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University of Surrey

Rising to Top Three in Rankings Through Digital Learning Innovations

  • 8 Min Read

In the changing landscape of veterinary science, the School of Veterinary Medicine at University of Surrey (UoS) pioneered weekly formative quizzes, gamified learning and personalized video feedback within an active team-based learning module. The introduction of digital learning innovations university wide contributed to UoS experiencing a dramatic rise in its National Student Survey rankings, soaring from 60th in 2020 to third in the ‘Learning Resources’ category by 2023 and advancing from 102nd to fourth in the overall ranking by the same year. For his substantial contributions to elevating student experience, Chris Trace, head of digital learning at UoS is a recipient of the 2024 D2L Excellence Award.


University of Surrey



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Chris Trace, head of digital learning , University of Surrey


  • Elevated University from 60th to third in the ‘Learning Resources’ category in the National Student Survey rankings, contributing to a rise in the overall NSS ranking from 102nd in 2020 to fourth in the UK by 2023.
  • Contributed to 100% positive feedback in ‘Learning Community’ and ‘Overall Student Satisfaction’ for the School of Veterinary Medicine in NSS ratings
  • Achieved student satisfaction rates of 94%, 93% and 97% for module organization, digital support and material access, respectively
  • Garnered 94% of student satisfaction for team-based learning elements to increase motivation
  • Streamlined communication and assessment practices across the university, easing administrative loads


Growth Challenges in Veterinary Education

The School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) at the University of Surrey (UoS) witnessed a significant, planned growth in student enrolment for its first-year Veterinary Professional module, growing from an initial 48 students to 150 by 2018. The team were keen to maintain the excellent student experience they’d had with a smaller cohort, so looked for innovative solutions that would maintain learner engagement.

“As student numbers grew, so did the flood of emails. Recognizing that first-year students are particularly overwhelmed, it was crucial for us to maximize our product ecosystem to streamline communication with our students and alleviate administrative burdens for our staff,” said Chris Trace, head of digital learning for the University of Surrey and former eLearning coordinator and teaching academic within the SVM.

This growth in student numbers necessitated a re-evaluation of teaching methodologies and the adoption of scalable, efficient solutions to deliver an excellent learning experience with larger cohorts.

Engaging Students in Non-Clinical Skills

The competitive nature of veterinary medicine attracts a highly motivated yet traditionally focused student body, presenting a challenge in engaging them with the non-clinical, but vital, facets of veterinary practice. Foundational skills such as teamwork, communication and mental well-being required innovative strategies to not only capture student interest but also foster an enthusiastic embrace of them. While critical to the success of veterinary professionals, the Veterinary Professional module was not immediately appealing to students eager to dive into the more tangible aspects of veterinary practice, such as surgical skills.

“Speaking from personal experience and years of teaching veterinary students, I can say they are especially self-driven, often with perfectionist tendencies,” commented Trace. “Students often proactively seek out feedback for self-development, underscoring the necessity for us to deliver high-quality and personalized feedback on a large scale.”


Gamifying Team-Based Learning

Recognizing the need to boost student engagement, Trace adopted a flipped classroom model through D2L Brightspace, anchored by essential pre-reading assignments, to prepare students for active participation in in-person workshops. Despite initial success, feedback and analytics from Brightspace indicated a waning interest in pre-reading materials, which was attributed to perceived redundancy with workshop content.

To reinvigorate student engagement and mirror the collaborative nature of the professional landscape, Trace embraced a team-based learning (TBL) approach. “A key learning outcome from this module was around teamwork, so it made sense to live this. TBL allowed students to build mutual accountability and apply their knowledge to real-world scenarios,” remarked Trace.

This shift included introducing formative exercises using Kahoot. At the start of the class, students competed in weekly team-based quizzes on pre-reading materials and scored based on how fast they selected correct answers. Scores were pulled into a running leaderboard with prizes for winning teams.

 Loved the Kahoot quiz – I think this really helped to maintain focus of the students and bring in some entertainment for them in a long session.

Student in Veterinary Professional module (AY 2018/19)

In 2016, Trace further evolved this approach by initiating team-directed learning sessions. The ease of managing and creating groups within Brightspace streamlined the process of rolling out group assignments, wherein student teams were tasked with creating presentations to tackle challenging scenarios drawn from their pre-reading and workshop discussions. By imposing a three-hour restriction on assignment access and setting release conditions for instruction availability, students had a sense of urgency to collaborate effectively, especially when randomly selected to present.

Trace recalled: “I vividly remember the goosebump-inducing moment of revealing the winning team—it was the most electrifying and engaging atmosphere I’ve ever experienced in a teaching space. Students were on the edge of their seats, or even jumping up and down, as I revealed the results week by week. The blend of Kahoot quizzes and the weekly directed-learning scenarios fostered a profound team ethos throughout the module.”

