Monday, November 12, 2012

Should We Measure Student Satisfaction/Engagement at the End of the First Year or Third Year?

Many British universities are giving the National Student Survey (NSS) to students at the end of their final year to gauge student learning and satisfaction. In an intriguing article, Principal Lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University John Lea argues that the survey belongs at the end of the first year. Moreover, he sees a different purpose for the survey:

But the NSS is troubling for a simpler reason as well: its customer-orientated questions are asked at the end of an undergraduate degree, at the very point when one might have hoped that students would have moved beyond such a depiction of their experience. The place for a satisfaction survey is surely at the end of the first year, at the point when it is understandable that they would still be dependent on their instructors and their teaching, and when they are still being informed of the accepted knowledge of their chosen discipline.

Any survey after that must surely start reflecting how they have moved on from the comfort and safety of the textbook to the frontier of disciplinary knowledge, and asking them to reflect on what contribution they themselves have made to the learning process and knowledge production. In which case perhaps the most intriguing questions to ask in a final-year survey would be: Do you still need your professors? Can you set your own learning outcomes? Can you accurately mark your own work? At least the American NSSE is a move in that direction.

As currently constituted, the NSS keeps students in a prolonged state of dependency, and, echoing that old Rolling Stones song, tries to keep academics concerned with just how white their shirts can be. Fine perhaps for the first-year experience, but isn’t this pretty useless information—which won’t fire anyone’s imagination—by the end of the final year? What’s needed is an engagement survey, not just a satisfaction survey. To paraphrase President Kennedy’s line, isn’t it time we all tried to shift the emphasis and ask students not what their university has done for them, but what they have done for their university?

Many American universities employ a similar measuring device, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). I don’t know of an U.S. law school that employs a survey at the end of the first year that asks students about their learning process and their growth as independent learners. If you know of such law schools, please send along a comment to this posting.


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