UniHow offers research-based tools for assessing the quality of teaching

UniHow, a system developed in 2005 at the Centre for University Teaching and Learning (HYPE), comprises four interlinked tools for developing learning and teaching: the HowULearn survey, the first tool to be designed, and its derivatives the HowUStudy course feedback tool, the HowUTeach tool for the self-assessment of teaching and the HowULearnPhD survey for postgraduate students.

A standardised tool for measuring quality as the goal

According to University Lecturer and Docent Anna Parpala, the efforts to develop the UniHow system and the HowULearn survey stemmed from the aim to design a standardised tool for measuring the quality of teaching.

“Whereas in the past individual course feedback was collected and stored in the cabinet of the faculty, we applied a new perspective to feedback collection: how could we collect feedback so that it would benefit as many members of the University community as possible? Right from the get-go, we knew that students should also gain something from the survey to increase their activity in responding to it,” says Parpala.

Support from research on university teaching and learning

A system heavily reliant on research on university teaching and learning was built:

“Instead of individual statements, the survey is based on indicators of high-quality teaching, which have been operationalised taking their validity and reliability into consideration. This is why the surveys are able to more accurately measure the factors they are intended to measure, in addition to which they can be used as a basis for reciprocal feedback provided to students. Furthermore, this makes it possible to critically assess individual statements, when necessary,” Parpala explains.

In addition to research indicators, reciprocal feedback provided to students is in fact the result of careful consideration by HYPE and counselling psychologists, and is based on research pertaining to learning and wellbeing. The data accumulated in the survey to support research-based activities is available for more specific analyses.

HowULearn supports students

Reciprocal feedback benefits students

The HowULearn survey is a two-way reflection and feedback system that is different from traditional one-way feedback: after completing the survey, students receive reciprocal feedback that is based on their responses. Students can use the reciprocal feedback to compare their personal results in individual survey sections with those of other respondents on a group level, as well as gain tips targeted at them on the basis of their own responses.

“Reciprocal feedback primarily serves as a tool for reflection, which students can utilise to consider whether their modes of action originate in conscious decisions or not,” Parpala says.

Survey adopted as part of studies in several faculties

On Viikki Campus, the HowULearn survey has been part of teaching for some time now. According to Henna Asikainen, senior lecturer in university pedagogy, the survey’s adoption as part of studies so that students complete it in conjunction with a course particularly contributed to it achieving an established status. Furthermore, sessions dedicated to feedback have been organised on the campus, increasing people’s interest in feedback.

Asikainen strives to emphasise to students the value of reciprocal feedback to increase their motivation to respond:

“I've stressed to students that many people would even be willing to pay, later in life, for such specific feedback concerning their learning,” she notes.

At the Faculty of Social Sciences, the survey is still in the process of being established. Linnéa Partanen, a third-year student at the Faculty, completed a HowULearn survey as part of her studies twice in her first year.

“I also checked the reciprocal feedback I received, and it corresponded well to my prior notions of how I learn. When comparing my results with those of other respondents, it became apparent that the factors students in my field emphasise in their learning vary greatly,” says Partanen.

Partanen had the opportunity to familiarise herself with the survey results as a student representative of her degree programme, but, according to her, the findings were not otherwise discussed with students in general. Nevertheless, Partanen would consider a joint review of feedback beneficial, as seen, for example, on Viikki Campus.

“I've stressed to students that many people would even be willing to pay, later in life, for such specific feedback concerning their learning.”

Degree programmes gain data for the development of teaching

Asikainen posits that the survey’s establishment has also provided degree programmes with relevant information on their students:

“For instance, the survey has helped to determine the fact that systematic study skills, which are important to successful learning, vary greatly among students: some students are very systematic, others not at all,” Asikainen says.

In terms of the UniHow system as a whole, the focus in recent years has been on support given to degree programmes in its full-scale utilisation. While degree programmes expect that the system data is as ready to use as possible, the data provided has challenged traditional notions concerning feedback: instead of mean scores, research-based information on phenomena measured by the survey is made available.

Future outlooks

In addition to the UniHow system being continually developed at the University, it has elicited the interest of other higher education institutions as well. Aalto University has conducted HowULearn surveys since 2017 as part of its own system. In a pilot partnership now established, Aalto University will employ the UniHow system as part of its operations and report on the pilot results to the University of Helsinki for purposes of further development.

“The collaboration is aimed at learning about the applicability and usability of UniHow as a system in a teaching environment that is structured in a different way, while intensifying collaboration in the development of the quality of teaching in a more extensive manner,” says Specialist Anu Ritola, the pilot coordinator.

Read more

UniHow system and the HowULearn survey  on the Instructions for Students website

Introduction to the HowULearn survey

UniHow website

Centre for University Teaching and Learning (HYPE)


Anu Ritola