University Futures: improving student assessment and feedback
  • November 1, 2017

University Futures: improving student assessment and feedback

Join our collaborative research project exploring student and staff experiences, with the aim of improving student assessment and feedback.

As part of our ‘University Futures’ series, Alterline is bringing together a small group of universities in a collaborative, research project to conduct new primary, qualitative research into student and staff experience of assessment and feedback.

Research Focus

The objectives will be shaped and influenced by participating institutions, however we expect to explore answers to questions such as: 

Improving student assessment and feedback - focus

The Improving student assessment and feedback project is intended to inform strategy and practical action to improve student and staff experiences of assessment and feedback by informing structural and cultural changes, staff engagement and student understanding.


Assessment and feedback has a significant impact on the quality of a student’s experience, their attainment and potentially their employment outcomes, and occupies much staff time and resource. Yet since the advent of the National Student Survey (NSS) it has received consistently lower ratings than other areas and remains a cause for concern for students and staff alike.  So how can enduring frustrations on both sides be mobilised to make realistic, actionable improvements?

In our work exploring students’ perspectives on assessment and feedback, we have sought to illuminate the stories behind the statistics: the role of stress and anxiety; the challenges of competing demands on time; preparedness and competency in relation to different assignment types; frustration with feedback that doesn’t inform future work; and students’ recognition of the pressures staff are under.

There has been much work around assessment and feedback to date, including grant-funded research and projects enabled by agencies such as the HEA and centres of excellence and teaching development within institutions. However, we believe that for there to be meaningful change we must understand the qualitative experience of both students and staff:

  • What does a good experience look like for both groups?
  • What are the drivers and barriers to change?

With increased pressure from the TEF and renewed interest in the perceived value of higher education, now is an opportune time to obtain fresh insight that has a practical, meaningful application.


Designed to get beyond the NSS statistics and routine course feedback, we will use a qualitative methodology that combines:

  • Student focus groups – bringing together groups of students, online, to discuss their shared experience of assessment and feedback
  • Staff one-to-one interviews – Allowing staff to share their views openly and anonymously
  • Student journals – Written, photographic and video journals documenting the lived experiences of students over the course of an assessment period.

Our University Futures projects are collaborative, with participating institutions coming together at the start of the study to help shape the research objectives, commenting on drafts of the qualitative guides, sharing experiences and good practice and most importantly, meeting to discuss the findings, their implications and ideas for action.


In addition to opportunities for networking and sharing ideas at two workshop sessions, institutions participating in the Improving student assessment and feedback project will receive:

  • A review of the existing relevant literature around assessment and feedback
  • A full written report with our analysis of the primary research data, including commentary and recommendations. Your report will include shared lessons and good practice from across participating institutions, as well as highlighting specific findings locally (which would not be shared with other universities)
  • A PowerPoint summary of the findings to help you disseminate them at your institution
  • Review after implementation in the form of a follow-up conference 12 months later where each institution presents and shares lessons learnt.


Improving student assessment and feedback


We are asking each institution to contribute £24,500 to the study, and are seeking 3 to 5 universities to take part in the project. This will allow for a breadth of insight and practical learning beyond the reach of a single-institution study.

Why a collaborative project?

Many of our university clients are facing similar challenges, inviting common solutions. We have developed our ‘Futures’ research series in recognition of this reality, bringing clients together to work on shared issues. We hope this will lead to practical action and innovation that contributes to improving students’ experience and learning.

The team involved in this project:

Professor Judith Burnett is a sociologist of generations and social change, and has worked in higher education for 25 years, holding senior positions at PVC level. She has a particular focus on student experience and building academic strength and workforce development. She has been Trustee and Chair of the British Sociological Association.

Dr Elizabeth Carley has a background is in academic research, with an MSc and a PhD in social research, statistics and social policy. At Alterline Beth ensures the research intelligence we gather is focused and articulated into clear and concrete reporting, strategies and actions.

Ben Hickman is a Research Director at Alterline and works with higher education clients to improve student experience. Ben co-founded Alterline in 2011, and since then has been involved in a multitude of quantitative and qualitative research projects to deliver insight into students’ lives and experiences.


We are seeking 3 to 5 universities to take part in the Improving student assessment and feedback project.  For more information or to discuss over a coffee, please contact Ben Hickman, Research Director, Alterline