Course evaluation scores ‘mainly shaped by student personality’

Authors of international study believe findings cast doubt on the credibility of student satisfaction scores 

October 19, 2023
Source: iStock

Innate personality differences play a large role in how happy a student is with their course, according to a new study.

Authors of the paper said that the findings cast doubt on the credibility of student satisfaction scores that fail to control for inherited characteristics in the student population.

The study – by a team from the University of Reading, Hawaii Pacific University, and the University of Bath – examined data from 409 PhD students at 63 universities across 20 countries.

Reading’s Florence Phua, the lead author, said two deeply flawed assumptions underlie student satisfaction assessment – that it directly reflects the quality of education, and that it can be increased by changing aspects of that education.

“But these two erroneous assumptions directly contradict extensive satisfaction research in job[s], consumption and other domains that consistently finds levels of satisfaction with most things largely reflects inherited and unalterable personality traits, especially innate happiness,” added Dr Phua.

Published in the journal Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, the findings show that a single personality trait alone – innate happiness – accounts for 24 per cent of student satisfaction scores in higher education.

Overall, the paper suggests that more than half of student satisfaction is attributable to unalterable individual-level personality traits such as neuroticism and extraversion rather than to the actual quality of received education.

The Office for Students omitted a key question in the latest National Student Survey on how satisfied students in England are with the quality of their course because of fears it detracts from the wider findings of the survey and is too consumerist in nature.

Another recent paper in the UK that cast doubt on the validity of the question found that state school leavers are more likely to rate UK universities highly than their more well-off peers.

Co-researcher Gerard Dericks, from Hawaii Pacific, said a worrying implication of the study is that universities keen to game student satisfaction rankings might be tempted to use trait happiness as an admission criterion.

Campus resource: Should we be aiming for student happiness or student satisfaction?

“Accepting only innately happy students while rejecting the miserably unacceptable might be unethical, but unscrupulous university heads determined to manipulate satisfaction rankings could see it as a quick and easy alternative to the much harder pedagogical professionalism needed to ensure genuinely excellent education,” he said.

Authors said the study’s conclusions raised serious questions about the accuracy and value of simplistic student satisfaction assessment.

Edmund Thompson, a co-researcher from Bath, said student selection by trait happiness would be counterproductive to the production and dissemination of useful knowledge, and would have meant “notorious curmudgeon” Isaac Newton might never have been admitted to the University of Cambridge, for example.

He added that the findings show that scores on learning feedback are negatively correlated with both continuation rates and post-graduation career success, which are more accurate indicators of effectiveness and value for money than “personality-driven” student satisfaction scores.

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Reader's comments (2)

So happy students are happier with their studies (well Phd students are). I'm guessing without evidence this might be a universal truth, and the converse, that unhappy people whinge more on Tripadvisor. But I found that the NSS was an imperfect but useful snapshot of student feelings about a course which gave insights not available in other ways. And that courses could improve thereby. Our most satisfied cohort were always the Theatre students, but they didn't seem the happiest, however they did get much more class contact than everyone else.
"Two men looked out through prison bars, one saw mud, the other stars."