Representatives from four departments which had particularly good scores in the National Student Survey (NSS) spoke to delegates at the recent Sussex Teaching and Learning Conference about what has contributed to their success.
Helen Prance (Engineering and Design) explored the high score the Electronic Engineering students had given in the ‘personal development’ section of the survey. To try to understand why this particular sub-set of Engineering students were so pleased with the support they were receiving in this area Helen had looked closely at the comments on the NSS and spoken to current students. The message that came through was that using Academic Advisor groups and teaching through practical projects were key elements. In the first year Academic Advisors bring together groups of students to get early practise of giving presentations in a safe and friendly environment. Throughout the course students are then working on projects which become increasingly open and challenging, allowing them the experience of ‘learning to cope’ by working intensively on stimulating activities. The final year project acts as a capstone, bringing together learning from all years in a very practical and exciting way that allows students to exercise the skills they will need in the workplace. This combination certainly seems to be scaffolding students’ personal development in a way that is appreciated.
Challenging students and supporting them to gain mastery of their subject by practicing it was also central to the story that Jim Livesey (History) had to tell about his department’s excellent NSS score for teaching. Last year the department piloted a substantial increase in student workload – doubling the amount of essays written. This seems to have had a positive effect on students, the best of whom were producing publishable work. Jim argues that students shouldn’t be coming to Sussex to read history but to write history and between the essays they are producing regularly and the opportunity for the best work to be published in the University of Sussex Undergraduate History Journal (which will soon be featured on the BBC Radio 4 Making History programme) they are acquiring mastery. In their final year they have an intense experience replicating what their tutor can do and acting as equals in an environment where they do the thing, not just learn it. Jim also emphasised the importance of strong communication within the department so that links across and between modules could be made clear to students throughout their studies.
This issue of communication between colleagues and with students was also central to the contribution from Law. Heather Keating (Law) was pleased to be able to report improving NSS scores in the area of assessment and feedback. This has been an area of concern over the years for all universities and their students and the National Union of Students (NUS) have identified this as a key area of campaigning since 2008 (see NUS Charter on Feedback and Assessment). Law set up a review of their assessment and feedback practices (as reported in RUSTLE) which used questionnaires, focus groups and surveys to identify good practice within the department and also consulted Law faculties elsewhere. To look more closely at existing practice and find examples of good practice to share the department took the innovative step of using one round of peer observation of teaching to focus not on classroom teaching but on marking and feedback. The review enabled discussions to take place around effective feedback and to spread good practice around the department but also highlighted gaps between staff and student expectations and understandings of feedback. Students, for example, tended to take a very narrow view of what constituted feedback – limited to what was written on their assignments. So one of the most useful outputs of the review was a document offering guidance to students on the types of feedback they were getting and how they could make best use of it.
Barry Garraway (Physics & Astronomy) returned to the issue of communication and feedback from students as he discussed the high NSS scores that Physics and Astronomy receive for personal development. Looking at the individual questions which make up the NSS section on personal development Barry highlighted how aspects of the curriculum directly addressed the areas that students were asked to consider: presenting themselves with confidence; improved communication skills and confidence tackling unfamiliar problems. Again, individual and group projects are providing opportunities for students to develop skills and confidence that will be valuable to them throughout life. A structured and high-stakes presentation event provides a hurdle for students that, whilst challenging, provides a great sense of accomplishment to the majority who succeed. A final year ‘Skills in Physics’ module faces students with unfamiliar problems that they must solve in groups drawing together learning from throughout their degree. The same sort of problems are set in unseen examinations so there is very clear alignment between learning, assessment and personal development. The module has proved so popular that a year two version was introduced and students have requested a year three version, too.
So what are the messages for improving NSS scores? Listening to the students has to be top of the list. Good communication with students can help to make sense of the numbers and comments that come out of the NSS and to align staff and student understanding of key issues such as feedback, as well as helping students to see the relevance and connectedness of their learning. Making learning and assessment authentic also seems to be significant, with modules that get students ‘doing’ their discipline rather than passively being taught, delivering in important areas. Finding the right balance between support and challenge is key here, so that students can experience a progression from early supportive introduction to key study skills through increasingly open challenges and significant hurdles as they progress to confident mastery.