How Do We Know How Students Experience Higher Education? On the Use of Student Surveys

Manja Klemenčič and Igor Chirikov


We do not yet fully understand what is going on with students while they are enrolled in higher education. This is problematic. There are about 197 million students today globally, and UNESCO's prediction is that this number will rise to 262 million by 2025.[1] The opportunity costs—both for individual students and our economies and societies—are enormous if higher education institutions do not fulfill their promise of formative effects on students because they do not have sufficient information and knowledge of what, why and how students learn and develop in higher education context. These questions are of central importance for university officials, for prospective students and their families, and for the state as the main funder of higher education in Europe.

Quality educational provision and learning environment can render most rewarding learning experiences. Equally, poor educational conditions incur significant cost of missed learning opportunities and unsatisfactory student experience. Student experience has thus become a central tenet of the quality assurance in higher education. More recently, the attention has shifted from student experience to student engagement (Klemenčič 2015) which conceives students as active partners in educational process and as responsible for their own learning and formation. In this vein, higher education is understood as “a process of student self-formation”: the activities students engage in are all in some way or another geared towards changing themselves and their life circumstances (Marginson 2014). Student self-formation is the basis for achieving the broader societal objectives concerned with human capital development for economic purposes: developing skills, improving productivity, increasing potential for innovation and economic growth. It also relates to the societal objectives towards secure, democratic, healthy societies. If, as defined by Hall and Lamont (2009, p. 2), a “successful society” is “one that enhances the capabilities of people to pursue the goals important to their own lives, whether through individual or collective action”, then education which enables and strengthens student agency is both a condition of a successful society, and also one of the outcomes of it. Institutional decision makers and policy makers thus seek to understand student experiences and behaviors as to be able to develop interventions that will further enhance “student agency” towards self-formation (Klemenčič 2015).

Student surveys have become one of the largest and most frequently used data source for quality assessment in higher education (Williams 2014). Student survey data feed into evidence-based university decision-making and are part of the tasks of institutional research. Institutional researchers are asked by university officials to deliver more and better “intelligence” on students (Klemenčič and Brennan 2013; Klemenčič et al. 2015). Much of this data is acquired through student surveys. As noted by David Radwin in Chronicle of Higher Education (Radwin 2009) “…the use of surveys is one of the fastest-growing and most pervasive trends on campuses”. Technology has made it increasingly possible to collect data from students: it is cheap, fast and easy to process. Indeed, students are perhaps among the most surveyed populations world-wide.

The widespread use of student survey data raises questions of reliability and validity of student survey data as evidence in decision-making. In this chapter we first discuss the policy context in which student survey research has proliferated. Then we offer an overview of the most influential student experience and engagement surveys; followed by a discussion of methodological limitations of survey research. The penultimate section addresses student surveys as part of the development of student data analytics, as the practices of collecting, synthesizing, and analyzing student data in the context of institutional research. We conclude with a set of recommendations on quality standards for survey design, and the use of student survey data as evidence in decision-making.

  • [1] UNESCO Institute of Statistics:
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