Feedback matters

Sitting at the back of a cupboard, we’ve got several boxes full of very old 35mm slides – most of them accumulated when we had to clear out my parents-in-laws’ house.  They are a fairly defunct technology now, but it turns out that you can buy slide scanners which convert the slides into picture files for transfer to a computer and can then edit, store and, if you want, print them.  Christmas and New Year provided a bit of time for doing this sort of domestic tidying up job.  There are, inevitably, a range of scanners on the market. We looked them up.  The first thing we did was to read and compare the reviews: which are the highest resolution?  The most robust? The easiest to use? We finally made our decision, and those old 35 mm slides have come to life again. Feedback matters.

Increasingly, this is the way we make decisions:  we read the crowd-sourced reviews. We use comparison sites; TripAdvisor, Goodreads, Which? reports and so on.  We’ve all become pretty savvy about this.  We know that there are complicated decisions to be made.  We know that some of the reviews are unreliable (and possibly biased), but we read, we think, we analyse.  The information provided by other people is always interesting. It doesn’t mean it should be taken at face value. Often, the most interesting things are the responses from providers to specific points raised by users – the tone and approach to feedback tells you a lot about how an organisation operates. Feedback from users, from partners, from stakeholders has become a routine part of the way we all make decisions. Feedback matters.

The annual National Student Survey (NSS) is about to be launched again.  Over two months, final year undergraduate students across the country are asked to complete an online survey of their feedback on their course: on the quality of teaching, on the effectiveness of assessment and feedback, on the library and IT facilities, on the effectiveness of the students’ union – over twenty questions in all, across all sorts of aspects of the student experience.  In addition to the satisfaction scales on the questions, there is open text feedback in which students can comment in more detail on their courses. As Vice-Chancellor, I read all those comments and they help to shape our priorities for improvement.  The results are compiled across the sector, so comparisons can – and are – made. Feedback matters.

Over the past three years, Sheffield Hallam has seen a marked upswing in student satisfaction.  Our students’ feedback tells us that our overall satisfaction rates put us in the top thirty of universities in the country.  Our library is consistently rated as one of the top five. This is one of the joys of the NSS: it reflects hard work and real quality, and we can derive satisfaction from seeing the fruits of the labours of academic and professional staff. Striking improvements in the NSS – last year our Humanities department quite rightly basked in the glow of a massive increase in student satisfaction – the results of teamwork, well-delivered implementation and consistent effort.  Our detailed analysis of the open text comments told us a lot about what we needed to focus on to do better: more focused and quicker assessment feedback, for example. The University has been able to use NSS responses to help shape our planning priorities and future direction. Feedback matters.

Our students’ feedback tells us that our overall satisfaction rates put us in the top thirty of universities in the country.

Of course the NSS is far from perfect. It is not, of course, completed by all students – completion rates across the sector are at about 70% which means that it is a sample, although Hallam has achieved an average of 75% response rate over the last three years – therefore one of the most important things we can do over the NSS period is to encourage all of our students to respond. It is, as its name suggests, a satisfaction survey. It’s not, and it should never be, the only means by which universities collect feedback from students – although its existence has stimulated a range of innovations in student engagement around the sector. There is a danger – which I slipped into at the start of this blog – that we think in terms of customer feedback rather than student partnership.  But this danger should never detract from understanding how important it is for the University to listen hard to what students say, and to be ready to respond.  Feedback matters.

Students are at the heart of what this university is about: the quality of their experience and the way it sets them up to succeed in later life is at the core of what we do.  The National Student Survey shines a light on that.  It’s not the only light we shine on our students’ experience – but it’s in everyone’s interests to make it the most powerful light it can be.  Feedback matters.

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