“Students at the heart of the system” insisted the HE White Paper released earlier this year. Sounds like a simple concept doesn’t it? But much like “eat five fruit and veg a day” or “love thy neighbour” – turning the concept into reality involves a lot of hard work and discipline.
How can we start to place students at the heart of the system? The white paper outlined that universities will be more accountable to students on matters of teaching quality, and many in the academy had embraced this concept and are forging new two-way communication with their students to allow them to become stakeholders in the future of teaching. However this best practice is by no means uniform across the sector, and if we are being honest with ourselves some are still struggling with the nuances of closing the feedback loop.
Electric Paper gathered the opinions of senior academics and student representatives on improving course evaluation practices in universities. This report offered unique insight into “the needs” of the sector in order to improve course evaluation.
1. The need to improve response rates
Many universities seeking feedback on courses and lecturers via surveys are still struggling to achieve a meaningful response from students in order to evaluate teaching quality and make improvements while avoiding “survey fatigue”.
Coventry University has increased its response rates by using paper and moving to mid-module surveys. Professor Ian Marshall, the University’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) said “We moved to online surveys, but the response was dreadful, so last year we introduced mid-module surveys and went back to paper. The response was super, and we are now able to turn around feedback in two weeks maximum.”
2.The need to improve student feedback
Alex Bols, Head of Education and Quality at the National Union of Students, told us that all too often students who participate in course evaluation surveys are then not told what happens as a result of the process. Alex said:“It’s important for universities to close the loop and tell students what has happened – or hasn’t happened – as a result of the feedback provided and why. This should not be an autopsy at the end of a course, but a process embedded through the learning experience so that it is of benefit to the student giving the feedback and their experience.”
To make evaluation meaningful explore in-module evaluation. It takes time in terms of implementation and analysis, but the benefits are obvious.
3.The need to improve turnaround time
Turnaround time is vital, but is hindered by process in many cases or open to human error. As such, feedback may come back when it is too late for the staff to do anything about it as they are, by that time, already committed to a teaching pattern.
Exploiting innovative new technologies could support the requirement to improve turnaround time, according to Professor Huw Morris, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at the University of Salford, who in his previous role as Dean of Manchester Metropolitan University Business School led the trial of course surveys via mobile phones. “Going forward I anticipate that the Higher Education sector will need to utilise online devices to capture student feedback, but at the same time ensure that this is not done in an intrusive manner. Some element of compulsion for students in providing feedback will also be helpful in ensuring that the results are representative of underlying views.”
4.The need to improve survey administration
Universities need to have a more consistent approach to survey administration, as the management of surveys sits centrally in one university, and departmentally in another. This results in a lack of core information across the institution, mixed responses and no consistent use of data.
To address this, City University London has introduced a centralised modular evaluation system with a standard set of questions for surveys, managed centrally, which individual schools can add to if they wish, and the results of these are now part of staff appraisals. Professor Alan Speight, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience and Academic Quality Enhancement) at the University of Swansea, said: “There should be a unified approach that includes core questions and specifies the way the feedback is processed – which allows benchmarking and consistency. A common set of core questions should be owned institutionally, with subject areas able to select from a bank of optional additional questions.”
5.The need to improve the student experience
The increase in student tuition fees and the focus on student-led decision-making means that universities are under pressure to be more accountable and transparent on issues of quality.
Alex Nutt, Academic Affairs Officer at the University of Leicester Students’ Union, said “I think students will want to know that institutions take their concerns seriously, and that education is seen as a collaborative partnership between the University and the students – not just a business transaction.”
City University London’s Director of Learning Development, Professor Susannah Quinsee, added: “Universities do need to get students more involved in programme design, and evaluation and feedback is all part of that, but students also need to work with universities to tell us what data they find useful, what they expect, and above all what they find meaningful.”