New Year’s Resolutions: How to Show Students You’re Listening
There is a great deal of controversy in higher education today on how to characterize our students. Are they customers? Should institutions be student-centric or faculty-driven? Does student-centricity imply giving students anything they want, like fewer reading assignments?
Some argue our students are customers whom we should seek to serve in better ways. Others argue that faculty know what’s best for students. At the same time, the definition of a student is changing. More and more students are working adults who prefer a different experience than the so-called traditional student directly out of high school.
So, who is right? Is a student a customer, a learner, or both? Whose ideas come first: students or the institution? Do we, as academic leaders, really need to choose?
We believe students are customers, but we do not necessarily subscribe to the philosophy of “the customer is always right.” Student-centricity doesn’t mean we do anything students want. It is essential to listen to both students and faculty if we intend to improve our institutions and truly serve students where they are. Being student-centric means giving students a voice while listening to feedback from faculty to drive a culture of continuous improvement.
Sounds like an enormous undertaking, doesn’t it? It can be almost impossible to find time to seek out and listen to students, ask for faculty feedback, figure out how to marry the two, and then implement their suggestions.
We want to offer one way this can be accomplished. Our institution, the American College of Education (ACE), has used student and faculty feedback to continuously enhance our courses and our institution. Through this, we have created a student-centric college with a culture of continuous improvement.
We have accomplished this through our annual New Year’s Resolutions. They began as a review of student course evaluations, identifying trends and items we could quickly improve, and then communicating those commitments to improvements to the students. This same concept can be applied at any time of the year and under any other name.
Over the years, the resolutions have evolved into an in-depth process across the college, sparking many improvement projects. Our process of identifying the annual resolutions begins with a review of all student course evaluations from all degree levels and programs from the prior academic year. Students complete course evaluations in an online system which allows us to use survey tools. Student comments are analyzed, and we export those comments containing suggestions for improvement. We use qualitative analysis methodology to analyze and code the comments for themes. This research methodology allows us to identify trends and areas where we may need to make changes or clarifications for students.
The trends drive us to a list of potential resolutions, which are the start of the New Year’s Resolutions that we eventually commit to with students. For example, if a request for more collaboration tools was a trend or theme in the data, we could propose adding additional meeting and document sharing tools in the online courses. Once we have a list of potential resolutions, we put together a thorough presentation for senior academic leaders (assistant provosts, vice presidents in academic affairs, etc.). These leaders are asked to review the high-level data, and provide feedback on the identified themes and proposed resolutions. This helps us narrow down the suggested areas and resolutions. The feedback process is then repeated with all departments and with all program leaders.
Through these meetings, we produce a short list of potential resolutions, with the reasoning and findings behind each one, for faculty consideration. Faculty feedback is critical as they are closest to the course content and delivery. Thus, we spend time recording presentations for our faculty which explain the data collected, the data analysis, the findings and the proposed resolutions. We then invite allfaculty, irrespective of rank, to vote on the proposed resolutions, rate the overall suggestions for improvements and offer additional feedback. This data is then reviewed, analyzed, and ideas which the vast majority our faculty do not support moving forward are removed from the resolution list. We often end up removing two or three ideas from the list.
This collaborative process, as you can guess, takes time. We have a lot of meetings, and we spend a rather large chunk of time analyzing data. However, the time we spend is worth it. At the end of the process, everyone feels confident in the changes we plan to make in the upcoming year and unified around common goals.
The transparency in this process is critical for all involved. We believe in showing students how their voices are heard. We want them to know their feedback matters, so we openly communicate with them about the New Year’s Resolutions. Specifically, we post our final list of resolutions and record a presentation for students explaining what we learned and how we plan to use this feedback to improve their experiences over the next year. This is our commitment to them—to hear their voice and use it as part of our culture of continuous improvement.
Most importantly, we then follow through on those commitments. If we say we are going to update how readings are accessed in their learning management system, we do it. Then we tell them it was done and remind them why it was done. This process has resulted in students mentioning our New Year’s Resolutions in their survey comments and even with accreditors, in addition to improving overall student satisfaction ratings. Students and faculty alike have referenced the New Year’s Resolutions as an example of our student-centric culture. Additionally, after years of students seeing evidence that their voices are heard, acknowledged, and used to drive improvements, our response rates on student course evaluations has substantially increased. In 2018, we saw an 88% response rate.
Some of our most significant improvements have come from our New Year’s Resolutions. We have added technologies to classes, re-designed our library access, made course discussions more open, and have even added needed staff and faculty positions. The feedback we garner from our students has not only improved their experience as a student, but it has also improved ACE as an institution. We believe these data-informed decisions can help revitalize courses, programs, or even an institution.