Attending (and presenting!) at a conference where the audience consists mainly of established scholars in the subject area – in this case, student evaluations – can be quite intimidating for an early career researcher. Despite my initial concerns, my experience at the Advance HE Surveys Conference 2018 at the beautiful Cloth Hall Court in Leeds was positive throughout. It was an excellent opportunity to get my feet wet at a large conference in the UK.
In my presentation, I talked about the Self-Study at Kent Q-Step. The evaluation is based on a unique longitudinal study that involves survey data on 4,000 undergraduate students across all years and includes different topics such as an evaluation of quantitative research skills, attitudes, and lifestyle. As one of the interim project managers of the Self-Study, I already felt confident talking about our evaluation for an extended period of time. However, at the Advance HE Surveys Conference, I spoke in front of a more substantial and diverse audience than I was used to. That was a great opportunity because I had to communicate the information in a more accessible way, including for non-academics, leave my comfort zone and could do that in a very friendly and welcoming environment. So, once the spotlight was on me, I switched the microphone on, took a deep breath and started the presentation that I had so carefully prepared. The questions were considerate, and the feedback was complimentary – What a satisfying moment for any researcher! Luckily, my session was in the morning, so I could then relax and enjoy the rest of the event.
I can not possibly recount the innovative and inspiring sessions I attended during the day. It seemed that with every session, little puzzle pieces were put together on the broader issue of student evaluation. It is difficult to have this kind of learning curve when during a usual day working on the own research, and the organisation team of Advance HE did a great job in putting together a complemented conference programme. Here are some thoughts on the sessions: A lot of the secondary datasets used to evaluate student experience at the university were discussed, amongst others NSS, UKES, SAES, PTES, PRES. While the abbreviations sound crisp and clear, massive amounts of resources lie behind creating such data sets – and supposedly more are to come. Thus, every year millions of individual student observations are captured across the UK.
Unsurprisingly, a recurring question throughout the day – including my presentation – was “How can we make the most of the information the students give us?”. There were two main issues mentioned during the day: First, what limits does quantitative data have, and in what way can we interpret the results? Second, how can the results actually have an impact on the institutions? Some of the fascinating research from the day revealed new approaches to combine quantitative and qualitative data regarding student evaluations. For example, a combination of findings from various surveys, staff and student focus groups. Furthermore, scholars work on different ways to communicate results, especially to staff and students. Also, collaborations with different teams at the institutions can be beneficial, such as between student data teams and learning development teams. I believe, if everyone – from students to university management – would use the powerful data to understand what the different needs are, hardly anything can obstruct the way to progress in higher education institutions.
All in all, events like the Advance HE Surveys Conference 2018, can help to bring early career researchers and established experts in the same field together, and increase knowledge and awareness of current issues. The event was a unique experience for me as an early career researcher. The conference was a place for learning and development as well as open and friendly for networking.
A final thought on what I have learned about student evaluations: at my former (public) German university, apart from the usual module evaluations, I never received a single invitation to evaluate the course. Guess what; my fellow students and I did not exactly miss it. Here in the UK, a higher education institution without student experience data seems unimaginable. I cannot help but wonder: Is the effort worth it?
Being a quantitative social researcher and project manager of a student survey myself, I can, of course, empathise with the need to justify how courses work and what impact they have. However, I have also conducted data for research projects for many years now, and seen the ups and downs. For my academic future, the Advance HE Surveys Conference showed me once again, that it can often be more fruitful to really dive into the existing data and reflect upon methods and results. So, in regards to student evaluations, I ask: to what extent should we invest in surveys, and when should we start to re-invest in students?