Applying Market Research to Higher Education Course Development

By Chris Martin

Oxford Higher Education Institution

Developing a new course for your institution is a difficult and time consuming task. From designing the syllabus to the teaching materials, course policies and structure – it can seem overwhelming at first. But the big question which hangs over the whole process is: will it succeed? After investing so much time and effort into carefully crafting the perfect new course, there is nothing worse than having low enrolment figures.

Fortunately, we believe there are a number of parallels between new course development and new product development. By applying this thinking, similarities in the process became apparent – as well as strategies to minimise risk through market research. We have broken down the process into four gated stages where market research can be applied to guide course development in the best possible direction.

1. Finding the Market

Before developing the course materials or even objectives of the course, the starting point of the development process is finding the correct market. There are two approaches to this: positivist and non-positivist. Applying a positivist approach involves testing your hypothesis – discovering whether or not there is a market for your idea. A non-positivist approach, on the other hand, is applicable when you have little idea of the course content and using a market led strategy.

Whichever approach you choose, the research methodology remains the same. At such an early stage, where there is no room for long term investment, a quick qualitative study is most appropriate. Make use of free tools such as Survey Monkey to create a short survey. Ask participants to rate their willingness to sign up to your new course, and be sure to leave a few open ended questions for more detailed feedback on what exactly they want. For this type of quantitative study, be sure to use a large sample to allow for effective and accurate analysis. Make use of existing connections such as student lists or alumni networks to distribute your survey as widely as possible.

2. Understanding Student Needs

Once you have found the market for your course, the next stage at which research can aid course development is understanding student needs. This should be conducted before designing a syllabus or course structure as the feedback collected will influence the core elements of your course. To understand the needs and wants of your potential students, we would recommend two types of research: diary studies and live chat focus groups.

Diary studies are a longitudinal form of research that help us understand the lifestyle and behavioural patterns of your potential students. While this may seem obvious, it is important to remember the correlational differences that may arise between students attracted to different courses. By gaining a greater understanding of your potentials students, you are more effectively able to decide on a syllabus and work structure that will be challenging but not impossible. It can help you make decisions such as the optimum split between coursework and examinations, module duration and amount of private study.

A live chat focus group is a direct, collaborative discussion with your participants that is best for generating new ideas and discovering what exactly it is that students would want from a course. By prompting on particular topics such as employability, understanding of theory and practical elements, the feedback from live chat focus groups can be directly implemented into the course design.

3. Testing Course Material

Once you have integrated this feedback into course design and created a proposed outline, you are at a stage at which course elements can be tested. Conducting pre-tests of the course and supporting material is important to ensure that once students have signed up they will actively engage in the course. There are two main methods of conducting pre-tests: through quesion board focus groups and collaborative smartboards.

Question board focus groups are collaborative group discussions which participants can dip in and out of. You can create threads on topics (such as proposed modules, timetables and examination structure), each of which will take on a life of its own as participants provide feedback and build on previous comments. Smartboards are a similar tool, but specifically tailored for visual stimuli. After uploading pictures of course material, screenshots of supporting web pages and documents, it is possible for participants to leave comments on the image, with sentiment tagging, explaining what they do and do not like. Our own Smartboard MR tool even enables collaboration and discussion within notes and individual prompting for further detail.

4. Monitoring Feedback

Finally, as we come full circle and your new course nears its launch date – the last and arguably most important consideration you must take into account is how to monitor and implement feedback from students into the course to build a cycle of continuous improvement. We would recommend taking a combined qualitative and quantitative approach to this, primarily through issuing students with regular (but short surveys).

After the end of each module, send students a survey that includes a list of brief 7 point scales on which various aspects of the course can be rated. Examples of aspects you may wish to invite feedback on include the quality of teaching staff, relevance of supporting materials, difficulty of module etc. Also leave room at the end of the survey for free-form feedback that will allow students to express their opinions in more detail and suggest improvements of their own. If you want to know more about designing effective surveys, we have written an extensive guide on the subject which can be found here.

These are the four key areas in which we believe market research can be applied to higher education course design in order to minimise risk and unlock the full potential of your course. However, we know there are more applications of research than those listed here. If you have a success story about how market and student research has improved your course, we would love to hear from you. Feel free to share any stories or questions you may have in the comments below.

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Christopher Martin

Chris Martin- Marketing Specialist

Personal Bio: With a relentless focus on consumer experience, Chris is uniquely skilled in managing online communication channels. Combined with an in-depth knowledge of the digital era and a sharp analytical mind, he is able to creatively develop the FlexMR brand in accordance with a constantly evolving industry.




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