The National Student Survey and the Growing Importance of Student Voice in Universities

Student voice has become a prized asset in higher education. While some argue that the pendulum has swung too far in terms of the power attributed to it, clearly it is here to stay and universities have to decide how best to deal with it.  Ever since the advent of the National Student Survey in 2005, its stock value has risen rapidly. Since the introduction of higher tuition fees and reduction in funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, universities have come to take the results of the survey more and more seriously, convinced that its impact on application numbers becomes more important every year. So concerned are some institutions with maximising National Student Survey response rates that they have created specific posts to drive home its importance and prompt students to complete it.

But while both universities and student bodies have focused much attention on marketing and promoting the survey, less attention has been paid to how best to engage students with the process of evaluation and the evidence they should draw on to ensure that their responses are suitably informed and represent a balanced and accurate reflection of their university experiences.

The National Union of Students has acknowledged that many students neglect the survey, largely because they do not realise just how seriously their responses are taken, or indeed how important they are. Student leaders have therefore concentrated on raising awareness, aiming to maximising response rates.

This is important because results are only published for those courses in which the response rate is at least 50%. But how well-equipped are students to comment insightfully on aspects of pedagogic and subject knowledge expertise? How do we know, for example, that they are not basing their views on superficial and arbitrary criteria such as the lecturer’s personality rather than an informed understanding of pedagogy or subject knowledge?

Of course students should be given a platform to express their views about their learning experiences, but let us not fool ourselves into thinking that they will somehow be able to produce a fair, valid and reliable assessment of the competence and performance of their teachers at the end of it. My research into the use of lesson observation in the English further education sector highlighted how difficult this is even for the most highly experienced observers working with tried and tested assessment criteria over a sustained period of time.

We therefore need more transparent dialogue among university staff and students about the nature and purpose of the National Student Survey, why it is important to gather feedback on students’ experiences and what impact that data has on the experiences of future students, along with how best to approach answering the questions. I am not suggesting for one moment that university staff attempt to “coach”  students in the content of their responses, but that they see the process as providing a stimulus for generating meaningful, reciprocal discussion about wider issues, such as the teaching and learning experience and student evaluation.

For example, the first two sections of the survey ask students about the quality of teaching, assessment and feedback. Surely these are aspects of practice that both parties need to discuss throughout the course? In the realm of teacher education it is generally accepted as good practice that it is sometimes helpful for teachers to share with students the rationale behind their decisions on choice of teaching methods or learning resources — in other words, why they are doing what they are doing and why they think it is the best way to go about tackling a particular topic.

To stimulate initial discussion, lecturers should give their students an insight into why they choose to employ particular teaching styles, what they consider to be the most effective ways of providing feedback. This should not be presented in a vacuum purely to prepare students for the National Student Survey, but should be embedded into live courses so that the discussion is put in context and makes sense. Equally, as part of such discussion, students should be given the opportunity to put forward their opinions, ask questions and seek clarification, with a view to them feeling a genuine sense of inclusion in the ongoing development of the curriculum.

This type of open, reciprocal dialogue between staff and students is crucial. Without it universities risk students basing their responses to the student survey not on an informed understanding of the complex decision-making processes that teaching staff invariably undergo when planning, delivering and assessing a programme of study, but on a hunch.

Dr Matt O’Leary

CRADLE, University of Wolverhampton


This piece was originally written for an online publication entitled ‘Research Fortnight: HE Policy’ in December 2013 


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I work as a Reader in Education at Birmingham City University. Prior to this I was the co-founder of the Centre for Research and Development in Lifelong Education (CRADLE) and a principal lecturer in post-compulsory education at the University of Wolverhampton. I have worked as a teacher, teacher educator, head of department and educational researcher for over 20 years in colleges, schools and universities in England, Mexico and Spain. Much of my work and research is rooted in the field of teacher education, particularly exploring the relationship between education policy and the continuous professional development of teachers. I am well known for my work on classroom observation and am regarded as one of the first educational researchers in the UK to investigate and critique the practice of graded lesson observations. I am also the author of the 'Classroom Observation: A Guide to the Effective Observation of Teaching and Learning' (Abingdon: Routledge 2014). Qualifications: PhD in Education (University of Warwick); MA in Applied Linguistics & ELT (King's College London); PGCE in Spanish & ESL (UCE Birmingham), RSA DipTEFLA (King's College London & British Council Mexico City); BA (Hons) in French & Spanish (University of Southampton)

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