Chapter 8: Trends, issues and the future of student feedback in engineering – Enhancing Learning and Teaching Through Student Feedback in Engineering

8

Trends, issues and the future of student feedback in engineering

Chenicheri Sid Nair, Patricie Mertova and Arun Patil

Abstract:

This chapter draws on the earlier chapters in this book about student feedback in engineering education by several international contributors. It summarises the common themes, trends and issues within the discipline with respect to student feedback. It concludes with some thoughts on the future directions of student feedback within the discipline.

Key words

student feedback

engineering education

enhancement of learning and teaching

Introduction

Research over the past four decades has consistently shown the importance and relevance of student feedback in educational settings (e.g. Doyle, 1975; Feldman, 1976; Marsh et al., 1979; Marsh, 1984; Fraser, 1991, 1994; Harvey, 2001; Nair, 2011). Despite the general acceptance that student feedback is important, there has been, and still is, much discussion about what needs to be collected and the use that should be made of the information, once it has been collected. The arguments that are consistently raised concern topics such as:

 the purposes for which the feedback has been collected;

 the types of questionnaires that are being utilised to elicit such feedback;

 the purposes for which the data is to be used once it has been collected;

 the availability of the data to different audiences.

Even fundamentals, such as the validity of student feedback are a recurring theme in many of these discussions.

Despite the continuing debate, there is a growing body of research which argues that student feedback informs universities of issues and student concerns in many areas of university life; and that universities need to engage in ongoing communication with their students (Harvey, 2001; Coates, 2006). As early as 1982, Astin succinctly commented that students, in particular, are in a good position to comment on the courses of study, which in turn will assist institutions not only to improve their teaching and learning but also to contribute to greater personal development for the students (Astin, 1982).

However, student feedback was not commonly used in many institutions until around the mid-1990s. The massification of higher education globally (including the emergence of a number of private providers), and pressures over political and financial control of higher education have lead to a global push to ensure quality in higher education (Green, 1994; Harvey, 1998; Brown, 2004). Following these trends, students gradually started being regarded as one of the primary ‘stakeholders’ in higher education and thus their voice started being regarded as a significant factor in enhancing the quality of teaching and learning and other aspects of student experience (Harvey, 2001; Richardson, 2005; Coates, 2006; Williams and Cappuccini-Ansfield, 2007). Bennett and Nair (2010) identified a number of drivers for the increased collection of student feedback in higher education. These included:

 diagnostic feedback to aid the development and improvement of teaching;

 research data to inform changes in units, courses, curricula and teaching;

 administrative decision making in terms of teaching and learning;

 information for current and potential students;

 measurement of the quality of courses (in some countries this is tied to further funding).

With importance being placed on such feedback, a variety of tools are currently being employed to collect it. These include: feedback on teaching, unit or course design, course structure and satisfaction with the services provided by the university. Feedback on higher education is also sought from other stakeholders, such as: employers, professional bodies and others (Harvey, 2001; Coates, 2006). Such feedback is gaining prominence. This applies broadly to higher education, including the engineering disciplines which are the focus of this book.

Issues, trends and approaches

Generally, the international perspective on student feedback in engineering education is that it should be part of the quality approach within these engineering disciplines to help improve engineering education. The main argument of this book assumes that such feedback is essential to improve the key learning outcomes of engineering education, such as enabling the skills to understand, communicate and solve problems. This use of student feedback to achieve such an outcome is not new, as general education research or ‘knowledge of the context and theories on student learning’ (Chapter 1, p. 14) has been utilised to enhance engineering education for some time. It is increasingly recognised that there is a need to understand not only the teaching and learning, but also the total learning environment so as to assist students to develop these skills and attributes in the course of their studies so that they can successfully graduate as engineers.

The emphasis on the necessity for engineering graduates to have acquired soft skills is discussed in detail in a range of national contexts: Sweden (Chapter 1), Chile (Chapter 2), Hong Kong (Chapter 3), India (Chapter 4) and Thailand (Chapter 5). Utilising student feedback to ensure the match of the requirement for soft skills from industrial practice and employers has also been highlighted in a number of earlier studies (e.g. Nair et al., 2009; Patil, 2005; Radcliffe, 2005).

