Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Student feedback - short and snappy?

Is collecting feedback from students becoming increasingly difficult when, in theory, you would expect it to be getting easier?  Due to the wide variety of online facilities that are available, it should be easier to reach students and gain their views.  You would think that with the technology available you would be able to use email, texting, QR codes, voting response systems to collect data from a large number of respondents quickly and easily. 
To a large extent this is true i.e. it is much easier to create surveys and questionnaires and distribute them through a variety of electronic channels to a large audience of potential participants.  It is very simple to collect the data / feedback / views and collate it and produce a report with colourful graphs - this takes one click!
But the problem is that surveys and questionnaires are so numerous and widespread that they are either ignored or filled in in a cursory fashion.  This is true in many areas, it is not just a student issue - everyday there are requests by email or via social media to complete a questionnaire.  These questionnaires are mostly valid and genuine requests as there is great pressure on organisations and institutions to collect feedback to inform changes and developments.  The customer voice or student voice is very important.
Therefore the dilemma is that there is increasing importance attached to the creation of questionnaires and the collection of the results but decreasing importance on the filling in and responding.
In our Learning Resources Department we have tried to use a variety of methods of collecting data through questionnaires and surveys. We have an annual questionnaire which covers library and e-learning issues and we disseminate it online through a link on Blackboard and have paper copies too if required.  We get a good response but it takes encouragement and persuasion.  Incentives and prizes don't make a lot of difference unless you offer something really expensive and also ethically I don't agree with giving prizes for such activities.
One of the most effective ways of collecting student views we have found is by either asking students one question and noting down the answer or by using cards - a bit like comment cards.  The important part is the face to face interaction - most of our students are very helpful and happy to respond.  The advantage is that if it is just one question then they don't feel like you are imposing on them or taking up their time. (In reality, once you've asked one question they are happy to discuss more).
Last year we used question cards to find out about Mobile Apps - 'What features should a College App Include?'
At the beginning of this month we used cards to ask students for their views about the Learning Resources Centre as a learning space.  This was prompted by the fact that there are going to be changes which will affect the Learning Resources space and we wanted to find out what students felt was important.  There were two separate cards and rather than tick boxes we left space for a comment. The questions were quite general but do match up with some of our targets and performance criteria.

We handed the cards out to students from the LRC counters and enquiry desks and encouraged students to fill them out there and then.  Over the period of two and a half days 311 cards were completed. The responses were excellent and very insightful.  Students were very co-operative and volunteered to fill in the cards and also to talk about why the LRC space was important to them.  They also mentioned that it was good to be able to write general comments rather than answering specific points.
I filtered out some common themes and how often they were mentioned:
Quiet space / no distractions 85Space / seats 32
Work independently / catch up with work 57
Books 62
Computers 79
Resources (general) 45
Research 26
Assignments 56
Access Internet 19
Only space / can't do at home 26

These themes were identified very quickly and we will do some more analysis of the results and pick out some examples of useful comments.  The encouraging thing is that students appreciate the learning space, that they want somewhere quiet (although their definition of quiet is somewhere not silent but with low level noise) and that they want computers and books and resources.
I appreciate that this is not necessarily a robust method for gathering data - it relies on face to face contact and our sample were users of the LRC but it is valuable and it is the 'student voice'.  The important point now is that we do analyse the responses, that we do consider them and that we do try to incorporate them into future developments.  This is where it becomes less easy - we now have to manually sift through the responses, we have to read them and collate results and type up the data and make a report etc.  The collection has become easier, the collation has become harder. 
A short and snappy survey has worked for us in this instance and has been really interesting - we will use it again but will also continue to use online questionnaires through our VLE and through student response systems.

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