US International Higher Education

In-depth student reviews perceived as more valuable

Last week we hosted our third Whatuni Student Advisory Board meeting in London with a group of sixth formers and university students joining us from around the UK.

In this final meeting of the current board, we took the opportunity to ask them about the types of student reviews they preferred.

The majority felt that detailed reviews were more valuable, as they validated ratings. One student told us that reviews with ratings-only often didn’t make sense, unless accompanied by a text explanation. Year 13 student, Freya Mackins, added: “I tend to look at short and snappy student reviews when I’m starting out with a general search, but the more filtered my university choices become, the more I look for detailed reviews.”

‘The Wisdom of Crowds’ Phenomenon

While the majority of board members agreed that they readily turned to reviews when conducting university research, there were some who viewed them as too subjective.

This led us to discuss a recent study conducted by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), which may well convince even the staunchest of critics. The authors of the report were tasked to find out how accurately collective judgement amongst students reflects traditional metrics. The study was initially inspired by a fascinating piece of research which showed that social media posts and patient reviews were good predictors of the outcome of the Care Quality Commission (England’s health and social care regulator). The premise of the QAA study was to see whether the same principles would apply in HE.

200,000 student reviews from Facebook, Whatuni and were collected and then used to establish a ‘collective-judgement score’ taken over 365 days (read more about it on Wonkhe). Of the three sources, Whatuni had the greatest number of student reviews at 121,000 and offered the most in-depth ratings with a wide range of categories.

Like in the health sector, the results were similar. The collective-judgement score, for the most part, reflected the outcomes of HEFCE’s 2016-17 Annual Provider Review (APR), the Teaching Excellence Framework’s year two ratings, and the overall satisfaction scores (2015-17) from the National Student Survey (NSS).

The authors put these results down to what the report refers to as the ‘wisdom of crowds’ phenomenon, suggesting that groups are often incredibly perceptive.

Reviews: What Students Are Writing

When analysing the types of reviews on Whatuni, it’s clear how the more detailed insights can help explain outcomes of more formal metrics. We looked at a selection of Whatuni reviews across various categories to see what students are actually writing about.

Reviews under the ‘Students’ Union’ category often mentioned that unions were the only means for students to make their voices heard. Whilst some of the more negative comments were around a lack of awareness. Here’s a typical example:

Student engagement is very low and I think it is because not many of us are aware of the entire Students’ Union team (well I certainly wasn’t aware), just of the president’.

Reviews under the ‘Accommodation’ category were generally shorter than other categories and centred on security standards, other students, costs and noise levels.

Students wrote in detail about the ‘City Life’ category with most comments being positive and outlining the types of pubs and restaurants in the area, as well as access to outdoor activities and welcoming (or unwelcoming) locals.

Reviewers seemed to have the most to say in the ‘Course and Lecturers’ category. Many focused on how passionate, knowledgeable and inspiring their lecturers and tutors were. Lecturers were often described as friendly, and courses as multi-faceted and taught across a variety of mediums. Some of the negative reviews mentioned carelessness and unprofessionalism among lecturers, with one reviewer describing tutors as ‘borderline flirtatious’. There was one particular 300-word review that listed a number of negative comments about teaching quality and feedback.

Other categories that received particularly detailed reviews were ‘Job Prospects’, ‘Student Support’ and ‘Overall’. For ‘Overall’ most of the reviews were extremely positive and detailed, but a few outlined why they disliked their university experiences, mentioning things like unwelcoming locals, unhelpful staff and personal job commitments making studying particularly stressful.

Validation Through Words and Numbers

As HE becomes increasingly consumer-centric with students at the helm, reviews are likely to steer decision-making more and more.  While our student board members perceived detailed reviews as the best means for validating ratings, the sheer number of reviews now available online may add an even greater validation, thanks to the ‘wisdom of crowds’ phenomenon.

So how can you go about collecting these insight reviews in the first place? Well, every year, Whatuni sends out teams to collect student reviews from universities across the UK. These reviews are aggregated and the top-rated institutions are then celebrated annually at the Whatuni Student Choice Awards. To find out more about getting involved, head to this page.

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