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How can universities improve student satisfaction?

Student satisfaction has hit an all-time low and universities are trying to work out how best to respond. Maintaining elements of online learning may bring some academic benefits, but risks harming student welfare further.

University teaching has been decried as one of the slowest to adapt, least digitised and most people-intensive sectors of the economy. Writing in 2003, Derek Bok – the former president of Harvard University – argued that unlike almost all commercial products, college teaching has remained much the same as it was 50 years ago. The failure to innovate has arguably contributed to the soaring cost of education.

Economists would tend to say that high costs and stagnant productivity are symptoms of universities’ affliction with Baumol’s cost disease – a chronic condition long before Covid-19 emerged. More efficient ways of producing goods lead to higher wages for workers. William Baumol explained in the 1960s that this puts upward pressure on wages in labour-intensive services too – teaching, for example – despite little scope for productivity improvements. In theory, calculus cannot be taught any faster (or more efficiently) today.

Or so it was thought. Against this backdrop, active learning – centred on the student rather than the lecturer and involving much greater participation rather than just listening – was growing in prominence before the pandemic.

In the university context, a common example is what is known as flipped learning. Material that would usually be taught in a lecture theatre is made available online before a class (it can be accessed by students asynchronously) and then in-person teaching time is devoted to problem-solving and debate.

Evidence gathered before the pandemic demonstrated that students using active learning performed better in exams, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Freeman et al, 2014). Active learning had also been implemented in a blended environment (a mixture of online and in-person teaching) with no reduction in student performance (Olitsky and Cosgrove, 2016).

Crucially though, the increased cognitive effort during active learning is found to be unpleasant and often students’ stated preference is for passive lectures (Deslauriers et al, 2019). Entrenched student and staff attitudes help to explain the lack of fundamental change before the Covid-19 shock.

What happened during the pandemic?

The shift to remote learning during the pandemic took universities by surprise. The pre-pandemic promise of active, face-to-face learning combined with technology was not possible. Staff and students were forced to adapt rapidly under great uncertainty.

Some took the transition in their stride. Research shows that third year students and those who attended private schools express a stronger preference for online learning (Neves and Hewitt, 2021). First years and state school students are less enthusiastic.

The same study finds that nearly 30% of first years had a worse than expected experience, with the primary reason being too little in-person interaction with other students. Pre-recorded material and awkward Zoom breakout rooms took their toll on both learning and mental health.

Inferior remote learning should be viewed as a deviation from the trend towards more active learning that was building momentum before the pandemic, at a time when student satisfaction was rising.

Satisfaction with course quality overall fell eight percentage points to a record low of 75% in this year’s National Student Survey (NSS). Run by the Office for Students, this survey of over 300,000 final year undergraduates is used by both universities to improve student experience and prospective students to compare institutions. Satisfaction is not a perfect measure, but a break in the time series of the largest and longest-running survey of students in the UK is significant.

Figure 1 shows that only 27% of students in the Student Academic Experience Survey (SAES) thought their course was good value-for-money this year. 10,000 students across all undergraduate year groups respond to this survey, which focuses on student engagement rather than course performance. This is the lowest score ever recorded and down nearly half on the score from 2012 (when £9,000 tuition fees were introduced). Perceptions that university courses are poor value have never previously been higher than those of good value.

Figure 1: Value for money of your present course

Source: SAES 2021

The 12 percentage point decrease in satisfaction with learning resources is the steepest drop in Figure 2 below. The fall was observed among almost all institutions in the NSS, but there was more variation at course level. Journalism, geography and performing arts were some of the courses that experienced the largest falls (14-16 percentage points), while learning resource satisfaction in veterinary science, medicine and dentistry declined by only six percentage points.

Figure 2: Student satisfaction scores 2017 to 2021

Source: NSS 2021

This parallels findings in the SAES. Encouragingly, overall, two-thirds of students were satisfied with the use of educational technology and only 8% were dissatisfied (a quarter were neutral). But breaking it down by course type; vets, dentists and medics were the most satisfied, while subjects classified as arts and humanities were the least.

