How can we invite meaningful feedback from our students? What are creative ways to learn about what students are thinking and feeling? What are student beliefs on their curriculum experiences?
These are ongoing questions posed by academics who aim to elicit deep reflections from their students but are challenged by the limitations of standardised assessment forms. To the rescue come Russell Lewis and Dr Charles Hancock (University of Derby) presenting at this month’s Generation Z in Higher Education Conference. Their presentation, The Mind’s Eye of Gen Z: Uncovering the Inner Thoughts and Beliefs of Students, explores the ZMET approach established with great success by Gerard Zaltman of Harvard University.
So, how does the ZMET approach work? ZMET stands for Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique:
(1) First, a briefing stage asks students to select a small number of images (such as from a Google image search) that represent their responses to a prompt, such as a response to their experience of blended learning.
(2) After the images are collected, the next stage involves interviews discussing the chosen images.
(3) The third stage involves a digital montage of images and an executive summary of the metaphors expressed.
(4) Finally, the discussions are transcripted, analysed and developed.
Zaltman’s inquisitive and visually impactful methods prioritise experience through the eyes of students, rather than being researcher led. For Zaltman, photographs and other visual media capture experiences as the producers themselves wish to be perceived. They allow us to uncover both conscious and unconscious thinking. The approach is multidisciplinary, drawing on subjects as broad as literary criticism, psycholinguistics, visual anthropology, cognitive neuroscience and more. The visual representations of experiences invite engagement with the senses too.
Metaphor is really important to understand in this context. In his research, Zaltman noted seven deep metaphors: balance, container, journey, connection, resource, control and transformation. These are seen time and time again across thousands of analysed interviews. Metaphorical thinking occurs in several stages too, from surface level to thematic and finally deeper unconscious thinking.
The ZMET interview steps created by presenters Russell and Charles treat the interview process as a series of stages that increase the depth of engagement with participants and prioritise increased trust between interviewers and participants. They move from story telling, to metaphor discussions, to mind mapping, and finally a visual montage (more detail is available in their 2019 paper).
The presenters invited conference session attendees to get some practice with some of the techniques. We were asked to find images that represented the student experience during lockdown. Together we discussed and practiced interrogating embedded metaphors and symbolism in the chosen images. What emerged was not just expected factual assertions (isolation, technology overload, etc.) but real emotional reflections that somehow meant more than any quantitative graph could ever express.
The techniques, frameworks and templates are well documented in the literature and, as such, are very accessible for anyone looking to experiment more with drawing out greater depth of feedback from students. The process is also student-led rather than interviewer-led, stripping away the sometimes problematic leading-questions dynamic that can emerge within feedback mechanisms. Plus, the discussive nature of the process allows for students to feel more heard or actively listened to than anonymous forms, because it’s a engaged process rather than a static call for contributions.