Another relevant survey of student experience is the National Student Survey (NSS) in the United Kingdom. The purpose of the NSS is quite different from StudentSurvey.ie, and the NSS contains different questions to StudentSurvey.ie. This survey is offered to final year undergraduate students only.

You may notice that this page is much longer than the other pages on the site. This page of the website was designed as a "long-read". It has several sections and is organised like a short journal article, designed to be read as one piece. Enjoy!


Background to the NSS

The National Student Survey is an annual census of all final year undergraduate students at UK universities. It has been conducted since 2005 and attracts a response rate of around 70% annually. The survey is conducted between January and April each year before most students have completed their final exams or assessments. The NSS currently asks 27 questions covering various aspects of the student academic experience. It also has the potential to ask additional topical questions.

The NSS has generally been seen as a survey of student "satisfaction”, and in recent years has seen its validity called into question because it has been implicated in the driving down of standards and grade inflation (UK Department of Education, 2020).


Review of the NSS

A review of the National Student Survey by the Office for Students (OfS) is ongoing, with the goal of reducing bureaucratic burden while ensuring the NSS remains an important indicator of students’ opinions and experiences. The review follows a request by the Universities Minister to address concerns about how survey may be creating burden and impacting on standards, while ensuring the NSS remains an important indicator of student opinion.

 

The OfS Board approved the following conclusions from phase one of the research:

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An annual census is the most appropriate level at which the NSS could continue to provide reliable data on the student perspective on their subjects, their providers and the wider system.

Phase two will review current questions to ensure they remain fit for purpose and stand the test of time. This will include the removal of the term ‘satisfaction’ from any summative question or aggregate score to replace question 27.

The continued publication of the NSS results, carried out in line with the robust requirements official statistics whilst retaining the right not to publish in exceptional circumstances. This is in accordance with the OfS scheme of delegation for data publication.

The OfS should improve user guidance to providers and students’ unions on responsible statistical use of NSS results. The OfS should also improve the data dissemination site to help remove burden on providers.

The OfS should raise student and students’ union awareness of the allegation of inappropriate influence process, including what may constitute inappropriate influence.
Extract from the NSS Review Report (Phase 1)

In phase two of the NSS review, there will be extensive discussion across the UK with students, universities, colleges and the UK funding bodies and regulators about possible new questions for the survey, including consulting with the management of StudentSurvey.ie to inform considerations with evidence from the success of StudentSurvey.ie. The possible new questions and revised data dissemination site is planned for launch in time for the 2023 survey results.


Comparing StudentSurvey.ie results to NSS results

Despite the proximity of Ireland to the UK, and the similarities between our higher education systems, the two surveys are quite different, in terms of purpose, questions, and how the results are used. This makes it quite difficult to directly compare results for the two surveys. Instead of making direct comparison between all of the results of the NSS and StudentSurvey.ie, we have opted to focus on the key intersections between the questions included in both surveys. Direct comparison of the results is only made when the authors of this research were confident that the questions were similar enough to allow for direct comparison. In other cases, the results are interpreted by the authors to capture the meaning of the results and consider how the two sets of results relate to each other on a given topic.

The following comparisons are made for final year full-time students only, as the NSS is only offered to students in final year. The results with Ireland are compared with those for Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. A subset of questions was chosen for consideration alongside the results of StudentSurvey.ie, where the similarity in the questions allowed for meaningful and accurate comparison of the two sets of results.



“Learning Community” and Collaborative Learning

Initially, Collaborative Learning and “Learning Community” appear to be similar topics. In StudentSurvey.ie, for the “Collaborative Learning” indictor, the final year students are asked quite specific questions:

During the current academic year, about how often have you

  • asked another student to help them understand course material
  • explained course material to one or more students
  • prepared for exams by discussing or working through course material with other students
  • worked with other students on projects or assignments

In contrast, for the section call “Learning Community”, respondents to NSS are asked two broader questions:

  • I feel part of a community of staff and students.
  • I have had the right opportunities to work with other students as part of my course.

The questions “I feel part of a community of staff and students” and “I have had the right opportunities to work with other students as part of my course” were added to the NSS in 2017, hence the absence of data for 2016.

Between 2017 and 2020, the scores have remained largely the same for all four countries, with Wales having the highest score consistently at 72% (71% in 2020), and the score for Scotland being lower, ranging from 69% in 2017, down to 67% in 2019, and up 68% in 2020.


