In the loop: getting the most out of feedback

uos_cmykAs part of SPEAQ, the 9 partners in European HEIs are developing initiatives to improve quality practice and culture within HE institutions. The initiative that we have chosen at the University of Southampton addresses feedback issues, which were raised in the first phase of the project by students, academic staff and quality staff. We have been developing online resources, which we will present to University of Southampton staff and students in the autumn through an interactive workshop.

We have chosen to approach issues of feedback in practical, clear and meaningful ways, and to achieve this, we will:

• Examine current methods for giving and receiving student feedback at the university (illustrated by case studies of what is already being done successfully by some teachers, quality managers and students);

• Provide activities which encourage reflection on how staff and students can improve the ways in which feedback is delivered, received, and reported;

• Provide clear explanations of quality assurance processes and mechanisms at the University and how these relate to the feedback given and received by student.

We have recently interviewed two dedicated members of staff: Bella Millet, Professor of Medieval Literature, who recently received an award for ‘student feedback’ at the Student Excellence Awards, and Simon Kemp, Principal Teaching Fellow, whose work was recognised through the award of a National Teaching Fellowship in 2010. Simon is also currently the national Academic Lead in Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) at the Higher Education Academy. Bella and Simon both highlighted the need for teachers to know their students in order to give meaningful feedback. Both also emphasised the value in giving verbal feedback to students which gives teachers a chance to explain their comments better and ensure that they are understood by students in the way they were intended. The full interviews will be available online soon.

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Moving on and, hopefully, expanding in Cluj, Romania

Cluj univWith a view to disseminate, and possibly replicate the SPEAQ student mentoring project within the Faculty of Letters, we organized a meeting with a group of first year students from other departments of the faculty, on April 11th, 2013. They belonged to specializations with different numbers of students, ranging from a dozen to more than a hundred, which would enable them to test their organization skills and the feasibility of such a project at micro and macro level.

The main topics we tackled were the following:

  • an overview of the SPEAQ project, including the SPEAQ blog;
  • the presentation of the peer-to-peer mentoring programme within the Applied Modern Languages Department, as piloted during this past academic year;
  • a debate concerning their first week at the faculty, as seen in retrospect, focusing on what would have made their life easier if some particular issues had been addressed, in due time, with the help of peer mentors;
  • a list of the things they wished they had known before and during the winter exam period, with a view to adapting the information provided by the student mentors to the different stages of the university year.

As the discussion unfolded, they were asked to fill in their requests in an imaginary first-week-timetable. This brainstorming session revealed an ideal “getting acquainted with the faculty” timetable, one of whose versions could look as follows:

Monday A crash course in topography, so that the faculty should be less of a “terra incognita”
Tuesday Reading the timetable – why are the weeks called “odd” and “even”?
Wednesday Where do I belong? Are practical course groups formed according to some alphabetical order criterion?
Thursday How do I join and access the faculty libraries?
Friday What are the credits and the contracts? How do I apply for a scholarship?

The clearest signs that these students found the initiative useful and are eager to put into practice a peer-to-peer mentoring programme in their respective departments were the detailed questions they asked regarding the impediments we had faced and the fact that they shared the idea with their own teachers the very next day. We would be happy to witness an “upgraded” version of our initiative following next autumn.

Iulia Bobaila,
Assistant Lecturer, Babeş-Bolyai University

Where has this year gone?

Workshops

The workshop has been developed by two of the partners (Universities of Jyväskylä & Deusto) and run in a number of different trial versions which have fed into a final version which will be run at the European Quality Assurance Forum conference in Estonia in November 2012. Following this a final version will be translated and uploaded to the SPEAQ website. These workshops have been very interactive and have proven to be a useful way of encouraging discussion among staff and/or students.

Data collection

To date the project has completed an initial data collection exercise through a series of student focus groups (facilitated by the European Students Union), meetings with institutional quality managers in the partner institutions and discussions with subject teachers in a range of disciplines, using a set of questions devised by the project team.

