Policy changes mean that UK universities are having to take a more robust and strategic approach to course and module evaluation. The National Student Survey (NSS) poses questions on how students have the opportunity to give feedback and how their feedback is acted on – and the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), which provides a resource for students to judge teaching quality in universities, draws on data from the NSS. All this points to student engagement rising higher up universities’ priority list than ever before.
Student satisfaction, informed and ultimately supported by an engaged student population, is fundamental to the future of Higher Education Institutions and the strategic goals of Vice-Chancellors and Deputy or Pro Vice-Chancellors directly responsible for this agenda.
Today we are pleased to launch our new thought leadership report, The Student Voice, which explores the views of senior leaders in UK universities who are tasked with devising strategies which ensure that module evaluation feedback leads to continuous improvement across their institution. It also highlights ‘live’ current practice, including case studies drawn from across the UK as well as Australia and the USA.
It is clear from this report that, driven by external pressures around the NSS, TEF and other metrics, it is now a strategic necessity for UK universities to ramp up their approaches to capturing and responding to student feedback.
Module evaluation surveys are recognised by senior leaders as playing a strategically important role in the student voice, providing institutions with the opportunity to respond to any issues and concerns before the NSS is completed. They also enable a valuable opportunity for individuals, departments, faculties, and universities as a whole to reflect on their teaching practice and the student experience within that.
As such, many universities are embedding module evaluation within their wider strategies around student engagement and student experience – and these surveys are perceived to support broader initiatives around student retention too. Module evaluation surveys are seen as particularly valuable for identifying areas of excellence or underperformance at a module level – the ‘detail’ of what is going on – and that the NSS is not capable of giving this insight.
More generally, the principles of ‘co-creation’ and ‘co-production’ are being championed in some universities to foster greater engagement between students and staff – and these principles are being applied in module evaluation. Good practice has been identified around student engagement in module evaluation activity, both in its planning and in follow up. Faculty engagement is also recognised as important.
There are, however, clear issues with the consistency of approach to feedback and evaluation within institutions and across the sector more widely. When undertaken well, surveys can be used to ensure that decision-making is guided by evidence and they can support staff in being recognised and rewarded for their good practice. Yet senior leaders also recognise that module evaluation surveys are just one form of gathering student feedback, and these need to be supported by more holistic approaches.
The real challenge facing most universities is developing a wider system which allows them to gather students’ learning experiences and then use these for both quality assurance and quality enhancement purposes. Some institutions are making advances in this area; others are at the start of their journey and restricted by the absence of consistent, institutional approaches to module evaluation. There are also gaps in the ability to benchmark, and historical issues around engagement remain.
For too long student evaluation data has been underutilised. Universities have tended to focus on improving the process, for example by automating rather than using the data for improvement. There has also been too much focus on the scores that come back from the data and whether an individual score is better or worse than the average. While this is helpful, it does not facilitate an understanding of the issues and trends with an institution’s students. However, the discussion is definitely shifting and becoming a more strategic conversation.
Many institutions interviewed for our report expressed an underlying commitment to creating a culture of continuous improvement, with an enhanced focused on data analytics, with the objective of teaching and learning improvement and student and staff development. A combination of external and internal success measures was identified, all in line with institutional priorities for the student experience.
Feedback matters: and we all have a responsibility to help universities respond to this shift, not least in terms of how module evaluation feedback is gathered and used. At Explorance, we help universities to improve teaching and learning through the way they capture, analyse and respond to student feedback. We work with hundreds of institutions around the world, providing solutions for formative feedback (which gives lecturers the opportunity to seek feedback through bespoke, non-standard questions, during a module) and summative evaluation surveys at the end of semester (which provides standardisation on questions enabling comparisons across the institution).
We hope that our report provides new knowledge, insight and discussion around this strategically important agenda for universities.