioritise how important each of these things was to them as an individual applicant. There was two main reasons for doing the task like this, firstly it allowed a priority to be established, with the more important aspects appearing closer to 10 on the scale (to the right of the picture, below); secondly, these post-it notes of individual pieces of information are somewhat akin to user stories within agile development. For instance, one note reads ‘Pass / Fail Rate’ and was placed around 7 on the scale. Firstly, this shows us that knowing the pass / fail rate of a given course is fairly important to potential applications; secondly, this note could be transformed to a user story similar to ‘Users are able to view the pass / fail rate of a course’.

The graph below quickly summarises the responses given in the task above. It shows that the top ten overall responses given are:

  1. Course content information
  2. Provision of specialist equipment
  3. Case studies (or similar ) of previous students
  4. Accomodation
  5. Lecturer profiles
  6. Similar courses
  7. Information about the city
  8. League tables
  9. Fees
  10. Relationship between grades and UCAS points

The focus group was very successful and for the time-being has given us enough information to work with and an insight into what services and visualizations may be useful for potential applicants. Another point that was made as a result of this group was that, while the majority of this work would be very useful for potential applicants, there would still be some use in it for current students. This has given us another area of work to consider.

We intend to hold future ‘user groups’ aimed at receiving feedback (‘requirements’) on the work we do as a result of this focus group.

One Response to “Focus Group – 14th March 2012”

  1. Alan Paull says:

    I’m glad to see that students do still care about the course content! In a sense this validates our approach with XCRI-CAP, which focuses on describing the course content.

    I realise that this was only a small number of students, but it gives quite a good insight into how students gather information nowadays; also bearing in mind that this group seems to be a very tech-savvy group. It also suggests that attempts at ‘one-stop shop’ solutions are doomed to failure. Potential students *should* be using multiple sources of information and they do.

    It’s particularly interesting to see that there may be a significant proportion of students that want much more detail about module options – this has been borne out by other investigations too. However, the difficulty here is how institutions can supply the right level of detail with confidence that specific modules will actually be offered – for example, a second or third year module may rely on specific members of staff and there’s no guarantee they’ll be in post!

    Alan