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Enhancing the student experience: taking a whole university approach to improving satisfaction (and NSS outcomes)


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Title: Enhancing the student experience: taking a whole university approach to improving satisfaction (and NSS outcomes)

Enhancing the student experience taking a whole
university approach to improving satisfaction
(and NSS outcomes)
  • Professor Sally Brown

The problems experienced in a large metropolitan
  • Downward drifting NSS scores from a previously
    middling score. (e.g. Scores on bank 2 on
    assessment and feedback fell from 70 in 2005 to
    56 in 2009) and other indicators of low student
  • Although there was praise in some areas, a QAA
    institutional audit had recorded one area of
    limited confidence in the QA processes of the
  • Low morale across the university affecting staff,
    managers and governors
  • Considerable financial challenges also.

Particular problems highlighted by NSS
  • High levels of dissatisfaction with the quality
    of assessment and particularly the speed and
    depth of feedback
  • Perceived lack of enthusiasm for teaching by
    academic staff
  • Concerns about cancelled classes and slow
    responses to queries, particularly to emails.
  • Lack a clear understanding of what they could
    expect from the university and what was expected
    of them.
  • Students perception that they rarely received a
    response telling them what had been done as a
    result of issues identified in previous years
    negative comments, particularly with module

Setting changes in place
  • Marshall and Massy argue that when leading in
    turbulent times, the first step to be taken is
    to create a sense of urgency about the crisis.
    While its easy to scare people, the aim is to at
    the same time present a plan about how, by doing
    g things differently, the university can break
    the momentum taking it in the wrong direction and
    work its way out of the problem. The key is to
    create a sense of urgency without instilling a
    feeling of hopelessness (p68)

The ground rush effect?
  • Although changes may seem to come upon us
    without warning, experience shows this is rarely
    the case. Unfortunately we often disregard or
    misinterpret the signals of change. We tend to
    spend our time on issues we perceive to be most
    important right now we fail to scan our
    surroundings for changes that are in the early
    stages of development. The flood of problems that
    forces us to into crisis management makes concern
    for emerging issues to appear to be a luxury. It
    is not. It is a necessity. (Renfro Morrison

Gaining ownership of the process
  • Jethro Newton (2003) talking about implementing
    an institution-wide learning and teaching
    strategy in a not-dissimilar university suggests
  • The more strategy in this area comes to be
    received as being prepared to meet external
    requirements, the less it will gain the
    acceptance necessary for implementation
  • Professor Sir David Watson (in Brown and Denton
    2010) argues that Institutional strategic choice
    and decision making should ideally come from all
    members of the university community , having, of
    course consulted appropriately outside.

So what did we do?
  • New CEO indicated improving student satisfaction
    was a top priority and gave authority to the
    implementation of university-wide approaches
  • Staff across the university started working in
    concert to address the issues and to remove
    inconsistencies of practice between faculties
  • Establishment of an NSS steering group
    (co-chaired by the PVC Academic) with
    representation from all faculties, Registry,
    Estates, Library IT services and importantly,
  • Regular review of progress at Academic and
    Faculty Boards

Change agents
  • Staff across the university
  • Teacher Fellows
  • Associate Deans (Assessment, learning and
  • Senior managers including PVC (Academic)
  • NSS Steering group, Faculty Boards, Quality
    Enhancement committee and Academic Board
  • The Students Union.

Changing the culture
  • The major change that was brought about was a
    shift in orientation across the university
    towards satisfying students.
  • The institution took external advice from other
    PVCs who had wrought considerable improvements in
    their own universities NSS scores who emphasised
    that short term reactive activities and
    concentrating on the survey alone would not bring
    about improvements. Instead they argued for a
    long term view that would involve changes in
    attitude as well as practical changes.
  • The seriousness of the situation that the
    university faced meant that there was a clearly
    expressed will across the organisation to bring
    about deep seated changes consistently carried
    forward if the effect were to be lasting.

