Student feedback: an example of diffusion of responsibility among online learners?

As a member of staff involved in the teaching of an MSc distance learning course, I am currently facing a dilemma that appears to be fairly common to academic staff: it involves trying to encourage students to complete ‘satisfaction questionnaires’ and module evaluation forms.

As part of the DUCKLING project, we need to encourage students to complete online questionnaires to get some insight into what they think about their course, and their perceptions towards the incorporation of new technologies within those courses. The questionnaires themselves are very short, often with simple Likert-style responses, requiring no more than a few minutes of their time to tick a few boxes. So what is the problem? Why is there such a low response rate?

There are many possibilities to explain why students may be reluctant to complete feedback forms. Are they too busy? Do they think it is not important? Are they forgetful? Do they have concerns about the anonymity and confidentiality of their responses? Are they lazy? Do they know the forms are even there?

Perhaps the provision of incentives could help. Surely offering a £10 or £20 book voucher, or making some other form of reward available within a prize draw would help matters? Having quickly skimmed the literature on this, it seems as though incentives can and do play a part in increasing response rates to a limited degree, but this strategy poses further challenges. What kind of incentive is likely to be successful? What if there is no budget available to provide a prize? Surely the students should feel some sense of obligation to complete these feedback forms which, at the end of the day, are intended to be used to improve the course for their own benefit?

In considering this, and in an effort to think up ways of increasing response rates, I thought back to my own days as a student. I would always fill out feedback forms when they were handed out in a lecture and had to be returned upon leaving the lecture theatre. But what about online questionnaires? Our students are asked to complete and return feedback within a virtual learning environment (Blackboard). I often receive various online surveys through my email and facebook accounts, and if I’m honest, I very rarely complete them. So is it something about the virtual world that makes us feel as though there is less pressure to return these forms than if they are presented to us in a face-to-face environment?

In understanding this, I started thinking back to a basic theory within social psychology: diffusion of responsibility. The definition of this phenomenon in my first year psychology textbook is: “Social inhibition of helping, caused by a weakened sense of responsibility in a group of bystanders … Each individual member of the group feels less responsibility to intervene in a group than when alone.” (Hewstone, Stroebe & Stephenson, 1996, p.610).

I wonder whether, to some degree, a similar phenomenon takes place in the virtual world in terms of returning feedback. On an online course, it is not possible for students to see other students completing questionnaires, or to know whether others have already done so. Upon seeing that it will ‘only take a few minutes to complete,’ students may assume that “everybody else will have done it already, so there is no need for me to complete it as well.” The tendency for an individual to think they do not need to help because others will already be helping is a typical example of diffusion of responsibility: the more ‘others’ perceived to be involved, the less obliged the individual will feel to take action.

If this is true, is there a solution? My thoughts are that perhaps we need to be more honest with our students about the poor feedback we receive: to tell them that nobody has completed the form and clearly state the importance and benefits of doing so. But more than this, I think there should be some kind of update/counter available, either next to the survey in Blackboard, or perhaps on the announcements screen. A way of telling students that, despite the importance of the survey, only ‘3 out of 150’ students have completed it, whereas we require at least a 60% response rate.

Perhaps this kind of approach will help students see that they can’t rely on everybody else to complete these feedback forms: the responsibility is their own.

Kelly Barklamb, 20th April 2009

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