The key thing is to have a process in place for using student feedback before you collect it, says Lee Harvey, director of the Centre for Research and Evaluation at Sheffield Hallam University. He has developed his own approach to student satisfaction over 15 years.
You also need to be clear about what is worth collecting. “What we have discovered over the years is that people don't really want complicated statistics,” Harvey says. “They want something that says: 'This is going well, this is moderate, this isn't going well', so they can be applauded for successes and focus on the things that need sorting out.”
He says you need to work out beforehand how you will analyse the data, what will be done with the results and who will take action.
Harvey says it is essential to tell the next cohort of students about changes that have been made as a result of the previous cohort's comments.
A report on the use of student feedback, produced last year by the Quality Assurance Agency in Scotland, says institutions should consider how evaluation can make a difference for the students who provide it. This could mean incorporating evaluation during a module rather than at the end. It also suggests teaching students how to evaluate.
“The ability to give good feedback is a skill that needs to be taught, developed and supported,” it states.
Wes Streeting, vice-president welfare of the National Union of Students, says students have so many forms to fill in that they suffer from survey fatigue. Unless you show them that their comments make a difference, and that they will not be penalised for being critical, they will not bother to offer an opinion.
Ruth Williams, senior policy analyst at the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information, based at the Open University, says: “Students need to understand the importance of their feedback, and they can understand it if they know what is happening with it.”
Harvey says student feedback should not be used as a kind of remedial exercise or it will put people off taking part. He says students’ concerns will sometimes be very specific and easy to rectify: the lecturer may be going too fast, for example. Or it could be that the academic is not very good at lecturing, in which case it may be sensible to change the format of the lecture.
Rupa Huq, senior lecturer in sociology at Kingston University, says she has had years when feedback has been very good but had one year, at another institution, when it was deadly. As a result, she was given an action plan to follow.
“It was humiliating,” she says. But she also feels it was of limited benefit because it encouraged box-ticking rather than in-depth analysis of what had gone wrong.
Harvey says you must not treat student feedback questionnaires in isolation but consider them alongside statistics such as retention rates and other kinds of feedback.
The QAA report says staff need to talk to all students, not just selected representatives. “If staff are open and receptive to students, there will be a continuous process of feedback and dissemination,” it states.
It also argues that feedback needs to become “a normal everyday process of the learning experience”.
And if you do not want to have to make too many adjustments as a result of student criticism, Huq says there are ways to keep criticism to a minimum. “Give out the form on the last day of term when you have just taken in the thing they have spent all term writing for you,” she advises.
Alternatively, give the forms only to students who do not turn up for lectures and come to see you to find out what they have missed. Their combination of guilt and gratitude usually ensures top scores.
• Collecting and Using Student Feedback: A Guide to Good Practice, by John Brennan and Ruth Williams, based on a Higher Education Funding Council for England-funded project undertaken by the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information, 2004.
• Responding to Student Needs, Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, Student Evaluation and Feedback Toolkit, 2004 (www.qaa.ac.uk).