In order to keep her business school firmly at the forefront of business and management thinking, Peggy van der Wallen of the University of St. Gallen uses student voice to help improve processes, both academic and operational. We caught up with her recently to see how it's done
How would you describe your role at St Gallen HSG?
I currently work in the quality development office where we are basically responsible for the course evaluation processes, accreditations and rankings. I would describe my role as very process-focused, which is quite different from my previous role.Prior to joining the quality development office, I worked in the St Gallen MBA programme for nine years, where I was responsible for the programme management of our full-time and part-time MBA courses and then managed student recruitment.
What does a typical day look like? Is there such a thing?
I think that working in a quality department actually allows for such a thing as a ‘typical day’ because it's a very process-based role. I have several tasks that I do on a daily basis, like dealing with compiling and reporting course evaluation results.
I also work with different departments, faculty members and students across the university to gather data for development reasons. For example, two years ago we introduced mid-term course reviews - TAPS (teaching analysis pool) - where I go to a lecture and gather feedback and student input. We then collect the students’ feedback and after a week we meet with the teacher to discuss the results of the feedback.
"By doing mid-term reviews, students feel that their voice is heard and they can actually benefit from the insight given..."
How do you think these mid term reviews help students and faculty?
Most course evaluations are done at the end of the course and so the students that actually participate in the surveys don’t benefit from their feedback. By doing mid-term reviews, students feel that their voice is heard and they can actually benefit from the insight given, as some of these changes can be implemented before the end of the course. The same goes for the faculty - they feel that they have more support from us in helping them deliver a good experience to the students which is the ultimate goal.
What’s the current process for gathering and publishing these course evaluations?
The first step is to send the questionnaire forms to the faculty and typically the teachers give the forms to the students in the antepenultimate lecture. Our office is then responsible for putting the results together. We then compile a report for the teacher and publish the results from closed questions to students so they can see the overall evaluation of the courses.
How do you ensure you have a good response rate from students? Do you offer any incentives to students?
No, we don’t offer any incentives. We currently have a 65% response rate which is fairly good but at the moment most of these evaluations are done on paper which is something that we want to change. In my opinion, the key to getting a really good response rate is to have the right process in place to ensure students and faculty know what to do, when to do it and be motivated to actually do it.
As a school, you also need to re-evaluate the questions frequently to ensure you are asking the right questions and to maintain engagement.
What are the main challenges you face in your role, and how do you try to overcome them?
The first challenge is always to try and change processes. Dealing with change is always challenging, especially if it involves changing the way people work. Also, St Gallen has a matrix organisational structure, which has a lot of advantages, but can slow down the process of making decisions because many stakeholders are involved. It’s hard to overcome these challenges, but I try and deal with it though good communication, a solid network within the institution and the involvement of multiple stakeholders when I want to make some process changes.
Another challenge in this role is actually ensuring that the results we get are used and that we close the loop when it comes to student feedback. It’s difficult but I would really like to improve the communication with students when it comes to the changes that are implemented based on their feedback.
How do you describe a matrix organisational structure?
We basically have the academic and operation teams involved in all decisions. The academics always have to be involved in operation decisions that involve changing processes or implementing new things and can often have the last word. It’s a good thing because it means we ensure everybody is on the same page and in agreement, but it can really slow down processes and decisions.
What are the most rewarding parts of your job?
In my current role, the introduction of medium term reports have been very rewarding as we really feel that our involvement in supporting our students and faculty is helpful, especially for new courses and new teachers.
Back in my previous role, I really enjoyed working directly with the students and feel that I could contribute to their development. In my current role, I don’t see the direct impact because it’s more process based.
What have been your most important achievements while working in this role?
I try to network a lot in my current role. For example, I created a Swiss Evaluation Work Group, where we have practically all Swiss Universities represented, and we have networking events a couple of times a year to share ideas and get best practices from each other.
I did the same for the AACSB accredited Swiss schools. There are only four schools with AACSB accreditation and I set up the swiss chapter with the goal to meet up and share ideas. These groups are working really well and have been extremely helpful.
What do you think are the most important skills to perform well in this role?
I’m actually finishing my MA in Education Management, which I have been doing in parallel to my role, and I really think I’ve been able to transfer a lot of things that I’ve learned into practice. I think my masters has extended the scope of my role and has been very useful in getting things done and to confidently change some of these processes faster.
We talked about rankings and accreditations. What is key for aggregating data for accreditations and rankings?
I would say that having one good database is really key. I know almost no school has that but I would say that limiting the number of databases being used for separate purposes is really important. Aggregating data is always the biggest challenge when it comes to rankings and accreditations. You need to request data from different departments and that process can take a long time.
"Aggregating data is always the biggest challenge when it comes to rankings and accreditations."
What is St Gallen HSG doing to remain at the forefront of business and management thinking?
I think there is a constant and innovative development of the study programs that we offer and we also respond in an active way to developments in the global market and science. I also feel that the strong link St Gallen HSG has with the private sector helps the institution to retain its position at the forefront of business and management thinking.
What do you think will be the key challenges in the future of higher education?
I think the competition is going to be a key challenge in our industry. There are “cheaper” approaches when it comes to acquiring certifications and competencies and more and more students are taking online degrees and courses. At The University of St Gallen we have a different approach as we don’t offer online degrees or MOOCS and focus more on the student experience on campus.
"I think the competition is going to be a key challenge in our industry."
For us, the right way forward is to continue focusing on classroom teaching which offers students a more collaborative learning environment and the possibility to engage in classroom discussions which develop critical thinking skills.
In your opinion, what will future business students require?
I think there’s always a basic skills set that every student should have when they complete their studies - they have to be able to adapt quickly, have good communication skills, be able to collaborate and think critically to solve problems and execute independently.
"Innovative thinking, persistence, understanding the basic rules of how to behave in a multicultural environment and the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes are key skills in today’s world."
I also believe innovative thinking, persistence, understanding the basic rules of how to behave in a multicultural environment and the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes are key skills in today’s world. These are the skills that recruiters will be looking for! Recruiters want people that are agile and able to adapt fast to the changing demands of work nowadays.
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