In recent weeks, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time discussing student satisfaction. In the British system, this somewhat nebulous concept has acquired a central position, as part of the wider marketisation of higher education. Most obviously, we survey graduating students about various aspects of their degree courses (teaching quality, support, resources, etc.), which gets turned into league tables (and, by extension, key performance indicators). However, we’re also interested in student input into programme reviews as a means of evaluating the quality of provision.
This is not the time or place to discuss the wider implications of such a development, but merely to consider some of the ways in which we engage with students. One of the more consistent messages that we get from students is that what they think they get isn’t what we think we give them. In one memorable instance some years ago, I talked with a programme team about all the various formal and informal mechanisms they had for managing a joint honours degree, only to have that followed by a group of students from that same degree tell me they thought the two departments involved never talked to each other about it.
As political scientists, we have a huge advantage over other disciplines in that we understand – as a basic of political life – that the subjective perception is as important as the objective reality (‘reality’, if you want to be picky): politics is as much about image as substance. And yet we don’t always take that back into the classroom.
If we did, then we might draw two lessons.
Firstly, we have to be very clear and transparent about what we do. The classic instance here is feedback. Students never feel that they get enough feedback, even if they can’t actually define what ‘feedback’ is. Therefore, we might do well to flag any and all instances of feedback to students. And that might be as simple as saying “I am now going to give you some feedback” whenever do it, or using a standard form (or set of forms) to give feedback.
In part, this is about drawing attention to what we do, but it is also about reflecting and framing the use of terms that students typically only get asked about at survey-time. By providing mental hooks, we can help remind students that we do actually work in helping them.
And this leads to the second lesson. We have to be more pushy.
All too often, I have seen examples of colleagues working very hard to provide a high quality educational opportunities to students, but framed in a model of “if we build it, they will come.” Individuals will lavish time and effort helping students who come to see them with problems, but only those who come.
Now it may be that some readers have highly motivated student bodies, who endlessly push for things, but in my experience it is much more common that most students are content with bumbling along, without particular needs or problems and who – as a result – don’t experience all that is on offer. If I’m frank about it, I was one of those students when I was at university, even if I don’t appreciate that at the time.
Instead, we need to think about how we can put ourselves in the way of students. That might mean chasing up students to have regular tutorial meetings, or requiring them to put together study plans for the year, or staging interventions in the event of failing a piece of assessment. It might even be about creating social opportunities to help build and support a community within the teaching unit.
To make an analogy, think back to when you last started a new job. You found some things out for yourself, but you also had someone come by your desk/office and offer to show you around and introduce you. You’ll remember how much more useful that was in allowing you to create a space within the organisation. And if you didn’t get it, think about how much simpler things would have been if you did.