The Intrinsic Purpose of Student Surveys

Written by Professor Shân Wareing, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Northampton.

What is being actively considered at the University of Northampton is the intrinsic purpose of student surveys, and being sure that when we run a survey, we know:

  • What our purpose in running it is.
  • How we are going to feedback the results to students and staff.
  • How we are going to respond to possible answers to every question.

Surveying with Clear Intentions

Some surveys are mostly out of our control. With the National Student Survey (NSS) for example, the main questions, the time of year it runs, and some of its uses are not our call. However, if we are choosing to run something internally, we do need to know why we are doing it, and what we are going to do with the information it provides.

We have set up a student survey steering group to challenge us to make sure that when we commission a survey, we know why we are doing it, and how are we going to close the feedback loop.

Student voice is not about a one-way transmission message back to us that vanishes into a file. The questions we look at include whether we are running a survey as a Pulse to check if a direction of travel is right for the institution, or to check how much progress we are making against a goal/target.

Is it about promotion of dialogue or about fundamental change? Are we seeking out information from specific groups of students to check the impact of a development on different demographics?

Staff and Student Buy-in

Not only is it important to know the survey’s objectives from the outset, but we also need to ensure that staff are involved in the dialogue. It is vital that we do not inadvertently create a situation where the student voice comes from the students and goes directly to senior management. This approach bypasses the staff who will implement change – until they get a message from senior management requiring them to respond – and can generate an environment of distrust and resentment. That is not productive for the kind of culture we want at the University of Northampton.

What we want is that productive dialogue to be happening at all levels. Therefore, when we run a survey, we want staff to know the purpose of it. This way they’ll know that when the results come back, and we discuss what response is needed to it, that it is not directly a challenge to them or their practice; It is something that is going to help them improve what they do.

Getting that conversation right amongst staff is very important, but it is also important to carry out the whole student survey/student voice in an institutional strategy setting. It is much better from a staff perspective if the information is feeding in from a strategy that is stable, rather than having student survey results swinging from year to year.

For example, feedback like ‘this cohort likes this and this cohort does not like it’ is very destabilising for staff, and I think it is destabilising ultimately for the student experience if you do not have a sense of strategic continuity. Therefore, one of the major questions is always how the survey fits into that strategy.

It is also really important that we engage students in dialogue. We have been speaking to the Students’ Union about the importance of the students coming into the conversation very early. That means students are not just validating or challenging decisions late in the process but being part of the conversation right from the outset. Surveys help with this, but they cannot be the only way the student voice is brought into institutional decision-making.

A Culture of Responsiveness

My view is that institutions need to be generating a culture that listens to students, respond to them quickly, and also listens to staff and respond to them rapidly.  You cannot have one and not the other. It has to be about the dialogue being a very transparent process of a consultation and decision-making, where all the voices count.

I think once you can generate that type of culture some of the questions we are asking go away because there is an assumption your voice will be listened to and responded to. This is what generates those very high National Student Survey (NSS) results; it is that sense of genuine desire to address people’s needs and very quick turnaround/responsiveness. It does not come out of nowhere; it comes from the culture. You often see that kind of culture in a programme team where the programme leader has very high personal agency, a can-do person. It is harder to reproduce at a whole-institution scale.

You need constant communication – even when there is nothing to actually report you can still say ‘We are listening/We are working on this/This is when you will hear… – almost simulating dialogue even if it is one-way communication from the University so that students know what you are doing.

An Openness to Feedback

The students also know how to give feedback to you, so you are signaling that opportunity too. You need to be willing to do it more frequently than you may think you need to. You also need to reach out to different groups of students in different ways and listen to them. Respond differently and use different resources for different groups.

Above all, and going back to my opening, it is important to be specific about what surveys you run, why you want to run them and what you want to learn from them, especially if you are going to resource the analysis of both the quantitative feedback and qualitative comments, which is where a lot of the value is.

About Prof. Shân Wareing

Professor Shân Wareing is Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Northampton, and was a panelist on Explorance’s ‘Engaging the Student Voice in Our ‘New Normal’ webinar on 3rd March, which can be viewed here.


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