University students grade their schools

Which universities get top marks? 90,000 students have their say

Almost every day for the past few years, Meg Martin has spent three hours on public transit, commuting to and from the University of Calgary. She looks forward to Wednesdays, when her first class doesn’t start until 11 a.m. and she can sleep in. Most other days, the fourth-year political science and English major is on campus by 9 a.m., and because she’s involved in student politics, she often stays late into the night. “The hardest part about being a commuter is the exhaustion,” says Martin. But early in her university career, she decided to get involved in student politics, in part to make new friends, have a place to rest and study between classes, and so that she could avoid feeling like an anonymous number and instead become “a member of some type of community.” Right now, she’s gearing up for student elections, where she’s running for vice-president, academic.

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In some ways, Martin is the typical undergraduate: she’s 21, attends an urban university with a student body that is the size of a small city and lives at home with her parents. However, Martin is also deeply involved in campus activities—and that sets her apart from many students, at Calgary and elsewhere. She demonstrates some of the attributes of what the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) calls an “engaged student.”

Research has shown that various different forms of engagement—from Martin’s high level of extracurricular contact with peers to curricular extras such as the opportunity to work closely with professors—are likely to lead to more learning, and greater student success. In an effort to raise the level of student engagement at Calgary, officials hired Martin and three other students to help conduct surveys, focus groups and interviews of staff, students and administrators. “This is exciting, because it’ll give me the opportunity to get my hands dirty and connect with stakeholders at this university,” says Martin.

On the following pages, we present the NSSE results from 53 Canadian institutions. NSSE, a student survey that seeks to indirectly measure educational quality, has become an essential analytical tool used by most Canadian universities. The survey pinpoints what students are doing while they are in school and on campus; NSSE then generates benchmark results that show how well those activities and behaviours line up with what research shows are educational best-practices that are likely to lead to more and deeper learning. The higher a school’s scores on the five benchmarks—featured on the accompanying pages—the better the chance, according to NSSE, that its students are learning and getting the most out of their university experience.

The NSSE was developed a decade ago by a group of American education professors, in part as an alternative to university rankings such as those published by U.S. News & World Report (and Maclean’s). NSSE’s creators believed that a student survey of undergraduate quality might be able to provide universities, students and the wider public with essential information about each university. “An extensive research literature relates particular classroom activities and specific faculty and peer practices to high-quality undergraduate student outcomes,” wrote NSSE’s creators. The survey aimed to measure and promote the use of those best practices.

In 2004, Canadian universities joined NSSE for the first time; 11 institutions took part. By last year, the number of Canadian universities had more than quadrupled—largely because of Bob Rae’s 2005 report on post-secondary education in the province. The former Ontario premier recommended that all Ontario universities administer the NSSE every two years. The survey, said Rae, “has already shown its effectiveness in contributing to the understanding of a core objective, namely students’ learning experiences.” Taking part in NSSE would “provide feedback on an area of vital importance, so that institutions can start planning to make improvements based on evidence.” Universities in the rest of the country followed Ontario’s lead; most Canadian universities now administer the NSSE on their campuses every year or every other year. Comparisons can be made among institutions and, since NSSE’s methodology is stable from year to year, progress can be measured at each university.

To give Canadians access to these institution-by-institution assessments of educational quality, Maclean’s in 2006 began asking universities to make their NSSE results public. Many universities were receptive but some were initially resistant, and that year Maclean’s was forced to file a number of requests under provincial freedom of information laws. Since then, however, the idea has grown that these surveys are an important public resource: all universities whose 2008 NSSE results we requested made them available to us.

Each of the thousands of students canvassed for the NSSE answered dozens of questions. NSSE then groups responses into its five NSSE Benchmarks of Effective Educational Practice. Those results appear on pages 34 to 37: level of academic challenge faced by students; amount of active and collaborative learning; quality of student-faculty interaction; availability of enriching educational experiences; and supportiveness of the campus environment.

