Coventry University: listening to its students

Kai Hopkins

Kai Hopkins

Coventry has a history of listening to people. During the Second World War, the people of Coventry wanted to voice their support for the Soviet Army during the Battle of Stalingrad, and their voice was heard. Coventry and Stalingrad were twinned, to promote mutual understandings and improve relationships. The practice of twinning has continued to this day, as has Coventry’s tradition of listening.

In the 2015 Guardian University League Table, Coventry University sat at 27, the year before at 33. In the 2016 table however, Coventry has jumped to 15. The Guardian’s tables rank universities according to various criteria, including spending per student, the student/staff ratio, graduate career prospects and importantly, how satisfied students are.

I recently spoke to Ian Dunn, Deputy Vice Chancellor for the Student Experience at Coventry University to understand how they have continued Coventry’s history of listening to people, and how they have used student feedback to rise up the tables.

I am an engineer. I am used to relying on data, and we don’t like surprises.” This is the simple response Ian gives when asked why Coventry prioritises listening to its students. “We want to take the temperature on what is going on, and get student feedback before they express opinions in the National Student Survey”. Ian explains this allows them to address issues quickly. As an institution, Coventry sees itself as subject experts, but recognises that while they may understand the content, the student experience of how that content is delivered is key. And the result is not just a tokenistic gesture, but genuine engagement at every level.

Following a cycle largely aligned to Keystone’s Constituent Voice cycle, Coventry uses Customer Satisfaction style surveys, reporting in near real time – data is processed and shared with tutors and department heads for discussion. Proposed actions are then fed back to students, with both survey results and suggested action being published over the course of the semester. Data can be triangulated with Student Forum discussions and ‘always on’ channels such as complaint systems, although the latter generally covers different issues.

One example of a concrete change emerging from the listening process relates to coursework, where students voiced a desire for faster feedback on their work. Liaising with students and staff, Coventry streamlined assessment feedback so students could understand what was good and what needed improvement faster, while also being less of a time burden on staff.

Over the course of an academic year a single student would complete 6 surveys, all done on paper anonymously. In the future, the system is likely to allow students to respond using their smart phone; so much of the processing, analysis and presentation can be automated. With anonymous data, there can be no disaggregation of responses by academic grades, but with demographic information for each class, Coventry can breakdown results enough to dig deeper into the data.

The Guardian data confirms what Ian has been telling me – Coventry has made a great success of listening and responding to its students. Satisfaction with courses and teaching are both higher than the top-rated Cambridge University. In fact, satisfaction with teaching at Coventry is the second highest in UK, and satisfaction with feedback and assessments is the highest. While satisfaction might not tell the whole story, it is impressive to see an organisation dedicated to listening and improving on what its key constituents say – something many of us could do better.

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