Gathering feedback is a key element in internal quality assurance. However, “closing the feedback loop” requires acting on the data gathered and informing respondents about the subsequent actions taken. As EUA quality assurance expert Tia Loukkola explains, this should be part of the institutional quality assurance policy – especially in these exceptional times as we face Covid-19.
Collecting feedback from different stakeholders is a key part of any university’s internal quality assurance system. This was evident in the discussions of the EUA focus group organised in early February 2021 on the status of internal quality assurance within higher education institutions during the Covid-19 crisis. The participants told of many institutional, national and European surveys, in particular after the initial crisis stage, that aimed to collect feedback from students and staff. Some remarked that the number of surveys may have been so large that it led to survey fatigue - meaning lower-than-expected response rates.
Low response rates due to lack of motivation is often noted as a persistent and global challenge related to surveys. This is the case especially with student feedback as the actions taken based on the feedback usually benefit the next cohort of students, not those providing the feedback – unless they are in the unfortunate situation of having to repeat the course. In terms of motivating people to provide feedback, there is plenty of evidence that supports informing respondents about why the feedback matters, that it is taken seriously by university or study programme management and that it leads to change. Therefore, “closing the feedback loop” is frequently cited as a solution.
The Cambridge dictionary defines “feedback loop” as “a system for improving a product, process, etc. by collecting and reacting to users' comments.” In the context of quality assurance in higher education, this typically refers to various feedback surveys carried out among students, staff, employers and alumni to seek their views about courses, study programmes or any other institutional activity, and reacting to that feedback. In addition, closing the feedback loop subsequently requires acting on information received through these feedback mechanisms and, importantly, informing those who contributed to generating that information (respondents) about the actions taken (or not taken) based on their feedback.
How can this be done, in particular considering the turnover in the student population? As is often the case in quality assurance, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, some approaches worth considering come across in literature and in EUA’s work with its members: First, it is useful to carry out the student surveys mid-course, in order to adjust the course while it is ongoing and to explain this to the students. Second, it is important to explain, at the beginning of the course, what kind of feedback the last student cohort gave on the course and how it impacted the current course as a result.
A third approach is to involve students in reflections and decision making that follow the surveys. In this respect, the “Bologna With Student Eyes 2020” report, published by the European Students’ Union in January 2021, shows that there is room for improvement. The report highlights that the level and form of student involvement differs significantly from one institution or programme to another and it is difficult to generalise. However, a little less than half of the national student unions surveyed indicated that students are involved in internal quality assurance as full members with voting rights within the bodies of internal assessment processes (45.95%). Whereas about 19% of the unions indicated that students are only involved as a source of information.
Fourth, the importance of communicating about the actions taken based on the feedback received goes beyond an individual course and therefore should not be left up to individual staff members – rather it should be part of the institutional quality assurance policy. This is of utmost importance in these exceptional times as we face Covid-19, which have seen universities and their communities experimenting and trying new approaches. It is crucial that universities receive feedback on how effective these new ways of working are and that those surveyed know their feedback is considered, and that the lessons learnt lead to improvement.
Physical distancing makes the communication perhaps even more challenging than in “normal” times: How can we reach out to staff and students who are at home? Universities have shown their resilience and inventiveness over the past year, so there is reason to hope that as long as the importance of “closing the feedback loop” is recognised, this can be achieved as well.
“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.
All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.