Out goes ‘enthusiasm’, in comes ‘engagement’: the National Student Survey of the future

So farewell then, Key Information Sets: hundreds of thousands of university applicants never even knew you existed.

Having been involved in the farcical attempts to provide regularized and visualizable data on contact hours, forms of assessment, and the like, I find it difficult to mourn the demise of KIS. Yet there are many more interesting stories buried within the HEFCE document that signals the end of KIS: Review of Information about Learning and Teaching, and the Student Experience. Those stories centre on the National Student Survey.

Much of this document is reminiscent of previous consultations. But we’re getting somewhere: the NSS is in for a makeover. And given the extent to which we all gear our practices towards the existing NSS questions, this demands our attention. While it’s important to stress that this is a consultation document, it’s also worth noting that there are years worth of momentum behind the proposals. And some of the changes that are eventually made will affect the 2017 survey, to be taken by students already established at university. So even as we keep one eye firmly on 2016, it’s surely worth keeping the other eye on the horizon.

The apotheosis of ‘engagement’

For those of us who have been banging the ‘student engagement’ drum for years, this is big news. I’m excited. I’m even ‘enthusiastic’ – but more on enthusiasm below. There are nine proposed questions, though it’s hard to imagine that more than a handful will make it. The questions are:

  • ‘My course has challenged me to achieve my best work’
  • ‘My course has provided me with opportunities to explore ideas or concepts in depth’
  • ‘My course has provided me with opportunities to bring information and ideas together from different topics’
  • ‘My course has provided me with opportunities to apply what I have learnt’
  • ‘I have had the right opportunities to provide feedback on my course’
  • ‘Staff value students’ views and opinions about the course’
  • ‘It is clear how students’ feedback on the course has been acted on’
  • ‘I have had the right opportunities to work with other students as part of my course’
  • ‘I feel part of a community of staff and students’

There are some axe-magnets there when it comes time to trim the list. I mean ‘right opportunities’: really? But if the first and last questions survive, I could retire (not yet, mind you) happy. The question of ‘community’ is especially interesting. There are reasons why it might not make the cut: it’s a tougher challenge for bigger programmes and cross-disciplinary programmes, and it arguably reinforces the NSS’s bias towards campus universities. But I hope it makes it makes it, because it matters.

What’s disappearing?

Out will go questions perceived to be ‘duplicating’ other questions.

  • Firstly, out go ‘enthusiastic’ teachers, on the assumption that teachers who ‘make the subject interesting’ are good enough. Personally, that’s a bit of a relief; enthusiasm has never been my strongest point.
  • Secondly, out go ‘clear’ assessment criteria, on the assumption that ‘fair assessment’ matters more. That will be welcomed across the sector, because it’s just bloody hard to get students to come to terms with those criteria. That’s not to say, though, that the effort was not noble.
  • Thirdly, out goes feedback that is ‘detailed’ and ‘helps me understand’, in favour of ‘helpful comments on my work’. That makes sense, though it perhaps means that we will ease back on that other noble crusade: insisting that there are valid forms of feedback beyond written comments.

And here’s a headline for me: all the ‘personal development’ questions are listed for removal. Stunningly, after however many years of beating ourselves up trying to work out how to fix our ‘personal development problems’, we’re told that ‘cognitive testing’ does ‘not produce valid results’. Students, moreover, are ‘unsure of the intent behind the questions’. So out go:

  • ‘The course has helped me to present myself with confidence’
  • ‘My communication skills have improved’
  • (And everyone’s favourite) ‘As a result of the course, I feel confident in tackling unfamiliar problems’.

What’s in the wording?

And finally come the changes in terminology.

  • In the ‘learning resources’ section, there will still be questions about ‘library resources’ and ‘IT resources’, but ‘good enough for my needs’ will be replaced by ‘have supported my learning well’. There will also be a welcome prompt in the ‘library’ question, to remind students that ‘online resources’ – i.e. all that stuff that looks free because it works a bit like google, even though it has actually cost the university thousands of pounds – matter as much as ‘books’. Finally, the NSS enters the twenty-first century.
  • And there are some interesting changes to ‘assessment and feedback’ terminology. Firstly, ‘prompt’ feedback becomes ‘timely’ feedback. Well bugger that: just when we have crushed our lives under regimented essay-return deadlines. Jo Johnson wants us emailing our students on the weekends; hell, we’ve been marking essays on Christmas Day! Nonetheless, the logic of ‘timely’ (i.e. in time to make a difference) is irrefutable and eminently sane. Secondly, ‘detailed comments’ becomes ‘helpful comments’. Good sense there as well: sometimes, quality simply does not equate with quantity.

However self-effacing this consultation document may look, it will affect our lives sooner than we think. As head of a department that has done rather well in the NSS over the years, I won’t be waiting for the results of the consultation before taking some action. In fact I feel a ‘community’ working group coming on.

2 thoughts on “Out goes ‘enthusiasm’, in comes ‘engagement’: the National Student Survey of the future

  1. I can’t say I have read the whole consultation document yet, but I didn’t see anywhere which addressed my two main concerns. First, it is clear at a departmental level that there are a number of questions which students do not regard as being that important and it would be good to see if there are any patterns to this, e.g. we have achieved 100% overall satisfaction more than once despite having scores for individual questions which are deemed to be sufficiently low that we are required to produce a plan for improvment.

    Second, as a department with specialised facilities, we have often done badly on the question concerning access to equipment to equipment when needed: this is not because we don’t have the equipment, it is because some students do not book the equipment in advance, turn up when they need it and find that someone else is using it, then complain about this – in some cases suggesting that we should nip out and buy something which costs £30-50k. The fundamental problem here, as elsewhere with the NSS, is that there is no emphasis on the student fulfilling their side of the bargain.

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