Measuring Student Engagement

An important annual survey just came out. Inside Higher Ed reports:

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.

Inside Higher Ed has a rundown of both the survey’s positive and negative findings.

On the plus side:

* 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.

The downers:

* 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.

I think the 20 percent figure for coming to class without doing the readings is a severe underestimate. Not that I ever had any firsthand experience with that.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.