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The league table season

24 October 2012

Vice-Provost (Education) Professor Anthony Smith discusses the lessons that can be learned from this year's NSS findings.

Professor Anthony Smith, UCL's Vice-Provost (Education)

At the same time as we welcome new and returning students to UCL, we receive this year’s batch of league table rankings. As the Provost reminded us recently in his Newsletter, these all need to be viewed with a healthy dose of circumspection, but we also need to understand the messages they deliver – whether welcome or unwelcome.

Definitely falling into the unwelcome category is the recent Sunday Times league table which saw UCL fall from seventh in the UK to 13th. This ranking is heavily weighted by students’ satisfaction with their university experience, which is captured in the annual National Student Survey (NSS), now in its seventh year. Publication of the NSS results usually precipitates the annual round of quibbling (much of it justified) – flawed methodology, it’s not possible to make meaningful comparisons because by definition students are only on one course, it’s not a surrogate for teaching quality etc etc – but nevertheless it is becoming increasingly influential and now forms part of the Key Information Set on the updated Unistats website.

First, a word about context: all undergraduate students in the final year of their degree programme at all UK universities are invited to participate in the NSS and it is completed between January and April each year. This year, 64% of our final-year undergraduate students participated in the NSS, the highest ever, for which much thanks to departmental NSS liaison contacts for your hard work. Overall, 85% of our students were satisfied with UCL; the range by individual programme was from a dispiriting 42% to a stellar 100%.

This 85% performance is a drop of three per cent and places us at the national average, ranking us 73rd= overall, 20th in the Russell Group and 15th in London. It also explains our fall in the Sunday Times survey.

Amongst the quibbling over NSS methodology also comes the question, does it matter? Setting aside concerns about the NSS methodology per se, students’ satisfaction with their experience at UCL absolutely does matter to all of us. The White Paper 2011-2021 commits us to the ambition of being in the top three of all UK institutions for all measures of education excellence, including retention, value added, student satisfaction and employability.

What lessons can we draw from this year’s NSS? The ‘free written’ comments help give context to the message of the numbers. It is clear that many students appreciate the excellence of the staff and the support they give, but it is equally clear that this is not yet a consistent picture across UCL or even within individual programmes. Assessment and feedback is our Achilles’ heel. Students write that they do not understand the criteria by which work is marked, many refer to the late return of work and even more comment that such feedback as they do receive is not helping their learning.

Where do we start to unpack this issue? Two points spring to mind. I think it starts with challenging ourselves over our approach to assessment. Custom and practice is not sufficient justification for maintenance of the status quo. If the assessment and any feedback from it is not helping students advance their learning then why do it? My second point relates to the demystification of assessment. How can we help students understand how work is assessed whilst steering clear of model answers which can drive rote learning?

One practical example that is both simple and yet extremely powerful comes from Dr Douglas Guilfoyle, Senior Lecturer in the Laws Faculty and winner of one of this year’s Provost’s Teaching Awards. Dr Guilfoyle asks his students to mark (appropriately anonymised) work submitted by the previous year’s students. In so doing, he is able to explain the rationale for the actual mark that had been awarded and students can compare this with their own assessment of the quality of the work. It struck all of us on the Awards Panel that this approach could be extremely useful across virtually all disciplines in UCL. Small interventions such as this one have the potential for real and long-lasting impact.

Finally I return to the issue of student satisfaction with their experience. With the emphasis on the recent publication of this year’s NSS results, attention has focused on the experience of undergraduate students. But what about our postgraduate students? Their satisfaction matters just as much and we must develop more sophisticated means to understand their satisfaction. The next wave of the Student Barometer – UCL’s means to measure the satisfaction of all students (UG, PGT and PGR) across all years with their experience – will be here soon and I would urge you to encourage your students to participate. I hear that a KIS for postgraduate taught students is likely to be proposed nationally and like that for undergraduates, contact hours, satisfaction and employment will be the key metrics. More anon.

Anthony Smith

Page last modified on 24 oct 12 14:05


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