How to maintain Student Satisfaction

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The Psychology Department at Abertay University hit 97% of the overall Student Satisfaction Score!

How did they do it?

We had an opportunity to interview Clare Cunningham and Lynn Wright from Abertay University to discuss their recent impressive National Student Survey scores.

They shared their ideas of how to nurture a successful relationship with students, and how the feedback loop is a key part of keeping students happy. It’s a great interview full of best practices, so we hope you enjoy it.

Introducing our Interviewees

Clare Cunningham has been teaching at the university for fifteen years, and has been part of the Psychology department for six years. She used to be the programme tutor, and is now the division head.

Lynn Wright worked as a part-time teaching assistant whilst studying her PhD, and became full-time in 2005. She was a tutor for many years, and went on to become programme leader for the BSc Psychology programme.

What is it like working in your department?

Clare:  We’re a strong and stable group. We’ve only had one member of staff leave in the six years that I’ve been part of the team.

Because we’ve got that consistency we can develop initiatives and keep the students involved in the programme.

Having a close-knit team makes my job easier. We trust each other to keep an eye on what did and didn’t work in previous years, and can fix them for next time.

That level of consistency gives us confidence in our programme and in our staff.

How does this affect your team’s relationship with the students?

Lynn: I get to know almost all my students, and I think that goes for most of the staff here. There’s a good, human relationship there.

Clare: From a management viewpoint, we’ve always tried to involve our students in our programmes. We have a slightly smaller cohort, which gives us a lot more opportunity to involve them in the curriculum.

For example, our students get plenty of opportunities to have coffee with us on campus. It is an opportunity for them to chat with us in a casual setting. Since the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve had to move these informal chats online, but they still work!

What feedback opportunities do you offer students?

Clare:  We take these informal chats as a form of feedback, and they allow our students to confide in us with any issues they’re having.

As a programme, we send out our surveys during week nine of the academic year so we can react to feedback before the end of the module.

The university has its own formal feedback system that includes student surveys at the end of each module.

Students also have access to the Student Voice Forum. Chosen representatives speak on behalf of all students to discuss ongoing issues and to provide feedback on a macro scale.

How do you respond to negative feedback or other difficult conversations?

Clare: We take a very honest approach with our students to avoid false expectations. If they raise a challenging issue, we will have an upfront conversation to let them know it may be difficult to sort out.

Sometimes things can’t be changed, and we communicate that with transparency. We show them respect as adults by being honest.

These conversations give us an opportunity to find a more immediate way to help a student, even if it may not be as effective.

Do students get a say on what they will learn?

Lynn: We give our students a lot of choice in this programme, which gives us insight into what they value in their learning. We have what’s called “Project Proposal speed dating” in third year. The students spend a short time with different members of staff pitching and discussing their ideas.

We also give students a chance to pick their own supervisor for their fourth year studies. They give us their three preferred choices of supervisor, and we endeavour to pair them as such.

How about on a more individual basis?

Lynn: We ask students to vote on how useful they would find certain workshops. These are sent out via email and most students put their voice forward, so we get a good response rate.

Sometimes we will omit something we ran in a previous year because the cohort tells us that they won’t find it interesting or useful. It gives us a chance to include material that is tailored towards students.

For example, in the last two years, there was a lot of feedback asking for mental health workshops, so we added those into the curriculum.

How was student satisfaction affected by the Covid-19 crisis?

Lynn: We always give a massive amount of support to our students, and have made ourselves as available as we can.

We moved to virtual teaching in March and were quick to give reassurance and to meet the needs of our students. We got immediate feedback that they felt supported by us.

Clare: I have a very good team of staff here, and they sincerely care about and invest in the students. The only question was, what can we do to support them during this difficult time?

I don’t think you can overstate how important it is to build that type of culture of support in a department. That’s what gets good student satisfaction ratings. Without it, you can put all sorts of initiatives in place, but if nobody’s behind it, it’s not going to make any difference.

Tell us about “closing the feedback loop”

Clare: This is something we sort of created for ourselves and we found it really works.

The basic idea is that if a student comes to us with a problem, we not only have a responsibility to solve that problem, but we have to communicate that we solved it, too.

So when it comes to creating module handbooks for a new academic year, we include a section right at the beginning that says, “This is the feedback we got last year. And this is what we changed because of that feedback”.

It adds transparency. It builds that relationship from the beginning so that then when things aren’t working, we are able to nip it in the bud and use it as a platform for the next time a problem arises.

Finally, tell us something that makes you proud to work here

We received an accreditation from BPS a year ago, commending us on student involvement in the curation of the curriculum. This included a special mention of the relationship between staff and students. That was a great moment for us.

We hope that the story and the insights shared by Claire and Lynn will be insightful and inspiring for other higher education professionals in the sector.

There are a couple of key takeaways we can gather from this conversation that helped to maintain Student Satisfaction so high:

  • Collect feedback throughout the year, not just at the end of modules/courses. 
  • Use extracurricular activities for informal feedback.
  • Develop a relationship with students from day one.
  • Close the feedback loop quickly and publicly.

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