It is that that time of year again – when universities across the globe begin putting processes in place to ‘measure’ the pre-arrival and arrival experience of new students during the early weeks of the new academic year. It can cover everything from asking about the effectiveness of the enrolment process, to the ease of settling in to accommodation, to asking about student satisfaction with faculty activities in first week.
Gathering this information is important – it can inform the experience of future entrants. However, we can be so intent on ‘measuring’ aggregate experience during this key transition stage that we can lose sight of the need to understand individual students’ specific academic and employability expectations, aspirations, concerns and anxieties.
Surveying new students
The core business of a university and the primary activity for a student is learning – so it is perplexing that understanding the front-end of learning expectations is such a neglected practice across the sector. I have designed and undertaken numerous pre-arrival and entry to study questionnaires at undergraduate and postgraduate level over the years that have asked targeted questions about study – the most recent being for the HEFCE funded eleven university Postgraduate Student Experience Project. The findings from these have helped shape academic and support initiatives, strategy and policy – at course, faculty and institutional level.
Areas such questionnaires explore include
- How are they are used to studying?
- How do they expect to study at university?
- What do they understand by the term ‘feedback’ and how are they used to receiving it?
- What study concerns (if any) do they have?
- What do they see as their main study strengths?
- How are they used to being assessed and what is their preferred method of assessment?
- What skills do they hope to obtain and what do they wish to do after they graduate?
- What support do they feel would be helpful to them?
Including some biographical questions that may not be available or easily accessible on UCAS or postgraduate entry application forms such as generational status, commuting distance to university and route into study (e.g. clearing, work, prior study) helps identify any critical variables that could impact on the responses. Delivering the questionnaire as part of a course-based academic activity helps with engagement and completion – as does the promise that the anonymous findings will be fed back to them with support and advice in a timely manner.
What we can learn?
The benefits of obtaining this knowledge are plentiful for colleagues on the coal face. For the incoming student, asking appropriate and targeted questions can effectively kick start the university learning process and get students to reflect on prior and expected learning behaviour. This can be especially helpful after a long summer vacation or lengthy break from study.
Some may argue that asking about student expected outcomes on entry is too early, but with employability outcomes high on student, parent and university agendas (especially now with recent TEF announcements), it is essential to start understanding those expectations and managing them more effectively throughout the student lifecycle – whether that is through continually improving and adapting what we do (and letting them know about it and show them the change) or correcting expectation misconceptions.
The findings can also help students a few weeks in when some experience a wobble and start questioning whether university is right for them. By putting the anonymised headline findings into a self-help sheet that highlights some of the anxiety levels and concerns of new students along with signposting to relevant support services to help reduce them, not only provides targeted and practical advice for this specific cohort but it helps entrants realise that they may not be alone in feeling worried or concerned. Importantly, they can see that their responses are being used for their learning benefit and not merely to improve university processes.
For the department or faculty, the findings can enable course leaders and academic advisors to be proactive in identifying and bridging any concerns about study skills and skill gaps. Central services providing learning support can use the information to effectively tailor their provision based on identified student needs. For example, this can include dedicated support or early intervention mechanisms for mature or BTEC students.
Ensuring that these questionnaires obtain ethics committee approval means that the findings can also be used externally. The most obvious benefit is for academics and central colleagues such as marketers wishing to produce conference and journal papers. For the institution, using the same instrument across different disciplines and departments can provide an awareness of the common issues facing students, provide clarity on learning barriers and help identify and spread good institutional practice. For example, by understanding incoming students’ perceptions of how they are expecting to learn enables marketing departments to provide targeted course advice in their literature to help correct any misunderstandings of what is expected. This helps manage expectations and in turn satisfaction levels.
A national survey
If these types of pre-arrival and entry questionnaires were undertaken nationally like the National Student Survey (NSS) and the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES), results could inform policymaking at a national level. For example, universities could compare their pre-entry/entry expectations data with their NSS/PTES results. This would enable institutions to understand how their interaction with students and the development of targeted support initiatives have had an impact on the student experience on entry through to completion. From a funding body perspective, a national survey is likely to highlight the difference between institutions who engage and make change based on the findings and those who don’t. This could be powerful mechanism to encourage change.
Post-graduate TEF has gone very quiet, but if it is implemented for taught postgraduates, national pre-entry data could prove immensely helpful. In the absence of a compulsory postgraduate UCAS system, it could help provide critical information to support the growing discussion concerning what constitutes widening participation at postgraduate level and how it can be supported. Being able to identify any differences between prior study experiences and current expectations by type of university; mode of study; funding regime; social class; generational status; and domicile and discipline differences can only support the aim of institutions and government to expand postgraduate participation.
If we understand the expectations, concerns and anxieties of incoming students at the front end of their study then we are better placed to improve not only their overall student experience, but student retention, progression and attainment. The Higher Education Academy runs various conferences and courses on experience surveys that are useful and beneficial. However, it is time for the sector to move beyond change based on outcome experience and move towards change based on expectations.