Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Higher Education

Understanding Students' Experiences in Their Own Words: Moving beyond a Basic Analysis of Student Engagement

Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Higher Education

Understanding Students' Experiences in Their Own Words: Moving beyond a Basic Analysis of Student Engagement

Article excerpt

Many institutions of higher learning are under pressure from both internal and external stakeholders to report and clarify student learning outcomes. Faculty members, for example, want to know whether the curriculum is doing what it is supposed to be doing: that is, whether their students are actually learning (Astin & Lee, 2003), and whether they are teaching effectively (Chickering & Gamson, 1999; Scott & Scott, 2011). University administrators and student development personnel see a close relationship between student retention and financial benefit: that is, when students perceive that they have received a good education, the university fulfills its mission and also acquires tuition income (Seidman, 2005).

At the same time, the standards of outside stakeholders, such as regional and national accrediting bodies, require institutions of higher learning to use both direct and indirect measures to demonstrate learning outcomes (Gordon, Ludlum, & Hoey, 2008). To provide the evidence that they are meeting their educational goals and fulfilling their mission, many institutions are beginning to analyze student engagement. One of the tools that colleges and universities use to measure student engagement is the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which has become the industry standard. Indeed, NSSE is a reliable means of both providing evidence of student learning and benchmarking it against that of peer institutions (Axelson & Flick, 2010; Gordon, Ludlum, & Hoey, 2008; Kahu, 2013). It calls attention to institutional strengths and deficiencies by rating students' expectations in a certain area-say, the accessibility of faculty-along with their assessment of whether the institution has met their needs in this area. By taking steps to respond to concerns identified by NSSE results, institutions can improve the level of engagement of their students. According to Kuh (2003):

The engagement premise is deceptively simple, even self-evident: The more students study a subject, the more they learn about it. Likewise, the more students practice and get feedback on their writing, analyzing, or problem solving, the more adept they become. The very act of being engaged also adds to the foundation of skills and dispositions that is essential to live a productive, satisfying life after college. (p. 25)

NSSE depends on self-reporting, but its designers have attempted to address the problems of validity associated with this kind of instrument by paying attention to five factors that are known to increase reliability: the familiarity of the question, clarity, currency of information, merit, and maintaining the privacy of the respondents (Pascarella, 2001). Although NSSE draws attention to an institution's weaknesses in meeting its students' expectations, it does not analyze them adequately from the perspective of the lived experiences of students, and so it has limited usefulness as a means of defining solutions. To compensate for this deficiency, the concerned institution must also take a qualitative approach to data collection. Qualitative researchers "emphasize the value-laden nature of inquiry. They seek answers to questions that stress how social experience is created and given meaning. In contrast, quantitative studies emphasize the measurement and analysis of causal relationships between variables, not processes" (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000, p. 8).

In spite of NSSE's heavy emphasis on quantitative data, both the researcher and the administration of Ambrose University agree that it is still, according to the literature, the best measure of student engagement for Ambrose. Both parties also realize, however, that NSSE results need to be complemented by qualitative data.

The purpose of this study is to compare the 2011 NSSE results from Ambrose undergraduate theology students and the 2011 Theological School Survey of Student Engagement1 (TSSSE) results from Ambrose graduate students with the qualitative data gathered from two focus groups, one composed of undergraduate theology students and one composed of graduate theological students. …

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