More Engaged

Annual survey of student engagement finds notable gains across sectors, and offers new analysis on gaps between science and non-science students, the transfer experience, and impact of learning management systems.
November 9, 2009

Although budget cuts have many educators this year worried about the quality of education students receive, an annual survey being released today suggests that institutions -- large and small, public and private -- can achieve significant gains.

The National Survey of Student Engagement -- whose acronym NSSE is pronounced "nessie" -- doesn't measure learning per se, but a series of qualities of student engagement that are widely believed to correlate with learning. Those qualities range from the rigor of assignments to faculty-student interactions to certain "high impact" experiences (such as capstone courses) that are praised as making students more engaged, more likely to stay enrolled and graduate, and more likely to learn more.

While a new research study released Friday criticized NSSE's validity, the survey has grown in popularity over the 10 years of its existence and has considerable clout among college presidents and student affairs experts.

The NSSE questions are grouped under five benchmarks and colleges can compare their performance over time, as well as the performance of their peers. While many NSSE colleges release their full reports (and USA Today last year started to publish those that agreed to have them published), going public is a choice made by individual colleges. (The NSSE data focus on four-year college students; a separate study, the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, will be released next week, and that study does require that all data be made public.)

The theory behind NSSE is that by participating in the surveys of freshmen and seniors, colleges can identify weak points in their practices and construct policies to improve them. Most colleges participate every year or two, with the idea of measuring changes over time to see if those improvements are taking hold. This year, the study found that 41 percent of institutions showed positive gains in at least one measure for first-year students (with the largest gains seen in measures of active and collaborative learning, and of student-faculty interaction), and 28 percent saw gains for seniors. Very few institutions saw decreases.

Alexander C. McCormick, NSSE director and associate professor of education at Indiana University at Bloomington, said he was particularly pleased that the gains were not limited to any one kind of institution, and thus challenged conventional wisdom that many types of engagement are easiest to carry out at smaller, private colleges. This year's findings, he said, provide "compelling evidence" that "positive change is not limited to certain institutional types." Further, he said that the study finds that these institutions are achieving "steady improvement" over a period of years, not "isolated upticks."

NSSE -- founded in part out of concern over the impact of U.S. News & World Report rankings -- has always avoided giving grades or rankings to institutions or higher education as a whole. Rather, it annually notes "promising" and "disappointing" results from the year's data. Beyond the totals noted above, some of the "promising" trends identified were the following:

  • Over half of students frequently had serious conversations with students of a different race or ethnicity, while only about one in seven reported that they never had such conversations.
  • More than three-quarters of seniors said their senior seminar/capstone course contributed substantially to developing intellectual curiosity, learning independently, thinking critically, and making decisions based on evidence and reasoning.
  • Eighty-five percent of faculty members in a companion survey believed it was important for undergraduates to complete a culminating senior experience. Thirty-three percent of seniors have done so, and another 31 percent were planning to.

Among the "disappointing" findings:

  • Male students were less likely than female students to participate in a "high impact practices," such as "learning communities" in which students take several courses together in an organized way, study abroad, research with faculty members, or internships. Among first-year students, the male to female participation rates are 45 percent vs. 55 percent. Among seniors, the rates are 43 percent vs. 57 percent.
  • About one in five students frequently came to class without completing readings or assignments.
  • Forty percent of first-year students never discussed ideas from readings or classes with faculty members outside of class.

Each year, NSSE features some special questions designed to study particular issues. Among this year's issues was a comparison of the experiences of transfer students (of various types) to "native" students who graduate from the institution they enroll in as freshmen. The issue of the experience of transfer students is an increasingly important ones as more students enroll in community colleges or migrate from one four-year institution to another. Further, as the NSSE annual report notes, many transfer students feel "marginalized," and there has been long-standing concern that they may not benefit from key experiences that contribute to student engagement.

The analysis found this to be true, both for "vertical" transfers (those who move from a community college to a four-year institution) and "horizontal" transfers who move from one four-year institution to another. However, the survey found that horizontal transfers are more likely than vertical transfers to have these experiences.

Participation Rates for Seniors in 'High Impact' Practices

Practice Never Transferred Transferred From 4-Year College Transferred From Community College
Culminating senior experience (such as capstone course, senior project or thesis) 40% 30% 25%
Internship 62% 49% 43%
Study abroad 20% 15% 7%
Research with a professor 24% 17% 13%

Noting the increased public interest in educating more students in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), NSSE asked a series of questions this year related to types of educational experiences that would apply theories of engaged learning to those disciplines. The findings indicate -- not surprisingly perhaps -- that STEM majors are more likely than non-STEM majors to experience these forms of engagement. But the figures among STEM major show far from uniform adoption, and the figures for non-STEM majors are generally low, even on experiences that might apply not only to those students' knowledge of science but to other fields as well.

