Student satisfaction ‘unrelated’ to academic performance – study

Open University study finds that, while students dislike collaborative learning, they are more likely to pass if they take part in it

February 12, 2018
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Student satisfaction is “unrelated” to learning behaviour and academic performance, a study has found.

Satisfaction surveys have increasingly been used as a proxy for student learning in higher education, for example in the UK’s teaching excellence framework, but Bart Rienties, professor of learning analytics at The Open University, has cast further doubt on this practice.

Delivering his inaugural lecture at the OU’s Institute of Educational Technology, Professor Rienties outlined the results of a study that examined data on 111,256 students on 151 different modules at his institution.

Significantly higher student satisfaction was found in modules in which students received large amounts of learning materials and worked through them individually, than in courses where students had to collaborate and work together.

However, the best predictor for whether students actually passed the module was whether there were collaborative learning activities, such as discussion forums and online tuition sessions.

Students who were “spoon-fed” learning materials also spent less time in the virtual learning environment, were less engaged, and were less likely to remain active over time than their peers engaged in more collaborative activities.

Professor Rienties said that the research indicated that, while students “love receiving lots of stuff”, academics should not necessarily try to please learners by designing modules in this way.

“Our research indicates that, although listening to students’ feedback is important, in fact our large-scale data analyses consistently indicate that student happiness is unrelated to actual learning behaviour and academic performance,” Professor Rienties said in his lecture. “This intuitively makes a lot of sense.

“Learning something new and complex can be difficult, and at times working hard for something that perhaps does not make direct sense might be a substantial barrier for some students. I am sure that you have all experienced some teachers who seemed to make little sense, but in hindsight you might have learned the most from these teachers.”

As part of the study, the 111,256 students were also asked what distinguished excellent from not-so-good modules. Both for students starting in 2013-14 and those starting in 2014-15, the distinguishing factor was the quality of the teaching materials. The quality of the assessment was found to be the second most important factor for students starting and continuing in 2013-14.

However, for students who started in 2014-15, the second most important factor was how the module fitted with the overall qualification aim. This was only the sixth most important factor for new students in 2013-14 and third for continuing students.

This, said Professor Rienties, shows a shift in student perception of what is important in modules, with a clear link to qualifications and career relevance, adding that this made intuitive sense in an era of higher tuition fees.

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