Nov 5th, 2007 @ 2:04 pm | Author: Kimberly HeschBy Ellen-Earle Chaffee
A great deal of research exists to help us understand how to provide the best possible learning experiences for college students. We are always looking for ways to improve, and this research gives us valuable insights.

The research can also help prospective students and parents evaluate institutions they are considering. Simply by asking the right questions, they can get some idea of the institution's quality of instruction.

To evaluate ourselves, we survey our first-year and senior students using the National Study of Student Engagement. It identifies five areas that are vitally important for quality learning. Prospective students can ask questions about these five areas, and we can identify priorities for improvement in those areas. We administer the survey every two years, and we just got the results of last spring's survey.

These are the five areas that represent the "benchmarks of effective educational practice." Each area has dozens of related survey questions that sum up to a quality score. These are the areas:

1. Level of academic challenge: how challenging is the intellectual and creative work?
2. Active and collaborative learning: are students intensely involved in their education?
3. Student-faculty interaction: do students work with faculty members inside and outside the classroom?
4. Enriching educational experiences: do students take advantage of complementary learning opportunities?
5. Supportive campus environment: do students feel the college is committed to their success?

Here are VCSU's strong points – areas where our scores are better than our peers to a level that is statistically significant. Our first-year students are very intensely involved in their education. Both first-year students and seniors are very likely to work with faculty members inside and outside the classroom – much more than students in similar institutions elsewhere. Both groups feel that the university is committed to their success to a much greater degree than students elsewhere.

Therefore, VCSU shines in three of the five benchmark areas (items 2, 3, and 5 above). Our first-year students are a little less likely to feel challenged intellectually and creatively than peers elsewhere (item 1), and our seniors are a little less likely to report having taken advantage of complementary learning opportunities (item 4). We are working to improve both areas.

Some of the detailed results are notable, too. Our seniors report more involvement in research with faculty. Predictably, both student groups are much more likely to have used an electronic medium to discuss or complete an assignment. Both also gave the institution higher marks than peers had on giving substantial help as students cope with non-academic matters. Our first-year students were also much more likely to get prompt written or oral feedback from faculty.

Notice that the survey does not ask about spell-binding lectures and glitzy PowerPoint presentations. Those technique can be powerful, but only if they draw students into the ideas, facts, and issues of the class. The true measure of great learning experiences is the extent to which students get personally involved. The benchmark represents teachers who create engaging learning experiences, whatever their methods. VCSU is a national leader in this, too.