student success

Assessing Student Satisfaction for Online Learners

Julie BryantVice President for Student SuccessSeptember 28, 2022

Among the clearest trends in American higher education today is that online education is one of the core drivers of growth. As noted in the RNL 20222 Online Student Recruitment Report, the number of online learners was increasing steadily between 2012 and 2019 before it skyrocketed as a result of the pandemic in 2020. Between 2012-19, 1.7 million more students enrolled in fully or partially online courses.

Online Student Satisfaction Undergraduate Enrollment by Format
Alisa Flemming, Tiffany Doherty, and Julie Bryant at the 2022 RNL National Conference
Alisa Fleming, Tiffany Doherty, and Julie Bryant at the 2022 RNLNC.

Now that students and institutions are more comfortable with online learning, it is becoming increasingly important for colleges and universities to know how to best serve these students. One way to do that is by assessing student satisfaction on a regular basis.

At the 2022 RNL National Conference, Tiffany Doherty, director of student affairs at Granite State College (NH), and Alisa Fleming, PhD, director of institutional assessment at the University of Phoenix (AZ), shared how they have been gathering student feedback data with the RNL Priorities Survey for Online Learners (PSOL). Here are a few highlights of how they are using these data to improve their online learner experience that were shared during their presentation.

Survey administrations

University of Phoenix first administered the PSOL in the summer of 2021. In preparation for the survey launch, units across the university were engaged in the review of the PSOL items, with some groups assisting in the development of specific campus-defined items. By engaging stakeholders prior to the survey launch, units discovered the value of the survey and became interested in the results. Survey launch communications were shared with faculty and staff, which raised awareness of the upcoming survey launch across the institution and conveyed the benefits of gathering feedback from students.

Granite State College was in its third administration of the PSOL in the spring of 2022. Their promotion of the survey included references to what had been accomplished at the college as a result of past administrations. They worked with their marketing team on an email invitation and reminder messages as well as for posts on social media. Tiffany also indicated that the incentive of being entered for an iPad giveaway after completing the surveywas helpful. Faculty were encouraged to remind their students that their feedback was valued: good or bad, whether this was the first or last class the student was taking.

Tips for sharing the results with key audiences

Granite State did a college-wide kick-off presentation with the high-level strengths and challenges (as identified in the PSOL Strategic Planning Overview results) and then met with individual graduate and undergraduate departments for a “road show.” This approach allowed time to do the work needed to improve the student experience. Anyone who works with students received detailed data that was relevant to their work. Tiffany also pulled out positive comments from the PSOL to provide personal shout-outs with the appropriate manager. They intentionally do not share the negative comments.

The University of Phoenix held data review meetings with key departments. Their approach was top down from the Executive Leadership team to the departments. They also presented the data in faculty leadership broadcast sessions, where the faculty were receptive to the student feedback. Dr. Fleming added that the preliminary results were shared with students who completed the survey to affirm that their feedback was valued.

To further support best practices in sharing and distributing the top-level results, RNL provides a customizable infographic which many campuses find of value.

Optimize the online learning experience

The RNL Priorities Survey for Online Learners provides actionable data to improve the online student experience and increase student retention. Find out how it can benefit your campus.

See samples and learn more

How the data inform decision making

Dr. Fleming shared that the PSOL is rich with meaningful data. She added that there is a wealth of information in the comments and in the ability to slice the data, providing many potential approaches to reviewing—and applying—the results and findings. She said the combination of quantitative and qualitative data points help to support the university in understanding student perceptions and to best tell the story of the student experience.

Tiffany indicated that the trend analysis (tracking satisfaction shifts year over year) that is possible given annual administration at Granite State has been very valuable. If they are not moving the needle, they look at the comments to see if there are particular areas of concern by degree level, program, area of advising, etc. By slicing and dicing the data for specific groups of students (especially by program), the college can best determine the things on which to focus within a department. Granite State has also discovered the importance of communicating with students about what they are doing; they have discovered that satisfaction may not improve even if a change has been implemented if students are not aware of that action. They have found that perception truly is reality.

Multiple ways to use the data for the best ROI

Four primary ways to use satisfaction data: retention, accreditation, recuitment, strategic planning

Many of the campuses RNL works with intentionally use their student satisfaction data to guide retention and student success efforts, to provide the student voice for strategic planning, to document activities for accreditation, and to inform messaging to recruit new students to the institution.

Granite State College focuses on using their data for both retention and recruitment activities. They have found that potential students want to hear the words and perceptions of current students. As the college enters a new phase, the student data is also informing their planning.

The University of Phoenix found the data will be valuable for retention as it supports work that is underway to enhance student learning as well as in outreach efforts by sharing what matters to students and how they are meeting student needs.

What has been accomplished

In the past year, University of Phoenix has been engaging administrative units in leveraging the data to inform or support actions they are taking to improve the student experience. Dr. Fleming emphasized the importance of documenting all actions so they can be shared ahead of a future administration of the PSOL.

For Granite State, they have discovered that challenge identified in the PSOL can be converted to a strength in the next survey administration when the college is intentional and willing to do the work. Tiffany shared that the item “Faculty are responsive to student needs” was a challenge from their 2019 results but students by 2021 they felt like faculty listened to them and responded to them, especially during the difficult months of the pandemic. The item jumped in satisfaction to the point it was something to celebrate!

Value of gathering online learner satisfaction

For Granite State, the PSOL was initially administered when they transitioned from partially in-person classes to fully online, and they found they missed having face-to-face feedback from students. They wanted a sense of how students were feeling, over and above course evaluations. Leadership at the college know that it is more cost effective to retain a student than it is to recruit a new student, and the data from the PSOL help them insure they are focused on the right areas to keep students enrolled. Tiffany also indicated there is a lot of value in seeing the National Online Learner data for comparisons, which is something they wouldn’t have access to with a homegrown survey.

For the University of Phoenix, the comprehensive nature of the PSOL and the fact that they can gather student feedback in a variety of areas with a single survey instrument creates the most value. University leadership also appreciate the perspective of understanding what aspects of the educational experience and all that surrounds it are most important to students (beyond satisfaction levels) as well as the fact that the survey instrument has been validated and is reliable.

Concluding thoughts

As the session concluded, Tiffany shared that the PSOL is going to provide a comprehensive view of the student experience along with national comparisons. More specifically, Granite State will be able to understand how satisfied students are within the context of how important each item in. She said that Granite State College is a big fan of the PSOL and they look forward to their ongoing annual administrations.

From the University of Phoenix perspective, Dr. Fleming indicated that they also are supporters of the PSOL and appreciate the data they have been able to gather. They plan to celebrate the strengths identified in the survey and continue to review and share the student feedback with key stakeholders to ensure that the data are used to enhance the student experience.

If you would like to learn more about the Priorities Survey for Online Learners or about gathering student feedback from adult undergraduate and graduate populations or from traditional student populations, please contact us to set up a time to talk and we will be happy to be of assistance.

In addition, I invite you to share your experiences with the RNL tools and services at either future RNL National Conferences or other events you attend. Contact me to discuss presentation ideas.

Optimize the online learning experience

The RNL Priorities Survey for Online Learners provides actionable data to improve the online student experience and increase student retention. Find out how it can benefit your campus.

See samples and learn more


About the Author

Julie Bryant of RNL

Julie L. Bryant, vice president for student success at RNL, works directly with colleges and universities throughout North America in the area of satisfaction assessment. Julie is responsible for client service to more than 2,700 institutions...

Read more about Julie's experience and expertise

Reach Julie by e-mail at Julie.Bryant@RuffaloNL.com.


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