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Opinion: Are student satisfaction scores reliable?

student satisfaction scores
Of course you want to leave university feeling happy with the experience. Source: Paulette Wooten/Unsplash

Student satisfaction is an integral part of the university experience: why would you want to study somewhere if you weren’t going to be pleased with the end result? So, it’s only natural for students to look to these rankings to help them decide where to go…

But just how reliable are the student satisfaction scores so many students turn to?

We have written before on why you should look at student satisfaction scores as, of course, there are many benefits to considering them.

The scores can be a great indicator of the general student consensus, often taking crucial aspects such as course quality, student support and extra-curricular opportunities into account.

But some things just cannot be condensed into a scoring system and placed upon a rankings board.

In Germany, recent research revealed students reported higher rates of satisfaction if their university’s research was considered prestigious, even if it didn’t affect them or their experiences of university in any way.

Could it be that student satisfaction is so subjective we cannot really measure it?

Sold as a way to measure how students really feel about their university, student satisfaction scores may not be able to accurately reflect something as subjective as happiness.

There are various factors that impact what students think about their respective university, and isn’t just about research or prestige.

student satisfaction

Is there any real way we can measure happiness? Source: Allef Vinicius/Unsplash

How satisfied a student is with their university experience is affected by hundreds of factors external to the university itself, including the friends they make, their financial situation, their personality, their motivation and more.

One student who was financially comfortable, made close friends for life, thrived on their independence and was incredibly motivated to make the most out of university is much more likely to report higher rates of satisfaction than a student who found it hard to make friends, isolated themselves, struggled to get by financially and missed home terribly.

In that situation, no student was offered more or less from the university itself: they simply had very different experiences based on a number of variables outside of the university’s control, and, likely, would both have had similar experiences at any other institution.

Another problem arises here: the majority of students will have nothing to compare their experience to first-hand. If the institution is the only university the student has attended – which is highly likely – they only have that one experience to draw from and there is nothing to say their experience would be any different anywhere else.

student satisfaction

Some people are just much more likely to feel satisfied with their student experience. Source: Ian Schneider/Unsplash

Statistics are often, and easily, manipulated to show only the positives, so while student satisfaction rankings provide a rough idea of how happy students are, the data simply cannot sum up a student’s real experience of studying there.

“In theory [student satisfaction scoring] is a good idea. However, the manner in which it is deployed and increasingly used is a real cause for worry,” City University of London Lecturer Arti Agrawal told The Guardian.

Agrawal posed the question: “Are the standard, multiple-choice questions [student satisfaction surveys] ask really able to gauge the student experience in any meaningful way?”

It seems unlikely. You cannot sum up human experience into a list of checkboxes and stick it in a table, so it is doubtful student satisfaction scores are truly as useful as institutions would have you believe.

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