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NSSE: How Our Students Are Doing

16 Dec Posted by in Academics, Faculty, Students | 1 comment
NSSE: How Our Students Are Doing

We’ve received National Survey of Student Engagement data for Mason for 2012, and while further reports will be issued by beginning of spring semester, from our peerless Office of Institutional Assessment, some preliminary results are worth attention.

NSSE is a national survey that asks students to reflect on learning activities that relate to student success. It’s administered at Mason every three years, to freshmen and seniors. While response rates have been going down (a national problem) we’ve increased the pool so that the total number of respondents is pretty high.

Evaluations include: level of academic challenge; active and collaborative learning; student-faculty interaction; enriching educational experiences; and supportive campus environment.

The news, for us, is mostly good, though suggestive of some important ongoing challenges. The over-time data, from three, six and nine years ago, show steady improvement in all categories for our freshmen. For seniors, steady improvements include student-faculty interaction (a real concern for us a few years back), active learning; and supportive environment. Enrichment has been stable for the seniors, level of challenge essentially stable as well, recovering this year from slight dips in the two previous surveys.

It’s worth wondering why seniors differ from freshmen in terms of engagement trajectories: possibly some impact of the transfer population? Other factors? I confess I would be happier if – were there to be a difference in results – freshmen revealed more problems than seniors did.

Analysis continues by comparing the various measures to essentially peer institutions and also to more intensive research institutions we could regard as aspirational. Here, results are more mixed, though certainly not discouraging. We do the same as both peer groups in level of academic challenge. We beat the aspirational institutions on active and collaborative learning (for both freshmen and seniors), and on student-faculty interaction and enrichment for freshmen. But for seniors in those latter two categories, and for supportive campus environment for freshmen and seniors, we lag behind both peers and aspirationals.

More specific lags, for seniors, within the broad categories include: working on a research project with faculty outside formal requirements, where we’re well behind; practicum and internship experience, and also community and volunteer work, where we lag though less badly; and study abroad, where we fall behind the aspirationals. Obviously some of these categories are already being addressed, most notably through the Students as Scholars research program, and others can be targeted as a part of legitimate goals for the future.

There are challenges in the findings for students as well. On a comparative basis with seniors at aspirational institutions, Mason seniors report less time preparing for class or working with classmates outside of class. An odd one, again for seniors, is a lag in talking with students of different religious and political beliefs – I honestly think, here, students perhaps did not report entirely accurately.  Faculty need to be more active in reaching out to discuss ideas outside of class, and talking about career plans. Supportive campus environment opportunities – to me, the vaguest category – include more support both for academic success and social success.

Again, we seem largely to be on the right track, as we attend more to the quality of teaching and to co-curricular activities, but there’s every reason to use the findings to guide further efforts. That’s what we did with the last NSSE, where faculty-student interactions even more clearly needed heightened attention.

We will have further and more formal reports early next semester. Preliminary NSSE data can be found at