There are many ways to measure a university’s performance. The Maclean’s rankings have been crunching the data on a wide range of factors for 20 years. Another approach is to ask those on the receiving end of an education—the students—what they think. In recent years, a growing number of universities have been doing exactly that. The following pages contain results from two major student surveys: the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Canadian University Survey Consortium—NSSE and CUSC for short. Between them, these surveys examine the undergraduate experience—in the classroom and beyond. The findings show that while students are generally happy with their university education, there are key areas of discontent. In particular, a significant number of students feel they don’t fit in at their university, more often in the larger schools than the smaller ones.
Commissioned by the universities, the survey results help administrators assess the quality of their programs and services, which in turn can help them design and implement strategies for improvement. Recognizing that this student feedback can also be useful for prospective students trying to decide which university is right for them, Maclean’s has been publishing CUSC and NSSE results each year since 2006.
The U.S.-based NSSE began in 1999 and is distributed to first- and senior-year students. NSSE is not primarily a student satisfaction survey. Rather, it is a study of best educational practices and an assessment of the degree to which each university follows those practices. The survey pinpoints what students are doing while they are in school and on campus.
Research has shown that various forms of engagement are likely to lead to more learning and greater student success. And this link exists not only in the more obvious areas of academic endeavour, such as the number of books read and papers written, but also in curricular extras such as conducting research with a faculty member, community service and internships, as well as in extracurricular involvement with other students.
In 2004, 11 Canadian universities participated in NSSE for the first time, with 14,267 students completing the survey. Participation has grown considerably over the years and by 2009, 64 institutions had conducted the NSSE survey at least once. (Twelve schools took part in NSSE for the first time this year. Results from the 2010 survey will appear in Maclean’s annual student issue in early 2011.)
The NSSE results are headlined by the Benchmarks of Effective Educational Practice, created by NSSE to compare performance across all universities—American and Canadian. These benchmarks focus on five key areas: level of academic challenge, student-faculty interaction, active and collaborative learning, enriching educational experience, and supportive campus environment. The higher a school’s scores from student responses on the five benchmark topics, the better the chance, according to NSSE, that its undergrads are learning and getting the most out of their university experience. Survey results can be compared to the NSSE average, which is the average score for the hundreds of Canadian and U.S. schools that take part in the survey each year. When looking at the benchmark scores, the majority of Canadian schools fall below the 2009 NSSE average. At the lowest end of the spectrum, only four Canadian schools (Trinity Western, UOIT, Mount Allison and Queen’s) scored above the NSSE average on the enriching educational experience benchmark. NSSE also asked two important student satisfaction questions; Canadian universities fared better on these measures.
CUSC, a group of Canadian universities working together to examine student issues and experiences, was created in 1994 and administers a Canada-only survey. CUSC’s focus is largely on student satisfaction. Each year, it targets one of three student populations: first-year students, graduating students and all undergrads. In its summary of the 2009 results, CUSC said most graduating students had a positive assessment of their university and its faculty. Nearly nine out of 10 were satisfied with the overall quality of their education and their decision to attend their university. The vast majority agreed that their professors were knowledgeable in their fields, encouraged class discussion and were accessible outside of class. But the report identified one key area of weakness, summed up as “inclusion.” Fully a quarter of students stated that they didn’t feel like they were part of their university. Perhaps not surprisingly, the number was higher for students attending larger schools. An even greater number of students—57 per cent—reported feeling they sometimes got the runaround at university. Again, smaller institutions tended to fare better on this measure.
Learning from the feedback these surveys provide, universities are now devoting more time and energy to enhancing the student experience—including students’ need to feel that their identity on campus amounts to more than just their student number.