Student feedback: making it count

Give students an equal say in shaping their education experience – and see positive change

Students should be at the centre of their education, and not viewed as metrics in a market. For too long higher education institutions have chased rankings at the expense of true student satisfaction and we need to develop new or more innovative ways of engaging students on the areas of the student experience that matter to them.

In my experience module evaluation surveys, as an important aspect of measuring student satisfaction and engagement, come up more than you think in this discussion. At a national level, these typically end, or mid-module surveys are seen as a key stage in the escalation of student feedback and are a response to the partnership approach that universities pledge.

At a local level, they are also being given more prominence, as issues arising from surveys are escalated through the academic representative system, and with many Student Unions (SUs) increasingly running sessions on feedback to explore how course leaders are using it.

When I was a student, I can remember not understanding why I was being asked for my feedback on a module

Closing the loop is, and has been for a long time, the biggest issue here. When I was a student, I can remember not understanding why I was being asked for my feedback on a module. I did not feel like I saw any tangible change as a result. I was also very wary, as one of just three black students on my course, that my feedback could be easily attributable and fearful that anything negative could be held against me or to my detriment.

Universities need to be much clearer on how they act upon module evaluation survey feedback and be more transparent on what they can and cannot do in response.

Students expect to see change as a result of their feedback. In my case, however, I did not feel I could achieve that until I moved into a representative role. There is a glaring lack of consistency in how the sector approaches this and closing the feedback loop. One university responds very differently to another, and that is highly damaging in a world where it is very easy for students to compare institutions’ approaches to student partnership. In my eyes, there are two shifts to creating that consistency:

One is that this should be led by SUs, with students themselves shaping part of their futures. Through student voice, there is an opportunity for universities to identify blind spots that may deter the course and education experience, and institutionally this could bring more opportunity for evolution and breaking down barriers of tradition which can limit innovation.

As part of this, an SU-led response could ensure a more informed and more targeted approach to student voice, engaging a wider group of student demographics that is truly representative of how the modern student views education.

Build a democratised system, one where students have an equal say in shaping their education experience, and as much as vice-chancellors and faculty heads

The other is universities, the regulator or quality code take the initiative for student engagement to be done well and not as a tick-box exercise. Students need to understand how their feedback has led to change, and in an accessible way. There should be a place for sabbatical officers and course reps to be part of feedback mechanisms and, in effect, whilst there would be partnership activity to make change happen universities should lead.

Whether we follow either approach, or something else entirely, as someone who has grown up in the digital age it is clear that there are many platforms to learn from and if universities do not adapt, they will become outdated. The only way forward is to build a democratised system, one where students have an equal say in shaping their education experience, and as much as vice-chancellors and faculty heads.

Student feedback, including that generated through module evaluation surveys, should be organic, lived and constant. Checkpoints currently set by universities and sector bodies are unnatural, and often cause students to respond in unnatural ways. We need a different way of thinking which sees students continuously involved in the process, moving away from the sense of being ‘done to’ and not ‘done with’.

We should also perhaps move from a focus on quantitative to qualitative and give feedback in a multitude of different ways which are shaped and formed with student leaders, ensuring flexibility and changing with the times.

Students should no longer be seen as passive consumers in the system, instead they should be partners in delivery

Unless we make students architects of their own education – of which an important part are feedback mechanisms – we will not move forward and will only succeed in further disempowering students rather than meeting the needs of the current and future generations.

Students should no longer be seen as passive consumers in the system, instead they should be partners in delivery, and SUs should be at the heart of turning the tide with their highly professional support functions.

To achieve this, partnerships between universities and students which are currently inconsistent need to become more consistent, and students need to be involved in feedback year-on-year. Module evaluation feedback is a hugely valuable component, not least in the academic representative structure, and time needs to be put aside to make sure that student feedback is part of SU workplans across the piece.

Additionally, whilst quality assurance and enhancement must be the target outcome, again the language we use around this must be made more accessible for students to engage with. If this is done in a helpful way, the partnership between students and universities can evolve.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio is vice-president for higher education, National Union of Students (NUS).

This essay is part of Module evaluation in a pandemic and beyond, a new report published by Explorance.


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