These results suggest a straightforward association between contact intensity and satisfaction. Health sciences had the most contact hours pre-pandemic and, as practical subjects, were also allowed to return to in-person teaching on 8 March 2021. Most other courses returned on 17 May, which in many cases was after the assessment period had already begun.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation spreading the £9,250 tuition fee across total hours timetabled shows, for example, that students on ten contact hours per week courses are paying over £40 per hour. The loss of each hour due to the pandemic is subjectively larger for students that know contact is already a scarce resource.

What’s more, not all contact hours are created equally. The loss of specific field trips and study abroad opportunities for geography and language students has been particularly frustrating. Likewise, students studying humanities losing what may be their only hour a week in a small-group seminar has left many deeply dissatisfied.

Despite learning technology being accepted as an unavoidable necessity in an unexpected year, many students have not been convinced by the experiment. When asked what the preferred method of teaching would be with no pandemic restrictions, 57% of SAES respondents were in favour of mostly in-person teaching. 31% preferred a blended approach and only 12% wanted mostly online.

These stated preferences match up with the fact that even before the pandemic, recordings of lectures being posted online led to a drop in physical attendance (Morris et al, 2019). The significant minority in favour of a blended approach also shows the potential for active learning to be combined with online technology once some semblance of normality has been restored next term.

What could be done in the coming academic year?

Blended learning will automatically be better next year when students can speak freely to each other rather than through layers of masks and visors. What cannot be taken for granted is that the fall in student community and mental health will rebound. Only 41.9% of NSS respondents agreed that sufficient steps were taken to support their mental wellbeing this year. In the SAES, just under one in three had considered leaving their course, with 34% of those identifying mental health as the reason why.

Studies of active, flipped and blended learning emphasise the social interaction of this non-traditional learning style, but the much-maligned large lecture may still have a role to play in at least adding spontaneous social interaction to a day. The Russell Group of research universities has released plans for a catch-up platform called Jumpstart University to help bridge the gap for incoming university students – the irony being that this is another online resource with no real-world interaction.

The findings of the 2021 NSS and SAES cannot be dismissed as a one-off. While the scale of the disruption and unique pandemic restrictions on life are unlikely to be repeated, ‘[it] is becoming crystal clear that we are in the middle of a seismic shift in education’ – in the words of a university vice-chancellor in May 2021.

Although the majority of students would like to return to mostly in-person teaching, the reality is that the some elements of online provision are here to stay as part of a blended learning package, regardless of the future path of the virus.

Understanding the dissatisfaction with remote learning that has emerged over the last year, independent of the pandemic, is key to improving the experience of future cohorts. Student community and mental health have particularly suffered this year – in excess of wider downward population trends. It is vital that this decline is reversed. The potential paradox of the 2021/22 year is that blended learning done badly could make students feel more isolated and lonely, at a time when there have never been more potential classmates.

Universities that are too focused on iterating their online teaching methods to achieve better learning performance may overlook a basic fact. Less socialisation this year has worsened mental health. Poor mental health is associated with weaker academic attainment (Bruffaerts et al, 2018). The most effective method for improving education outcomes and wellbeing might just be to allow students to meet their friends in the lecture theatre once again.

Where can I find out more?

  • The Student Academic Experience Survey 2021 report: Results and analysis of the survey of 10,000 students across undergraduate year groups between February and March 2021 by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) thinktank and AdvanceHE charity.
  • National Student Survey 2021 Insight brief: Summarised findings of the survey covering 300,000 final year students between January and April 2021 by the Office for Students.
  • What can we see in the 2021 National Student Survey: Data piece on the WonkHE blog drilling down into the details of this year’s survey.
  • The Future of Higher Education after COVID: HEPI blog by director Nick Hillman on the challenges facing universities following the pandemic.

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Author: Ben Pimley
Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash
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