“A Perfect Storm Brewing”: The Strategic Necessity of Student Feedback

Written by John Atherton, Higher Education Director, Explorance.

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UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are under the spotlight, arguably more than at any other point in their history, for their approaches to enhancing the student experience.

The firmly-embedded National Student Survey (NSS), now including questions around the ‘Student Voice’, means that effectively capturing and responding to student feedback has taken on a whole new meaning for institutions.

Throw in annual league tables and the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), which sees universities similarly ranked for their teaching as they are for research, and there is a perfect storm brewing.

A key component of gathering student feedback, and helping to support these wider institutional drivers, is module evaluation. Module evaluation surveys have, of course, been undertaken by most universities for many years – but now the pressure is being intensified on leadership teams to sharpen up their practices.

Explorance’s new insight report, The Student Voice, How can UK universities ensure that module evaluation feedback leads to continuous improvement across their institution?, which we launched in February, explores the views of senior leaders in UK universities who are tasked with devising related strategies in response.

It is clear from our research that, driven by external pressures around the NSS, TEF and other metrics, universities are ramping up their approaches to capturing and responding to student feedback. Module evaluation surveys are recognised as playing a strategically important role in the student voice, providing institutions with the opportunity to respond to any issues or concerns before students complete the NSS.

Ian Dunn, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience) at Coventry University, summarised the value perfectly when he said that “module evaluation gives students the valuable opportunity to express how things are going from their perspective, and gives us enough time to act on their feedback for how the module can be improved or developed”. He also reported that, underpinned by evidence, module evaluation is a “strong indicator of NSS outcomes”.

There were similar perspectives at other universities. Professor Wyn Morgan, Vice-President for Education at the University of Sheffield, explained how student feedback “supports our preparation for external measures, such as the NSS and the TEF, by helping us to monitor, refine and improve our practices which will ultimately have an impact on how we perform in those metrics”. Professor Karl Leydecker, who at the time of interview was Vice-Principal (Learning and Teaching) at the University of Dundee and is now Senior Vice-Principal at the University of Aberdeen, added that student module feedback is “important to understand as part of the cycle to institutional enhancement”.

Many institutions have deliberately aligned their module evaluation questions to the latest NSS questions. “This gives us a cross-check – it enables us to look for consistent responses and also to see if the open comments provided by students give us further detail about an issue,” said Professor Sarah Speight, Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor for Teaching and Learning at the University of Nottingham, who also reported that their surveys were set up to “make sure that decision-making is guided by evidence”.

Many universities are embedding module evaluation within wider strategies around student engagement and student experience – and these surveys are perceived to support broader institutional initiatives around student retention. “Overall, what we are after is feedback that we can use to ensure we provide our students with a robust, rigorous and stretching learning experience”, continued Professor Speight.

Dr Becky Schaaf, Vice-Provost for Student Experience at Bath Spa University, said that “feedback in all forms feeds into our annual reporting and aligns with Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) requirements”. This includes using surveys to “understand the effectiveness of the wider range of support we provide” and, for example, impact on first-year retention rates.

Yet senior leaders also say that module evaluation surveys are just one form of gathering student feedback, and these need to be supported by more holistic approaches. Professor Liz Mossop, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Student Development and Engagement at the University of Lincoln, said that her institution’s main strategic driver for effective module evaluation is the delivery of an excellent student experience and outcomes. “Module evaluation is an important component of this because we need to hear directly from students about their learning experiences, but it is just one piece of the jigsaw”.

So, is capturing and responding to the student voice a strategic necessity? On this evidence, yes. Student satisfaction, informed and supported by an engaged student population, appears fundamental to the future of HEIs and the strategic goals of Vice-Chancellors and Deputy or Pro Vice-Chancellors with responsibility for it.

 


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