Personalizing Student Feedback

Alongside Kahoot, formative weekly quizzes served as a foundational step for students to iteratively refine their understanding and monitor their progress. These quizzes, designed as multiple-choice questions tailored to the weekly content, provided students with immediate feedback on both correct and incorrect responses.

Further refining the assessment process, the adoption of Brightspace Rubrics considerably reduced time spent on evaluating students’ reflective portfolios. Examiners can also fine-tune the automatically generated feedback for a more personalized touch. This was augmented by the introduction of video feedback for two key submissions within the reflective portfolio, offering students a thorough explanation of their grades.

“The adoption of weekly quizzes and rubrics has become one of our most effective practices in the university and they are now regularly taught to our staff for broader implementation,” said Trace.

Streamlining Student Communications  

Efforts were made to standardize student communication channels and streamline inquiries:

  • Module-Level Communications were centralized on module homepages with a prominent ‘news’ widget for updates.
  • Program-Level Communications were disseminated through a dedicated page on the UoS’s Brightspace instance, SurreyLearn.
  • Urgent and Individual Communications were addressed directly via email for immediate or personal matters.

To reduce repetitive inquiries, Trace implemented weekly discussions for each teaching unit and the overall module, where students can post anonymously. Faculty enforced a policy, directing all module-related questions to the discussion forum and encouraged student pre-consultation.

“Before being able to post questions onto the overall module forum, the release condition was set so they would have had to access the ‘module handbook’, a PDF document that contains comprehensive information about the module. Similarly, for assignments, they had to access the ‘assignment brief’ document before being able to post questions,” Trace added.

Additionally, the module maintained ‘Friday Feedback’ sessions—weekly recap videos that addressed common confusions and previewed upcoming module content, thereby strengthening the student-faculty communication channel and the learning experience.


The successful deployment of digital learning strategies has led to remarkable achievements recognized in the National Student Survey rankings (NSS). The SVM achieved 100% positive results in ‘Learning Community’ and ‘Overall Student Satisfaction’.

Under Trace’s leadership as Head of Digital Learning, the UoS witnessed a dramatic ascent in the 2023 NSS overall rankings, moving from 102nd in 2020 to 4th in the UK across all surveyed categories. Particularly significant was the improvement in the ‘Learning Resources’ category, which directly reflects the impact of digital learning initiatives. Moving from 60th place in 2020, the UoS became the third-highest-ranked institution in the category.

I have immense pride in our significant stride in the National Student Satisfaction rankings. A few years ago, we were 102nd – far from an ideal place. We’re now fourth in the country in terms of overall student satisfaction. That has been driven in part by our outstanding performance in the ‘Learning Resources’ section, which involves virtual learning environments, digital tools and resources. D2L Brightspace has been enabling us to provide a consistent and exceptional student experience that achieved these impressive results.

Chris Trace, head of digital learning, University of Surrey

Revitalizing Student Motivation

The deployment of Kahoot quizzes significantly boosted student motivation. This is best exemplified by the positive student evaluations of the course.

In a 2018 student survey, 94% of respondents rated the weekly Kahoot quizzes as ‘useful’, ‘very useful’ or ‘extremely useful’ to their study motivation.

“In some instances, introducing team-based quizzes and sharing the leaderboard rankings raised engagement from below 50% to 82%, revealing a shift in study behaviour as students increased their access to pre-reading materials,” commented Trace.

The Module Evaluation Questionnaire (AY 2017/18) underscored the digital learning strategy’s success, with student satisfaction rates for the module’s organization, digital support and access to learning materials reaching 94%, 93% and 97% positive responses, respectively.

Enhancing Clarity and Understanding

The rollout of screen-recorded video feedback in the 2018/19 academic year saw significant student engagement, with 147 video feedback sessions viewed at a 90% rate. Surveys revealed that 87% of respondents preferred video over written feedback.

Students said the personal and detailed nature of video feedback is its most valuable aspect, citing it as the “best mode of feedback” they received. This innovative approach not only improved clarity and student satisfaction but also encouraged more in-depth engagement with the subject matter.

Reducing Administrative Burden 

The strategy in establishing clear lines of student communication within the SVM has become a standard practice across the entire university. Significantly, the implementation of discussion forums with release conditions led to a large decrease in student emails.

The engagement statistics were telling: Of the 151 students who actively participated in the forums in the 2018/19 academic year, 62% engaged with at least one post and 34% immersed themselves in more than 10 discussions, totaling 2,135 views across all posts.

The tagline I give for our team is, ‘We’re here to make education more awesome.’ We wanted to really push the boundaries of what we could do and create great learning experiences, all of which was possible because of the power of D2L Brightspace. Education should be a journey for every single person, and I think Brightspace is fantastically positioned to be able to make that happen.

Chris Trace, head of digital learning, University of Surrey
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