Using Student Engagement Results to Oversee Educational Quality

By Jillian Kinzie, Alexander C. McCormick, and Robert M. Gonyea    //    Volume 24,  Number 1   //    January/February 2016

Since the advent of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) in 2000, more than 1,600 bachelor’s degree- granting colleges and universities have had access to reliable evidence about their students’ engagement in effective educational practices that can inform discussions about educational quality. Yet too few institutions and boards take full advantage of this information to document and improve quality. Board members must come to understand the importance of student engagement and how institutions under their leadership can use it to improve educational quality.

To clarify the role of the board in the oversight of educational quality, Ellen Chaffee, in a 2014 Trusteeship article, outlined the governing board’s responsibility to consider information that addresses three domains of quality: educational inputs, such as student and faculty characteristics; educational processes and experiences, including retention and graduation rates and participation in effective practices such as active learning, studentfaculty interaction, internships, undergraduate research, collaborative learning, and service-learning; and educational outcomes, such as content knowledge, writing ability, and critical-thinking skills.

All of these dimensions are essential to ensuring quality. However, educational processes and experiences are particularly appropriate for board oversight because they are subject to influence. Processes can be implemented, measured, evaluated, and improved. Institutions can use student surveys, course evaluations, observation, curriculum mapping, and other approaches to document strengths and identify aspects of the undergraduate experience that can be improved through changes in policies and practices.

Student Engagement as an Indicator of Educational Quality

George Kuh, NSSE’s founding director, asserted in a 2011 Trusteeship article that it is vital for boards to “become familiar with and pay attention to student engagement as a key indicator of educational quality.” Student engagement refers to an array of learning activities and experiences that are associated with such valued outcomes of college as critical thinking, problem solving, and communications skills, among others. Specifically, it represents the time and energy students dedicate to educationally purposeful activities: studying; interacting with faculty members and collaborating with peers about substantive matters; synthesizing what they’re learning and applying it in new contexts; and participating in enriching experiential learning or high-impact practices, including service-learning, internships, diversity and global learning, learning communities, capstone courses, and undergraduate research. These are behaviors that decades of prior research on college student learning and development have found to be positively related to desired outcomes of college.

Student engagement is grounded in the premise that the more time and effort students devote to purposeful learning experiences, the more they benefit. Of course, this proposition depends on how colleges and universities ensure student engagement. Institutions must organize the curriculum and co-curriculum to facilitate it, arranging learning opportunities and support services to engage students at high levels. In short, they must promote experiences and practices that matter to student learning.

Student engagement caught on as a measure of educational quality because it employs a simple, yet effective way to assess quality: ask students about their experiences. Every year, NSSE invites hundreds of thousands of first-year students and seniors to report on this subject. Participating institutions then receive detailed analyses describing the student experience, with statistical comparisons to customizable groups of other institutions. Reports include graphical displays of key results, scores on 10 engagement indicators and six high-impact practices that are akin to key performance indicators, and a data file to facilitate additional analyses linked with other student data. They provide diagnostic and actionable information on important aspects of the undergraduate experience.

NSSE’s basic proposition is that once equipped with actionable, comparable information about behaviors and experiences that matter for learning, colleges and universities can employ this information to shape the learning environment and make evidence-based improvements. For example, NSSE results revealed that, overall, Kenyon College’s students were engaged and highly satisfied with their educational experience. Yet digging deeper into the data on perceived educational gains brought Kenyon new insights into students’ perceptions of the college’s contribution to their development of work-related skills and personal values or ethics. These findings helped make the case for an initiative to reimagine general education at Kenyon.

How Have Institutions Used NSSE?

The use of evidence to improve educational quality is NSSE’s raison d’être. From the project’s onset, we have collected examples of how institutions use their results, featuring numerous short examples in annual reports and lengthier accounts in the Lessons from the Field series, and in a searchable database on our website. These examples demonstrate how seriously participating institutions take their results, using the data to guide improvement.

In the two examples to follow, we briefly illustrate effective approaches to data use to improve and demonstrate accountability.

Gettysburg College established an institutional commitment to reviewing NSSE results involving a wide range of groups and committees, including the President’s Council, the Committee on Institutional Effectiveness, the Committee on Learning Assessment, the Academic Advising and Mentoring Task Force, and the Task Force on the Intellectual Life of First-Year Students. Results regarding student-faculty interaction, for example, suggested the potential to enhance student participation in faculty-mentored research. The college prioritized increasing support for student summer research and senior projects, expanding opportunities for student travel to academic and professional conferences, and providing a place to showcase student research and creative work. Informed by NSSE results and other assessments, the college has greatly increased resource allocation and new initiatives for faculty-mentored research, internships, and other highimpact learning experiences. Indeed, the college’s systematic use of assessment data for improving student learning was commended by the visiting team during its reaccreditation review by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

