Listening to what students say in the national student survey

Kathy Seymour and Stuart Grey's analysis of NSS free text comments suggests better communication would go a long way to addressing many student concerns

Kathy Seymour is an independent researcher and evaluator

Stuart Grey is the founder of, a university spinout focused on using machine learning approaches to analyse student feedback

The National Student Survey (NSS) asks one open-ended question requiring a free text answer:

Looking back on the experience, are there any particularly positive or negative aspects of your course you would like to highlight?

The comments in response to this question provide rich data and can shed light on the context around some of the results seen in the responses to the NSS rating questions. But what issues are students most likely to complain about in these comments, and what, if anything, can higher education providers do about this?

Based on our categorisation and analysis of the 2023 NSS comments from institutions from all four nations of the UK, representing tens of thousands of students, key areas attracting more strongly negative views than other areas were issues around organisation and management, assessment and feedback, and issues specific to events and contexts over the duration of these final year students’ experiences, in particular the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic (especially remote learning), industrial action and potentially the cost of living as an influential factor in perceptions of the cost of and value for money of their course represents.

Themes within themes

It would be easy to dismiss this by saying that we can’t change these things. Assessment and feedback, for example, are never likely to garner highly positive comments. They’re inherently an unpopular element of the student experience, but a high-stakes one; if this is done badly or perceived negatively, it can have a huge impact on students’ performance and outcomes, as well as their opinions.

But when you look deeper into these issues, there are underlying themes that institutions can address that do have the potential to reduce negativity. Most significantly, many of the issues could be minimised with better communication and/or a more flexible approach to the student experience more generally, which recognises the increasing diversity of needs and expectations among today’s undergraduates.

Within the “organisation and management” theme, negative NSS 2023 comments on the topics: “communications about the course and teaching”, “organisation and management of the course”, “scheduling/timetabling” and “workload” all elicited above average negative sentiment scores and below average positive sentiment scores. Many of the concerns students expressed on these topics were rooted in poor communications.

For example, last minute or inconsistent (in terms of methods and message) communication of changes to the course, teaching or timetables. As well as an apparent need for staff to communicate better with students, there were suggestions that poor communication between staff members was often the cause of heavy or uneven workloads due to clustered or clashing deadlines since they often seemed to fail to coordinate deadlines between them so ensure a more even distribution.

Fitting it all in

A perceived lack of flexibility underpinned some of these comments, with students often indicating that groups such as commuting students, those on degree apprenticeships, those taking part-time courses or courses requiring placement periods often feel that their course is organised and managed with a one size fits all approach, prioritising the needs of the traditional full-time, on-campus, purely academic based courses and students in mind.

Evidence of this was in the large number of requests for timetables to be better organised (usually requests for sessions to be less spread out across the days / weeks to allow for more efficient use of time, less commuting, allowing for outside commitments to be scheduled in, etc.), or for scheduled teaching late in the day to be removed or minimised due to other commitments and travel difficulties for many students.

The topic within assessment and feedback which elicited the highest average negative sentiment score was “marking criteria”. NSS comments (and our own in-depth work with students in focus groups and other qualitative exercises) indicate that students might not be given the marking criteria, or are given them but not accompanied by an adequate explanation, or perceive them as unfair (usually because they haven’t been adequately explained!). This could be resolved by better communication of the marking criteria, in terms of making them easily available and providing accompanying explanations, but also in terms of writing them in accessible language.

Even among the many negative comments on topical issues such as the pandemic and industrial action, which might be shrugged off as “unavoidable” sources of negative perceptions, there was evidence that students accepted the events themselves were unavoidable, but that their grievance stemmed from their belief that the impact could have been minimised by clearer, more consistent and more timely communications.

Delivering higher education to a high standard and at scale is not always conducive to embedding flexibility, but – and this links nicely to the issue of communication – even when there are reasons why a more flexible or adaptive approach cannot be adopted to aspects of the student experience, students’ NSS comments frequently suggest that they would find this more acceptable if the reasons why this can’t be done are fully and transparently explained to them.

Many of the issues we see recurring in the NSS comments and in other work we do to explore the student experience could be avoided or minimised by better communication and a clear understanding (and implementation of this understanding) of the varying needs of different types of students and adopting reasonable levels of flexibility to adapt to these.

2 responses to “Listening to what students say in the national student survey

  1. …and it would also help if students read/accessed all of the information available to them. We seem to be in a perpetual trap now of students asking for more clarity and simultaneously complaining that they are overwhelmed by information – of course, it may be different parts of the cohort having these views rather than the same individuals. It is increasingly expected that programmes can provide a personal service but, nice though that would be, there isn’t the resource. So, how to provide all of the info without overwhelm – any solutions out there?

Leave a Reply