Module evaluation can be more than a tick box exercise

David Cousens explains how a module evaluation review at the University of Northampton led to finding ways to make change in response to students' feedback

David Cousens is Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Health, Education and Society at the University of Northampton

There is no doubt that student evaluation of teaching divides opinion. There is however consensus about one area; the feedback loop remains stubbornly difficult to close. Why this is the case is multi-faceted but, I think, can begin to be resolved by concentrating on a few areas: relationships, listening, and ownership.

“It’s just a tick box exercise” is a phrase uttered by both students and academics when they discuss module evaluations. Students rarely can identify anything that has happened because of their feedback, and response rates are poor. Academics often say that the surveys don’t ask the right questions and are completed too late in the cycle to impact those students who have completed them.

Some academics also question their role in the process, it is often passive; they have no ownership over the questions asked and the lack of any dialogue does little to develop staff and student relationships – where is there actually the opportunity to talk?

Debbie McVitty wrote that, done properly, feedback is the breakfast of champions, helping to sharpen our thinking and moderate our perspective, but that the module evaluation process in many institutions is flawed – we ask questions but don’t listen and act upon the responses. This is why we have been reviewing the process at the University of Northampton.

Ownership, listening and relationships

Tasked with making the process more impactful for academics and students a focus group was set up to review the current system and pilot a revised approach. The group, with representation from across the university, including the students’ union, quickly concluded that our centrally administered system could be improved. To do this we focused on empowering academics and enabling changes that would improve the taught experience of the students based on their feedback at a time when it would make a difference.

We decided that module teams should compose their own approach to module monitoring, as long as it worked within our guiding principles. These are that the module monitoring approach will:

  1. Enable appropriate changes to modules to be made because of cohort feedback while the module is still running.
  2. Facilitate dialogue between students and staff.
  3. Benefit the student experience by increasing the value to students of them providing feedback
  4. Increase the ownership of module leaders and the wider programme team in the process.
  5. Inform programme/subject leaders and wider university services and be a key part of the annual programme evaluation process

Using these principles a range of approaches were developed by academics including group discussions and the use of Google forms leading to further discussion with class representatives, among others. One particular quandary was how we capture the student voice from the range of approaches used to then inform programme teams and the wider university about areas of strength and themes that need attention. The decision, proposed by the pilot group, was to complete a simple form that feeds into our programme-level student voice meetings and is posted onto the student’s online module learning site.

Overall, the revised approaches were found to improve the value and ownership of the process, the feedback loop started to be closed that little bit more and the university decided to move to this model from our existing end of module approach.

This approach will only work with buy-in from academic teams and the students; its success is predicated by their ownership. Central communications have been sent, a support blog developed and examples shared, but the proof will be in the adoption over the coming years.

As we start a new academic year we are shifting our practice, driven by the desire to empower academics, better listen to students, respond to their voice and develop stronger staff student relationships along the way. It is not quite yet the feedback equivalent of the breakfast of champions but it’s a start.

3 responses to “Module evaluation can be more than a tick box exercise

  1. An interesting article, but predicated on the common – but in our experience flawed – assumption that module feedback bears exclusively upon the academic domain.

    We find that in many module evaluations, student feedback on the academic content and delivery is drowned out by complaints about estates, timetabling and AV issues (e.g. condition or inappropriate nature of rooms, unreliability of the automated lecture capture system), which are outside the control even of our department’s academic leadership. Lecturers frequently find themselves having to formally “respond” to complaints about which they themselves have been complaining without effect all term. And the central units with the power to address the issues take the view that student satisfaction at module level is purely a matter for academics.

    I’d really like to hear if anyone has found a model which successfully integrates central university services into the “feedback loop” at module level.

    1. Yes, however module feedback can be a handy opportunity for subversion. If students complain about something central that you agree with their complaint about, agree heartily with students in your response to their feedback, promise to use the fact they have complained when the topic next comes up in a meeting, and report back to your students afterwards. That way you can utilise the fact that management don’t care much what staff think, but might be more likely to listen to the ‘customers’. Even in the event that your manager still doesn’t listen to you – or can’t do anything about the problem without their manager’s manager’s manager’s manager’s permission – by demonstrating that you are on the same page as students in relation to the issue concerned, you have kept the students on your side, which is key to handling student feedback.

  2. Have I understood this correctly? Did management need a focus group to tell them that lecturers might be capable of a dialogue with their own students without being told exactly what words to use in doing so by managers who don’t teach actual students? And they then talk about ’empowering’ lecturers, whilst telling them what to do in a slightly different way? In reality lecturers are deeply disempowered by endlessly being micromanaged like this, and never being allowed to keep the same processes from one year to the next. ‘Ownership’, ‘buy-in’, ‘feedback loop’ – it’s like a roll-call of the most meaningless management-speak used to disguise the way that both lecturers and students have become excluded and alienated from university power structures. Sorry, but I will never ‘buy in’ to this.

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