The student experience is always high on the agenda for any educational establishment.
Word of mouth plays a big part in the marketing of any product and education is no different. If students don’t have a positive and enjoyable experience, which they believe meets their needs and offers value for money, a college or university is likely to notice a fall in applicants and reputation.
I’m Head of Learning and Research Technologies, at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). Last month I’m pleased to say we won the Student Experience Award at the Guardian Higher Education Awards. The curriculum transformation project, funded by Jisc, known as EQAL (Enhancing the Quality of Assessment for Learning) was our winner and I want to share the success of this work with you by picking out my top tips to help improve student experience at your university.
Tip 1: Clarify roles of engagement
The new fee structure for university students has ignited debate about their role in quality enhancement: are students best viewed as customers, clients, partners or all of these?
I believe students need a voice and need to know how they can use it to its best effect. When we reviewed the set up for this student engagement at MMU we found a multitude of opportunities for students which would allow them to enhance their university experience, but a need for effective communications to signpost and explain those opportunities. You need to make it as easy as possible for your students to engage.
Customer feedback channels are essential to maintain satisfaction in certain aspects of student life, but for those interested in playing a more active engagement role, it is important to explain opportunities offered by becoming a course rep, standing for student union posts or contributing to partnership projects. These students can give you a way in to the student environment and are often helpful in understanding your students’ needs.
For information and advice on this, see Jisc’s collection of resources on students as change agents.
Tip 2: Be serious about the student voice
Don’t underestimate the benefits of a good student survey. Not only does this allow you to see the areas that require improvement and consider the needs of your students, but you know where and how to focus your efforts.
At MMU we have refined an internal student satisfaction survey over several years. It’s personalised, so that each student answers questions relevant to their studies. Survey questions are based on areas shown to be the most significant to student satisfaction in the National Student Survey. We include closed questions, which act as prompts for open questions focusing on the best and worse parts of their experience.
Luckily for us response to our bi-annual survey has been outstanding: typically 10,000 students leave us about 50,000 comments! The anonymous results are forwarded automatically to relevant programme and module leaders so that they can see the feedback and develop a plan to raise the bar even higher.
We are currently working to integrate insights from the survey with those gleaned through student journey mapping, the student union’s termly reports and programme committee meetings. This will mean that triangulated findings can be discussed with student reps, programme teams and central services to ensure the best steps are taken to meet student needs. It is important not to just listen to your students but to implement change so that they know their feedback is being taken seriously.
For more tips, see the recommendations from earlier Jisc work on understanding learners’ experiences.
Tip 3: Understand sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction
University operations are highly dependent on one another and deciding how best and where to intervene to improve the student experience can be challenging.
Initiatives such as the Jisc’s Relationship Management in Higher Education and Business Intelligence programmes highlight the potential of using data, for instance about student service usage, to shed light on student activity. Joining these data with satisfaction datasets allows you to build statistical models of satisfaction and dissatisfaction across areas of the organisation. These findings can then be validated and explored through focus group activity. At MMU we took this approach with EQAL - statistical analysis of the National Student Survey revealed students’ perceptions of the organisation of their course was a significant predictor of overall satisfaction. We worked with focus groups that validated the findings, highlighted frustrating inconsistencies in module delivery and assessment and called for up-to-date class and assignment timetables.
We found the root cause of the problems to be our unwieldy undergraduate curriculum. This had grown more complex over time and made it difficult to implement consistent improvements for all students. To improve our student experience, simplification was proposed, which would necessitate a re-write of the entire undergraduate curriculum.
For more on the curriculum design overhaul at MMU, see the case study on our Jisc-funded Student-responsive curricula project. You can also find out more about approaches taken by the other institutions in the Curriculum Design programme.
Tip 4: Be bold enough to make systemic change
A strong university reputation attracts students and research funding. These bring resources which, when deployed effectively, produce outcomes that further enhance reputation. The reverse of this brings a downward spiral of reputation and resource. Therefore any changes you're looking to implement must make exceptional use of scarce resources and actively manage your reputation.
MMU’s governors and senior managers set an urgent objective to address underperformance on student experience against our peers, but the interconnected nature of university activities created barriers for the groups established to respond. Rather than submitting to holistic paralysis, ‘we can’t change anything because we’d have to change everything’, we took the bold step of saying ‘OK, so let’s change everything’. We established EQAL to rewrite the entire undergraduate curriculum while introducing new business processes, personalised timetabling and learner-centred web and mobile technologies, each area of work supporting the others.
Tip 5: Consider how technology can wrap the institution around the learner
Students had left us in no doubt about their desire for accurate, personalised information - timetables, assignment deadlines, recommended reading and exam times. We were aware that EQAL would bring greater consistency to the information our students wanted, but that this information was spread across numerous computer systems. We decided to use web services to gather this information on each student’s behalf and present it via our new Moodle virtual learning environment and our CampusM mobile app. We hoped that by wrapping the institution around the learner we would improve perceptions of course organisation and I was delighted to see quartile improvements in course organisation, learning resources and overall satisfaction scores between the 2011 and 2012 National Student Survey.
Find out more about how to use technology to improve learner experience in the Jisc case study. For guidance on how to ensure you get the most of technology in your own context, see Jisc infoNet’s advice on the strategic use of ICT.
This five step turnaround strategy marks the beginning not the end of our journey in enhancing student experience. EQAL has given me confidence about MMU’s ability to make change, which I and my colleagues hope to build upon as we move on to tackling the academic heartland of teaching and assessment.
These five steps are offered not as the recipe for success, but as reflection points on our journey so far. In that spirit, I hope you find them useful.
Follow Mark on Twitter - @thestubbs