As the international higher education market becomes increasingly competitive, universities are focusing on better understanding and improving the student experience. Whereas it wasn’t so long ago that student opinions were treated with little regard, schools must now accept that meeting their students’ expectations is vital to their continued success.
Unlike other service industries, where customer satisfaction implies little more than reputation and brand loyalty benefits, colleges and universities know that student satisfaction has important consequences in terms of their retention rates and reputation as well as ongoing recruitment and fundraising efforts.
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Student satisfaction surveys play a key role in various “quality rankings”, which are a much used resource for many prospective students, particularly those studying abroad. Of course, well built assessments can also be a valuable tool for improving the immediate learning environment and other factors contributing to an optimal student experience.
While the concept of student satisfaction has long been of interest to university administrators, it is only relatively recently that substantial research has emerged that investigates the relationship between specific institutional factors and student happiness. By integrating the most advanced research and emerging digital technology, universities can now understand their students and institutional strengths and weaknesses better than ever before.
Progressive surveys can deliver an impressive depth of actionable insights by integrating numerous key performance indicators, statistically weighted by importance and designed according to participants’ psychology, leveraging the latest qualitative research and reporting analytics to deliver a comprehensive data picture of the student experience.
How Measuring Student Satisfaction Became Essential
Although every education institution would likely agree that earning the satisfaction of its primary stakeholders is of the utmost importance, accurately measuring this satisfaction is no easy matter. The first satisfaction surveys were generally limited to simple evaluations of teaching quality, which may have aided monitoring of individual instructors but rarely impacted institutional change.
To better affect progress across the sector as a whole and enable more transparent comparison between universities, several countries have created some form of national survey to collect a range of student satisfaction feedback. While Japan, the USA, Canada and Australia each employ extensive national student surveys, perhaps the most well known internationally is the UK’s National Student Survey (NSS), taken each year by about 300,000 graduating students.
The widely published results of the latter survey are generally acknowledged to make schools take student feedback more seriously, leading to improved assessment practices, tutor access and university resources. The NSS has become so influential that there have been cases of professors advising students to artificially inflate scores, thus elevating the university’s ranking and status. Last year, a controversial government initiative linking higher NSS scores with permission to raise tuition fees spurred a sizable student boycott of the survey.
Many would argue that this particular assessment does not fairly measure across different types of universities or subject areas, offering insufficient discrimination between schools to be relied upon as a comparison tool. Certain rating criteria and the timing of administering the survey in the students’ final year also invites allegations of potential distortion in the results.
While it may be asking too much for one survey to provide a definitive analysis of an entire higher education sector, there is clearly much room for improving the predictive nature of these assessments. A more attainable and productive goal for satisfaction surveys is to help institutions grow organically by identifying strengths and weaknesses, as judged by their own students in real-time.
Providing An Insider View of Higher Education
Student satisfaction surveys have several advantages over other forms of quality monitoring. Students are the participants most directly involved in the learning process and so can provide specific insights on a range of factors most relevant to prospective applicants. When integrating student views into a continuous cycle of analysis and action, they can contribute to valuable comparisons between programmes of study and the benchmarking of progress over time.
While surveys may remain one of the best indicators of teaching quality, they are far more useful when the scope is expanded to measure trends related to course development, student development, support infrastructure and other factors influencing the overall university experience. In this way, survey results can be linked to curriculum changes, budget allocation and campus planning.
There is a growing recognition that the many hours spent outside the classroom are just as important to a student’s holistic education as those in class. The extent to which the campus experience contributes to student happiness, and consequently success, varies according to institution type – for instance, campus experience matters less to career colleges with primarily commuting adult students – but studies show that in general, many aspects of a university’s environment substantially affect student learning.
For most students who are living away from home for the first time, university is a time of immense personal growth on many levels. As they progress through their studies, they encounter increasing complexity while developing mature relationships, independence, and personal integrity. According to Tinto’s Student Integration Model, the better a student integrates into a campus community, both academically and socially, the more likely they will have the motivation to persist and thrive. The institution’s formal and informal structures thus influence students’ commitment to both their personal goals and the school as a whole.
Understanding and improving the student experience can stem the tide of attrition, the rising number of students dropping out or switching institutions. With analytic tools, surveys can be designed to identify at-risk students so counselling and other preventative measures may be taken to support retention.
Although there may be many reasons for a student’s falling grades or lack of engagement, developing a more student-centered approach with the help of satisfaction surveys can result in healthier retention rates. And any retention improvements, however small, are always valuable – it’s far cheaper to retain a student than recruit a replacement.
Using Student Satisfaction Surveys to Improve the Student Experience
Universities around the world are increasingly striving to differentiate themselves as providing a superior student experience by adding luxurious amenities like big-screen TVs in dorm rooms or fancy restaurants on campus. The University of Iowa even built an amusement-park-style “lazy river” as part of its estimated $53 million campus recreation centre renovations.
These high profile attractions not only aim to lure desirable new recruits but also make current students love being on campus. Satisfaction breeds loyalty and ongoing beneficial relationships with a school. Student perceptions of their life on campus ultimately helps to form the institution’s reputation, which impacts everything from admission rates and pricing to alumni contributions.
