Everyone's a critic these days, aren't they? And now even students are at it. Whatever next? Harriet Swain explains how to go about collecting student feedback - and ensuring it's all positive
Everything OK? Good. Then let's move straight on to today's topic, which is... Hold on, hold on. Is that what you call student feedback? What about asking a few more in-depth questions? What about all those feedback forms they are supposed to fill in? In a drawer somewhere? Being used by your kids for painting on? Sounds like you need to start responding to some critical feedback yourself.
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 a student satisfaction approach over the past 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 just want something that says: 'This is going well, this is moderate, this isn't going well', so they can be applauded for things that are going well and focus on the things that need sorting out."
He says you need to work out beforehand how you are going to analyse the data, what you are going to do with the results of the analysis and who is going to be responsible for taking action. You also need to work out how you are going to tell students about what has been done as a result of their feedback.
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.
If there is no suitable way of conveying this in person, you need to make sure it is shown on a website, through leaflets or in articles in the student newspaper.
A report on the use of student feedback, produced by the Quality Assurance Agency in Scotland last year, says that 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, speeding up all the processes involved or linking it more closely to student support. 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 tend to suffer from survey fatigue. Unless you show them that their comments make a difference, they will not bother to offer an opinion. He says you also need to reassure them that they will not be penalised for saying anything critical.
Ruth Williams, senior policy analyst at the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information, based at the Open Univer-sity, says: "Students need to understand the importance of their feedback, and they can understand that importance only if they know what is happening with it."
She argues that students should get to see the results of the feedback as well as the changes made, although "that can take place only in a culture where blame is not attributed to a particular acad-emic".
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 may be easy to rectify - the lecturer may be going too fast, for example. Or it could be that the academic just 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, when she was working 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.
Streeting says it is essential for academics to work closely with course representatives and members of the student union to interpret student feedback correctly.
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 argues that feedback needs to become "a normal everyday process of the learning experience" and that staff should be encouraged to experiment with different ways of collecting feedback to find the best one.
And if you do not want to be faced with making too many adjustments as a result of student criticism, Huq says there are easy 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. www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources.asp
Responding to Student Needs , Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, Student Evaluation and Feedback Toolkit, 2004 ( www.qaa.ac.uk ).
Plan how you are going to use feedback before you collect it
Don't do nothing
Tell students about what you did after previous feedback
Think creatively about how to solve highlighted problems
Get regular informal feedback and respond to it