At the 2020 AAC&U annual meeting, conference goers were invited to focus on the shape and future of higher education. Coupled with NSSE's planning for its third decade, we took that cue and engaged participants in a thoughtful discussion centered on current trends and future possibilities of engagement as a lens for examining college quality. When launched in 2000, NSSE had two main objectives. The first was to deepen the conversations regarding college quality by assessing students' experiences in sound educational practices. The second, related objective was to provide institutions with valid and reliable information that could be used to inform their practice and direct improvement.
As the field developed, we deepened our understanding of student engagement. Here we also recognize that the overall notion of quality changed within higher education. Most institutions now understand the need to develop a culture of evidence that assesses educational effectiveness, tracks high-impact practices, and monitors various indicators of student engagement and activities that promote deep learning.
Using this as framework of where the field started and how it developed, we posed three sets of questions to spark participants into further discussion and meaningful dialogue.
- What are the emerging demographics on your campus? How will new kinds of students challenge and shape what we know about engagement?
- Do current measures of engagement adequately cover what is essential to the improvement of student learning? What new forms of engagement should we assess?
- What trends should a large-scale survey assessment project consider over the next decade to facilitate evidence-informed improvement?
So, what did participants share with us and what can we learn?
What are the emerging demographics on your campus? How will new kinds of students challenge and shape what we know about engagement?
In the discussion of the first questions, participants' comments sorted into three, unranked groups.
The first group related to who the students are in their identities. There has been growth in identities that are typically outside the majority. More students of color; more students who are first-generation; more students who are working, have financial need, or identify as lower SES (including food / housing insecure); more students who identify as non-hetero in orientation; more who identify within the gender spectrum and less on the binary edges; more students who have disabilities and who identify as neuro-divergent. While these areas and others have changed, colleges and universities are also more aware to ask questions related to identity knowing that identity shapes experience. So, institutions have grown in these regards too.
The second group related to where those students come from. Not only has 'the who' changed as universities continue to recruit a more diverse student body, but there has been growth in the number of students who come from abroad, students who learn English as a second language, greater numbers of students from rural towns, and certainly greater numbers of students from urban environments.
The last group relates to what students academically bring with them. Students of all ages enter college, so students bring knowledge that comes with age and being an adult learner. Many students now transfer-in with credits from both high school dual enrollment and from other colleges. Transfer students also bring other degrees such as associate degrees and certificates.
Do current measures of engagement adequately cover what is essential to the improvement of student learning? What new forms of engagement should we assess?
In the discussion of the second questions, participants' comments sorted into four, unranked groups.
The first group related to aspects of the overall campus climate. Aspects included issues such as safety, general sense of belonging, and broad climate issues such as race relations on campus or queer acceptance.
The second group related to specific aspects of how students learn. Issues included active/passive learning styles, mentor type relationships, digital environments and digital HIPs, engaging the physical space, interdisciplinary programs and research.
The third group related to new forms of activities. Engagement in activities around student organizing and organizations, volunteer work off campus, student work (both paid and unpaid) as institutional ambassadors, recruitment assistants and other types of institution related business.
The last group related to specific items on the current survey. Issues included updating terminology so that is more understandable to the diverse student body; consideration of more than transactional engagement (comparison of 'discussions with diverse others' to 'friendship with diverse others'); including job/employment related assistance as students transition into full-time employment; determining expenses related to HIP involvement.
What trends should a large-scale survey assessment project consider over the next decade to facilitate evidence-informed improvement?
In the discussion of these questions, participants' comments sorted into four, unranked groups.
The first group related to operating more pragmatically. Issues here were for NSSE to create a better reason why should students complete the survey. Administer the survey during optimal times to encourage completion, such as class time.
The second group related to why students engage in their activities. Here the issues were what do they think they’re learning; why are they engaging in those specific activities (consider adding open-ended items).
The third group related to the survey mode. Suggestions here related to how the survey is mobile friendly, but not mobile user ready; consider modularizing the content; sending multiple, smaller surveys over several days; tweet sized survey; accessibility of content; and increase visuals and reduce unnecessary text.
The last group suggested technical upgrades including issues of accessibility for users; app style survey; integration into other systems; text reminders in place of email.
Demographic shifts are certainly happening across the US higher education landscape; yet, many of these identities are not new, so here we find that institutions are more aware that students hold multiple and often intersecting identities. Student who hold these identities have been here for years or decades, but our campuses were not collecting the information at that level. So there is recognition of shifts and recognition of multiple identities that our students hold.
To that end, we find that institutions acknowledge their need to shape the learning environment to match and meet students. We understand the need to educate students begins where they enter instead of creating and forcing a prescribed path for them. A natural outcome of this understanding is that we must ensure our tools are ready and appropriate for meeting students on their educational journey.
Feedback such as this is critical for the continued growth and quality of higher education assessments. If you'd like to give NSSE staff your feedback on these questions and more click here!