Building on positive outcomes
  • An area of provision that scored consistently
    well in many of the surveys was the Library. The
    NSS steering group was keen to capitalise on this
    positive experience and to seek guidance from
    Library staff on what kinds of actions were
    leading to high levels of satisfaction. Where
    possible, positive practice was transferred to
    other areas of provision.
  • The institution emulated across the university
    the Librarys successful You said we did
    campaign to enable students to know what action
    had been taken in response to students
  • In the lead up to the NSS in 2010, this was
    widely used across the university and electronic
    notice boards and posters highlighted positive
    changes that had been made, in addition to clear
    follow-up information being provided in course
    committees and institution-wide student forums.

Avoiding questionnaire fatigue
  • Following concerns that students were being asked
    too frequently to complete surveys, a collective
    decision was made at the senior management level
    that no written surveys other than the NSS would
    be used with final year students other than those
    required by Professional and Subject bodies (some
    of whom expected module evaluations to be carried
    out each semester).
  • The Students Union agreed to exempt final year
    students from their Annual Student Survey. Where
    course teams were keen to ensure they received
    feedback on the first module of the final year,
    they were advised to use other informal means of
    collecting data such as open meetings, or to
    evaluate the two final year modules together at
    the end of the year.

Zero tolerance on cancellation of classes
  • Although in 2008-9 relatively few classes were
    cancelled, senior managers agreed that in 2009-10
    the university would ensure that classes were
    postponed or rescheduled rather than cancelled on
    those occasions where it was not possible for
    them to take place at the original time.
  • The university investigated and piloted a system
    to communicate with students about deferred
    classes and other important matters by text as
    well as other means, since very high proportions
    of students carry mobile phones with them.
  • This system was due to be rolled out fully in the
    academic year 2010-11.

Mutual expectations document
  • One of the faculties had piloted a very
    successful document setting out exactly what
    students could expect from the university (for
    example, in relation to timely provision of
    timetables and notification when classes had to
    be deferred) and what would be expected from them
    reciprocally, for example, that they would attend
    and participate in classes, be punctual and
    submit work to deadlines.
  • After discussion, all faculties agreed to use
    this as a template for their own faculty mutual
    expectation document for that year, although this
    was being reviewed in the light of potential
    sector guidance from the UK charter group and
    also in light of what has come out of the Browne
  • The terms student charter , student contract
    or compact were deliberately avoided as they
    were not intended to be regarded as legally
    enforceable agreements.

Recruiting the right staff for teaching
  • The institution focused more closely on ensuring
    that applicants for teaching posts should
    demonstrate the capacity to teach effectively or,
    for those new to higher education, the potential
    to do so.
  • The university strategy states We are committed
    to employing enthusiastic and inspiring academic
    and support staff who embrace opportunities for
    professional development to enhance our students
  • A group comprising Teacher Fellows and colleagues
    from HR worked together to design a range of
    means to interrogate this capability in the
    application and interview process, for example by
    asking applicants to comment on a video of a
    teaching session, to draft some curriculum
    materials or to assess some assignments.
  • The current approach to be used is still under
    consideration, but it was agreed that interview
    panels for such posts would include experts in
    teaching, for example, Teacher Fellows or
    Associate Deans (ALT)

Training for new academic staff
  • The university already had a policy that stated
    that all teaching staff (teaching full time or at
    least 50 of the week) should do the Postgraduate
    Certificate in Higher Education Teaching and
    Learning. This was reinforced strongly and we
    asked AD(ALT)s to monitor take up without
  • The PGCHE course had as its first component in
    September a three day block entitled In at the
    deep end designed to give first level guidance
    to staff facing their first classes and
    assessment task and this was offered additionally
    in January and June to ensure no staff member had
    to wait too long for this support.
  • The 3-day block was opened up to people teaching
    less than 50 of their time and was mandated for
    research students who taught even for only a few
  • The guidance booklet that accompanied the 3-day
    block was widely distributed to sessional staff
    who taught only occasionally and for whom the
    3-day block was inappropriate.

