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NSSE 2011 measures student engagement by major

Major Engagement
November 17, 2011

It’s been a rough couple of years for “Nessie” -- the National Survey on Student Engagement.

After a series of studies questioned whether the student engagement measured by the survey actually leads to positive outcomes -- namely, retention and graduation -- one piece of research that’s still being widely discussed nearly a year later set off criticism that, while not directly slamming NSSE, suggested that some of its focus on nonacademic student satisfaction serves more as a talking point for administrators than as a productive research finding.

Still, NSSE is widely looked to as a useful tool to see whether students are taking part in the sorts of behavior that some experts believe is predictive of learning -- things like good study habits, interaction with diverse peers, and engagement with faculty.

Partly in response to discussions sparked by the aforementioned high-profile research reported in Academically Adrift, this year’s annual survey included a special section that broke down how students spend their time by major field. (The authors of Academically Adrift were dismayed that, thanks to a lack of classroom rigor, students reported studying on average only 12-14 hours per week, and not reading, writing or learning as much as might be expected throughout college.)

NSSE’s results as reported in its 2011 survey were slightly more encouraging -- students on average said they studied 15 hours per week. But it varied by major, with engineering students studying the most (19 hours) and their peers in social sciences and business studying the least (14 hours). However, among full-time seniors who spent at least 20 hours per week studying, engineering students (at 22 percent) were also most likely to report attending class without having finished all the assignments. Across the other major categories, an average of 14 to 16 percent did so.

Hours Spent per Week by Full-Time Seniors on Selected Activities,
by Major Category
  Preparing for Class Working for Pay Relaxing or Socializing Co-
Curricular Activities
Commuting to Class Caring for Dependents
Engineering 19 9 11 6 5 3
Physical Sciences 18 11 11 5 4 3
Biological Sciences 17 11 10 6 5 3
Arts and Humanities 17 12 11 5 5 4
Education 15 13 10 4 6 7
Social Sciences 14 13 11 6 5 5
Business 14 16 11 5 5 6

Perhaps tellingly, time spent studying closely correlated with faculty expectations, with most faculty reporting that they expected students to spend only one or two hours more studying per week than they actually did. (The biggest difference was in the social sciences, where students studied an average of four hours less than professors expected.)

“One question I think this raises that’s sort of ripe for some faculty discussion is, ‘How much should we be expecting of our students?’ ” said Alexander C. McCormick, NSSE's director and associate professor of education at Indiana University at Bloomington. “The time is right, really, to start asking questions about whether we are asking enough of our students, whether we’re setting enough expectations.”

Asking students what learning strategies they use, NSSE found that -- unsurprisingly -- the most popular was taking notes during class, which 88 percent of students did. But strategies like creating outlines of course materials and taking notes on readings were less common (51 and 60 percent of students used those strategies, respectively).

Percentage of First-Year Students and Seniors Who Frequently ("Often" or "Very Often") Used Learning Strategies
  First-Year Students Seniors
Learning Strategy    
Took careful notes during class 88% 86%
Connected to learning things you already knew 80% 85%
Identified key information from reading assignments 78% 82%
Organized class notes in a useful way 77% 77%
Set goals before starting academic tasks 76% 76%
Sought help when you did not understand course materials 69% 72%
Reviewed notes after class 66% 64%
Stayed focused while reading course materials 64% 67%
Summarized what you learned in class or from course materials 64% 65%
Avoided distractions while studying or preparing for class 62% 67%
Took careful notes while reading course materials 60% 58%
Created own examples to help study course materials 52% 53%
Created outline of major topics/ideas from course materials 51% 51%
Discussed effective study strategies with faculty or other students 50% 47%

McCormick was particularly struck by the fact that only 7 of 10 students said they sought help when they didn’t understand the course materials. “On the one hand, 70 percent sounds like a lot, but gee, that’s one that we want to be pretty close to 100 percent,” he said.

However, on one level, students not using effective study strategies is not exactly surprising to McCormick, because most institutions don’t teach them.

“I would encourage institutions to see these as mechanisms for introducing students to effective study strategies from the get-go, from the very beginning,” McCormick said, adding that some have begun moving in this direction, teaching strategies at orientation courses and the like. “This isn’t just a higher education issue. I don’t think our education system has been particularly good at recognizing that students don’t inherently or organically know how to be good students … so anything that we can do to render that knowledge so it’s accessible and available to students is important – especially as our student population is becoming more diverse.”

