National student engagement survey supports student success

WSU students caring for cats during a service-learning project at the Whitman County Humane Society. Photo by Neri Diomedi, Division of Student Affairs.

First-year students and seniors across the Washington State University system are currently participating in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), a survey that has spurred many changes at WSU over the years including expanding student services, building living-learning communities, and broadening research opportunities with mentoring faculty.

Administered every other year at WSU, NSSE measures student perceptions of categories such as institutional requirements and offerings, the challenging nature of course work, and the university and campus environment.

When the results from this year’s survey are released in the fall, Kimberly Green, director of the Office of Assessment for Curricular Effectiveness at WSU, said units will be able to compare student responses to the same questions spanning three survey cycles dating back to 2019 — with an eye toward discovering how student perceptions and experiences may be changing as the university climbs out of the pandemic. Results for each year of the survey are posted on Institutional Research’s website.

“This survey can provide important information to units all over campus, and at all levels of the university,” said Green. “It gives a high-level overview by looking at the biggest trends, which will be useful to people serving students in many different ways — both inside and out of the classroom.”

In Student Affairs, Paula Adams, who directs assessment and strategy, is laying the groundwork for increasing the awareness of NSSE and learning how others at the university are using its data to improve student engagement and success.

“I think the NSSE data will be of immediate use in helping us identify where the institution’s strengths and the gaps are in addressing these areas,” Adams said.

Analyzing high-impact practices

Some of WSU’s strengths, highlighted in the 2021 NSSE survey, lie in high-impact practices such as service-learning and study abroad.

Of the 2,500+ WSU students who took the survey that year, 43% of WSU first-year students and 58% of seniors said they had participated in service-learning. Ben Calabretta, director of the Center for Civic Engagement, said while that is good news, the numbers show there is room for growth, particularly among first-year students.

“Being able to view and analyze this kind of data sparks discussions among our staff about how we go about our work and where there are areas for us to grow,” Calabretta said. “It is very important that we connect with first-year students because what they do in their first year sets the tone for their entire college career.”

The 2021 NSSE data also revealed that just 6% of the WSU seniors who studied abroad are first-generation students. It is something Angie Klimko, director of First at WSU, is working to change.

Since she implemented the First Gen Abroad program in 2015, 144 WSU first-gen students have studied in places like Italy and Spain. This summer, the program will send 18 first-gen students to study in Rome. 

“Studying abroad was life-changing for me,” said senior Citlaly Gómez-Ledezma, who grew up in a farm-working family in Mattawa, Washington. “Not only did I learn about another culture, it gave me confidence in myself, which has made me more independent.”

Serving as a roadmap

As more students like Gómez-Ledezma participate in First Gen Abroad, Klimko and Adams will be monitoring NSSE results to see if study abroad numbers tick up over time.

“We’re always assessing and adapting to best meet students’ needs,” Adams said. “NSSE is an excellent tool for understanding the big picture of where we’re serving students well and where we may need to make improvement.”

Adams encourages faculty and staff to check with students on their plan to complete the survey. Students are receiving several emails this month containing the survey link; they can also access it via the NSSE tile in myWSU.

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