Peer observation of teaching
  • We implemented fully a previously agreed peer
    observation of teaching system, which was
    designed to encourage conversations among
    teachers about good classroom practice.
  • The expectation that all teaching staff observe
    and are observed teaching each semester was
    strongly reinforced by faculties and compliance
    was monitored by the NSS steering group.
  • Over the course of a year, the proportion of
    teaching staff who met university requirements in
    relation to Peer Observation of Teaching rose
    from around 20 to at least 75.
  • A guidance booklet (Race et al 2010) was provided
    to all academic staff outlining a range of
    approaches and templates that could be used.
  • Formal records of the conversations were not
    required however, during annual PDRs, teachers
    were invited to discuss what they had learned and
    for these to fed into Staff Development.

Feedback and assessment the major challenges
  • This was the area that the students highlighted
    most strongly as being a matter of
    dissatisfaction in common with trends nationally
    and internationally.
  • Overall, (with honourable exceptions of some
    programmes), students were unhappy about the
    quality and nature of feedback and particularly
    what they saw as unacceptably slow return of
  • The university already had a policy of returning
    assessed work with comments within three weeks,
    but this was not universally achieved.
  • Over the year in question, extensive work was
    undertaken within faculties to convince staff
    involved in assessing student work that feedback
    needs to be timely, detailed and formative. It
    was recognised that this is difficult to achieve,
    especially where staff are marking high numbers
    of scripts.

Our approach to improvement was informed by inter
alia the work by Nicol on Good feedback
  • 1. Helps clarify what good performance is (goals,
    criteria, expected standards)
  • 2. Facilitates the development of self-assessment
    (reflection) in learning
  • 3. Delivers high quality information to students
    about their learning
  • 4. Encourages teacher and peer dialogue around
  • 5. Encourages positive motivational beliefs and
  • 6. Provides opportunities to close the gap
    between current and desired performance
  • 7. Provides information to teachers that can be
    used to help shape the teaching. (Nicol and
    Macfarlane Dick)

The Assessment for Learning movement was also
  • 1. Tasks should be challenging, demanding higher
    order learning and integration of knowledge
    learned in both the university and other
  • 2. Learning and assessment should be integrated,
    assessment should not come at the end of learning
    but should be part of the learning process
  • 3. Students are involved in self assessment and
    reflection on their learning, they are involved
    in judging performance
  • 4. Assessment should encourage metacognition,
    promoting thinking about the learning process not
    just the learning outcomes
  • 5. Assessment should have a formative function,
    providing feedforward for future learning which
    can be acted upon. There is opportunity and a
    safe context for students to expose problems with
    their study and get help there should be an
    opportunity for dialogue about students work

Assesment for learning 2
  • 6. Assessment expectations should be made visible
    to students as far as possible
  • 7. Tasks should involve the active engagement of
    students developing the capacity to find things
    out for themselves and learn independently
  • 8. Tasks should be authentic worthwhile,
    relevant and offering students some level of
    control over their work
  • 9. Tasks are fit for purpose and align with
    important learning outcomes
  • 10. Assessment should be used to evaluate
    teaching as well as student learning
  • (Assessment Reform Group (1999))

Assessment for Learning see http//www.northumbri
  • Emphasises authenticity and complexity in the
    content and methods of assessment rather than
    reproduction of knowledge and reductive
  • Uses high-stakes summative assessment rigorously
    but sparingly rather than as the main driver for
  • Offers students extensive opportunities to engage
    in the kinds of tasks that develop and
    demonstrate their learning, thus building their
    confidence and capabilities before they are
    summatively assessed.
  • Is rich in feedback derived from formal
    mechanisms e.g. tutor comments on assignments,
    student self-review logs.
  • Is rich in informal feedback e.g. peer review of
    draft writing, collaborative project work, which
    provides students with a continuous flow of
    feedback on how they are doing.
  • Develops students abilities to direct their own
    learning, evaluate their own progress and
    attainments and

