Sweet Briar gets high marks on national survey to assess educational effectiveness

Geoff Pollick talks with seniors in his seminar about how today’s challenges of religious and cultural diversity are not new in America.
Geoff Pollick talks with seniors in his seminar about how today’s challenges of religious and cultural diversity are not new in America.

A survey used by more than 1,600 colleges and universities nationwide to assess educational quality found that Sweet Briar students report levels of engagement in key areas known to affect learning outcomes at significantly higher rates than students at other institutions.

The National Survey of Student Engagement, known as NSSE, has just released its Engagement Insights — Annual Results 2016 detailing findings from more than 300,000 students attending 512 U.S. bachelor’s-granting institutions in spring 2016, including Sweet Briar. NSSE is an annual survey sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and is recognized as one of the most reliable assessments of effective practices in higher education.

According to materials provided by NSSE, “Student engagement represents two critical features of collegiate quality. The first is the amount of time and effort students put into their studies and other educationally purposeful activities. The second is how institutional resources, courses and other learning opportunities facilitate student participation in activities that matter to student learning.”

The survey asks first-years and seniors to reflect on the time they devote to various educational and co-curricular activities that have been shown to be linked to learning, personal development, and other desired outcomes such as satisfaction, persistence and college completion.

Sweet Briar College has been an active participant in NSSE since its inception in 2001. Based on the high levels of student engagement reported by Sweet Briar students, the College was selected as one of 20 colleges for the Documenting Effective Educational Practice (DEEP) Project and was featured in the book, “Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter,” first published in 2005.

The College continued to participate in NSSE and students regularly gave their experiences at Sweet Briar high marks across each of the five Benchmarks of Excellence: Level of Academic Challenge, Active and Collaborative Learning, Student Interaction with Faculty Members, Enriching Educational Experiences and Supportive Campus Environment. On each of the benchmarks, seniors consistently rated Sweet Briar near or — more often than not — above the averages for other women’s colleges, liberal arts institutions and all NSSE participants combined, including public universities.

In 2013, NSSE underwent a redesign to include expanded and refined coverage of student engagement in effective educational practices, new summary measures of student engagement and high-impact practices, and coverage of optional topics of special interest to institutions including academic advising and technology.

“Since then, the College has participated annually in NSSE and uses the results to highlight the exceptional education and engagement of our students,” says Christy Cole, Sweet Briar’s director of institutional research since 2009.

“We also use NSSE to identify areas where we can do better. For instance, the College has used NSSE data to develop programs to increase engagement among first-generation students in their first year, as well as retention overall.”

Following are examples from a multi-year analysis (2013-2016) of high-impact practices on which Sweet Briar seniors report high levels of participation relative to peers at other NSSE schools — including women’s, residential liberal arts colleges and public universities:

  • Research with Faculty – 76 percent in 2016 versus 25 percent for all NSSE schools
  • Internship/Field Experience – 78 percent in 2016 versus 53 percent at all NSSE schools
  • Campus Environment (support for academic success; encouragement to participate socially, including with those from diverse backgrounds; support for overall well-being; etc.) – Sweet Briar scored 41.2 on a 60-point scale in 2016 compared to all other NSSE schools, which averaged 33.4 points.
  • Student-Faculty Interaction (extent to which students interact with faculty outside of coursework) – Sweet Briar scored 42 points on a 60-point scale compared to all other NSSE schools, which averaged 24.5 points.
  • Formal Leadership Role in a Student Organization – 76 percent versus 38 percent at all NSSE schools

Including these measures, Sweet Briar seniors consistently report their engagement above the average levels for seniors from all other institutions participating in NSSE in numerous areas. These are summarized below:

  • Being challenged academically by faculty who exemplify effective teaching practices in courses rich with higher-order learning activities.
  • Participating in highly impactful educational experiences such as conducting research with a faculty member, internships or other real-word practical experiences outside of the classroom, study abroad and student leadership opportunities.
  • Experiencing increased knowledge, skills and development in writing and speaking clearly and effectively, thinking critically and analytically, and acquiring job- or work-related knowledge and skills.
  • Having high levels of engagement and quality interactions with faculty, as well as academic advisors, in and outside the classroom.
  • Learning from peers through frequent discussions with students and community members from different backgrounds and different belief systems.
  • Feeling supported by a campus that helps students succeed academically and offers opportunities to be involved socially.

The complete NSSE Annual Results 2016 report and supporting materials are available here.