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27 important questions

20 Jul 2018 | Elizabeth Shepherd, Director Higher Education research, IFF Research Understanding, measuring and enhancing the student experience, and most crucially the depth of student engagement is, without any doubt, high on the agenda of every university in the UK. Why engagement, and not simply experience?

Understanding, measuring and enhancing the student experience, and most crucially the depth of student engagement is, without any doubt, high on the agenda of every university. Why engagement, and not simply experience? A 2016 report published by The European Higher Education Area[1] presents an astute synopsis of the impact successful engagement in higher education can have. The rewards are transformative, for students themselves and society more widely. Enabling, the report explains, the development of highly skilled and economically prosperous individuals, that collectively contribute towards peaceful, secure and flourishing societies.  In short, humanity benefits on a significant scale.

The significance of successful engagement with higher education is a foregone conclusion; the most effective way to construct a valid measurement of its success, less so. The EHEA go on to analyse in great depth the pervasive use of student surveys as the tool chosen to measure this activity. The data generated described as a vital tool used to support university performance analysis and in turn decision making. This trend is by no means peculiar to the UK. International comparative analysis of student experience surveys provides an interesting perspective of both research design and data use.

In Australia, the ‘Student Experience Survey’ is delivered via a government, higher education sector and social research agency collaboration, to measure engagement of both domestic and international on-shore undergraduate level students. Participation is voluntary. In the Netherlands, the ‘Nationale Studenten Enquête’ (National Student Survey) is a mandatory census of undergraduate students, used to inform student decision making and for institutional marketing. In North America, the ‘National Survey of Student Engagement’, annually collects data at hundreds of four-year colleges and universities from first-year and senior students in the United States and Canada. The North American NSSE having the longest legacy having been created by a consortium of universities in 1998, funded by a charitable trust. An explicate statement published on the website stresses that the survey’s creators ‘do not support the use of NSSE results for the purpose of ranking colleges and universities’[2].

In the UK we are of course familiar with our own ‘National Student Survey’. Having carried out the 2016 cognitive testing[3] of the survey on behalf of HEFCE, the IFF Higher Education team are very familiar with the 27 very important questions asked of our final year undergraduate students. Cognitive testing is a thorough, comprehensive, qualitative research method. This particular example consisting of hundreds of hours of face to face interviews and almost 30,000 quantitative surveys with current students, aiming to analyse their comprehension of every question asked and every word used within them. A notable presentation given at last week’s Advance HE Teaching and Learning conference by Dr Andrew Pye from the University of Exeter highlighted how, despite the rigorous approach taken towards designing and testing the UK NSS, every students’ individual interpretation of, in this case, the meaning of academic support in relation to their own daily student life, can impact so significantly.

The conference provided a timely and much needed platform for discussion and collaboration across the sector, sharing ideas of research methods that can build our understanding of students’ interpretation of their own experience. In the case of Exeter, further research enabled staff to implement innovative solutions to ensure an accurate shared interpretation of academic support, for both staff and students. Presentations and discussions throughout the conference demonstrated the benefits of engaging students within their own experience via innovative research methods, in addition to the widely used student survey.   

[1]Klemenčič M., Chirikov I. (2015) How Do We Know How Students Experience Higher Education? On the Use of Student Surveys. In: Curaj A., Matei L., Pricopie R., Salmi J., Scott P. (eds) The European Higher Education Area. Springer, Cham




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