Human-centred research – a catalyst for innovation

Every education provider knows how important it is to continually understand, evaluate and measure the quality of their students’ experiences. We slice and dice data using a range of tools, from global benchmarks like the International Student Barometer, to regional benchmarking tools such as QILT in Australia, NSSE in North America and the National Student Survey in the UK.

While it is useful to scrutinise pass rates, retention/attrition and progression data, and identify trends between different cohorts, this doesn’t give us a holistic, human picture of our students.

It can’t describe the student whose mother sold her home so she could pursue her Masters in the UK, or the student whose mental health issues were only diagnosed once she started her course in Canada. It certainly won’t tell us about the student who enrolled in his courses at 3am in his home country, sleepily making important choices that would impact his first year of study.

“I was confused [when enrolling] and in my first semester I took four compulsory courses which ended up to be a messy semester. I had 24 hours of classes every week… it turns out my GPA is not as good as I expected.”
Navitas student, final semester

Going deeper with students

We need to hear and understand these stories to provide the right support at the time students need it most. To complement all those charts, graphs and tables we also need deep, human-centred research, from campus observations to immersive, carefully-structured conversations with the students who live and study in our colleges.

Over the last year Navitas’ University Pathways divisions have been doing exactly that in Australia, the UK and Canada. A team dedicated to student experience has spent more than 100 hours in face to face immersion sessions, not just with the class reps and student champions but also with those who have struggled with their studies or with settling into life in another country.

Picture: Pre-session tasks included drawing your ‘best’ and ‘worst’ experiences at college so far.

Using a wide range of creative ‘projective’ techniques to help students articulate difficult concepts about their experience, some very personal insights began to surface. These included pre-immersion drawing and reflective writing tasks, as well as visual prompts (words and pictures) and journey mapping. Our team worked with highly skilled facilitators who understood when to listen, and when to probe for more detail to get to the heart of an issue.

Away from everyday student life, students began to share the colourful and complicated stories behind their journeys to higher education. These included the disappointments and emotional lows of poor high school performance, visa difficulties, assignment stress and re-evaluating long-held personal goals. We also heard about the things that turned those lows around – the support students received from our colleges, staff and mentors, the importance of finding that ‘first friend’, and personal transformation from shy arrival to confident college volunteer.

“[College] is a phase of redemption… I was a very different person in high school – in academics I was a loser. When I came here I thought, this is my one chance.”

Navitas student, final semester

Mapping personas beyond nationality and stereotype

Through analysis of the patterns we observed, we now have a greater understanding of what drives different students. Working with professional research and innovation specialists, 20 key drivers were identified, such as confidence, passive/active choice and appetite for risk. Student attitudes were then plotted on a spectrum to ultimately identify four drivers and six distinct student personas.

Each persona was based on a combination of the characteristics observed in interviews, and included typical backgrounds, traits, aspirations and frustrations. To help us consider what each persona needs at different stages of the student journey, we then mapped common high and low points along their journey. This helped us identify areas for improvement and innovation.

“After so much struggle and failure on my part, suddenly having permission to pursue my passion was shocking. It made me feel capable of taking charge of my life for the first time.”

Navitas student, second semester

Uncovering new opportunities through the voice of students 

These insights have led us to identify wide-ranging opportunities that touch the work of every function at Navitas, from sales and marketing to admissions, student services, academic staff and even shared services like IT and finance.

Viewing the ‘whole student’ and their journey from awareness through to progression and as an alumni can help us connect different parts of that journey more effectively, in digital and non-digital ways. Their stories bring us closer to our purpose and mission, shifting our focus from how we work to what works for our students.

It also gives us a shared language across dozens of colleges around the world. We’re already applying these student insights to inform significant website re-designs, as well as projects to improve onboarding, orientation and other practice areas in Navitas. The personas provide a new lens on common yet complex student retention and success challenges, and help us to respond to changing educational needs across our colleges and divisions.

“[College is] your foundation, your support structure but you have to do the climbing… you have to put in the work… and this is the door to your new opportunity. And these are the friends, the camaraderie that you can experience and the new things that you learn about people.”
Navitas student, first semester


While these insights give us a foundation and renewed sense of purpose, we are also yet to do the ‘climbing’; working together to expand opportunities for all our students – not just the best and brightest.

Special thanks to all the students in Australia, Canada and the UK who took the time to share their personal experiences and stories with us. We couldn’t do this important work without you!

About The Author

Lucy Blakemore is the Head of Customer Research & Insights (DCX) at Navitas. Lucy joined Navitas in 2009 and has held diverse roles across the business including teaching, research, eLearning and Learning & Teaching innovation. Before joining Navitas, Lucy was a qualitative market research specialist in the UK, working on international and domestic strategic projects across a broad range of industries. She studied German and Italian at Oxford University, holds a CELTA and a Postgraduate Diploma in Marketing, and is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

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