Supporting Students

It’s been a good week for us here in the School, as it was announced that we had the best student satisfaction ratings of any Politics programme in the UK. For those outside the UK, this is determined by a national survey (the NSS) of all students finishing their undergraduate studies, which asks them to evaluate a number of aspects of their courses. As you might imagine, we’re very proud of both our students and ourselves.

This then obviously begs a number of questions: what does that actually mean? how did this happen? does it really matter?

I have a number of problems with pursuing L&T through stats and surveys, which I’ll come to. The NSS is a less-than-perfect instrument, but it does have the advantage that it is driven by students’ inputs and provides an overview of their studies in a way that others do not. Coupled to a very high return (over 95% in our case this year), we can have broad confidence that the views expressed are representative of the cohort. Since the university doesn’t allow us to coach students in how to respond, we are also constrained in our ability to directly affect what’s said by them.

However, the basic fact remains that students are not statistical artifacts, but individual learners. As a School, we have always focused on this foundation for our L&T. While we are regularly set a range of statistical targets by the institution (which necessarily operates in aggregates), our job is to bring that into our local pedagogical and educational culture.

Thus, we have never explicitly targeted the NSS for improvement, but rather have worked to provide the best learning environment for our students. This means adapting to their needs where necessary (and possible), by being responsive to any issues or problems that arise, and by generally treating our students like people. In this we have the key advantage of being a relatively small unit, so we can reasonably get to know our students (and vice-versa), which is clearly much more difficult in a programme with hundreds of students each year. A culture that is target-driven risks loosing sight of the myriad hurdles that each student faces in their studies, which require specific and individual attention.

So does it matter what students say about us? The short answer is yes. It shows us and others that we have been able to build a programme that works for our students. However, we don’t teach to get good NSS results: we teach because we want to give our students the best set of opportunities that we can. For me, it was much more important to be able to talk to these same students at graduation in the summer and hear from them that they felt they have gained from their time with us. As my colleague says, doing the right thing brings its own rewards: we’re fortunate that in this case, it’s also brought other rewards too.