To mark the release of a new guide on responding to NSS scores for assessment and feedback, Alex Buckley from the Learning and Teaching Academy gives some general advice about how to deal with the annual conundrum that is the National Student Survey (NSS).

Now in its 16th year, the NSS is a familiar part of the higher education landscape, and the release of the results is a familiar point on the academic calendar. For all the annual fluctuations and sector politics, the basics of how to use it have been known for quite a long time:

  • Take it seriously. With response rates of around 70%, it has wider reach than pretty much any other way of hearing from students, and students deserve to have their say about the quality of their programme, given the amount of time (and often money) they invest in their studies.
  • But don’t take it too seriously. It is just one survey, with all the statistical limitations that implies, and it contains just 27 very blunt questions about very general aspects of a programme (plus a couple of open questions).
  • And don’t take it as the voice of truth. The NSS doesn’t require us to give up our academic judgement about how teaching is going, nor does it absolve us of the obligation to reflect about what is working and what isn’t. It just gives us extra information to use when we undertake the routine process of thinking about what we’re doing with our courses and programmes
  • Use it, but don’t use it on its own. The NSS is just one way of hearing from students. It has particular strengths, such as a very high response rate and the ability to make comparisons across universities. But it does not provide any detail – either about more specific aspects of students’ experiences, or about particular courses. It also focuses on what students have received rather than how they have engaged with their studies (alternative surveys are available). The NSS is very good at giving an indication of areas where students are particularly positive or negative about their programmes, but it can’t tell you what’s going on, and it certainly can’t tell you what to do about it. For that, you need other sources of data: focus groups, questionnaires focused on specific topics, course-level surveys, discussions with student representatives, and of course – and most importantly – your routine conversations with students

Of all the topics covered by the NSS, it is assessment and feedback that tend to get the most attention. While we should be cautious about over-interpreting the fact that scores for assessment and feedback are generally lower than for other parts of the survey, it is true that there are many universities, schools, departments and programmes for whom that is the most pressing issue.

The causes of that will necessarily be complex: overworked staff, assessments that don’t accommodate contemporary staff-student ratios, pockets of poor practice, the high expectation of students, etc. Like any big change to a complex system, making sustainable improvements to assessment and feedback takes time, effort and collaboration. However, there are some (relatively) quick and easy ways to respond to student concerns about assessment and feedback, and the LTA’s new guide to responding to NSS scores for assessment and feedback provides some practical suggestions and links to useful resources. It also summarises what we know about how students interpret the NSS questions, and some ideas about how to explore and interpret NSS scores.

The first step in acting on NSS results is always exercising your own academic judgement. Considering the NSS data alongside everything else you know about your course and your programme, how can you make assessment and feedback work better for your students?

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