From quality teaching to satisfaction

As UK universities get more fully into their new academic year, it’s also the time to dust down action plans for improving student satisfaction.

Predictable photo

I’ve discussed the National Student Survey (NSS) before here, but the key point is still that while this survey measures how satisfied students are, that isn’t the same as whether they have got a high quality educational experience.

To put it differently, the things that we might learn most from are not necessarily those which are most enjoyable, or even the most satisfactory.

In my own professional experience, I have taken a lot from unsatisfactory experiences that have generated frustration or annoyance and then (critically) self-reflection and thus improved practice.

This isn’t to say that education should be unsatisfactory, but rather to point up that there’s not a necessarily linear correlation between satisfaction and learning outcomes.

The problem is that satisfaction is easy to measure, and notwithstanding that everyone in the sector knows it’s not the same, it becomes a proxy for learning.

If we assume that just railing against the system isn’t going to work, we have instead to think about how we can work it to best effect (i.e. getting to a learning environment for our students that optimises learning outcomes).

Here, once again, the route has to be through sound pedagogic principles, rather than through targeting specific questions on the NSS list.

That doesn’t mean that timely feedback – to pick one obvious example – isn’t important, but rather that we should be framing it as important in supporting effective learning – as part of a wider system of dialogue and support with students – rather than just good-in-itself.

This matters because the NSS isn’t an exhaustive list of What Matters in Education. As instructors, we should be considering the totality of what our students encounter during their time with us.

Crucially, that means having an understanding of the relationships between different elements of that provisions and the trade-offs: increasing feedback might mean having fewer assessment points, which might compromise our ability to monitor understanding and progress, for example.

Moreover, it’s only be having such an overview that we will be able to effectively engage in the silent arm of student satisfaction: expectation management. If we don’t understand what we are trying to achieve, how can we hope to communicate that to our students?

In short, we all know that teaching to the test is A Bad Thing for our subject material, but it’s also true elsewhere too.