One of the most challenging aspects of higher education, particularly in the current skeptical climate, is figuring out what value we add. The pressure to improve assessment, now at least two decades old, is actually quite justifiable, but hard to satisfy without resorting to the kind of testing we don’t want in colleges—testing that would discourage solid learning, cost a lot, and deliver little meaning.
So we do a variety of assessments. We report to the state on some gen ed categories, and while we do need to pay attention to the results they aren’t all that persuasive. We do internal assessments on how well we do in our own main gen ed categories, and this does produce suggestions for better teaching. We do program assessments, and this also generates important information for units—but by definition the results are not university-wide and are hard to amplify.
In this context, the recurrent results from the National Survey of Student Engagement are more than usually interesting. We’ve been paying close attention here for at least eight years, often learning that we were not doing as well as we’d hoped in some important categories. We now have the 2012 results.
And while not unblemished, the results are excitingly encouraging, a real testimony to our faculty and students alike (and to our ability to learn from past problems). Reports involve both freshmen and seniors, and while they reveal some challenges still, it’s the positive that deserves particular emphasis.
Item: both frosh and seniors report a lot more academic challenge than in 2006, with a need to work harder to do well. Both groups report spending more hours preparing for class and engaging in complex mental activities such as analysis, synthesis and making judgments. In the category Active and Collaborative Learning, Mason freshmen are actually ahead of peers and aspirationals: our freshmen report being more likely to ask questions in class, discuss ideas, make class presentations. Mason seniors also score higher on Active and Collaborative Learning than the highest research universities; they too report being more likely to ask questions and make class presentations, in addition to working with other students on coursework.
Academic challenge was about the same for Mason as for peer and aspirational schools, but Mason now does much better than peers and aspirationals in enriching educational experiences for freshmen. Both frosh and seniors reported much greater likelihood of conversing with students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, a huge plus for us.
But—truth in bragging—some problem areas: seniors are less rosey about faculty interactions, perhaps partly because they want more chance by this point to discuss career plans and to engage faculty in intellectual discussions outside of coursework. Hopefully our new undergrad research initiative will help, because this was also a lag area for seniors. Seniors also report less activity in areas like internships and learning communities than counterparts at peers and aspirationals. (Interestingly, our seniors are on par with our peers, although not with aspirationals.) Freshmen are actually ahead of peers on activities like field experiences and plans for study abroad. And there were reports of a relatively less supportive campus climate, again comparatively, with frosh worried about interactions with administrators, seniors about relations with faculty and other students, and both with institutional support for academic achievement.
So we have work to do. But the areas of real gain and of comparative edge are really encouraging, in some fields that most of us would regard as central to core learning. So thanks to all, and as we work on the remaining problems let’s also be sure to keep up what is a genuine success story.
To see the full NSSE report, go to: assessment.gmu.edu and click on Reports.