Efforts to secure student feedback 'missing the mark'

Attempts by universities to seek out and respond to student feedback are often inadequate or poorly executed, a new study suggests.

September 4, 2011

The report, Effective Course Evaluation: The Future for Quality and Standards in Higher Education, was commissioned by course evaluation firm Electric Paper and is based on interviews with 10 senior university managers and students’ union officers.

It argues that gathering feedback will become increasingly important from 2012, when tuition fees are set to treble at many English universities to £9,000 a year.

The study suggests that one of the reasons universities fail to elicit useful feedback on courses is that many students feel inundated by surveys.

Asking more questions is not necessarily the way to get meaningful answers, it says.

Glenn Burgess, pro vice-chancellor for learning and teaching at the University of Hull, is quoted as saying: “Students are increasingly overloaded with surveys - from the National Student Survey downwards - so you need a good reason to encourage participation.”

The report also cites anecdotal evidence that paper-based surveys are more successful than those conducted online, and quotes Ian Marshall, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Coventry, saying a switch to online surveys had backfired at the institution.

“We moved to online surveys, but the response was dreadful, so last year we introduced mid-module surveys and went back to paper,” he says.

The report argues that with fees set to increase students will adopt a more consumerist approach, and suggests that data on the student experience, from studies such as the National Student Survey, will be more important as a result.

It also argues for course evaluation to take place before programmes finish, so that the students who give the feedback can benefit from any improvements required.

Huw Morris, pro vice-chancellor (academic) at the University of Salford, says: “With the changes in tuition fees, I think we will see [more comprehensive and easily accessible measures of student experience] being expected by students and their parents because they will want to measure return on investment.”

A separate survey of 100 university administrators, also conducted by Electric Paper, found that in a third of institutions, academics are managing their own student surveys.

Eric Bohms, the firm’s managing director, said: “Many universities are experiencing absolute chaos around survey management - and centralisation is clearly needed.”

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