NSSE Essentials

A Synthesis of NSSE's Contributions

NSSE annually collects information at hundreds of four-year colleges and universities about students' participation in programs and activities that institutions provide for their learning and personal development. The results illustrate how undergraduates spend their time and what they gain from attending college.

This series briefly documents what we have learned - NSSE's essential contributions to the field - over the two decades surveying millions of college students in the U.S., Canada, and abroad.

Browse by topic:

High-Impact Practices

The National Survey of Student Engagement has spent over a decade exploring and promoting High Impact-Practices (HIPs). HIPs encompass enriching educational experiences that can be life-changing for students. NSSE tracks student participation in six HIPs: community-based service-learning, learning communities, research with faculty, internship or field experiences, study abroad, culminating senior experiences.

In our 2007 Annual Results NSSE founding director, George Kuh recommended that students participate in two HIPs - one in the first year and one later related to their major field.  Results from NSSE 2019 show that overall, roughly 3 in 5 first-year students and seniors have achieved these goals.

Students who take part in a HIP experience higher levels of engagement during college, greater levels of deep learning, and greater gains in learning and personal development.

Racially-minoritized students who participate in HIPs tend to have higher levels of satisfaction, quality of interactions, and perceptions of a supportive campus environment than those who do not.

NSSE has helped center the importance of HIPs as unique educational experiences among higher education institutions. Our Data Use in Brief reports provide numerous examples of how institutions have used NSSE data to encourage participation in HIPs.

As the popularity of HIPs has grown, questions remain about HIP access, equity, and quality.  NSSE is  spearheading research in this area through the HIP Quality project led by Jillian Kinzie and Alex McCormick with support from Lumina Foundation.

Research on Engagement

For two decades the National Survey of Student Engagement has shaped the conversation around quality in undergraduate education through its research on the ways students learn in and out of the classroom, and on their perceptions of institutional environments that contribute to learning success in college.

Engagement varies more within institutions than between them

In our 2008 Annual results, we showed how student-level variation contributed to between 86% and 96% of the overall variance in NSSE benchmark scores, meaning that the scores of students attending the same institution differed from each other much more than the average score of students at another institutions. This emphasizes the need for institutions to look within and carefully consider educational quality and engagement for all students.

Similar institutions may differ in engagement

In our 2014 Annual Results, we showed how engagement varies, even for institutions of the same size. We also found few discernible differences by institution type (size, Carnegie, control, selectivity) where disadvantaged groups were less engaged and those where they were not. That is, transfer students, underprepared students, and students of color—as well as other subpopulations—may experience fewer disadvantages if the right environment and structures are in place, even at otherwise similar institutions.

Institutions do change - and can become more engaging

Over its first decade, NSSE found evidence for improvement in engagement - meaning that colleges and universities can make impactful changes to become more engaging. Over 200 institutions with at least four administrations between 2001 and 2009 showed significant improvement in engagement, regardless of institution type or size.

 In our Documenting Effective Educational Practices (DEEP) studies, we helped identify qualities that make an institution engaging:

  • A living mission and a lived educational philosophy
  • An unshakeable focus on student learning
  • Clearly marked pathways to student success
  • Environments adapted for educational enrichment
  • An improvement-oriented campus culture
  • Shared responsibility for educational quality and student success
  • Data-informed decision-making
  • Collaboration between academic and student affairs, faculty, staff, and campus leaders.

Engagement and Other Outcomes

As colleges and universities face greater scrutiny from parents, policymakers, and students alike, NSSE research helps demonstrate how student engagement can help improve retention and foster other beneficial outcomes of an undergraduate education.

