NSSE Survey: Enhancement of student engagement and high impact activities (aka the big beasty approach)

Me doing my bit for 'The Services' The 2nd and 3rd of March saw the 7th annual Enhancement Themes conference. As with the past two year I was a delegate at this event, but this time in the slightly different role of one of the exhibitors. In between showcasing some of the JISC wares I managed to slip into some of the keynote sessions. Each year the Enhancement themes do a great job is finding presenters who are incredibly influential and thought provoking. This year my favourite was Professor George Kuh, Chancellor’s Professor of Higher Education at Indiana University Bloomington, and founding director of widely used National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE*).
Unlike the NSS which is looking at general student satisfaction, NSSE is a survey which aims to “assess the extent to which students engage in educational practices associated with high levels of learning and development”. It assesses this by asking how students spend their time and what they gain from attending their institution. My understanding is that NSSE is

using engagement as an indicator of “grades, persistence, student satisfaction and gains across a range of desired outcomes”

The survey is broken into four main areas: student behaviours; institutional actions and requirements; reactions to the institution; and student background information. For examples of type of questions asked you can view past and present NSSE surveys.
The NSSE has been widely adopted in North America (US: 3million responses from 1,400 institutions; Canada: 64 HEIs), South Africa and Australia and been used since 2000 resulting in a rice dataset.

Student engagement varies more within than between institutions

The NSSE has found that there is more local than inter institutional variation in student engagement. i.e. there is little difference in student engagement between the best and the worse institutions, but the differences between institutional departments is major.
‘How can you get students more engaged?’ I hear you ask, why with ‘high-impact’ learning activities. As it happens George has written book on the topic, High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Although it wasn’t explicitly mentioned I image George has used the NSSE survey to identify ‘high-impact’ activities. His top 10 were:

  • First-Year Seminars and Experiences
  • Common Intellectual Experiences
  • Learning Communities
  • Writing-Intensive Courses
  • Collaborative Assignments and Projects
  • “Science as Science Is Done”; Undergraduate Research
  • Diversity/Global Learning
  • Community-Based Learning
  • Internships
  • Capstone Courses and Projects

There are some Americanisms in this list but hopefully you get the picture. I would say all of these activities are reflected in the existing academic research on best teaching/learning practices.
Engaging in these activities George suggested that students are more likely to:

  • Invest time and effort
  • Interact with faculty and peers about substantive matters
  • Experience diversity
  • Get more frequent feedback
  • Reflect & integrate learning
  • Discover relevance of learning through real-world applications

The Enhancement Themes have already generated a number of resources covering these areas including research teaching linkages, integrative assessment and assessment, the first year and responding to student needs (as well as flexible delivery). The conference also saw the publication of 5 new briefing papers under the current ‘Graduates for the 21st Century strand:

In George’s presentation he highlighted three action steps:

  1. Use engaging pedagogies campus wide
  2. Put money where it will make a difference to student success
  3. Ensure programs are high quality

I’m sure you would agree that all of these are what we are striving for anyway and not particularly earth shattering. If you adopted the NSSE locally there is an opportunity to use the data diagnostically to identify the your ‘local variations’, identifying courses that are not engaging students. I’m sure many of you are already doing this through end of module surveys, but I would recommend looking at the NSSE questions to see if these need to be re-examined.
Slides for all the conference keynote sessions including George Kuh’s are available on the Enhancement Themes plenary presentations page (videos of the sessions will be available shortly). Update: Videos now available here
*pronounced Nessie, hence the title of this post


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  • Liz Thomas

    Do you know of any UK institutions that have used NSSE?

    • Martin Hawksey

      Hi Liz – I’m not aware on any. George Kuh did present his work in the UK in 2008 at Oxford Brookes. It may be that a number institutions may have incorporated questions from the NSSE without declaring it. I did overhear a leading academic from a Scottish institution talking about using the NSSE.
      If anyone is using the NSSE I would be interested in hearing about it.

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