Comparing Experiences of STEM and Non-STEM Majors

Experience STEM Majors Non-STEM Majors
Worked with other students to solve mathematical or computational problems 55% 25%
Worked on a project requiring hands-on physical design or technical modeling 37% 21%
Wrote five or more papers in which you discussed methods or findings related to data from lab or field work, a survey project, etc. 44% 31%
Wrote five or more papers in which you explained the meaning of numerical or statistical data 34% 18%
Wrote five or more papers in which you included graphs, drawings, tables, photos, screen shots, or other visual content 45% 24%
Took a computer language or programming course 41% 18%
Gains in designing and conducting experiments, surveys, or field research 55% 32%
Gains in interpreting results from experiments, surveys, or field research 66% 37%

Another area on which NSSE focused this year was the impact of learning technologies. The survey found positive impacts on learning both for the use of course management (or learning management) systems and for interactive technologies (such as course blogs, student response systems, etc.). While many colleges have the latter technology as part of the former, NSSE explored them as separate topics.

The use of course management software correlated most strongly, NSSE found, to stronger student-faculty interaction and to gains by students in their personal development. The use of interactive technologies corresponded most strongly with students' self-reported educational gains and with students' view that they had a supportive campus environment.

Following are some of the other results of the 2009 NSSE, organized around the survey benchmark categories (which appear in bold).

NSSE Results 2009

Category Freshmen Seniors
Level of Academic Challenge    
Number of assigned textbooks, books, or book-length packs of course readings    
--None 1% 2%
--Between 1 and 4 21% 27%
--Between 5 and 10 40% 37%
--Between 11 and 20 24% 20%
--More than 20 13% 15%
Number of written papers or reports of 20 pages or more    
--None 80% 50%
--Between 1 and 4 14% 40%
--Between 5 and 10 4% 7%
--Between 11 and 20 2% 2%
--More than 20 1% 1%
Number of written papers or reports between 5 and 19 pages    
--None 14% 10%
--Between 1 and 4 53% 44%
--Between 5 and 10 26% 31%
--Between 11 and 20 6% 11%
--More than 20 2% 4%
Number of written papers or reports of fewer than 5 pages    
--None 3% 6%
--Between 1 and 4 32% 34%
--Between 5 and 10 34% 28%
--Between 11 and 20 20% 18%
--More than 20 11% 14%
Hours per 7-day week spent preparing for class    
--0 1% 0%
--1-5 15% 16%
--6-10 24% 25%
--11-15 22% 20%
--16-20 18% 16%
--21-25 10% 10%
--26-30 5% 6%
--More than 30 5% 7%
Active and Collaborative Learning    
Asked questions in class or contributed to class discussions    
--Never 3% 2%
--Sometimes 36% 26%
--Often 35% 32%
--Very often 26% 41%
Made a class presentation    
--Never 15% 6%
--Sometimes 52% 34%
--Often 25% 36%
--Very often 9% 24%
Worked with classmates outside of class to prepare class assignments    
--Never 14% 8%
--Sometimes 41% 33%
--Often 31% 34%
--Very often 14% 25%
Discussed ideas from your readings or classes with others outside of class    
--Never 6% 4%
--Sometimes 35% 30%
--Often 36% 38%
--Very often 23% 28%
Student-Faculty Interaction    
Discussed grades or assignments with an instructor    
--Never 7% 4%
--Sometimes 41% 35%
--Often 33% 34%
--Very often 19% 27%
Discussed ideas from your readings or classes with faculty members outside of class    
--Never 40% 29%
--Sometimes 38% 43%
--Often 15% 18%
--Very often 7% 10%
Received prompt written or oral feedback from faculty on your academic performance    
--Never 7% 5%
--Sometimes 35% 31%
--Often 40% 44%
--Very often 17% 21%
Work on a research project with a faculty member outside of course or program requirements    
--Never 38% 17%
--Sometimes 23% 50%
--Often 33% 13%
--Very often 5% 19%
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 11% 10%
--Sometimes 32% 33%
--Often 29% 30%
--Very often 27% 28%
Had serious conversations with students of a different race or ethnicity than your own    
--Never 15% 12%
--Sometimes 32% 33%
--Often 27% 28%
--Very often 25% 27%
Used an electronic medium (listserv, chat group, Internet, instant messaging, etc.) to discuss or complete an assignment    
--Never 16% 11%
--Sometimes 31% 27%
--Often 28% 27%
--Very often 26% 35%
Foreign language coursework    
--Have not decided 19% 9%
--Do not plan to do 26% 41%
--Plan to do 34% 9%
--Done 21% 41%
Study abroad    
--Have not decided 29% 14%
--Do not plan to do 26% 62%
--Plan to do 42% 9%
--Done 3% 15%
Culminating senior experience    
--Have not decided 38% 11%
--Do not plan to do 12% 24%
--Plan to do 48% 31%
--Done 2% 33%
Supportive Campus Environment    
Institutional emphasis: Providing the support you need to thrive socially    
--Very little 16% 24%
--Some 35% 39%
--Quite a bit 33% 26%
--Very much 16% 11%
Institutional emphasis: Providing the support you need to help you succeed academically    
--Very little 3% 5%
--Some 20% 24%
--Quite a bit 44% 43%
--Very much 33% 28%
Institutional emphasis: Helping you cope with your non-academic responsibilities (work, family, etc.)    
--Very little 24% 36%
--Some 37% 36%
--Quite a bit 26% 18%
--Very much 13% 9%


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