Engagement can improve retention

Triangulating NSSE data with other records and results from the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, researchers demonstrated how engagement indicators predict gains in critical thinking, literacy, personal well-being, and other outcomes (Pascarella, Seifert, & Blaich, 2010). We have also shown that

  • Increases in Engagement Indicators – especially Effective Teaching Practices, Quality of Interactions, and Supportive Environment – are associated with an increased likelihood of first-year retention (Sarraf, 2012)
  • Engagement has a positive relationship with grades and persistence, and more pronounced effects for historically underserved and underrepresented students (McCormick, Kinzie, & Gonyea, 2013).

Engagement Indicators are valid measures

As part of our effort to present transparent and useful measures of educational quality, we have maintained a Psychometric Portfolio that details the soundness and validity of the survey instrument. Our research has established through factor analyses that the survey items used to construct Engagement Indicators hang together as intended, and that these measures do gauge what they intend to, making these valid and reliable measures of student engagement (Miller, Sarraf, Dumford, & Roconni, 2013).

Survey Research

Since its inception, the National Survey of Student Engagement survey has provided important contributions to the field of survey research regarding survey incentives, response rates, and the interpretation of effect sizes.

Survey Incentives

Institutions can offer survey incentives to boost response rates; these could include technology giveaways, gift cards, campus swag or merchandise, etc. Our research has shown that institutions that offer an incentive increased their response rates by 3-6 percentage points, depending on the type of incentive (Sarraf & Cole, 2014). The use of incentives does not degrade the quality of  survey data (Cole, Sarraf, & Wang 2015). With that said, survey incentives are only one of several ways to maximize responses effectively and ethically.

Response Rates

In survey research, much attention is given to response rates because nonresponse can bias estimates. For NSSE, response rates vary by institution size, as well as the how students are invited to complete the survey. Our research has found:

  • The average institutional response rate for NSSE has decreased from 2010 (38%) to 2018 (30%), but this trend has attenuated in recent years (Sarraf, 2019)
  • Measures of student engagements are reliable, even with low response rates (Fosnacht, Sarraf, Howe, & Peck 2017)
  • Similar to response rates, the number of respondents is important for assessing survey data quality; samples of as few as 50-75 respondents provides reliable estimates (Fosnacht et al., 2017)
  • Inviting students to complete surveys through links placed in learning management systems and student portals have been shown to increase average response rates by 5 percentage points (Sarraf & Cole, 2014).

Effect Sizes

In survey research, Cohen’s d is a common statistical method to gauge the relative effect of significant differences of mean scores. Typically, an effect size of 0.2, 0.5, and 0.8 are considered small, medium, and large. Our research has shown that the interpretation of effect sizes must be properly contextualized; Rocconi & Gonyea (2018) recommended the following effect size ranges:

  • Small effects start at about .1
  • Medium effects start at about .3
  • Large effect start at about .7

These novel survey research guidelines are essential for higher education professionals to make informed decisions using student engagement results.

Assessing Quality in Undergraduate Education

Since its inception, an early goal of NSSE has been to (re)focus the conversations around undergraduate quality and college accountability toward the student experience and learning; away from institutional resources, reputation, and selectivity as markers of institutional quality (Kuh, 2001).

Though competing methods for evaluating collegiate quality continue to make appeal to the public, college and university leaders understand the value of assessing quality in higher education by understanding what students do and how they spend their time. A testament of the importance of student engagement in assessing quality is that over 1,650 institutions of higher education in the US, Canada, and abroad have participated in NSSE since its launch in 2000, with many participating several times as part of continued assessment efforts.

What’s more, a number of studies (Pike 2004; Zilvinskis and Rocconi, 2018) have shown that NSSE measures of student engagement have little in common with academic quality metrics used in a variety of college ranking schemes. That is, what data NSSE provides through valid and reliable measures (see our Psychometric Portfolio) speak to the quality of student learning, both in and outside the classroom, in ways that other metrics like selectivity or standardized test scores of students do not.

NSSE has encouraged institutions to share their data use stories and strategies, involve faculty members in assessment in a wide array of capacities (Nelson Laird et al 2009), and work toward reflective accountability (McCormick 2009) rather than mere compliance.