NSSE’s 20th Anniversary Reveals Promising Trends in Engagement

Bob Gonyea – Anniversaries are a good time to reflect on change and stability over time. As NSSE enters its third decade surveying hundreds of thousands of college students each year, we can take a long look back to identify any trends. Certainly, much has happened in higher education since NSSE’s launch in 2000 – the assessment of teaching and learning has gained in sophistication, new technologies have transformed our institutions, and perhaps most importantly, more institutions have made firm commitments to evidence-informed improvement.

NSSE itself has changed over time. Many items on the questionnaire have been added, substantially revised, or dropped over the years – particularly with the major update in 2013 – but a few dozen items have remained unchanged or changed in only minimal ways. We combined these into a longitudinal file using data from 2004 to 2019 representing 1,583 U.S. institutions that participated in NSSE between 2004 and 2019. We selected 2004 as the beginning year because the questionnaire underwent frequent changes and NSSE had fewer participants in the early years. Annually, the number of institutions ranged from 461 (2004) to 725 (2008), averaging about 580 per year. The total number of respondents from this time period is over 5 million, ranging annually from 158,943 (2004) to 434,149 (2011) with an average of 316,770 respondents per year.

Colleges and universities that participate in NSSE deserve credit for taking their engagement results seriously and doing the hard work of changing practice to positively affect the quality of their students’ experiences.

We identified three engagement areas that appear to have increase consistently over time, and that did not seem to be affected by the 2013 survey update: (a) first-year interactions with faculty, (b) time spent on academic preparation, and (c) perceptions of the campus environment.

Interactions with Faculty in the First Year of College

First-year student interactions with faculty have trended positively in three practices: talking about career plans, discussing course topics outside of class, and working with faculty on activities other than coursework (Figure 1). Indeed, the portion of first-year students who interacted frequently (very often or often) in these areas each increased by more than 10 percentage points over the time span. This may indicate that by and large, faculty who teach first-year students have devoted more effort to having meaningful conversations with students outside of the classroom – a form of engagement that helps to socialize new students, supports their persistence, and facilitates their ongoing development.

Figure 1. First-Year Student Interactions with Faculty 2004-2019

Time Spent in Academic Preparation

Students also appear to have spent more time on academic preparation than they did over a decade ago, although this upward trend has slowed in recent years (Figure 2). For example, the percentage of first-year students who spent more than 15 hours per week preparing for class (studying, reading, writing, doing homework or lab work, etc.) increased from 34% in 2004 to as high as 45% in 2017. Seniors matched this pattern, also increasing about 10 percentage points and leveling off recently. These increases amount to as much as two more hours per week for all students on average. Spending more time on academics is a positive outcome, whether the result is from higher expectations, more emphasis on collaborative learning, or wider adoption of new instructional methods such as flipped classrooms, problem-based learning, or real-world application.

Figure 2. Time Spent in Academic Preparation 2004-2019

This is an encouraging finding, because previous NSSE analyses found that at the institutional level, the average amount of time that first-year students devote to academic preparation is positively correlated with both retention and graduation rates.

Perceptions of the Campus Environment

Finally, two positive trends in perceptions of the campus environment were spotted. First, students increasingly rated the emphasis on diverse interactions as substantial (very much or quite a bit), with the trend rising more than 10 percentage points for both first-year students and seniors, with most of the increases in the earlier years (roughly 2004 to 2012) (Figure 3). For example, seniors’ perceptions of substantial institutional emphasis on diverse interactions increased steadily from 43% to 55%. Support for helping students manage their nonacademic responsibilities such as work or family also increased from 23% to a high of 33%, leveling off in more recent years. Such results are encouraging considering the changing demographics of higher education, with historically underrepresented and nontraditional-age students enrolling in larger numbers.

Figure 3. Seniors’ Perceptions of the Campus Environment 2004-2019

These results provide a high-altitude view of engagement trends over time. As with any study, limitations exist. For example, the sample of institutions represented in each annual cohort varies. Some question wording changed over the years, especially with the survey update in 2013. The effect of such changes varies, sometimes in unknown ways. In addition, the order of the items changed from the original survey (2012 and earlier) and the updated survey (2013 and after), which also may affect responses. This analysis examines individual survey questions rather than NSSE’s Engagement Indicators because item changes in the 2013 update preclude the possibility of tracking multi-item scales over time.

Yet, we are confident that institutions see improvement in areas that they measure and attend to as a priority. Of course, not all items on the survey have increased as substantially, if at all, but we find it promising to observe growth over 16 years in meaningful interactions with faculty, time devoted to academic work, and aspects of the campus environment. Colleges and universities that participate in NSSE deserve credit for taking their engagement results seriously and doing the hard work of changing practice to positively affect the quality of their students’ experiences.

Note: These results were first reported in the NSSE Annual Results 2019.