In the accompanying stories, results are also presented for two questions from the Canadian University Survey Consortium, or CUSC. This is a Canada-only survey that focuses on student satisfaction; as a survey of student attitudes, it makes an ideal counterpart and contrast to the NSSE. In 2008, CUSC surveyed undergraduates on 31 campuses. The answers to various key CUSC student satisfaction questions are featured here.

In NSSE’s first few years in Canada, the Canadian university system delivered a surprise: benchmark scores that were often below the American NSSE average. All Canadian universities scored below the NSSE benchmark average on student-faculty interaction, for example. Nearly all were below their U.S. peers on active and collaborative learning and enriching educational experience.

Officials predicted it would take at least one, two or more administrations of NSSE to see improvement. In the interim, universities have devoted significant time and energy to enhancing the undergraduate experiences. Are they making progress? Yes, some. But one tendency remains unchanged: smaller universities significantly outperform larger universities. In 2008, only three of Canada’s large research-intensive universities—Queen’s, McGill and McMaster—appeared among the top 10 in enriching educational experience, and only Queen’s made the top 10 in level of academic challenge. No larger universities crack the top 10 in student-faculty interaction, active and collaborative learning or supportive campus environment.

Nevertheless, many universities—small and large—are seeing improvements on their NSSE results. Chris Conway, director of institutional research and planning at Queen’s, is cautiously optimistic about the trend. “There does appear to be some improvement province-wide [in Ontario] in student-faculty interaction and in active and collaborative learning,” says Conway. “They were particularly low [in 2006] and it appears they have increased somewhat.”

In Ontario, Nipissing, Trent, Western and Toronto have seen the largest increase in first-year responses for student-faculty interaction. On active and collaborative learning, the province’s universities as a whole saw a small improvement, and scores at Nipissing and Toronto were noticeably better. Outside Ontario, there have also been bright spots. The University of British Columbia saw its results improve on all five benchmarks. Initiatives that may have helped to raise UBC’s scores include improved study and social space for students; a peer support service and a campus hostel for commuters; more opportunities for paid and volunteer work; and more study abroad programs.

Other universities are taking similar steps. The University of Alberta, for example, wants all students to have the opportunity to take part in what it calls “common cohort” learning experiences, such as small labs and seminar sections, courses grouped together thematically, and first-year discussion groups. At McGill, measures to boost student engagement include increasing the availability and quality of academic advising, offering “learning to teach” workshops to graduate students, increasing opportunities for undergraduate students to participate in research projects, and expanding opportunities for students to study abroad.

And there’s more to come in the years ahead. The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) is funding research projects at 11 universities, testing various approaches for enhancing undergraduate engagement. Success will be measured by future NSSE scores. One institution (HEQCO will not name the universities participating in these studies) has significantly increased the amount of help available for first-year math students. Another school has created learning support groups for several types of at-risk students. Other projects included
interventions aimed at improving writing skills, programs to enhance science literacy in first year, and enhancements to student advising. Will these initiatives improve outcomes—grades, graduation rates, dropout rates, and so on? Will they raise NSSE scores? There are no instant answers. Many universities that took part in NSSE 2008 won’t be repeating the exercise until 2010.

Meanwhile, back at Calgary, Martin’s experience as a commuter will be particularly valuable to her as she goes through her interviews with the university community. Most Canadian university students live off-campus, and the realities of commuting make them a particularly difficult group to engage. That’s part of the reason why the top performers on the NSSE are not big, urban, research-intensive universities populated by commuter students, but small, undergraduate-focused, “destination” universities whose students live on campus. But if Calgary and other big schools are going to improve their benchmark scores, they have to, among other things, connect with commuters, duplicating Martin’s enthusiasm for her studies.

“There are so many things that interest me about the project,” says Martin. The most important, she says, is “the fact that the administration has chosen to move forward and do something about our NSSE results, and that they’ve chosen to hire students to be involved in the process.”

“As a commuter student it’s very easy to feel disconnected and isolated from the campus, but work like this is what makes me feel as if I am a member of some type of community at U of C.” It’s a sentiment that Calgary, like most Canadian universities, would like to see more of.