Feedback matters: how can universities truly capture the student voice?

“For too long student evaluation data has been underutilised”

Policy changes mean that universities around the world are having to take a more robust and strategic approach to course and module evaluation. 

I have been helping universities to improve teaching and learning through the way they capture, analyse and respond to student feedback for the past 10 years. At Explorance we find that what UK universities really value is an insight into how other countries are approaching the issues, challenges and opportunities around capturing student feedback. Working in Australia, Canada, China, Spain, Mexico, UAE and USA give us a compelling insight into what ‘good’ student engagement looks like.

But the UK is also an interesting case study for international universities. Here, the National Student Survey (NSS) poses questions on how students have the opportunity to give feedback and how their feedback is acted on – and the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), which provides a resource for students to judge teaching quality in universities, draws on data from the NSS. All this points to student engagement rising higher up UK universities’ priority list than ever before.

Our report The Student Voice, How can UK universities ensure that module evaluation feedback leads to continuous improvement across their institution? explores the views of senior leaders tasked with devising related strategies. Student satisfaction, informed and ultimately supported by an engaged student population, is fundamental to the future of Higher Education Institutions and the strategic goals of Vice-Chancellors and Deputy or Pro Vice-Chancellors directly responsible for this agenda.

“Universities are generally ramping up their approaches to capturing and responding to student feedback”

It is clear that driven by external pressures around NSS, TEF and other metrics, universities are generally ramping up their approaches to capturing and responding to student feedback. Module evaluation surveys are recognised by senior leaders as playing a strategically important role in the student voice, providing institutions with the opportunity to respond to any issues and concerns before the NSS is completed.

As such, many universities are embedding module evaluation within their wider strategies around student engagement and student experience – and these surveys are perceived to support broader initiatives around student retention.

There are, however, clear issues with the consistency of approach to feedback and evaluation within institutions and across the sector more widely. When undertaken well, surveys can be used to ensure that decision-making is guided by evidence and they can support staff in being recognised and rewarded for their good practice. Yet senior leaders also recognise that module evaluation surveys are just one form of gathering student feedback, and these need to be supported by more holistic approaches.

The real challenge facing most universities – both in the UK and internationally – is developing a wider system which allows them to gather students’ learning experiences and then use these for both quality assurance and quality enhancement purposes. Some institutions are making advances; others are at the start of their journey and restricted by the absence of consistent, institutional approaches to module evaluation.

For too long student evaluation data has been underutilised. Universities have tended to focus on improving the process, for example by automating rather than using the data for improvement. There has also been too much focus on the scores that come back from the data and whether an individual score is better or worse than the average. While this is helpful, it does not facilitate an understanding of the issues and trends with an institution’s students. However, the discussion is definitely shifting and becoming a more strategic conversation.

Feedback matters: and we all have a responsibility to help universities worldwide respond to this shift, not least in terms of how module evaluation feedback is being gathered and used.

About the author: John Atherton is Higher Education Director (UK & Ireland) at Explorance, a provider of learning evaluation solutions.