Final year respondents to the NSS indicated that they had the right opportunities to work with other students as part of their course at high rates. For students in England, 86% of students did this in 2017, falling slightly to 84% in 2020. The scores for students in Scotland were slightly higher, at 87% in 2017, and consistently 86% from 2018-2020. The lowest scores were for students from Wales, 85% of whom still consistently agreed with this statement (increasing to 86% for 2019 only). Students in Northern Ireland were slightly ahead of the rest, with 88% of students agreeing with this statement (89% in 2019).


The range of scores for final year students for questions relating to the Collaborative Learning indicator is immediately striking. The percentage of students who indicated that they asked another student to help them understand course material has increased steadily from 44% in 2016 to 50% in 2020, but always remains the lowest scoring question related to Collaborative Learning. The percentage of students indicating that they explained course materials to one or more students has remained nearly constant from 2016 to 2020, at about 54%. Approximately the same percentage of students indicated that they prepared for exams by discussing or working through course materials with other students, always remaining between 55% and 56% from 2016 to 2020. Finally, the highest scores for final year respondents to StudentSurvey.ie across 2016 to 2020 relating to Collaborative Learning was for working with other students on project or assignments, which increased from 63% in 2016 to 66% in 2020.

Initially, Collaborative Learning and “Learning Community” appear to be similar topics. However, upon closer reflection, these questions and the concepts they appear to be addressing are not so similar.



Supportive Environment and Quality of Interactions

When we consider the idea of community in higher education in Ireland, it quickly becomes a multifaceted concept. In StudentSurvey.ie, we ask students to consider not only their own interactions with other groups on campus, but also, in relation to the Supportive Environment indicator, how much they perceive their institution values diversity and inclusivity in the community.

 

Supportive Environment

How much does your institution emphasise:

  • contact among students from different backgrounds (social, racial/ethnic, religious, etc.)
  • providing opportunities to be involved socially
  • attending campus activities and events (special speakers, cultural performances, sporting events, etc.)
  • attending events that address important social, economic, or political issues

For “I feel part of a community of staff and students” in the NSS, the responses range between 68% and 72%. This initially appears to suggest a stronger sense of community among staff and students in the UK than in Ireland. However, in teasing out the elements of how this community is manifested, such through contact among students from different backgrounds, being involved socially, attending campus activities and events and attending events that address important social, economic, or political issues, we can clearly see a varied profile in responses from final year students to StudentSurvey.ie. Community is not a singular state of being or a singular activity. For final year respondents to StudentSurvey.ie, around 50% of them from 2016 to 20202 believed their institution provided them with opportunities to be involved socially. Whether they availed of those opportunities is another question, but an important element of feeling included in a community is knowing you have those opportunities available to you. We also do not know from this question how many students socialised within the realm of their institution but didn’t believe that their institution was facilitating or encouraging this activity. What we do know is that substantially less, around 35% of students across 2016 to 2020, believed their institution encouraged them to attend events that address important social, economic, or political issues, and only slightly more believed their institution encouraged contact among students from different backgrounds. This granularity tells us a lot more about students understanding of and acting out of community than a single broad question. As we know from the StudentSurvey.ie National Reports, where these results are examined further for variability by student and course characteristics, there is even more to be learned by interrogating these results further.


A final set of results from StudentSurvey.ie offered here for comparison with the “Learning Community” results from the NSS.

When asked to rate the quality of their interactions with other students, the overwhelming majority of final year respondents to StudentSurvey.ie rated them as excellent. Other students are obviously a key component of the community for students. Another component group are academic staff, the quality of their relationships with whom over 80% of final year students also rated as excellent.

We believe that there is a value to the summative questions which take the temperature of a group of students, so to speak. However, the questions which require students to think critically about their experiences are where broad concepts are dismantled and areas for growth are identified.



“Learning Opportunities” and Higher-Order Learning

There are areas of overlap between StudentSurvey.ie and the NSS in areas related to the development of different types of learning, and elements of those types of learning. One of those questions in the NSS is “My course has provided me with opportunities to explore ideas or concepts in depth”. This question was added in 2017.

Here, responses remain very steady and similar across countries from 2017 to 2019, with a little more variability emerging in 2020. The percentage of final year students agreeing with this statement is around 84% across the four years and four countries.


