Which universities get top marks? 90,000 students have their say
Almost every day for the past few years, Meg Martin has spent three hours on public transit, commuting to and from the University of Calgary. She looks forward to Wednesdays, when her first class doesn’t start until 11 a.m. and she can sleep in. Most other days, the fourth-year political science and English major is on campus by 9 a.m., and because she’s involved in student politics, she often stays late into the night. “The hardest part about being a commuter is the exhaustion,” says Martin. But early in her university career, she decided to get involved in student politics, in part to make new friends, have a place to rest and study between classes, and so that she could avoid feeling like an anonymous number and instead become “a member of some type of community.” Right now, she’s gearing up for student elections, where she’s running for vice-president, academic.
In some ways, Martin is the typical undergraduate: she’s 21, attends an urban university with a student body that is the size of a small city and lives at home with her parents. However, Martin is also deeply involved in campus activities—and that sets her apart from many students, at Calgary and elsewhere. She demonstrates some of the attributes of what the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) calls an “engaged student.”
Research has shown that various different forms of engagement—from Martin’s high level of extracurricular contact with peers to curricular extras such as the opportunity to work closely with professors—are likely to lead to more learning, and greater student success. In an effort to raise the level of student engagement at Calgary, officials hired Martin and three other students to help conduct surveys, focus groups and interviews of staff, students and administrators. “This is exciting, because it’ll give me the opportunity to get my hands dirty and connect with stakeholders at this university,” says Martin.
On the following pages, we present the NSSE results from 53 Canadian institutions. NSSE, a student survey that seeks to indirectly measure educational quality, has become an essential analytical tool used by most Canadian universities. The survey pinpoints what students are doing while they are in school and on campus; NSSE then generates benchmark results that show how well those activities and behaviours line up with what research shows are educational best-practices that are likely to lead to more and deeper learning. The higher a school’s scores on the five benchmarks—featured on the accompanying pages—the better the chance, according to NSSE, that its students are learning and getting the most out of their university experience.
The NSSE was developed a decade ago by a group of American education professors, in part as an alternative to university rankings such as those published by U.S. News & World Report (and Maclean’s). NSSE’s creators believed that a student survey of undergraduate quality might be able to provide universities, students and the wider public with essential information about each university. “An extensive research literature relates particular classroom activities and specific faculty and peer practices to high-quality undergraduate student outcomes,” wrote NSSE’s creators. The survey aimed to measure and promote the use of those best practices.