The University of Northern Iowa (UNI) has used its NSSE results in a number of ways to focus attention on practices that matter for learning, including campus diversity goals. NSSE’s “Discussions with Diverse Others” engagement indicator was used to map progress on the institution’s key performance indicators (KPIs) such as, “Educate all students to ensure that they are prepared to live and work successfully in a diverse world.” To track progress on this KPI, campus data were paired with results about how often students had discussions with people who differ from them with regard to race or ethnicity, religious beliefs, and political views. KPIs and corresponding results are posted on an interactive web page where UNI faculty and staff can view them, select benchmarks, and review progress. The results are also shared at the annual town hall meeting on diversity and inclusion.

These examples demonstrate the value of student engagement results to involve stakeholder groups in conversations about educational quality and using evidence to take action. Moreover, the accounts represent the kind of evidence that board members should know about regarding educational quality and its improvement.

How Informed Are Boards?

NSSE’s greatest strength is arguably its ability to stimulate substantive conversations about what colleges and universities are doing well and where improvement is needed. Under the right conditions, those conversations lead to deeper inquiry, action, and improvement.

In 2005, Harvard’s former president, Derek Bok, encouraged board members to assume greater responsibility for engaging in issues related to student learning. Bok suggested that boards be informed about current procedures for assessing the effectiveness of teaching and learning and the methods the institution uses to enhance the quality of education. Specifically, board members were advised to ask the president:

Does the college participate in NSSE? If so, what steps are taken to act on the results?

Are the results of such assessments shared with the faculty, and are they used to identify weaknesses and discuss potential remedies?

Asking such pointed questions fulfills the most fundamental expectation of board responsibility for educational accountability.

Although confirming that an institution is participating in NSSE and that results receive attention is commendable, board involvement can go further. Since 2008, we have asked NSSE contacts about the extent to which studentengagement results were shared with and used by a range of campus audiences, including presidents, deans and department chairs, student affairs staff, faculty members, advisors, boards, and others. We’ve found that results have been shared with boards at about half of participating institutions (peaking at 64 percent in 2010). Not bad considering that in 2015, results were shared with deans and department chairs at 82 percent of participating institutions, and with faculty at 76 percent. However, when we ask about those campus audiences using the data, the figures drop roughly in half, and dramatically lower for boards. For example, in 2013 and 2015, boards used results at only about 10 percent of institutions.

The levels of data sharing and use found by NSSE comport with findings from AGB’s 2010 report, “How Boards Oversee Educational Quality: A Report on a Survey on Boards and the Assessment of Student Learning.” Data indicated that over two-thirds (68 percent) of boards received results from standardized instruments, including NSSE, but also showed that 62 percent of respondents felt too little board-discussion time was spent on student-learning outcomes, and less than one-quarter of respondents said the board used information about student learning to inform budget decisions. Despite a heartening institutional example of board action in response to NSSE results, most board members indicated that they lacked information about student-learning assessment processes and data and were unsure how to respond or what to do with the information they received. All of this suggests that more can be done to advance board oversight of educational quality.

Involving Boards in the Use of Student Engagement Results

To suggest possible models for greater board involvement, we highlight some actual institutional approaches to sharing results, displaying data, and monitoring quality.

Sharing Results. Institutions that share NSSE results with boards tend to adopt two basic approaches. The first is simply to present results to the board (or to the academic affairs committee of the board) by introducing NSSE and showing how the institution fares in comparison to peer institutions. More often than not, this is “sharing the good news,” showcasing where results exceeded peer comparators and other positive aspects of the undergraduate program. For example, boards may hear that students felt sufficiently challenged in their classes, had positive interactions with faculty members, engaged in frequent dialogue with others of a different background or belief system, and that more than half of seniors participated in some form of practicum, internship, or field experience. Evidence from NSSE can confirm effective institutional performance on measures that matter for student learning—information that is certain to be of value to the board.

Sharing results with boards can also take the form of balancing good news with concerns revealed in the data. For example, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte presented its NSSE 2014 results to its board’s academic and student affairs committee. Results confirmed that the university compared favorably to peer institutions on aspects of student-faculty interaction, student participation in highimpact practices, and students working collaboratively on assignments and projects, and that institutional investments in course redesign and group study spaces were paying off. The presentation then transitioned to information about where the institution could do better, including results that showed lower levels of engagement among transfer students and concerns about reflective learning among first-year students and the amount of time seniors spent studying. These results emphasized the need to engage new transfer students academically and socially, to enhance engagement in the classroom, and to further examine the curriculum for barriers to timely completion. According to UNC Charlotte’s NSSE contact, board members asked relevant questions about plans to improve programs and structures. This generated productive dialogue between board members and the provost, who was able to reinforce related initiatives that were underway.