For example, McCormick said, first-generation students likely haven’t had as much informal consulting or guidance as their peers whose parents went to college. That might be why this year's NSSE survey shows they went beyond the typical student in terms of learning strategies -- while they spent significantly less time preparing for class, they were more likely than their peers to use a variety of strategies, especially the less common ones such as reviewing notes after class and creating their own examples to help them study.

The survey also asked students whether they participated in career participation programs such as practicums, internships or clinical assignments. Responses ranged from a high of 71 percent for education majors (most of whom are required to complete such a program) and 57 percent of engineering majors, to a low of 47 percent of students in the arts and humanities and 43 percent for business majors. Ninety percent of those who participated reported an “excellent” or “good” experience.

Finally, in the section on majors, NSSE asked students whether they had participated in any of five “high-impact practices,” which are time-consuming, interactive, full of feedback and potentially “life-changing.” Broken down by major category, the results are below.

Percentage of Students Who Participated in High-Impact Practices, by Major Category
  Culminating Experience Internship/Practicum Research with Faculty Service-Learning Study Abroad
Arts and Humanities 36 % 44 % 17 % 41 % 21 %
Biological Sciences 33 % 52 % 40 % 43 % 17 %
Business 33 % 42 % 10 % 42 % 14 %
Education 25 % 70 % 13 % 68 % 9 %
Engineering 44 % 55 % 28 % 33 % 11 %
Physical Sciences 31 % 45 % 40 % 35 % 13 %
Other Professional 25 % 55 % 16 % 65 % 11 %
Social Sciences 35 % 49 % 24 % 50 % 20 %

This year NSSE also included a section that examined student engagement across different campus programs and units, “to try to convey that student engagement isn’t just the responsibility of the faculty, it isn’t just one set of offices or programs, but in fact that there are actors across campus who can play a role in promoting student engagement and effective learning practices,” McCormick said.

While Academically Adrift found that students in fraternities and sororities showed smaller gains in learning than did other students, NSSE found the opposite. While Greek system participants spent about the same amount of time preparing for class, working and socializing as non-Greeks, they spent more hours per week in co-curricular activities, the report notes. Fraternity and sorority members also said they engaged in more active and collaborative learning and student-faculty interaction, and perceived a more supportive campus environment and more challenging academic experience.

Regardless of age, students living in residence halls, meanwhile, reported spending similar amounts of time preparing for class and socializing than their off-campus peers did, but spent twice as much time in co-curricular activities. They were also more likely to say their institution emphasized attending campus events and activities and that it provided more support to “thrive socially.” Living on campus positively correlated with all five NSSE benchmarks that measure engagement (which can be found in the chart below).

The 2009 survey included a special section looking at transfer students' experience as compared to non-transfers, and that population was included in this year’s “student engagement across campus” section. While transfers made up 40 percent of this year’s survey respondents, they are typically less engaged than their peers, NSSE has found. They tend to be more diverse and have more family and work commitments than non-transfers, and as a result spend less time in co-curricular and social activities and are less likely to report “friendly and supportive” relationships with peers.

Finally, NSSE this year also inquired about service learning among first-year students. Students who participated in courses that included a community-based project reported “significantly higher gains” in various areas of learning and development, including working effectively with others, voting, understanding themselves and others, and contributing to community welfare. These students were also more likely to attend private institutions -- 49 percent of first-year students at private colleges participated, compared to 38 percent at public colleges.

This year the survey will go through its final year of piloting “NSSE 2.0,” a revised version that will include new and modified questions, based on what McCormick and others have learned about effective survey methods over the years -- and what they’ve been criticized for. Because it’s not yet final, McCormick couldn’t say for sure what the final modifications will entail, but said they could include more nuance into questions about reading, because students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics don’t have as many assignments as literature students. Another possibility is asking students about their experiences with writing assignments – things such as preparing multiple drafts and having their work critiqued.

But, McCormick said, they’re being careful not to make the survey too long. “We already worry about response rates and students dropping off before finishing the survey,” he said. “It’s a constant exercise in compromise.”

Below are selected findings from NSSE’s annual questionnaire measuring engagement related to the five learning benchmarks.