Improvements we made to feedback on assessed work
  • Workshops led by Teacher Fellows in faculties and
    subject groups on how to give feedback
    effectively and efficiently.
  • The production of a booklet on using assessment
    to support student learning by an international
    pedagogic expert (Gibbs, 2010) who worked with
    staff of the university to elicit and include
    local examples of good practice. All teaching
    staff received a copy, and conversations on
    issues raised within it were encouraged within
    faculties and course teams.
  • Publications for students on assessment and how
    to make the best use of feedback were produced
    and distributed widely. One of these publications
    was linked to a National Teaching Fellowship
    funded project on assessment while others were
    more generic.

Further actions to improve feedback
  • A JISC-funded project on creating digital audio
    files to give feedback orally which could be
    emailed to students was led by Bob Rotheram,
    Reader within the Assessment, Learning and
    Teaching team, who widely disseminated the
    project outcomes demonstrating that students take
    feedback seriously and use it on multiple
    occasions when it is provided in this form
    (Rotheram 2009).
  • International experts on oral assessment and
    formative feedback undertook short residences in
    the university and led workshops and seminars on
    improving assessment. These experts included
    Royce Sadler, David Boud and Gordon Joughin.
  • Associate Deans (ALT) in each faculty led very
    rigorous monitoring of return rates for assessed
    work and reported these to the NSS steering
    group, as well as developing some good practice

Making the changes
  • Workshops were led by Teacher Fellows in
    faculties and subject groups on how to give
    feedback effectively and efficiently
  • The production of a booklet on using assessment
    to support student learning by an international
    pedagogic expert (Gibbs 2010) who worked with
    staff of the university to elicit and include
    local examples of good practice. Individual
    copies of this publication were provided to all
    teaching staff and conversations on issues raised
    within it were encouraged within faculties and
    course teams.
  • Discussions were held with union representatives
    during which issues concerning workload were
    raised, with resultant action by HR staff in
    relation to deployment.
  • Publications for students on assessment and how
    to make the best use of feedback were produced
    and distributed widely. One of these publications
    was linked to a National Teaching Fellowship
    funded project on assessment while others were
    more generic.

Actions in parallel to improve quality assurance
  • An extremely thorough review of review of
    processes and practices across the university was
    undertaken, including a complete revision of
    academic regulations to remove inconsistencies
    and remove areas for potential ambiguity.
  • This was supportive of efforts to improve the
    student experience, since it ensured that
    information to students was more transparent and
    accessible than previously.
  • In particular, assessment regulations were
    simplified in places and consistent documentation
    in relation to mitigating circumstances and
    appeals was made available via the web for
    students to scrutinise as necessary.

Preparations for the NSS process in 2010
  • The NSS projects team worked hard to ensure high
    and early rates of response to achieve the most
    representative sample possible and to monitor and
    follow up areas with low return rates.
  • The UK NSS has rigorous guidelines to discourage
    rogue HEIs from putting undue pressure on
    students to respond positively to the survey (
    Would you want to get a degree from a university
    with low ratings? being the kind of approach
    that is frowned upon), so endeavours necessarily
    focussed on ensuring participation in the survey
    rather than guiding the kinds of responses
    students gave.
  • The university chose the date to open the survey
    to be the earliest date by which it could be
    confident that students would have returned
    following the inter semester break.
  • Incentives were offered, including data sticks
    and credits for university copiers were offered
    to students participating on receipt of the email
    from NSS thanking the student for participating.