Synthesis reports

Three synthesis reports, summarising the results from all partners, have been prepared and some key emerging themes have been identified: a need for better communication around quality issues, improvements in the collection and use of feedback, more engagement of students in quality enhancement, increased opportunities for sharing good practice, professional development for teachers, applied learning (including employability), balancing teaching with research agendas, sharing and collaborating with others outside the institution. It has been encouraging to see that some of the core aims of this project are reflected in this data, these being to connect the three quality circles and to give voice to the views of all stakeholders in the quality process.

Meeting in Innsbruck

All the SPEAQ partners met in Innsbruck, Austria, for our second project meeting. It was a very productive encounter which generated lots of great ideas. Partners were able to exchange views and tips on activities that had already taken place, which proved crucial for the continuation of the project. And thanks to our Austrian partner’s brilliant organisation, we were even able to enjoy some of the delights that the Austrian city has to offer.

Conferences

Three presentations about the project have already been given at international conferences (Belgrade, Istanbul, Cluj-Napoca) with two more scheduled in November 2012 (Tallinn, Malta). Once the project activities have been completed and the results of the institutional projects evaluated an academic article will be written and submitted to an international journal.

Course teams: Do you feel engaged in the quality process?

Each partner has been making contact with colleagues teaching in a range of disciplines in order to collect views on quality from academics and to gain insights into whether the LanQua quality model is relevant to other disciplines. The course team meetings were particularly useful in exploring the ways in which academics did, or did not, feel engaged with the quality process and to gain insights into how they collected and responded to student feedback. A full list of questions is available from the SPEAQ website, some samples of which are listed below:

  • What in your opinion are the elements of a good course?
  • How do you feel you are supported in your teaching development? How do you think the institution supports teaching and learning?
  • What do you think you do well in your department that other departments can learn from?
  • Is quality a daily matter for you or something which occurs only sporadically?

Unsurprisingly the teachers comments were closely related to pedagogy, ensuring that courses were fit for purpose and teaching was engaging and up-to-date. There was concern relating to the perceived lack of reward for teaching (an overemphasis on research or administration) and lack of student motivation. The need for professional development in order to keep up with new developments in technology and pedagogy was mentioned, as well as the need for more discussion about quality of learning and teaching, such as in the sharing of good practice and peer-observation. The institutions involved are all engaging with international quality assurance requirements, so there was agreement on many of the issues recognised as important for the objective quality of a study programme, department or institution, e.g. student teacher ratios, number of qualified staff, structured and coherent programmes, adequate QA mechanisms, student involvement, employability rates, success and drop-out rates etc. There was also considerable commonality regarding teachers’ perceptions of what would ensure a better quality learning experience. This included:

  • attracting better prepared and more motivated students
  • providing structured learning environments tailored to the needs of groups of students
  • giving value to teaching and teachers
  • using feedback from quality assurance constructively
  • organising resources in such a way as to enable teamwork, dialogue and discussion involving teachers and students

Students: Do you have a voice within your university?

The student focus groups consisted of small group meetings led either by a student member of the European Students Union or by a staff member (where a student was not available). Participants were invited to respond to a number of questions relating to their learning experience, their understanding of the concept of quality in higher education and their influence (voice) in the quality process. The set of questions used with students was designed to encourage positive comments rather than complaints and a full list of questions is available on the SPEAQ website, some examples of which are given below:

  • What is the most rewarding learning experience you have had on your programme/course and why?
  • What makes your experience as a student a valuable one?
  • Do you have a voice within your university? Are you listened to? If so, how is your opinion heard/acted upon? Where is your voice heard? By whom?
  • What can you contribute to enhancing the learning experience?
  • Who are the quality managers in your institution?

Each partner submitted a summary of the main outcomes of their student focus group to the European Students Union which has produced a draft summary report of the key findings from each of the focus groups.

In all focus groups, communication is identified as an important element of a good institution. However, according to the participants in the discussions, communication is the most common problem. Students require better communication teacher-to-teacher, teacher-to-student, student-to-student, student-to-teacher, student-to-administration through regular meetings, round table discussions etc. In addition to communication, students are looking for an opportunity to apply their learning.