NSSE Results 2011
Category First-Year Students Seniors
Level of Academic Challenge    
Number of assigned textbooks, books, or book-length packs of course readings    
--None 1 % 1 %
--Between 1 and 4 23 % 29 %
--Between 5 and 10 44 % 39 %
--Between 11 and 20 22 % 19 %
--More than 20 11 % 13 %
Number of written papers or reports of 20 pages or more    
--None 82 % 51 %
--Between 1 and 4 12 % 40 %
--Between 5 and 10 3 % 6 %
--Between 11 and 20 1 % 2 %
--More than 20 1 % 1 %
Number of written papers or reports between 5 and 19 pages    
--None 16 % 10 %
--Between 1 and 4 55 % 45 %
--Between 5 and 10 23 % 30 %
--Between 11 and 20 5 % 11 %
--More than 20 1 % 4 %
Number of written papers or reports of fewer than 5 pages    
--None 3 % 6 %
--Between 1 and 4 35 % 35 %
--Between 5 and 10 34 % 28 %
--Between 11 and 20 19 % 17 %
--More than 20 10 % 14 %
Hours per 7-day week spent preparing for class    
--0 0 % 0 %
--1-5 14 % 14 %
--6-10 24 % 24 %
--11-15 22 % 20 %
--16-20 18 % 17 %
--21-25 11 % 10 %
--26-30 6 % 6 %
--More than 30 6 % 8 %
Active and Collaborative Learning    
Asked questions in class or contributed to class discussions    
--Never 4 % 2 %
--Sometimes 36 % 26 %
--Often 34 % 31 %
--Very often 25 % 40 %
Made a class presentation    
--Never 16 % 7 %
--Sometimes 51 % 34 %
--Often 25 % 35 %
--Very often 9 % 24 %
Worked with classmates outside of class to prepare class assignments    
--Never 14 % 8 %
--Sometimes 41 % 32 %
--Often 31 % 34 %
--Very often 14 % 27 %
Discussed ideas from your readings or classes with others outside of class    
--Never 7 % 4 %
--Sometimes 34 % 30 %
--Often 36 % 37 %
--Very often 23 % 29 %
Student-Faculty Interaction    
Discussed grades or assignments with an instructor    
--Never 8 % 5 %
--Sometimes 40 % 36 %
--Often 32 % 33 %
--Very often 20 % 27 %
Discussed ideas from your readings or classes with faculty members outside of class    
--Never 42 % 30 %
--Sometimes 37 % 42 %
--Often 15 % 18 %
--Very often 7 % 10 %
Received prompt written or oral feedback from faculty on your performance    
--Never 7 % 5 %
--Sometimes 35 % 30 %
--Often 40 % 43 %
--Very often 18 % 21 %
Work on a research project with a faculty member outside of course or program requirements    
--Never 37 % 18 %
--Sometimes 22 % 48 %
--Often 36 % 15 %
--Very often 5 % 20 %
Enriching Educational Experiences    
Had serious conversations with students who are very different from you in terms of their religious beliefs, political opinions, or personal values    
-- Never 14 % 11 %
--Sometimes 32 % 33 %
--Often 28 % 29 %
--Very often 26 % 27 %
Had serious conversations with students of a different race or ethnicity than your own    
--Never 16 % 13 %
--Sometimes 32 % 32 %
--Often 27 % 28 %
--Very often 25 % 27 %
Used an electronic medium to discuss or complete an assignment    
--Never 15 % 10 %
--Sometimes 30 % 27 %
--Often 28 % 28 %
--Very often 27 % 36 %
Participate in a learning community or some other formal program where groups of students take two or more classes together    
-- Have not decided 31 % 15 %
--Do not plan to do 24 % 49 %
--Plan to do 26 % 10 %
--Done 18 % 27 %
Foreign language coursework    
--Have not decided 19 % 9 %
--Do not plan to do 28 % 42 %
--Plan to do 33 % 9 %
--Done 20 % 40 %
Supportive Campus Environment    
Institutional emphasis: Providing the support you need to thrive socially    
--Very little 15 % 24 %
--Some 34 % 38 %
--Quite a bit 33 % 27 %
--Very much 18 % 12 %
Institutional emphasis: Providing the support you need to help you succeed academically    
--Very little 3 % 5 %
--Some 18 % 23 %
--Quite a bit 43 % 43 %
--Very much 36 % 29 %
Institutional emphasis: Helping you cope with non-academic responsibilities    
--Very little 34 % 36 %
--Some 36 % 36 %
--Quite a bit 26 % 19 %
--Very much 14 % 9 %

 

 

 

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