WSU slowly closes gap between peer schools

Results from the 2006 National Survey of Student Engagement arrived about seven weeks ago, gripping the attention of many administrators — especially those in Student Affairs. Here’s the bottom line: Washington State University made significant advancements in several areas, declined in others, but overall remains below the average of its peers in all five major categories.

“In most categories we’re in or near the 40th to 50th percentile compared to our peers,” said Randy Jorgensen, associate director of Student Affairs research, who has been working with WSU’s NSSE (pronounced ness-see) results since they arrived. “In some categories we made some significant gains, while in others we lost ground.”
Fran Hermanson, director of Student Affairs research and assessment, agrees but quickly adds, “We are lower than our peers, but not dramatically lower.”

NSSE facts
The NSSE survey is given only to freshman and seniors. In spring 2006 about 557 universities and colleges — public and private — participated in the survey. WSU purchased statistics comparing itself to a select group of 19 residential-campus, high-research universities.

This is the fourth time WSU has participated in the NSSE survey — 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2006. The cost to WSU this year was $7,500.

At WSU 600 freshman participated in the survey — 149 selected at random, plus 451 others who participated in a 2005 Beginning College Student Survey. Also participating were 401 seniors — 162 selected as part of a random regular sample and 239 others who were part of a Web survey oversample.

The NSSE asks participating students more than 60 questions, some of which are divided into five major areas referred to as “benchmarks of effective educational practice”:

• student-faculty interaction
• level of academic challenge/rigor
• active and collaborative learning
• enriching educational experiences
• supportive campus environment

Freshman ratings
Based on NSSE’s statistical distribution of benchmark scores, WSU officials have extrapolated the survey data to estimate how the university compares with its peers.
The biggest advancement in relative standings between 2004 and 2006 for WSU freshmen is in the category of student-faculty interaction. WSU appears to have rocketed from about the 10th to the 44th percentile when compared with its selected peers. Although WSU is still slightly below its peer average, it seems to have made enormous strides. The biggest single factor influencing the change in this benchmark standing may have been the launching of Freshman Focus.

Freshman Focus was initiated in fall 2005 in response to the previous year’s NSSE results. This project put more than 2,000 students, with one or two similar classes, into common living facilities. In addition, faculty members visited with student groups on related topics.

When asked, 39 percent of freshmen participating in NSSE 2006 said they were involved in a “learning community” — up from 17 percent in 2004. (Oddly, however, 80 percent of the freshman class was involved in Freshman Focus.)

 The second biggest NSSE advance came in how freshmen students rated the university’s level of academic challenge. Combining and averaging scores from 11 different related questions, WSU estimates that its ratings climbed from the 31st percentile in 2004 to the 47th percentile, still slightly below the average peer score.

In the NSSE benchmark for supportive campus environment, WSU moved from the 34th to the 41st percentile. In the active and collaborative learning benchmark, WSU moved from the 24th to the 40th percentile.

The only major benchmark among freshmen where WSU moved down was enriching educational experiences, which dropped from the 46th to the 43rd percentile. 

Study time
One area of continuing concern is the estimated amount of study time among freshmen.
In 2004, 48 percent of WSU freshman said they studied less than 11 hours per week; 21 percent said they studied 11-15 hours per week, and 32 percent said 16 or more hours.
This year, students indicated they are studying a bit more — 39 percent said they study less than 11 hours per week; 21 percent indicated 11-15 study hours per week; and 40 percent said 15 study hours per week.

The trend is moving in the right direction, but WSU freshman are still far below first-year students at selected peer universities, where 35 percent study less than 11 hours per week, 23 percent study 11-15 hours, and a hefty 41 percent study 16 hours or more.

When WSU freshmen were asked how often they came to class with their readings or assignments completed, 78 percent said often or very often — up from 70 percent in 2004.

Senior ratings
Based on the NSSE statistical benchmark data, here’s how WSU officials estimate that senior students fared in standings relative to WSU’s peer schools, when comparing 2004 to 2006:

• student-faculty interaction remained unmoved at the 50th percentile
• level of academic challenge/rigor declined from the 55th to the 48th percentile
• active and collaborative learning increased from the 41st to 48th percentile
• enriching educational experiences increased from the 32nd to the 43rd percentile
• supportiveness of the campus environment declined from the 60th to the 49th percentile.

One specific area of concern was the seniors’ satisfaction with their educational experience. When asked, “If you could start over again would you come to the same institution,” 81 percent of seniors said yes, down from 86 percent in 2004.

Similarly, when seniors were asked to evaluate their overall educational experience, 83.5 percent rated WSU as good to excellent, down from 88 percent in 2004.

Although those levels moved in a negative direction, “you need to realize that over 80 percent of the senior students were satisfied with their educational experience,” said Jorgensen.

Smoke from the chimney
Details from the NSSE are being shared among deans and department chairs to determine where future efforts would be best focused.

Jorgensen warns people not to draw drastic conclusions from the report and refers to a quote from Claude Bernard, a 19th-century French physician, who likened statistical reasoning to trying to understand what was happening inside a house by observing “how many people went into a house” and “how much smoke came out of the chimney.”

To get an accurate perspective, Jorgensen said, you need to look at issues like this from a variety of different angles — internal surveys, student academic performance, demographics of participants, faculty surveys, etc. Drawing conclusions from a single survey is too vague, he said, much like looking at traffic and chimney smoke from outside a cabin to determine what is going on inside.

In addition, there are changing, influential variables that are not reflected in the survey data. For example, there was a significant change in freshmen demographics among the NSSE participants between 2004 and 2006. There also was the introduction and widespread use of websites like Facebook, cougster.com and MyWSU. In addition, at the time of the 2006 survey, there were several major campus events and issues in the news that could have influenced answers.

Hermanson noted that while WSU’s benchmark scores are still below its peer averages, in most cases the university is “closing the gap.”

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