Penn State uses national survey to gauge undergraduate programs

January 23, 2009

University Park, Pa. — Damon Sims, Penn State's vice president for Student Affairs, led a panel discussion for the University's Board of Trustees Friday (Jan. 23) that detailed Penn State's participation in the 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and some of the survey's initial findings.

Penn State, along with 700 other colleges and universities, participated in the annual survey to help identify its strengths and weaknesses in educational programs. The study — which focused on how students spend their time, the level in which institutions produced valuable educational practices, and the ability of campuses to channel student energy toward these activities — helped the University look holistically at the undergraduate experience. The presentation also focused on Penn State's use of the NSSE data.

Andrea Dowhower, director of Student Affairs Research and Assessment and a panelist, spoke of extensive research that proves a student's level of participation in campus activities has a direct impact on educational success. Penn State used NSSE's survey results to get a better understanding of the presence or absence of practices that can fully engage all students, to offer them a more enriching educational experience.

"The research showed that the time and energy students devote to educationally purposeful activities is the single best predictor of their learning and personal development," Dowhower said.

First-year students and graduating seniors participated in the survey, which asked about their overall satisfaction with the institution and their participation in educationally purposeful activities, like class presentation, writing papers and discussing grades or assignments with instructors. Ten Penn State campuses, including University Park, were selected to administer NSSE.

The data gathered includes five composite scores within each category and uses comparisons among participating Penn State campuses, other Big Ten institutions that participated, and other peer institutions, competitors or aspirational schools.

"Each unit is working to make sense of the data and to make the findings meaningful to them," Dowhower explained.

Dowhower presented examples of available data for University Park students as compared with four other Big Ten institutions, as derived from USA Today, one of two public accountability vehicles. Data included scores for active and collaborative learning as well as for enriching educational experiences. In addition, she offered examples from the Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA), a voluntary initiative for four-year public colleges and universities to communicate common information on the undergraduate student experience.

Another panelist, Mary Lou D'Allegro, senior director of Planning, Research and Assessment at Penn State Berks, noted that Penn State Berks compared its results with the other nine participating Penn State campuses as well as with a "local competitive" peer set.

Data from the NSSE report for the Berks campus determined that the campus outperforms the local competitive and national peer sets for first-year students. However, for both first-year and graduating seniors, Penn State Berks does not do as well as its peer sets in Enriching Educational Experience.

To help Penn State Berks in this area, D'Allegro said a NSSE committee of faculty and staff identified several recommendations. Because the campus has the highest percentage of students involved in field experiences and internships among the five colleges or universities in Berks County, the committee suggested a re-direction of some of these resources to offer internships that focus more on community service projects. The campus is also looking to expand its study abroad program and improve student connections to the University Park study abroad program.

D'Allegro added that Penn State Berks is in the early planning stages to encourage more participation in campus sponsored co-curricular and cultural activities. A more detailed investigation of student engagement will be conducted in 2009-2010.
From the College of Engineering, panelist Renata Engel, associate dean for Undergraduate Studies, said her college uses several sources to collect data on student engagement to ensure its graduates are globally aware, solidly grounded, technically broad, innovative, effective communicators and successful leaders. Implementing NSSE, she said, is another valuable tool in comparing and contrasting the first-year experience with seniors, but also will help the college evaluate itself among peer groups inside and outside the University.

Engel said seniors at Penn State reported working together outside the classroom more often than first-year students. This was a trend among engineering students at other Big Ten institutions. Engel noted that Penn State engineering students described a similar level of engagement when compared with their peer groups in most of the items, with the exception of making presentations, where more Penn State students said they had this experience.

Penn State's College of Engineering also surveys alumni who graduated two to three years ago, for a sense of the value alumni place on certain skills and their level of preparation for employment. The most recent survey revealed that 87 percent of alumni valued the experience they gained from working in teams. Also, on a scale of one to five, these graduates rated their preparation at 4.3.

"In this case NSSE is reaffirming both the value of, and effectiveness of, our efforts in creating these experiences for students," she said. "Specific areas where we envision using the data are related to the general education program. We can look more closely at students' perception of the level of engagement in, for example, communication skills and critical thinking, or goals that support the efforts to learn from and about others who are from a different culture."

  • Damon Sims

    IMAGE: Greg Grieco

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 18, 2017