Perhaps the most worthwhile and widespread way institutions share these results with their boards is to respond to specific board questions or concerns about students and the quality of their experiences. For example, NSSE results have been used in response to such questions as:

  • Our students seem to really be all nose to the grindstone. Do they spend more time studying than students at similar institutions?
  • We’ve invested in maintaining an 11:1 student-faculty ratio. Is the quality of student-faculty interaction higher at our college compared to our peer institutions?
  • We claim our campus provides a good deal of help so all students can reach their goals. Do our students perceive the campus to be supportive of their success? Does this differ by age or race/ethnicity?
  • Our campus has a high proportion of first-generation students. Do these students expect to participate in internships and study abroad at the same levels as their non-first-generation peers? This illustrates how NSSE results can inform important board discussions about the student experience and educational quality.

Displaying Results. Results can also be presented to boards in more regular and uniform ways, including the organized display of results in dashboards or report cards that incorporate a broad array of information about educational quality. For example, Clemson University employs a comprehensive President’s Report Card that is issued quarterly to apprise board members of strategic goals for student achievement. The report card includes outcome metrics with specific targets and benchmarks for select NSSE measures. For example, to meet objectives of the diversity plan for students, Clemson reports on how much students say the institution encourages contact among students from different backgrounds and whether their academic programs help them understand these peers. Clemson also reports NSSE results related to its goal of doubling the number of students participating in creative inquiry, service learning, internships, on-campus employment, and study abroad. Clemson also reports on student perceptions of university support and course experiences that require synthesizing ideas or concepts from different courses when completing assignments or during class discussions. The board reviews the results and has the opportunity to discuss and raise questions about institutional progress.

Monitoring Quality. Student engagement results can also be employed to inform strategic direction and monitor progress. For example, the University of West Florida (UWF) included NSSE measures in its required university work plan for the board of governors of the State University System of Florida. Institutional work plans were designed to assess progress by connecting the board of governors’ strategic plan goals and system metrics with annual accountability reports. Approved by the UWF board of trustees, the work plan aims to drive improvements in academic quality and to distinguish the UWF mission. UWF specifically identified its goals to improve student engagement overall, and particularly to increase participation in highimpact learning experiences as measured on NSSE. Targets are set for 2016-17, including increasing mean scores on five or more indicators and improving participation rates in three or more high-impact practices. The board and institution plan to invest in initiatives to drive improvements in these areas.

The inclusion of NSSE results in the “Learning Experiences and Outcomes” section of St. Olaf College’s annual report is a reasonably organized way to share key information with the board about the quality of student engagement, and specifically about participation in high-impact practices and students’ perceptions of the college’s contribution to their gains in select liberal-arts outcomes. In 2013, St. Olaf developed boardlevel student-learning metrics to reflect a new statement of institution- level learning outcomes and to incorporate relevant NSSE measures. However, because the matrix includes an extensive set of indicators of educational quality, including retention and graduation rates, measures of student engagement, and benchmarks of students’ general and specialized knowledge, it is not designed to be presented in its entirety to the board’s academic affairs committee. Rather, it serves as a source of information for the provost and dean of the college to inform conversations with the board, as well as ongoing work with the faculty and academic leadership.

Over the last decade, many more institutions are focusing on increasing student participation in high-impact practices. Boards are increasingly involved in overseeing this emphasis and supporting the expansion of these opportunities. For example, members of the Rhodes College board were presented with trend data from NSSE and other institutional data sources and summaries of information related to these practices, including an accounting of a range of practices and the overlap as well as the timing of students’ involvement.

Closing Thoughts

In this era of heightened expectations for accountability, boards and institutions must make systematic use of data about educational quality. Because student engagement represents an aspect of educational quality that is directly actionable— something that an institution can influence and improve—it is a productive area for board attention.

Unlike rankings and prestige measures such as entering student achievement scores, which are difficult to change and bear little relation to educational effectiveness, NSSE results provide institutions and boards with measures that matter to student learning and development, and that are amenable to intervention and improvement. The effective educational practices reported by NSSE are a clear expression of aspects of educational quality worthy of board attention and action. NSSE results can help board members determine whether students are experiencing the quality of education the institution promises and where additional investment is needed.

To fulfill their responsibility for oversight of educational quality, boards must understand important concepts like student engagement and the prevalence of effective educational practices at their institutions. Boards should set expectations for evidence about educational quality, identify the best ways to share results, and set aside time to discuss relevant assessments. Allocating board and academic affairs committee time to the thorough consideration of student engagement results demonstrates that enhancing the quality of the student experience is a priority. Finally, a commitment to invest in improvement initiatives—in collaboration with administrative leaders, faculty, and staff—is vital to achieving proper board oversight of educational quality.

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