This morning I returned from my annual week in the woods to discover our institution’s National Survey of Student Engagement Report (NSSE) on my desk. For the uninitiated, the NSSE compares student reported experiences of academic and other campus interactions both within group (comparing first-year to senior year-responses) and between colleges of similar types. Like all surveys, the NSSE is an imperfect measure, but it does reveal some potential points of pride and some areas we might improve on. Since we invest in this survey as part of our institutional assessments, I am thinking that we ought to make some specific plans to use the information gathered.
First, the good news. Our first-year and senior-year students are reporting spending more hours on reading and writing than the students from several of our peer institutions are, and many of our students report feeling challenged to do their best work. Our seniors are completing culminating academic projects (a widely recognized high-impact practice) at a very high rate, and they value that experience. Taking a long(ish) view of our NSSE data, there has been improvement in student reports on academic challenge for both first and senior year students and, although still not where we hope it would be, more of our students are reporting more quantitative reasoning opportunities in the curriculum.
By the time our students are seniors, they are reporting experiences with academics, peers, faculty, and the campus in terms that are roughly comparable to our peers. There are a few plusses here, too. Our seniors report that they are using good learning strategies, their faculty are using effective teaching practices, they have engaged in discussions “with diverse others,” and completed culminating and integrative educational experiences.
Unsurprisingly, there are real differences between our first-year and senior-year student responses. Our first-year students are not convinced that we are using effective teaching practices, which may be a function of the transition from high school to college expectations. In addition, our first-year students do not feel they are experiencing integrative learning opportunities, and they do not feel they are engaging in discussions with diverse others.
This interesting information. We want our students to engage with difficult concepts, examine their worldviews, and be confident in their ability to learn both broadly and within their major. Based on our NESSE data, this appears to be happening by senior year, but our first year students are not reporting this at all.
Over the past five years, WCSU has done a lot to make our goals transparent to our students. We have revised our general education curriculum to reflect common learning outcomes that we believe are essential to a liberal arts degree, published four-year plans, and added a first year navigation course. Great. Perhaps these steps account for some of the improvements in our NSSE scores overall. However, we should not be satisfied yet, because our students are still not fully engaged with or aware of our great plans for their education.
Here’s a radical idea–let’s clarify things for our first-year students. Can we make those big ideas about their whole education visible to our students right from the start? Here are three suggestions to that might help us communicate our intentions more clearly.
- The First Year Course. Let’s build a couple of conversations about the holistic of a liberal arts degree into every FY course. Part one of that conversation can focus on just describing the rationale behind the components of a degree (general education, major, minor/certifications) and the related experiences that might be considered enhancements (study-abroad, internships, etc.). This conversation should take place prior to advising for the spring semester. Part two could happen at the end of the semester. Take a moment to ask the students what they have learned. Give them a writing prompt that encourages them to draw connections between their courses. Then ask them to consider what they think they need to learn to make those connections more clear and encourage them to get those experiences in the next year.
- Introductory Courses. In all 100 level courses, let’s describe and discuss our pedagogical approach with our students. We should not be repeating high school: college is different. We put more control into our students’ hands and we are more focused on questions than clear, short answers. Let’s clue our students in to these new expectations with direct conversations about how the higher education environment should differ from their experiences with education. Give them some direct examples of how this might work. For example, show them the difference between a quiz for memorization and a quiz for integrative thinking. Then they will know we have a plan and it is not to trick them. This might help students see our teaching strategies as effective at an earlier stage in their education. It might also help them build effective learning strategies.
- Everything Else. So, who about those conversations with diverse others? This is both the easiest and hardest change to make. It is easy because there is no subject that is not informed by experiences of different groups of people. From the histories we tell, to access to the arts, to land use, or genetically modified foods, we have unique perspectives that deserve consideration. As an institution, higher education is uniquely responsible for fostering conversations that examine these issues from many perspectives. It is our job to help our students develop skill in sorting through fact, opinion, and probabilities in thoughtful and civil ways. It is hard to achieve this because sometimes our differences are complicated and intimidating and we are unsure of how to navigate the conflicts. Still, we should be working to gain full participation in these conversations in every single course we teach. This means we must be intentional about fostering inclusive conversations and brave about addressing conflict. It is a challenge, but I am certain we are up to this task.
If we take these steps, we might be able to close the difference between the impressions our first-year and senior-year students are having of their education. Maybe we can engage them sooner so they can enjoy this experience from the start.