Assessments can therefore either reinforce a school’s marketing story with compelling evidence or provide a strong impetus for change. The data gleaned from satisfaction surveys can assist administrators in determining if their campus improvements are indeed delivering the desired return on investment. Along with digital tools like data analytics, student surveys reflect a growing trend towards transparency and evidence-based decision-making in higher education.
Directly asking students about their experiences is seen as a more reliable quality assurance predictor for both internal and external purposes (the latter may include governmental accountability checks) than assessments of learning outcomes and attainment. When student views are collected consistently and professionally, they can play a key role in a school’s continuous improvement processes.
At the University of Sydney, responses from their independent survey (called the Student Barometer) are reported to be a “major influence in the development of the University’s new strategic plan.” Professor Pip Pattison, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the Australian university, said that results “regularly influence policy development, projects designed to improve students’ experiences and changes to individual units of study.”
Implementing Effective Student Satisfaction Surveys
Shifting towards an evidence-based approach to evaluating the student experience means committing to best practices in creating and applying ongoing assessments. A combination of industry research, focus groups, interviews, and common sense can inform your first surveys but regular testing and thorough analysis should reveal areas to modify and delve deeper.
KPIs from GPTS’ Student Satisfaction Survey
For instance, research unsurprisingly shows both teaching quality and a university’s reputation to be significant predictive indicators to satisfied students. Other factors typically influencing satisfaction include:
- Food and accommodation
- Library services
- Internet quality and accessibility, IT support
- Course organisation, relevance, work load and assessment
- Financial assistance
- Social life
- Campus clubs/facilities
Various researchers over the past few decades have also identified policies and procedures, working conditions, recognition (social belonging), quality of administrative services, and aesthetic aspects of the school’s physical infrastructure as being contributing factors to student happiness.
In general, the more comprehensive the survey, the better schools can understand their strengths and shortcomings. Surveys are most useful when tailored to the unique improvement needs of the particular university, provided sufficient capacity has been established to ensure effective use of the data. The correlation between each factor and actual student satisfaction can be studied through advanced statistical analysis.
Every education institution has its own definition of service quality. For example, career colleges often have a high proportion of commuting students whose external demands limit their time on campus. It is therefore of utmost importance that academic services function efficiently, are easily accessible and generally do not cost students extra time. Convenient class scheduling should also be a top priority for these schools. Other institutions with a majority of science students, for instance, may tailor surveys to ensure certain labs and facilities are exceeding expectations.
Besides the survey’s content, universities also need to determine the timing and administration method that works best for them. Some advocate capturing more emotional perceptions about specific factors by gathering data as close to the experiential source as possible at corresponding times of day. For instance, soliciting in-the-moment feedback about the athletic facilities or cafeteria while the student is actually visiting these locations and the experience is fresh in their minds.
Then there is the question of how surveys will be distributed. Many schools still use paper surveys, at least for assessing professor performance, as these are typically given during classes to a captive audience so completion rates are expected to be higher. Online surveys enable completion at the student’s convenience and facilitate thorough analysis using advanced digital tools.
Surveys by independent third parties or separate quality assurance agencies often yield better results because students may have greater confidence about the confidentiality and impartiality of the process. Specialists may also possess expertise in innovative surveying and insightful reporting methods that make them more effective.
For example, Great Place to Study (GPTS) delivers questions designed around students’ psychology, measuring 75 key performance indicators via a user-friendly web app platform. Data from the Student Satisfaction Survey (SSS) is processed and analysed at dedicated data centres, with customised suggestions added by a team of educationists, marketing professionals and data scientists. Schools then receive a detailed report consisting of an easily understood scorecard, question-based analytics, KPI quotients and an audit that clearly highlights best performing sectors and areas needing improvement.
Closing the Feedback Loop
For students to trust in the evaluation process and therefore provide honest feedback, it’s imperative that they feel their contributions are actually being used in the regular implementation of improvements. Closing the feedback loop implies optimal data collection techniques, in-depth analysis and reports with clear paths of action, effective follow-up and consistent communication of results with the survey’s participants.
Northwestern University in Illinois, USA demonstrates admirable transparency in their ongoing assessments by displaying their numerous surveying purposes, methods and outcomes in an easily accessible section of their website called “Student Affairs Assessment & Planning”:
In today’s higher education environment, there is both more competition among schools and more scrutiny than ever from prospective students and parents, who have an abundance of online resources available to inform their choices. Continuously assessing student satisfaction and publishing the data serves as evidence of a school’s quality, making evaluation more transparent.
Measuring this data should be an essential part of every school’s comprehensive assessment strategy for ongoing policy, program and facility improvements. Establishing an effective assessment system is only the beginning of this process. Incessant testing and statistical analysis should be built into the assessment strategy to ensure the best possible metrics and methods are implemented. Surveys are intended to evolve over time so schools can ensure they are doing everything they can to better meet their students’ needs.
Patrick Quinn is a content writer of Great Place to Study, a global auditing and intelligence firm that classifies and recognises institutes on the basis of student engagement