In terms of their understanding of the quality processes within their institutions it was found that in general students do not know who the quality managers in their institutions are and there is considerable variation in the effectiveness of class representatives and students.

Finally, when asked about quality enhancement students appear to have ideas about how the learning process could be enhanced, but are not so creative when it comes to their personal involvement. 

The SPEAQ workshop: what does quality mean to you?

The workshop has been developed by two of the partners and run in a number of different trial versions which have fed into a draft version which will be run at the European Quality Assurance Forum conference in Estonia in November 2012. Following this a final version will be translated and uploaded to the SPEAQ website.

These workshops have been very interactive and have proven to be a useful way of encouraging discussion among staff and/or students. Participants are encouraged to explore quality from a number of perspectives and in many cases discussions have continued beyond the time allotted for the activity. It has clearly stimulated thinking about quality and feedback has shown that participants appreciated being given the opportunity to explore quality in this way (from their own perspective) and responses from students have been particularly enthusiastic. Some students were surprised to be asked about what they contribute to quality as they more usually think of themselves as consumers (receivers of quality) rather than having a role to play within it. Other participants gave suggestions for the projects to be carried out in the second year. Some examples are: supporting students in their first year of study and improving end of module/course feedback questionnaires. The workshop uses a dialogue sheet to stimulate discussion.

The workshop uses a dialogue sheet to stimulate discussion. This tool provides a focus for discussion with participants being asked to consider what questions they might ask to evaluate the quality of a number of everyday items and services. They are then asked to reconsider their questions in the context of higher education and decide on a set of questions which are useful for the purpose of evaluating quality in education. They are then encouraged to think about which questions might relate to their own experiences as student, teacher or administrator and discuss how they might answer them from their own perspective. This helps to relativise quality and to show that all participants have a role to play in quality assurance (and enhancement) and how similar or different these roles might be. As this workshop was quite experimental and was delivered in contexts (countries) with different working practices the way in which the dialogue sheet was used was adapted by each partner. The final workshop will try to take account of these differences and allow for adaptations.

Welcome to the SPEAQ project!

SPEAQ stands for ‘Sharing Practice in Enhancing and Assuring Quality.’ We are a team of partners from various universities across Europe who have been funded by the European Commission to address issues related to quality assurance. Our project team is:

Alison Dickens (director), Laurence Georgin (manager), John Canning (adviser) and Sue Nash (administrator) at LLAS Centre for languages, linguistics and area studies

and partners: Anca Greere (Babes-Bolyai University), Ole Helmersen (Copenhagen Business School), Mariluz Suárez Castiñeira (Deusto University), Christine Lechner (Innsbruck University), Fiona Crozier (QAA England), Klára Szabó (Szeged University), Natalia Tarachiu and Allan Päll (the European Students’ Union),Gillian Moreira (University of Aveiro), Anne Räsänen (University of Jyväskylä) and Kate Riley (University of Trento).

Under the Lifelong Learning Programme, we have been funded to:

connect three key quality circles: teacher, student and quality manager in order to share and enhance quality assurance practice in higher education. This project sets out to address a real concern that quality assurance can become ritualised rather than embedded in learning and teaching practice. The outcomes from this project will seed new ideas on how to approach quality assurance within the institution providing evidence of how bringing together stakeholders in the quality process can lead to a wider and more meaningful interpretation of quality assurance. It will collect data on different stakeholder perspectives on quality assurance and undertake small projects at institutional level which will explore ways in which a more shared vision of quality assurance can be fostered at institutional and disciplinary level. SPEAQ will be building on the work of the LanQua (Language Network for Quality Assurance) which explored issues of quality in the context of the discipline of languages. It developed a toolkit (The LanQua Toolkit) to support frontline (academic/academic support) staff in conceptualising and describing quality from their practice perspective.

So over the next 19 months, we are going to set up interactive workshops to facilitate discussion between teachers, quality managers and students, collect data on stakeholder views of quality assurance and enhancement, disseminate the project outcomes and more.

To find out more, keep reading our posts!