student success

Six critical steps to conducting regular assessments of college student satisfaction

Julie Bryant

Associate Vice President of Retention Solutions

September 12, 2013

Understand what can be done better and respond appropriately by conducting regular assessments of student satisfaction.
Understand what can be done better and respond appropriately by conducting regular assessments of student satisfaction.

In my previous blog, I talked about the concepts of retention and satisfaction and how it is really about creating loyal customers by serving them well, understanding what can be done better, and responding as appropriate. Conducting regular assessments of student satisfaction is part of this process, and I have six critical steps to help you successfully implement this assessment process and utilize the data you gather.

Step One: Set expectations from your top leadership that student feedback is valued.

When you first inform your campus community that you will be conducting a satisfaction assessment, have the message come from your president or your top leadership. This will show the value of this assessment across the campus, rather than making it seem like a task that needs to be checked off a list for institutional research or accreditation purposes. Have your leadership communicate that the student voice is important in your decision making and that having students complete a satisfaction survey is a way to examine student opinion and perspective in a quantifiable way, rather than relying on hearsay or random comments. Be sure this message is shared with faculty and staff as well as the students themselves before they are asked to complete the survey. It is a great way to potentially increase your response rates.

Step Two: Establish an assessment cycle that takes into account all of the surveying you want to conduct.

Comprehensive student assessment can be a complex process that may confuse and confound students if not handled in a logical, systematic, and student-friendly fashion. Be sure that your campus is coming at this process in a coordinated way and that you have established an assessment cycle that shows when specific surveys will be administered. Facilitate all requests for surveys through a centralized office so that students are not hit with random surveys every week. Students are more likely to take a survey seriously when it is one of a few that they are asked to complete and when they know that there is a campuswide effort to gather data. Consider using comprehensive surveys that gather data on a variety of student experiences with just one survey (and avoid survey fatigue). Think about how satisfaction assessment may fit in as either a fall or spring activity, maybe conducted every other year.

Step Three: Gather data from a representative sample of your students.

You can choose to target particular subpopulations on your campus for satisfaction assessment, but in my experience working with campuses, the best satisfaction assessments are representative of your entire population in order to give you a cross-campus view of the student experience. You will want to aim for percentages of your completed surveys to closely match your population percentages, especially in the areas of class level, the majors or programs that your students are enrolled in, and day or evening enrollment. The representative sample will give you confidence in your results and will give you credibility for institutionwide decision making.

Step Four: Clarify what the data are really saying about the campus experience.

When institutions receive their satisfaction survey results, they are often not 100 percent sure what students mean when they identify certain items as priority issues. This is where focus-group discussions can assist you with understanding student responses. You may also want to visit further with the campus personnel who are delivering services to see what they have experienced (this is particularly true with your financial aid and registration staff). The focus groups and the general dialogue that you have around the items identified as challenges by your students can get everyone involved in the problem-solving process and will help you get to the heart of the issues. So when students say they are concerned about registering for classes with few conflicts—are those conflicts with prerequisites? Conflicts with when the classes are being offered? A criticism that there are not enough sections of high demand classes? Investigating further may not only clarify the issue, but sometimes you can also find a solution that may be very cost effective.

Another way to clarify the data is by slicing it based on demographic variables to see how students in various subpopulations responded differently to the challenge items. Are second-year students having a tougher time getting access to particular classes? Are students in one program more concerned with the quality of instruction? Are evening students taking issue with the availability of advisors? By looking at the demographic subsets, you may be able to better target new initiatives for students who are not satisfied specifically in that area.

Step Five: Use the data for decision making across your campus.

Once you have gathered the data and clarified the data, you need to be vigilant in using the data. Refer to the student perspective when you are making decisions for budgeting, or when you need to direct your campus staff on where they should focus their time and effort. When you and your colleagues are in a meeting, trying to figure out what is the right next step, ask yourselves, “What do the data say?” I encourage you to recognize the data as the student voice, as that customer service indicator, and to align your institutional response based on the student priorities from the data.

You will also want to be sure that all sectors on campus are tapping into the data. Sure, the data are valuable for the institutional research office for their data points. And yes, the data are good for accreditation documentation. But the data can also be valuable to enrollment managers to identify how the admissions and financial aid staff are viewed and which factors influence prospective students to enroll at the college (see, for example, our 2012 Factors to Enroll reports). The data can assist academic affairs by providing perceptions about advising, registration, and the experiences inside the classroom. Student affairs staff can use the data to see what types of support systems need more attention. The list of applications goes on…. I have had campuses tell me that their Student Satisfaction Inventory (SSI) data are referenced at almost every institutional committee and departmental meeting in one way or another—and that is when the data take on real power to improve the student experience!

Step Six: Inform the campus of the actions that you are taking.

Real change can’t just happen behind closed doors. Your students will not be more satisfied if they don’t know you have changed something! You need to actively inform your campus about the actions that you are taking in order to confirm and improve their satisfaction levels. This includes communicating first and foremost with students, as well as with your faculty, staff, and administration. Consider, too, communicating some changes with alumni and the parents of your traditional students, as they can influence student opinion and perceptions about your campus. Your communication may take the form of campuswide announcements, articles in student newspapers, and cascading information in team meetings or in residence halls. For those of you on commuter campuses, you can post updates in your restrooms, because everyone is likely to visit the bathroom at least once during their time on your campus! For those of you serving online and adult learners, I recommend posting the information on your Web site or sending e-mails with easy-to-read bullet points. You can also use infographics to help get your point across in a quick, visual presentation. The bottom line is to be intentional in your communication efforts.

By following these six suggestions, you should have a successful satisfaction assessment administration and you should also position your institution well for future administrations, because there will be a commitment to gather and use the data on campus to improve the overall student experience.

To see the sorts of campuswide issues you can assess, download our free National Student Satisfaction and Priorities Reports. If I can provide assistance with your satisfaction assessment process, or answer questions regarding satisfaction assessment, please e-mail me.

About the Author

Julie Bryant of RNL

Julie L. Bryant, associate vice president of retention solutions at Ruffalo Noel Levitz, works directly with colleges and universities throughout North America in the area of satisfaction assessment. Ms Bryant is responsible for client service...

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