It is certainly important to know what our students are thinking, and what their experiences are, and feeding that into the broader goals of the University is essential

Written by Garmon ap Garth, Academic Services Manager, Birkbeck, University of London.

Birkbeck took the strategic decision to retain online-only provision for the first term of 2020-21, so we are not asking students to come onto campus for teaching, apart from some for specialist lab sessions. This, in turn, changes the usual processes for us and we have therefore decided to change how we capture feedback from the students during the first term.

We are having more surveys for students to complete this term. Previously we just had an end-of-module survey for students which we have run through Blue for the last year. This year we also introduced a survey for students in the second week of term to gather feedback on the orientation resources we have put in. We have invested quite heavily in staff training, and resources to improve the online provision for students, so we wanted to get feedback as soon as possible on that and whether these are meeting the needs of the students. This will be followed by a mid-term survey during November.

In a ‘normal’ year you can get a feeling of how things are going during orientation and student fairs, and this year it has clearly been more difficult to do that – that is one big challenge which we are trying to resolve through the start-of-year survey. This institution-wide survey, which focused on the students’ feelings more broadly as it was too early to gather data/meaningful feedback on the teaching at that point, was divided that down into departmental results through Explorance Blue with departments picking up on actions. It might be that the individual department has to investigate any particular issues at a more granular level with their students and maybe in conversation with their staff to get more into the detail. Initially it was ‘high level’, but hopefully will enable more localised responses.

The other challenge to overcome is the disconnect between what is picked up at departmental/ module level sometimes and what might be picked up at a central level, so the issue of feeding back any problems with that through the chain. Again, that might be slightly easier with an institution-wide survey and we might be able to isolate where the particular challenges are presenting themselves. We will be looking for trends – whether they are specific challenges for new students compared to students returning for the second or third year, for example – and then seeing what solutions can be identified.

Going forward, the end-of-module survey will still be focused on the academic side. We added a section to this survey for the spring and summer term last year and we are keeping that in for this term. There are five questions related specifically to the online environment and how well the teachers responded to that and if the resources were sufficient. We are also looking at gathering increased feedback from service users of particular services like the wellbeing services. That will not be for all students, but it might be for students that have only used those services, as one way of reducing survey fatigue.

Further to our module evaluation surveys we send the report to the modular convenor and ask them to respond to the positive or the negative and also to say there might be suggestions in there that cannot be taken forward. The response is then sent to students. Course reps are also a great way of getting feedback at that level and a new development for 2020-21 is to trial Explorance Bluepulse with the Students’ Union.

Through the initial pilot Bluepulse, student class reps are being given access to the system, to gather feedback from students throughout the institution, and aiming to enable rapid responses from the student body and therefore being able to react quickly and effectively. By giving student class reps an additional communications tool to ask questions, results are being fed back to staff through the staff-student liaison group or other relationships they have with staff. There are challenges with how staff and students engage with formative evaluation tools effectively so finding a system that we can use consistently across all staff and students is something we are keen on. We are excited about utilising Bluepulse for the first time.

It is certainly important to know what our students are thinking, and what their experiences are, and feeding that into the broader goals of the University is essential. In the UK context there is a lot of debate regarding the National Student Survey (NSS) and what the future of that will be so gathering feedback internally will become more important if the NSS changes in a significant way. I think every institution is going to have their goals on ensuring their students are satisfied and succeed on their courses, so being able to drill down into that with the student body is going to be really important this year.

Garmon ap Garth, Academic Services Manager at Birkbeck, University of London

Garmon ap Garth is Academic Services Manager at Birkbeck, University of London, and was a panellist on Explorance’s ‘The first 30 days: how can universities quickly capture, and act upon, student feedback?’ webinar on 30th September

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