Major differences in engaging students
By Michael De Groote
They call it "student engagement." No, it has nothing to do with getting married. Instead, it is a way of talking about and measuring just how involved students are in higher education.
The National Survey of Student Engagement, NSSE for short and pronounced "Nessie," released its annual survey on Nov. 4. You might expect that different schools would have different levels of student engagement, but it also turns out that different majors have different levels of engagement.
But what is this engagement or involvement?
"These are the activities that students can engage in or are offered on college campuses that have been time and time again associated with higher levels of student learning," said Paul Presson, associate provost for institutional research at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. It is learning above and beyond memorization and test-taking. It is understanding, not just knowing.
"Across almost all disciplines, the students that have more interaction with faculty, have more out-of-class learning experiences, and even things like student employment (when related to their discipline) — all of these things tend to equate to much higher levels of true understanding of the material," Presson said.
So the ideal for universities would be, of course, more engagement. NSSE gets this engagement information from students— freshmen and seniors. This way, they have it covered both coming and going. And universities are paying attention — even if they don't all release their specific results to the public.
"The real value in any survey like this is comparing yourself over time," said Carri P. Jenkins, assistant to the president and director of university communications at BYU.
The national aggregate information does tell some interesting things about the state of student involvement across the country. NSSE looked at different majors. Senior biology majors, for example, said their classes had more memorization than other majors and that they gave fewer in-class presentations. They also had to prepare more for class than other majors. Forty percent of biology students participated in research with faculty members — that's about twice the overall average.
This is how it seems to go for all the majors. The nature of the subject seemed to affect which areas of engagement were stronger than others. Psychology students did more "reflective thinking." This is the type of thinking that, for example, tries to see an issue from another perspective.
Senior English majors were best in "integrative learning," which means they took diverse perspectives in assignments and grabbed facts from more sources than seniors in other majors.
In general, NSSE discovered that students who worked in groups with the resultant interaction would boost other areas of engagement, as well.
ll these differences in majors may also indicate that differences between types of colleges and universities should be expected as well. The survey's most comparable set of data is the benchmarks. Five benchmark areas emerge in the results: The level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences and supportive campus environment.
The value of comparison among, say, Westminster College, BYU and UVU is difficult because there are different expectations and they are different types of colleges.
Although BYU does not release full information about the survey results, Jenkins did share some of the numbers. When BYU freshmen were asked if they would attend BYU again if they could start all over, 95 percent answered "probably or definitely yes." Ninety-four percent of seniors said they would do the same.
Students were also asked how they evaluated their educational experience. Ninety-seven percent of freshmen and 95 percent of seniors said they would rate their experience as good or excellent. That compares with 88 percent and 86 percent nationally.
You could compare Westminster and UVU — both released their data — but they are different types of schools. "In some ways, it would be very interesting to see how we compare (with other local universities)," Presson said, "but in a lot of ways, just the nature of the type of school really wouldn't make the numbers all that comparable."