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Debbie O'Leary
School of Education
devo99@indiana.edu
812-856-8031

John Hayek
School of Education
nsse@indiana.edu
812-856-5824

Last modified: Friday, December 14, 2001

Study recommends new measures of college quality

The academic reputation of a college or university reveals very little about the quality of learning that its students experience, according to a recently released study by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). Supported by a $3.3 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to the School of Education at Indiana University, the study challenges the view of college quality popularized by national news magazines that rate colleges largely on the basis of their institutional resources and public reputations.

By focusing on whether colleges are using their resources to help students learn and get the most out of school, the study provides new information for students and parents to use in the college search process and gives campuses additional insight into effective teaching and student learning.

A school's academic reputation as judged by others says very little about how much active learning, student-faculty interaction, and a supportive environment characterize a campus, said George Kuh, Chancellor's Professor of Education at IU and director of the NSSE project.

The National Survey of Student Engagement annually collects information that colleges and universities can use to improve undergraduate education. The NSSE 2001 report, Improving the College Experience: National Benchmarks of Effective Educational Practice, summarizes the project's first two years. The national database includes responses from more than 155,000 first-year and senior students at 470 four-year colleges and universities.

Students and parents should be asking colleges the kinds of questions that NSSE asks, said Russ Edgerton, director of the Pew Forum on Undergraduate Learning. How much do students study, and how rigorous are their assignments? How much writing is expected? How often do students interact with their teachers in meaningful ways? Policy-makers and accrediting bodies should be asking these questions, too.

The results of the survey provide comparative standards for determining how effectively colleges are contributing to learning. Five benchmarks are measured: (1) level of academic challenge, (2) active and collaborative learning, (3) student-faculty interaction, (4) enriching educational experiences and (5) supportive campus environment.

Thomas C. Longin, vice president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, called NSSE a major step forward in the ongoing quest for effective ways to assess learning outcomes, academic quality and institutional effectiveness.

Additional key findings of the survey include:

Schools of similar sizes and missions vary widely in student experience, though students at small colleges and liberal arts colleges tend to be more engaged than their counterparts attending larger colleges and universities.

Many schools are positively influencing student engagement by offering small seminars for first-year students, service learning and research opportunities, and senior capstone projects that encourage contact between students and faculty members. Even so, 45 percent of all first-year students never discussed ideas from their classes or readings with a faculty member outside of class.

A worrisome gap exists between the amount of time students spend on key educational activities and what faculty members and others say is optimum. For example, students spend only about half as much time preparing for class as their teachers consider necessary, and 20 percent of all students frequently come to class unprepared.

Active and collaborative learning is becoming more common across all types of colleges and universities. The study found that 98 percent of students at least occasionally participate in class discussions and 90 percent work with other students on projects during class.

The majority of seniors do internships (72 percent) and community service and volunteer work (67 percent).

Half of all first-year students and seniors frequently have serious conversations with students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

The NSSE report also contains numerous examples of how colleges and universities are using their results.

In this regard, President Lee Shulman of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching sees NSSE as a novel approach for monitoring the vital signs of quality in undergraduate education, one that might eventually lead to a comprehensive strategy superior to traditional approaches to accountability.

The NSSE 2001 Report was co-sponsored by the Pew Forum on Undergraduate Learning and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. A copy of It may be obtained for $20 from the National Survey of Student Engagement, Ashton Aley Hall, Suite 102, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405-7510. The NSSE Web site is http://www.iub.edu/~nsse.