The Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University School of Education administers the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) in partnership with the Indiana University Center for Survey Research. In November, they released the 2016 annual report, based upon survey results regarding the engagement of first-year students and seniors on campus and compares institutions to all 1,600 participating schools as well as to a defined group of “peer institutions.” The study assesses contributions to student success, including time and effort of students in the learning process and institutional resources provided to support them. The report provided to each institution contains valuable information for internal review and discussion and contributes to continuous improvement of both the student experience and student success.
So what are some of the insights we gain from the NSSE results? Or, rather, what are some of the resulting questions posed for APUS now, and moving forward?
This year, the Center reported that “one-in-five first-year students had difficulty learning course materials and getting help with coursework. . . Their peers who found it easier to get help spent more time studying and made greater use of effective learning strategies, resulting in higher grades and greater commitment to staying in school.” What does this mean for students? What types of support are needed during the first year of studies? How do we provide these resources to online students, i.e., library, tutoring services, study groups, peer mentoring, etc.? An APUS leadership committee has been reviewing and analyzing first-year student data and changing approaches to teaching by engaging students over the past several years in an effort to support student learning and persistence. The committee will use the new NSSE results to explore what more can be done in our first-year courses to advance this critical goal.
Sample areas of APUS strength cited by NSSE compared to our peer institutions for both first-year students and seniors included:
- Instructors clearly explained course goals and requirements
- Quality of interactions with other staff and offices
Seniors specifically highlighted “quality of interactions with students,” whereas first-year students emphasized that “instructors provided prompt and detailed feedback on tests or completed assignments.” The identified areas of strength reflect APUS’s priority areas over the past two to three years, and we are gratified to see this acknowledgement by students as it validates that faculty are emphasizing our areas of priority in their classes and in student interactions.
Sample areas of attention for APUS compared to other institutions for both student categories included:
- Limited opportunities to work with other students on course projects or assignments
- Institutional emphasis on learning support services
These cited criteria are noteworthy for an online institution. While a few courses require students to do “group” projects, this is not our general practice and an area for future exploration, especially as we focus on outcomes such as collaborative learning. While APUS is expanding learning support services, this is an area where we will talk with students and faculty to determine what is additionally wanted or needed in support of student success.
Such third-party feedback from organizations like NSSE is invaluable. The next steps for us, as with any report, are to study it, to engage faculty, students and staff in exploring and further embellishing and understanding the findings, and then determining an action plan for identifying and implementing what we need to start, stop, or continue to do in support of student learning and engagement across APUS. We thank the NSSE administrators and team for their work on this instrument and for the actionable findings provided to us for continuous improvement of our Institution and of higher education as a whole. Student engagement and success is a national issue and NSSE provides very helpful information for us to address these imperatives.