Student Voice: Listening, and Making it Count

Changes to teaching and learning as a result of Covid-19 have raised serious questions about how the student voice is captured and acted upon, especially given universities’ reliance on face-to-face approaches for doing so, and ultimately how this links to student satisfaction.

Higher Education is adopting a number of approaches to ‘listening’ to students’ views about their teaching and learning experience (and wider student experience) and this should be a critical informer of institutional performance and strategy development. It is a huge issue, and a huge challenge for the sector, and is probably the reason I have been asked to develop three different insight reports on this in 18 months.

The latest of these, Feedback Matters: Business and Management Education Focus Report, examines how student feedback – including feedback derived from course and module evaluation surveys – influences institutional enhancement in business schools and university-based business and management faculties around the world. It convenes in-depth thinking from senior academic and professional staff on strategies underpinning student insight; differentiated approaches to capturing, and responding to, student feedback; and specific challenges and how these are being addressed.

With perspectives gathered from Australia, Egypt, Sweden, UK and the USA, the report shows just how seriously student feedback is being taken and how business and management education providers are collecting and responding to feedback about different aspects of the experience at different points in time. This is, of course, not just an issue facing business and management education – it affects the whole university sector – and two other studies show that student ownership and engagement is fundamental to the success of this process.

Student engagement was the topic of my previous report, Module Evaluation in a Pandemic and Beyond. Prior to that I edited Engaging the Student Voice in Our ‘New Normal’, featuring articles from university leaders on how their institutions were planning to capture and act upon feedback from students in a Covid environment.

So, as universities have ramped up their approaches to student engagement/student feedback in the pandemic, what are the common trends emerging that institutions need to know?

1. Universities have successfully ‘pivoted’

Covid-19, and the move from face-to-face to online learning, means that alongside traditional end-of-module evaluation surveys, many universities have embraced mid-module surveys for assessment of teaching and learning. Pulse surveys – providing quick and light-touch feedback – have also risen in prominence given the need for universities to better understand how students are feeling at any given time. These are used for course evaluation and wider assessment of student sentiment and wellbeing.

2. Students don’t know how feedback is used

Students’ perceptions – and lack of understanding – as to how their feedback is used (and immediately benefits them), and is applied by their institution for quality assurance and quality enhancement purposes, is a problem. Whilst there is a clear expectation from student leaders that universities should actively listen to course evaluation feedback, better and more open communication is required to help students understand what changes are possible in follow-up and, therefore, to manage their expectations.

3. 'Closing the loop' remains the biggest issue

Closing the feedback loop is, and has been for a long time, the biggest challenge facing universities around course evaluation surveys and one that is still not addressed sufficiently. Students expect to see change as a result of their feedback. However, there is a lack of consistency in how the sector approaches this and closes the loop. Universities need to be much clearer on how they act upon course evaluation survey feedback and be more transparent on what they can and can’t do in response.

4. Opportunity to delve into demographics

For a long time universities have talked about the need to better understand how different groups of students view their course e.g. analysis of feedback based on the characteristics of populations such as age, race and gender. Delving deeper into who is satisfied or dissatisfied with their university experience could support student progression, satisfaction and (for those who may be unhappy) retention. This has fallen off the radar during the pandemic, but now a number of universities are picking up projects to better understand demographic data and also capturing views of students on different modes of delivery.

5. Course evaluation surveys are here to stay

Academic leaders generally share the opinion that traditional module evaluation surveys remain a hugely valuable component of capturing student feedback, with student reps highlighting these as “robust and measurable”. End-of-semester summative evaluation surveys (providing standardisation on questions which enables comparisons between courses/between cohorts) are being complemented with formative feedback (giving lecturers the opportunity to seek feedback through bespoke, non-standard questions, during a module). Evaluations are also generally all done online now.

Whatever direction the pandemic or other global events take over the next 12 months, and their impact on teaching and learning, student feedback is a proven approach to informing quality assurance and enhancement within universities. Given the rich data they provide surveys will remain the primary channel for student feedback on the educational experience. Institutions questioning where they put their efforts, or new beginnings post-Covid, should consider combining the best of old and new ‘normals’.

Phil Smith is a specialist higher education PR consultant, writer and editor