A student survey helps universities target areas for improvement.
Anne Celine Hansen, a fourth-year bachelor of management student at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, used to find herself stuck between classes killing time. “I wouldn’t really know what to do with myself,” she says. Hansen, who lives about a 20-minute walk from campus, could study at the library or sit in the cafeteria, but it was hard to connect with other people. Like many students living off-campus, she felt disconnected from the pulse of her university. “Students would take the bus up to campus, go to class and then take the bus back home,” says Hansen.
In 2006, UBC started administering the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), a U.S.-based survey that indirectly measures educational quality by analyzing what students do with their time on campus. NSSE measures a university’s performance based on five key benchmarks—including student-faculty interaction, level of academic challenge and supportive campus environment—providing data for comparison across time and between institutions. Research has shown that higher levels of engagement can lead to greater student success. UBC’s results pointed to the disengagement that Hansen and others at Okanagan were feeling, so in 2008, the school decided to correct the problem. “We wanted to make sure that our commuter students had exactly the same campus life experience as the residence students, the same level of TLC,” says Ian Cull, associate vice-president of students at the Okanagan campus.
The school set up what it calls “collegia”—on-campus lounges providing space for commuter students to sit and do homework, talk, or just watch TV. They’re staffed by senior students, called collegia assistants, who answer questions, provide information about the university and set up social events. Hansen has been working as a collegia assistant since the program started. Students “are always coming in and talking to people, meeting people,” she says. “It becomes a big group.”
The issue of student engagement is becoming increasingly important for universities, especially since NSSE arrived at 11 Canadian schools in 2004. The survey has now been conducted at 64 institutions across Canada, with 11 more universities and one college set to participate for the first time this year. And as the years of data accumulate, schools are using the insight NSSE provides to create programs tailored to improving the quality of their students’ education.
Administrators at the University of New Brunswick had little cash to spend on new programs, but they didn’t want to waste their NSSE data. So Tony Secco, UNB’s vice-president, academic, had the information broken down by faculty and distributed to the deans. Deciding to concentrate primarily on one benchmark—student-faculty interaction—they pooled ideas and came up with several low-cost ways to better connect professors with their pupils. The administration hosted student-faculty mixers, held faculty workshops on student engagement, asked professors to spend more time mentoring after class, and converted unused space on campus into common and student services rooms where faculty and students can meet. While there are no hard data yet on how well the initiatives are working, the response from students and teachers has been positive. “Engagement in any exercise is very strongly linked to the fulfillment that is sensed by the individual,” says Secco. For his part, UNB president Eddy Campbell observes: “NSSE is a good instrument for measuring that engagement. And it allows us a good look at the places where we need to do better.”
But NSSE isn’t just supposed to be used internally. Its results are meant to be shared across schools, and are most effective when broken down into faculties and student groups. Unfortunately, this isn’t an easy process. “There’s no formal mechanism for sharing information across institutions,” says Chris Conway, principal investigator for the NSSE intervention project—a group, funded by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, that examines NSSE’s effectiveness. He says Canada needs “a more systematic data sharing and analysis exercise” that breaks down information by school and then by faculty, making cross-institutional comparisons easy. Conway and a committee of educators from around the country are working to create a national data-sharing initiative that will do exactly that. So far, 44 universities have signed on to the project, and Conway is hoping to release preliminary results within four months.
Conway is cautious, however, not to draw conclusions prematurely, noting that although NSSE has built a good foundation of knowledge in Canada, the programs it’s helped to create are still in their infancy, and universities won’t know how effective they are without a few more years of data. “I don’t think we’re at the point now where we can say a given type of experience gives you the best bang for your buck in terms of quality improvement,” he says.
Still, Jillian Kinzie, the NSSE institute’s associate director, is optimistic, pointing out that Canadian schools are continually improving their scores and bettering their educational programs. “The thing that impresses me the most is the commitment to action,” she says. “Digging in and really spending time thinking about what these results tell us about the quality of students’ educational experiences, that’s the most important part—converting the results into some sort of action to improve the educational experience.”