This question aligns with the questions which form the Higher-Order Learning indicator in StudentSurvey.ie. As part of this indicator, final year students responded to the following questions:

During the current academic year, how much has your coursework emphasised

  • Applying facts, theories, or methods to practical problems or new situations
  • Analysing an idea, experience, or line of reasoning in depth by examining its parts
  • Evaluating a point of view, decision, or information source
  • Forming an understanding or new idea from various pieces of information

For questions relating to Higher-Order Learning, final year respondents to StudentSurvey.ie showed more variability than respondents to NSS when the results are examined across the four questions. While all scores ranged in the 60s percentage, a divide in the Higher-Order Learning emerged. About 67% of final year students indicated that their coursework emphasised applying facts, theories, or methods to practical problems or new situations quite a bit of very much, and around the same percentage indicated that their coursework emphasised forming an understanding or new idea from various pieces of information. A slightly smaller percentage of final year students, around 62%, indicated that their coursework emphasised analysing an idea, experience, or line of reasoning in depth by examining its parts and evaluating a point of view, decision, or information source.

While field of study may exert an influence on responses to these questions, they remain elements of learning which all students would be expected to develop in higher education. They relate to critical thinking, consolidation of information and the active application of learning from one context to another. Like responses to the NSS, this emphasis on this type of learning has changed little from 2016 to 2020, which is not unexpected. It is notable that the responses to StudentSurvey.ie and the NSS do differ in relation to Higher-Order Learning, and further investigation may be warranted to understand why these differences appear to have emerged.



“Learning Opportunities” and Reflective and Learning

The NSS contains two more questions relating to “Learning Opportunities”, but these are more closely aligned with the type of learning implicated in the Reflective and Integrative Learning indicator in StudentSurvey.ie.




Direct comparison of the results for these questions is difficult, given the multifaceted nature of the questions related to Reflective and Integrative Learning. The questions in StudentSurvey.ie break the question “My course has provided me with opportunities to bring information and ideas together from different topics” into more component parts, such as:

Where the information is brought together - "During the current academic year, about how much have you combined ideas from different subjects / modules when completing assignments?"

Whose information/ perspective is included - "During the current academic year, about how much have you included diverse perspectives (political, religious, racial/ethnic, gender, etc.) in discussions or assignments?"

How critically this activity is carried out - "During the current academic year, about how much have you tried to better understand someone else's views by imagining how an issue looks from their perspective?" AND "During the current academic year, about how much have you examined the strengths and weaknesses of your own views on a topic or issue?"


“My course has provided me with opportunities to apply what I have learnt” is broken down in StudentSurvey.ie by asking students:

Where they apply this learning - "During the current academic year, about how much have connected your learning to problems or issues in society?" AND "During the current academic year, about how much have connected ideas from your subjects / modules to your prior experiences and knowledge?"

How aware the student is that this learning has taken place - "During the current academic year, about how much have learned something that changed the way you understand an issue or concept?"



Discussion and Conclusion

Relevant results of the NSS over time 

The results for these questions in the NSS are remarkably steady over time and country. For StudentSurvey.ie, the results remain steady from 2016 to 2020 (though with relatively more variability for connecting learning to problems or issues in society and trying to better understand someone else’s views by imagining how an issue looks from their perspective).

Limitations of possible conclusions 

Concluding that more of the final year students surveyed by the NSS engage in these types of reflective and integrative learning than students surveyed by StudentSurvey.ie is not recommended by the authors of this research. There is an absence of information relating to the context of these types of learning in Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. The comparison of results from summative type questions and questions which focus on the specific activities which make up that summative statement is inherently flawed, as the whole does not necessarily equal the sum of its parts. Finally, as noted previously, the purpose and context of StudentSurvey.ie and the NSS are very different, with associated differences in how the two surveys are communicated to students, and the methods used to collect their responses, and the expectations that students bring to bear on their responses. These results are intended to start conversations about the experiences of students in Ireland in the international context, and not to be mistaken as the conclusion of those conversations.

Engagement is the goal, not satisfaction

Students as partners, not consumers

These statements reflect the national policy of seeking to enhance student engagement, reflected in the Higher Education Authority's published report of the Working Group on Student Engagement in Irish Higher Education and the National Student Engagement Programme's Steps to Partnership framework.

We argue that students do not need to be satisfied in order to have an excellent and academically stimulating experience, to grow personally and to develop into the informed and engaged citizens we need in our societies. The concept of student satisfaction is grounded in business, and the goal of the satisfied customer. Students are not customers of their higher education institutions. The relationship is much more complex and reflexive. Higher education should be transformative, not transactional.


Do you have questions?

Contact the StudentSurvey.ie Project Manager at info@studentsurvey.ie or using any of the social media channels listed here.