And the results in 2010?
  • The results of the 2010 NSS were significantly
    improved on the previous year.
  • On Question 22, Overall, I am satisfied with the
    quality of the course there was an 8
    improvement on the previous years score which
    brings the institution better into line with its
    benchmark institutions, with five courses scoring
    100 on this question.
  • On Bank 2 Assessment and feedback scores rose
    from a low of 56 in 2009 to 62 in 2010, against a
    national average of 62 there was particular
    satisfaction in seeing a better score for
    question 7 feedback on my work has been prompt,
    with an improvement form 2009-2010 of 11 .
  • Similarly scores for question 15 The course is
    well organised and is running smoothly rose by

Free response comments included
  • Third years tutors have been really great, a lot
    more support given to us than in previous years
  • In the past couple of years I dont think the
    tutors have been very communicative, but this
    year has greatly improved,
  • The course is most definitely improving,
  • The course has improved drastically and become
    much more organised
  • There have been some positive changes due to the
    course leader taking on board things that
    students arent happy with.

But no room for complacency
  • Considerable further work still to do to keep up
    the momentum
  • Some of the improved scores still lag behind
    benchmark HEIs
  • A new Student Experience Steering Group has been
    established to be chaired by the incoming DVC
    (Student Experience) which will have the
    responsibility of determining university
    priorities in response to the results of the NSS
    and also in relation to other forms of student
    feedback that are collected throughout the year.

  • The changes which are made to improve the student
    experience are important in their own right, not
    just in response to poor NSS scores
  • It is possible to make significant improvements,
    but it needs a strategic approach, ideally at
    institutional level
  • Strategic approaches arent worth a fig if
    individual staff dont embrace the need to
    improve student satisfaction
  • Doing the same things which have always been done
    in the same way that they have always done is
    doomed to failure.

References 1
  • Assessment Reform Group (1999) Assessment for
    Learning Beyond the black box Cambridge UK,
    University of Cambridge School of Education
  • Brown, S and Denton, S (2010) Leading the
    University Beyond Bureaucracy in A practical
    guide to University and College management (Eds.
    Denton, S and Brown, S) New York and London
  • Browne, J (2010) Securing a sustainable future
    for higher education www.independent.gov.uk/browne
  • Gibbs, G (2010) Using assessment to support
    student learning Leeds Leeds Metropolitan
  • Jones, J (2010) Building pedagogic excellence
    learning and teaching fellowships within
    communities of practice at the university of
    Brighton in Innovations in Education and Teaching
    International vol 47 No 3 p 271-82 Routledge/
    Taylor and Francis Abingdon Oxford
  • Marshall, P and Massy, W (2010) Managing in
    turbulent times in Forum for the Future of
    Higher Education, papers from the 2009 Aspen
    symposium Massachusetts Institute of Technology
    Cambridge USA
  • Newton J (2003) Implementing an Institution-wide
    learning and Teaching strategy lessons in
    managing change Studies in Higher Education Vol
    28 No 4
  • Nicol, D J and Macfarlane-Dick Formative
    assessment and self-regulated learning A model
    and seven principles of good feedback practice.
    Studies in Higher Education (2006), Vol 31(2),

References 2
  • Rust, C., Price, M. and ODonovan, B. (2003)
    Improving students learning by developing their
    understanding of assessment criteria and
    processes Assessment and Evaluation in Higher
    Education. 28 (2), 147-164. Brown S and Denton S
    Leading the University Beyond Bureaucracy in A
    practical guide to University and College
    management (Ed Denton S and brown S) Routledge
    New York and London
  • Pascale P Managing on the edge New York
  • Race P et al 2009 Using peer observation to
    enhance teaching Leeds metropolitan Press Leeds
  • Renfro WL and Morrison JL (1983) Anticipating
    and managing change in educational organisations
    Educational Leadership Association of
    Supervision and Curriculum Development
  • Roxa T and Martensson K (200() Significant
    conversations and significant networks- exploring
    the backstage of the teaching arena Studies in
    Higher Education Vol 34 no 5 p547-559
  • Robertson C Robins A and Cox R (2009)
    Co-constructing an academic community ethos-
    challenging culture and managing change in higher
    education a case study undertaken over two
    years in Management in Education Vol 23 Issue 1
    Sage London
  • Wisker G and Constable J (2005) Fellowship and
    Communities of Practice, SEDA, Anglia Ruskin
    University UK
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