Some Majors and Schools Push Students More, Shows National Survey of Student Engagement

Posted By Eliana Osborn on December 14, 2015 at 11:42 am
Some Majors and Schools Push Students More, Shows National Survey of Student Engagement

The National Survey of Student Engagement asks students every year how challenged they feel in their classes.  Trends across young people and their schools can map how learning and expectations change from year to year.  564 American colleges and universities were involved in the 2015 NSSE report, which has been released annually since 2000.

Student responses are broken down by year in school, type of school, and major.  For 2015, 61% of senior students at four-year universities say that they are being highly challenged to do their best work.  The number is lower among freshmen, at 54%.  In his Director’s Message, Dr. Alexander McCormick writes, “The extent of course challenge was unrelated to institutional selectivity for first-year students, and had a modest negative relationship for seniors. Selectivity neither assures nor is a prerequisite for this aspect of educational quality.”

Nontraditional seniors—those older or returning to school—often felt highly challenged, with 70% reporting such.  The highest levels of challenge fell to nontraditional students taking all their courses online, at close to 80%.  Among all ages and class levels, online-only students report feeling highly challenged most frequently.  Whether this has to do with course material itself or the sense of going it alone without teacher support is up for debate.

Another difference in how students perceive rigor is in terms of their majors.  “The proportion of seniors who were highly challenged by their courses ranged from 71% among majors in the health professions to 54% of those pursuing degrees in communications, media, and public relations,” according to the report.

Why care about how challenged students feel?  The point of college is to provide an environment of high expectations with tools for success.  NSSE’s executive summary concludes, “All institutions are capable of delivering on the imperative to challenge students to do their best work.”

One interesting NSSE finding regards creative work.  Majors requiring creative skill development had higher levels of reported engagement.  Creativity doesn’t mean artistic endeavors necessarily, but problem-solving and other broader skills.  These majors had students who felt more prepared by their education for the job market.  The report states, “Students may acquire a range of skills and abilities that are useful in the future, but the development and nurturing of creativity and problem-solving abilities are increasingly important.”

What is clear from the broad swathe of data included in NSSE is that not all colleges and universities are pushing students.  With ever more choices available, tomorrow’s freshman will be looking for a school where their dollars will ensure the maximum learning opportunities.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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