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Course evaluation in a pandemic and beyond: what do students really want?

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, Vice President Higher Education at the National Union of Students (NUS)

Covid-19 and the move from face-to-face to online learning have forced universities to pivot their approaches to capturing the student voice, but closing the feedback loop is the biggest challenge facing institutions, according to a new insight report published by Explorance.

Module evaluation in a pandemic and beyond”, which was launched at the Bluenotes EUROPE 2021 Virtual Experience on 24th March, finds there is a clear expectation from Students’ Union (SU) representatives that universities should actively listen to module evaluation feedback. However, better and more open communication is urgently required to help students understand what changes are possible in follow-up and manage their expectations.

The study gauges student leaders’ own experience of module evaluation surveys, how universities’ approaches to capturing student feedback via surveys shifted (including during the first semester of 2020-21) in the context of Covid-19 and national lockdown, and what institutions could do differently going forward. It also explores issues around SU leaders’ expectations of universities in terms of responding to the student voice, how module evaluation feedback is being used to support quality assurance and quality enhancement processes, and the extent to which universities and SU teams are working together on this agenda.

John Atherton, General Manager (Europe and Africa) at Explorance, which helps universities improve teaching and learning through the way they capture, analyse and respond to student feedback, said:

“Student leaders generally congratulate universities as having stepped up their strategies on an individual basis to listening to students during the lockdown. Alongside end-of-module evaluation surveys, many institutions have embraced mid-module surveys for assessment of teaching and learning as well as Pulse surveys for course evaluation and wider assessment of issues around student sentiment and wellbeing. This presents a clear opportunity for them to develop this practice even further.”

“However, students’ own perceptions – and lack of understanding – as to how their feedback is used (and benefits them), and is applied by their institution for quality assurance and quality enhancement purposes has been identified as an issue. Student representatives insisted that this problem was not solely down to the institution to overcome and highlighted a collective responsibility to own this process. Some examples of partnership approaches between universities and SUs point to ways to address this issue in collaboration. But closing the loop remains the biggest related challenge facing universities and one that is still not addressed sufficiently despite the changes in approach brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.”

John continued: “All SU leaders interviewed for this research say that end-of-module evaluation surveys are here to stay. These remain a hugely valuable component of capturing student feedback, with student representatives highlighting these as robust and measurable. However, the pandemic has accelerated the shift of these online, given that in-person paper-based surveys are not possible, and there are also opportunities to encompass quantitative and qualitative insight and complementary feedback mechanisms, including mid-module or interim Pulse surveys. There is also an opportunity to strive for greater consistency in approach across the sector.”

Module evaluation in a pandemic and beyond” features in-depth contributions from Aston Students’ Union, Heriot-Watt University Student Union, Open University Students Association, Reading University Students’ Union, Regent’s University London Student Union, St Mary’s University Students’ Union, University College Cork Students’ Union, University of Portsmouth Students’ Union, University of Stirling Students’ Union and Worcester Students’ Union. It follows on from Explorance’s eBook, “Engaging the student voice in our ‘new normal’: How are universities planning to capture, and act upon, feedback from students in 2020-21?”, drawing on the perspectives of university leaders worldwide, which was published in November 2020.

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, Vice President Higher Education at the National Union of Students (NUS), added:

“Closing the feedback loop is, and has been for a long time, the biggest issue here. 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. However, there is a glaring lack of consistency in how the sector approaches this and closing the loop. 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.”

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