Students' science experiment

Assess for Success: Student Engagement Scrutinized at Buffalo State

Although earning a degree and finding a job are the end goals of higher education, most students and faculty agree that college means much more. Those who study students’ involvement with activities both in and outside of the classroom know engagement is the best single predictor of learning and personal development.

Enhancing student engagement will be one of the key components of the 2009–2013 Strategic Plan, said Provost Dennis Ponton.

“It’s a continual challenge for all faculty and staff to get students more involved in their education,” Ponton said. “Whether it’s creating a hands-on classroom environment or encouraging students to participate in co-curricular activities outside the classroom, there are so many ways we can complement the learning from class sessions and lectures. It’s a must to maximize student learning. An engaged student is a happy student, and more likely to be a student who graduates.”

Assessment on Many Levels
The National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE, is considered the gold standard for measuring student engagement and success. It has been administered at more than 1,200 universities in the United States and Canada since 2000. President Muriel Howard serves on the national advisory board for the organization, and most SUNY schools participate in the survey. But the NSSE is just the beginning. Buffalo State utilizes many other assessment tools to measure performance and better understand student needs.

Two components of the NSSE—FSSE (Faculty Survey of Student Engagement) and CLASSE (in-class NSSE)—assess faculty perceptions of student engagement and classroom interactions, respectively. CLASSE, a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning pilot program, measures first-year student perceptions of a class during its first and 10th weeks.

Rosalyn Lindner, associate vice president for curriculum and assessment, said CLASSE is helpful for faculty development. “This assessment has meaning,” she said. “It helps faculty and students determine what aspects of the class are important and then shows if students are getting what they expected.”

The Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) survey is administered to all entering first-year students during student orientation and helps track trends in demographics, behaviors, and attitudes. It has been administered every three years since 1983.

The Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), first administered on campus in 2006–2007, measures the critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and writing skills of first- and senior-year students and then compares results with incoming SAT scores to measure institutional “gains.”

Assessment Results
The 2008 NSSE results compare Buffalo State with three pools of colleges: urban universities, SUNY colleges, and peer institutions. Buffalo State outperformed most of the pools’ averages for two of the five overarching categories: student-faculty interaction and enriching educational experiences. However, it underperformed all pools for level of academic challenge and most pools for supportive campus environment. The college was on par for active and collaborative learning.

Students performed better than their peers in areas such as conducting community-based projects as part of a regular course, engaging in internships and field experiences, and believing that their institution encourages diversity. But students underperformed in areas such as reading more than 10 assigned books or book-length readings, working with other students on projects, and asking questions in class.

During spring 2008, the Dean of Students Office conducted the Student Stakeholder Assessment Project, holding a series of nine focus group sessions and meeting with 194 students overall. The session included a standard survey that mirrored the NSSE but also provided a portion for qualitative answers. Each focus group also had the opportunity to collectively discuss areas that were and were not working well to support student success.

Students viewed relationships with faculty and staff, support services, and safety as the campus’s strongest areas. Areas of high concern included faculty and staff accountability to students (e.g., consistency in grading and teaching styles, responsiveness by staff), out-of-pocket costs of attending college, and parking. Charles Kenyon, dean of students, said Student Affairs will be reviewing the results line by line and will work across campus offices to help improve areas.

Putting Data into Context
Lindner knows that by participating in these surveys, Buffalo State may appear to be exposing its weaknesses. But, she said, the data needs to be put into context.

“Buffalo State has a high percentage of commuters, first-generation students, and those who are working full-time jobs while attending school,” she said.

Lindner believes that despite areas of needed improvement, Buffalo State is moving in the right direction. She said the application of knowledge is critical for student success, and positive survey results in areas such as service learning and internships reflect the college’s drive for integrating inquiry and action.

Buffalo State, as part of the strategic planning process, will consider an institutional goal of achieving a minimum ranking among the top 50 percent of all NSSE institutions for all benchmarks of engagement. It would be a worthy initiative, as assessment tools show that students are leaving Buffalo State in much better shape than they arrive. According to the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which compares results with a national sample of 115 four-year institutions, Buffalo State performed better than nearly 70 percent of four-year institutions, and students fared better than predetermined “expected” scores.

“This shows that we take solid students who can thrive here,” Lindner said.