"Using Student Feedback to Improve the Teaching and Learning Process and Services to Students"

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January 2003


  • Mary Beth Oliver, Associate Professor of Communications
  • Gail Hurley, Director of Housing and Residence Life
  • Jim Wager, Assistant Vice Provost for Enrollment Management and University Registrar

A panel of three members of the universitycommunity warmed up an audience of approximately 40 faculty, staff and administrators on a cold January morning with anecdotes, information and advice about what it means to be “student-centered.” Mary Beth Oliver, associate professor of communications, Gail Hurley, director of housing and residence life, and Jim Wager, assistant vice provost for enrollment management and university registrar, made up the panel. Ann Dodd, senior consultant with the Office of Planning and Institutional Assessment, was the moderator.

Jim Wager began by telling a joke about a dog on an airplane (ask him to share it with you sometime-it’s hilarious) that illustrated the problems that occur when you try to serve your customers without the necessary data to back up your decisions. Jim then provided two examples from the Registrar’s Office where services for students were improved: the provision of a searchable course schedule on the Web and a “one-stop-shopping” student services counter in Shields Building. In an effort to become more accessible to students, Jim has made his e-mail address available through multiple Web sites and at the counter in Shields. He has designated several staff members to monitor messages; it is their goal to answer all e-mail inquiries within 24 hours. These e-mails are then captured, recorded and analyzed to resolve complaints and identify patterns that may suggest the need for additional feedback.

In preparing to teach an undergraduate course on research methodology in the College of Communications, Mary Beth Oliver had two goals: to move the course from a lecture format to a more hands-on approach, and to use information technology as much as possible to facilitate the teaching/learning process. She called on the Schreyer Institute to help her achieve these goals. The result was the formation of a Student Innovation and Quality (IQ) Team in Dr. Oliver’s class. IQ Teams are a partnership between students and faculty that allows students to give feedback to a faculty member while the course is underway, rather than waiting until the end of the semester. Working in groups of four to six, students take responsibility for developing survey questions, collecting and summarizing data and sharing the results with the faculty member. Dr. Oliver took several of the students’ suggestions to heart; she enhanced the feedback she provided on tests and papers and developed better ways to use information technology in the classroom. The process also provided her with an opportunity to explain her reasons for the way she runs the class, and students learned that their feedback counts. Dr. Oliver realized that students often avidly, enthusiastically care about the teaching/learning process.

The Office of Housing and Residence Life serves 18,000 students in nine university residence halls on the University Park Campus. The unit is an auxiliary service and as such receives no money from the State or from tuition and fees; their budget is driven by occupancy rates. Thus it is critical that the Office provides programs and services that satisfy its customers–the students and their parents. The Office’s director, Gail Hurley, described the on-line survey that is sent each year to every residence hall student university-wide to give them the opportunity to provide feedback about their housing and food service experiences, and the students do reply! The annual return rate on the survey averages 70%. The Office uses the information to give every staff person feedback about their performance, and looks at trends and issues by location, both for the individual residence halls and for each campus. For example, students were telling the Office that one of the reasons they leave campus housing for private apartments is because they want more privacy, especially in the bathroom, where they can sometimes end up sharing facilities with as many as 40 other people. The University responded by constructing seven residence halls that when completed will house 800 students in private rooms with private baths.

Questions from the Audience

The audience asked several questions about soliciting customer feedback. What other methods were available besides e-mail and on-line surveys? What about focus groups and their utility? Panel members said that sometimes focus groups could reveal a trend or issue that could be probed further with a survey. One has to be cautious, however, said Jim Wager; sometimes opinions expressed by students participating in a focus group are not the same as the larger population. And what is the best incentive for enticing students to participate in a focus group? Pizza!

Dr. Oliver mentioned another technique for gathering information. She asks students to anonymously write a problem or issue on a card; the cards are collected, shuffled, and re-distributed to the students, who read them out loud. Not too long into the exercise, students feel comfortable talking freely about their concerns.

Other discussion focused on:

  • How well we are presenting information to our stakeholders that will enable them to find answers to their questions

  • The importance of making the structure and organization behind the services we provide seem transparent and seamless to students

  • The extent to which front line people are empowered to resolve issues

  • The concept of the student as “customer” and what it means to a faculty member to be student-centered

  • The need to develop a “learner-centered” environment that is prevalent across the university, whether in the classroom, the registrar’s office, or a residence hall.

The Quality Advocates Network meets several times each semester to share ideas and examples of improvement and change. To join the Quality Advocates Network mailing list or to learn more about the meetings scheduled, contact the staff at psupia@psu.edu.

The Quality Advocates Network is open to all Penn State faculty, staff, administrators, and students.