An important subject, which resonates across the majority of the chapters in this book, is the political agendas of different countries to improve the quality of their engineering graduates. This is in line with the quality agenda of improving education in general. However, the active role of professional bodies in ensuring the quality of graduates for a global market is specific to engineering. Such pressures have been critical in institutions putting appropriate student feedback collection mechanisms in place, predominantly under the guise of improving the student experience. Student experience has also been an important driver for collecting feedback by tertiary institutions, however, perhaps not the most dominant one, in the case of engineering.

Improvements resulting from feedback are a recurring theme in a number of the chapters of this book. This sentiment was strongly emphasised in the first book in the series to which this volume belongs, which looked at student feedback in higher education generally (Nair and Mertova, 2011). A common thread that binds the discussion is that student feedback should not be considered to simply be a data generating exercise. But the data has to be utilised for genuine improvement. This argument was eloquently summarised by Kogan (1990):

In principle, evaluation should not be made at all unless those making or requiring the evaluation are sure how they are going to benefit from it.

Kember et al. (2002) and Edström (2008) further developed this point by arguing that improvement can only achieved if there is a purpose behind the collection of the data, there also needs to be appropriate analysis and interpretation with actions to follow. These authors argue that to achieve all these, there needs to be appropriate resourcing by institutions, including support and leadership.

Apart from the need to have an action plan to improve the situation, a number of chapters in this book discuss the nature of the questionnaires that should be utilised to obtain particular feedback. The value of qualitative in-depth forms of evaluation, which provide a richer insight that is not necessarily given by quantitative approaches, has been strongly argued in several chapters (Chapters 1, 3, 6 and 7). However, the requirement or utility of summative feedback particularly for quality assurance purposes, and the difficulties in using formative feedback have also been recognised (Chapters 1, 3 and 6). From the perspective of enhancing teaching and learning, formative evaluation was highlighted as being more beneficial where feedback is regarded as a continuous process where the teachers are able to use the information to improve their performance, and this in turn benefits the students during their course (Chapters 1, 3 and 6). This point was supported by the argument that educators are more reluctant to recognise the importance of summative evaluations as these are designed to meet administrative and public obligations, instead of as a constructive means of providing continuous, up-to-date, practical benefits to both students and teachers (see Chapter 1 (pp. 1–23) and Chapter 3, pp. 43–59). Related to this, was an argument that the actual experience of the teachers should be included and complement the summative process, such input would add much richer insights to the evaluation of the teaching (Chapter 1, pp. 1–23).

There is also some discussion about the tension between evaluation of the teachers and student learning. Arguments pivot around the paradigms of evaluation of learning versus the evaluation of teaching. The point that has been stressed is that student learning should be the primary concern and if this is so then such evaluation should take precedence in institutions (Chapter 1).

Conclusions

This book provides a rich insight into international perspectives on the hows and whys of student feedback in engineering. The chapters point to recent developments, which have taken place within the discipline, where theories and research on teaching and learning are forming the groundwork necessary to effectively implement and understand student feedback. However, the international perspectives indicate that the implementation of an effective feedback system within the discipline is in its infancy in many parts of the world (see Chapters 4 and 5). Clearly, there is recognition that such feedback will help enhance the quality of the engineering graduates and this is pivotal for any effective change to take place.

The intention of this book was not to provide any ‘recipes’ for achieving optimal outcomes in student evaluations in engineering but rather to outline the issues and concerns that engineering academics in a range of countries around the world have dealt with, to give examples of the range of research activities undertaken to investigate the effectiveness of collecting particular types of feedback or the impact of actions following feedback and perhaps to offer some suggestions to other engineering academics tackling similar issues. The overarching message coming from the contributors to this book is that student feedback is an important part of reviewing and enhancing the quality of the entire learning environment, however, it needs to have a purpose and should be ongoing.

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