Plymouth State University participates every other year in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which measures student participation in meaningful learning experiences. The survey is given to first year students and to seniors to help institutions of higher education determine their level of effectiveness in engaging students in experiences shown to be positively linked to student learning. The results for an institution are put into context through a comparison with the results from other institutions. Marcia Schmidt Blaine was going to present the results for PSU’s 2017 surveys during January Jamboree but our New Hampshire weather did not cooperate so her session was cancelled. Instead, Marcia provided us with links to the results so that we could look at them on our own.
Not surprisingly, I’m interested in the survey results to help us understand what we’re doing well and what we can improve upon in the General Education program. So I spent some time this morning looking through the results to see what I could learn.
One of the most striking findings is that our seniors have significantly more meaningful interactions with faculty than seniors at other institutions. This means that many more of our seniors have talked about career plans with a faculty member, have worked with faculty on activities other than coursework, have discussed course topics, ideas, or concepts outside of class, and have discussed their academic performance with a faculty member. Our first year students have not had as many of these kinds of experiences with faculty members but, like their senior counterparts, more of our first year students than at other institutions report that their instructors have provided feedback on a draft or work in progress and have provided prompt and detailed feedback on tests or completed assignments. In addition, significantly more of our seniors rate the quality of their interactions with faculty as excellent than do seniors at other institutions. Our seniors are also significantly more likely to indicate that PSU emphasizes a supportive environment. These are encouraging results since we pride ourselves on our small class sizes and the close relationships that develop between faculty and students. These results aren’t about General Education in particular but I think we can use these results to address some of the concerns students express concerning their Gen Ed classes.
There are no questions on the survey that are specifically about General Education. We can, however, make some inferences about General Education from some of the results. For example, we know that many first year students are taking primarily Gen Ed courses. So the fact that many more of our first year students indicate that their courses challenge them to do their very best work can be seen as a positive statement about our Gen Ed courses and program. On the other hand, far fewer of our first year students than those at other institutions say that their institutions emphasizes studying and academic work. And, in fact, fewer of our first year students report overall satisfaction with their experience at PSU than do first year students at other institutions. These numbers change by the time students are seniors (that is, more of our seniors report being satisfied with their PSU experience than do seniors at other institutions) but if we’re going to focus on retention, on keeping students at PSU, we need to focus on why first year students might not be satisfied with their experience.
One part of the survey asks students to identify what they would like to see changed at PSU and what they would like to remain the same. As one might imagine, students identify a variety of things they’d like to see changed. Some involve the dining hall, the dorms, the cost of attendance, the helpfulness of offices like the Registrar and Financial Aid, and other aspects of student life. Others are related to the academic experience. Some comments from first year students include: “I would like my course work in my general education classes to be more challenging. I have very little work outside of classes and it get boring,” “what I would change is when certain professors only give a few tests during the semester and that is your grade, with no other minor homework assignments that could help you. not everyone can perform their best on exams,” “implement less mind-numbing GenEds,” and, “less lecture [based] classes.” One senior student suggested that we “[s]top forcing students to take general education courses. … It is a very big waste of time and money to make students take those courses.” She went on to explain that she thinks the courses themselves need to be rethought because “I have learned the same thing over and over in several classes and hardly learned anything new.” Clearly, we have failed to demonstrate to this particular student the value of a strong general education program.
In addition, many first year students commented on the challenges that they have had with course registration and not being able to get into the courses in which they are interested or that they need in order to stay on track for graduation.
Although many of the comments do not mention Gen Ed specifically, we can surmise that many of the first year students are indeed talking about their Gen Ed classes. So for me, the question is what we can do about this. How can we make Gen Ed more meaningful and more engaging for our students? As the new Gen Ed Coordinator, this will be a major focus of my work. I don’t yet know all of the answers. Whatever we do, however, we’ll need to provide professional development opportunities for faculty teaching Gen Ed classes so that they feel supported to explore and implement changes in their teaching practices. Another question for me as Gen Ed Coordinator is what is the best way to provide these opportunities so that all faculty, whether full or part time, can take advantage of them? So much work to do!