Feedback must be top priority

January 4, 2008

While student satisfaction overall is high, survey shows improvements are needed. Tariq Tahir reports.

It is students' single biggest gripe, and universities are rapidly waking up to the fact that, if they want to enhance that all-important "student experience", their lecturers must provide better feedback.

The Higher Education Academy's assessment team has confirmed that it gets more requests for help to improve the system of feedback in universities than on any other issue.

Senior HEA adviser Elaine Payne told The Times Higher that the high level of concern has been prompted by the National Student Survey results.

The 2007 survey found generally high levels of overall student satisfaction with their courses, but undergraduates gave the lowerst ratings to the quality of the feedback they received on their work.

Some 82 per cent of students were satisfied with teaching on their courses, and 81 per cent were satisfied with courses overall. But only 54 per cent agreed that feedback had been prompt and had helped to clarify points they did not understand.

This represented an improvement of only 1 percentage point since the previous year.

Ms Payne's team has made visits to a number of universities, including Exeter, Northampton and York St John's, to run workshops on improving feedback with both staff and students.

"What we do is to get them together because we see students as the key change agents. If we can get them to understand what is going on, then they can go back and spread the message to other students," she said.

The HEA has a DVD showing students' views on the feedback they receive to help get a discussion started on what they expect and what works.

"It's about giving academics the tools to help manage the system of feedback because we are in a system of mass higher education. Academics are keen to give feedback so we look at the different methods," Ms Payne said.

Edinburgh University is working hard to improve its system of feedback for students after particularly disappointing NSS results.

While 54 per cent of students nationally rated feedback as satisfactory, just 36 per cent of Edinburgh respondents were content.

Simon van Heyningen, Edinburgh's vice-principal for learning and teaching, said the university has been prompted to act by the NSS as well as by demands in recent years from students and the academic union.

"Of course, feedback is never good enough, but equally I feel that we have some room for improvement. There is a variety of things we want to do, all of which we are doing in consultation with the students' association," Professor van Heyningen said.

He outlined the measures Edinburgh was planning, which he emphasised were not in order of importance but all part of an overall improvement package.

"First of all we want greater promptness. Quite a lot of feedback is delivered but is not actually in time. The other thing is to convey to students what feedback they can expect, when they can expect it and in what form. Then we have to back that up by actually doing it.

"One thing we are keen to do is to ensure that students get a chance to look at past exam papers they have written. It has been known to happen in Edinburgh, but it hasn't been standard practice and we are going to move to make it standard practice at least for some exams, so students can get a chance to see what their exam technique is like."

While there has been concern in some academic circles about excessive student demands, Professor van Heyningen said this was not something he had experienced.

"Students are quite realistic that you can't give a detailed return to everyone in a 350-student class in the early years," he said.

NATIONAL STUDENT SURVEY: FACTS

  • The 2007 National Student Survey found that 81 per cent of students were satisfied with their courses
  • But only 54 per cent agreed that feedback had been prompt and instructive
  • At Edinburgh University, only 36 per cent agreed that feedback was prompt and helpful
  • A separate survey of 22,000 students by Opinionpanel Research for The Times Higher found that students rated the 'helpfulness' of staff as one of the most important aspects when choosing a university.

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