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Graham Nicholson sees a lot of students – but he’s no lecturer.
His brief as the Director of Student Services at the University of Dundee covers everything from new student recruitment to managing on campus student services.
Most of all, however, his job is to listen to what students say about the university. Dashing between meetings, Nicholson says:
“There will be a student voice in more than two thirds of the meetings I attend.”
“Lots of universities engage with student feedback but, at Dundee, we are positively riddled with it – from student reps in every class to student involvement in faculty boards and senior management.”
That’s why, he suggests, the University of Dundee was voted number one in the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey 2011.
The survey, which gathered responses from undergraduates at 105 institutions, rated Dundee first for convenient facilities, joint third for social activities and fourth for the quality of staff lectures.
“Students have a particular eye for things that really matter to students, such as the use of new technology and campus facilities,” adds Nicholson.
“When students are used to being engaged in the dialogue, then they start being proactive as well as reactive.”
The student voice has become the latest craze on campus. In an era of rising fees and falling numbers, it is heralded as something of a panacea.
While the idea of harnessing student feedback has been around since research into constructivist learning in the Nineties, the feedback bandwagon has rolled into most UK campuses in recent years.
The University of Plymouth has, for example, garnered praise for its commitment to the student voice, including the Plymouth Student Opinion Panel and its “You said, we did” public relations drive to raise awareness of how the university responded to students’ views.
Glyndwr University in Wrexham, North Wales, appointed an Executive Director for Student Experience and boosted representation levels of students on university decision-making committees.
Such measures are designed to encourage students to influence decision-making for the better. But are some of these measures just another box-ticking exercise?
Professor Philippa Levy, Deputy Chief Executive Academic at the Higher Education Authority (HEA) rejects this.
“We are at the beginning of a new phase in how we think about the student voice,” she says. “It’s clearly now being driven forward at national policy level, while individual academics are increasingly starting to recognise the benefits.”
“Used well,” she adds, “it challenges the idea of students as consumers.”
“Students may be paying for their own education but they also need to put something back in to impact positively as an agent for change.”
But not all academics are convinced of the catch all solution offered by student feedback. Some feel that, in the stampede to harness the student voice, institutions are becoming preoccupied solely with the student experience, rather than focusing on the academic education.
While student feedback is valuable and issues such as “Are sports facilities clean?” and “Is the beer cheap at the student union?” are important to students, the focus needs to be better managed.
This, suggests Dr Peter Gossman, [formerly] Senior Lecturer in Education at Glyndwr University, should be considered to focus more on a critical study of students’ learning behaviour. He says:
“As lecturers, we are interested in whether learning of a particular type, such as understanding than rote memorisation, has taken place, rather than satisfaction.”
Gossman cites a tendency amongst students to express satisfaction with a forms of teaching that lead students to a relatively passive or surface style of learning.
A possible problem with student reviews of teaching is that students tend to rate highly styles that involve clear, organised delivery of content. This can be at odds with lecturers who make demands on the class to think and analyse.
Furthermore, the reliance on the student as the singularly most worthwhile voice on campus can leave academics frustrated that their own professional input is being downgraded.
In a recent Point of View programme for BBC Radio 4, Professor Mary Beard of Newnham College, Cambridge, argued that one of the key functions of a university education is to push students beyond their immediate comfort zone in terms of learning.
Expecting them to read, reflect and comment on things they would not normally otherwise encounter may be unpopular in the tutorial room, but it’s a key element of undergraduate life. She writes:
“Dissatisfaction and discomfort have their own, important, role to play in a good university education … It is, and it’s meant to be, destabilising.”
In my own classes, I have implemented an expanding range of feedback exercises over the years.
One was an online Student Evaluation of Module form, which enabled students to air their views on all aspects of the course mid way through its delivery. The implied idea being to demonstrate how the lecturer is acting on such feedback and what they have done before the end of the module.
Personally, however, I found a simpler approach at classroom level to be far more effective. I once handed my latest cohort a minute paper.
The idea is to simply write down anonymously on a blank piece of paper their comments on the course, content and delivery. They then fold it over and place it on an empty desk at the front.
I read them back in my office over a coffee. The comments were, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag.
”I need more than one week to finish to meet a deadline,” wrote a second-year journalism student without a hint or irony.
More useful was this. “I really liked the more practical sessions, such as the live-blogging exercise, as I can see how this will benefit me in my future career.”
Note to self: less talking, even more hands-on exercises next semester.
As a result of this exercise, I am responding to feedback, amending my teaching for the remainder of the class and, by giving students a clear voice, hopefully engendering a greater sense of personal motivation.
“My advice to academics,” says Graham Nicholson, “is not to make it tokenistic. Take students seriously and they have to be serious in return.”
It’s good advice. But, as academics, let’s keep the focus on our use of the student voice to improving learning – even if that impacts negatively on student satisfaction at times.
The students might even thank us for it one day.
This story was first published on the Guardian Higher Education Network website under the headline Student voice on campus: it’s about more than beer and box ticking.