Dissatisfaction with exams and feedback ‘held back elites in NSS’

Highly regarded institutions lag behind others on overall student positivity due to low scores in section that looked at views on assessment

August 22, 2023
Source: iStock

Student satisfaction with courses at several elite UK universities is being hampered by poor feedback and assessment practices, a new analysis has suggested.

Many highly regarded institutions – including several members of the Russell Group – languished towards the bottom of a Times Higher Education table comparing overall performance in this year’s National Student Survey (NSS), in contrast with their often high position in global rankings.

The universities of Edinburgh, Leeds and Manchester, as well as King’s College London, Cardiff University and Queen Mary, University of London, all featured outside the top 100 for student positivity.

These institutions fared similarly to other higher education providers in five of the survey’s seven different themes – teaching, learning opportunities, academic support, organisation and management, and learning resources.

However, across the five assessment and feedback questions, Russell Group providers scored an overall positivity rate of 71 per cent – compared with 78 per cent for those outside the group.

The section asked students for their opinions across a range of issues to do with marking criteria, the timeliness and effectiveness of feedback and how useful assessments are.

Similarly, in the four questions on student voice – which includes whether students have enough opportunities to give feedback themselves – Russell Group universities received an overall positivity rate of 69 per cent, compared with 72 per cent across all other providers.

The survey – the first not to feature an overall satisfaction question in England – was conducted between 11 January and 30 April 2023 before the disruptive University and College Union marking and assessment boycott began to have an impact, suggesting longer-term trends were at play.

Camille Kandiko Howson, associate professor of education at Imperial College London, said Russell Group students reported high levels of academic challenge, suggesting that “research-intensive institutions offer a ‘tough-love’ environment, avoiding spoon-feeding students assignments”.

However, the lower positivity scores in research-intensive institutions should not be surprising because academic staff might prioritise their research over marking, she added.

“This is not only because the staff may prefer their research activities – but, for many, conducting research and applying for grants is what funds their positions and keeps their labs going.

“This financial bottom line differs in many teaching-intensive institutions, where keeping league table positions up is seen as key to recruiting students that are their primary source of income.”

Dr Kandiko Howson said that, more widely, an “endless drive” to improve scores in initiatives such as the NSS might have “created unsustainable assessment and feedback cultures across the sector – reflected in the ongoing strikes about pay and workload”.

Concerns about high workloads and a large number of assessments were also reflected in this year’s Student Academic Experience Survey, with commentators suggesting some universities were over-compensating for criticism about lack of contact hours and grade inflation. Many students who had exams cancelled during the pandemic have also struggled, fuelling high drop-out rates.

Kay Hack, the principal adviser of learning and teaching for Advance HE, said institutions that had seen a marked improvement in student satisfaction with feedback and assessment had done so by ensuring their students had developed “assessment literacy” and understood the criteria in place around exams, while feedback given was “constructive and timely”.

She warned that satisfaction levels could vary widely between courses, so provider-level NSS data should be viewed with caution.

“Variation of NSS scores within a provider can offer valuable insights into the extent to which there is an effective assessment strategy that is disseminated and embedded into practice; consistently high satisfaction with assessment and feedback across all areas of provision can be harder to achieve at larger institutions due to their size and complexity,” Dr Hack said.

Chloe Field, vice-president of higher education at the National Union of Students, said universities needed to provide suffering students with the best possible learning experiences, but that only “root-and-branch reform” of the higher education system would allow them to do that.


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Reader's comments (6)

Basically the Russell group are not as good as they think they are- lets not forget Oxford and Cambridge get additional government funds for their tutorial system. Universities have too many bureaucrats and not enough academics on enough pay that are incentivised to mark well.
O&C do NOT get extra government funding for sustaining their tutorial/supervision systems - this intensive teaching is funded from the charitable endowments held by the colleges. And the legal autonomy of the colleges means they can function as ‘teaching machines’ in contrast to the University as research-focussed (like all Russellers where the temptation is to shift resources from T to R).
Why worry about NSS? The UK HE research is becoming increasingly world leading and improving with every REF.
"but, for many, conducting research and applying for grants is what funds their positions and keeps their labs going." If an academic does not conduct research, they are toast, confined to the annals of history- no promotion etc. This is why academics might focus on their research than spend hours on endless mountains of marking (hundreds of scripts at a time) and writing mini 'essays' as feedback.
I'm shocked, shocked I tell you that the Russel Group Unis are adopting a self-serving approach to interpreting the NSS data. It's just for the rest of us little people in the sector to actually listen to and act upon what our students tell usz while the arrogant, complacent RG trade off the fact that someone who did research there won a novel prize 78 years ago.
Why nobody mentions that university is about learning and you must view assessment from that point of view? In any university, assessment is some form of competition. Students have gone through A-levels, which define their future to a large extent. We grade students, which encourages comparison. Student study to achieve a certain grade rather than to learn something. We are then very inflexible when students learn something else, equally worthwhile when it does not exactly fit the assessment criteria, all in the name of fairness. Let us also recognise that university is just as much about building up a network to rely on after graduation. Oxbridge is not any better apart from having students who would prove to be good people to network with due to their privilege. Achievement in life is never about grades, it is about contribution to society, yet grading indoctrinates selfish attitudes and in itself does not benefit anybody.