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Increasingly, MC using NSSE benchmarks to measure academic success

Barry McNamara
Monmouth College biology professor Ken Cramer works with students Michael Derry of Canton and Jasmine Casillas of Chicago during a lab session earlier this year.
Despite the formidable competition in the region among “national liberal arts” colleges, Monmouth College has seen steady progress in benchmarking student success and learning outcomes using surveys like the National Student Survey of Engagement (NSSE). Although Monmouth fell short in a few categories, it performed towards the top of its peer group in most.

For many years, the U.S. News and World Report rankings, defined Monmouth’s peer group, which included Associated Colleges of the Midwest sister schools such as Carleton (No. 6 in the 2012 rankings), Grinnell (No. 19) and Macalester (No. 25). While those rankings still resonate, data reported by the National Survey of Student Engagement is gaining in importance to prospective students and their parents. That is certainly the case at Monmouth, which has moved up in the survey in its nine years of existence.

“In our board of trustees’ vision statement, they set the target of being in the top 10 percent of all of the NSSE results by the year 2025,” said MC president Mauri Ditzler. “They didn’t set a similar goal related to U.S. News. When we set the goal, this was the survey we focused on. We have not yet achieved this ambitious goal, but we are making good progress.”

Progress continued this year on the 40-question survey, which is broken down into five benchmarks of effective educational practice: level of academic challenge; active and collaborative learning; student-faculty interaction; enriching educational experiences; and supportive campus environment. Two groups of students are surveyed – freshmen and seniors – resulting in 10 sets of data, five benchmarks for each class.

Evidence that NSSE is more authoritative than U.S. News comes from the president of the American Council on Education, Molly Corbett Broad.

“At a time when U.S. standards for higher education are being evaluated in a competitive global context, NSSE data provide real insights into the qualities of the campus learning environment,” she said.

Survey items on NSSE’s student survey, The College Student Report, represent empirically confirmed “good practices” in undergraduate education. That is, they reflect behaviors by students and institutions that are associated with desired outcomes of college. The survey’s results help show how undergraduates spend their time and what they gain from attending.

Commenting on the board’s goal, MC dean David Timmerman said, “This is not a one-year process. We are seeing clear evidence of becoming one of the top liberal arts institutions in the country, but we realize the need to continue improving in all the areas. The survey’s benchmarks all work hand-in-hand, and to be in the top 10 percent in those key areas would be an accomplishment of which everyone at Monmouth could be proud.”

When compared to their peers among 75 Great Lakes-area private colleges and the entire set of nearly 700 NSSE responders to the 2011 survey, MC freshmen and seniors both indicated that they have much more student-faculty interaction. The 109 seniors who took part in the survey also responded that they take part in more enriching educational experiences than their peers from both groups. Finally, the 167 freshmen who returned surveys reported being challenged by the level of MC’s intellectual and creative work at a higher rate than the overall NSSE average.

Several Monmouth students can vouch for student-faculty interaction and enriching educational experiences. One is Victoria Green, a senior from Pittsfield. During her first three years on campus, Green was part of MC trips to Costa Rica, the Galapagos Islands and the western U.S. Those short trips prepared her for what she might call the “capstone course” of her off-campus studies – a semester abroad this fall in Scotland through a unique exchange program with the University of the Highlands and Islands.

“I can honestly say these experiences have been the most defining of my life,” she said.

Added Alyse Cole, a senior art major from Washington, Ill., “I’m definitely pleased with my choice to attend Monmouth. The art department is small enough that I’ve been given a lot of opportunities that I might not have had, and I’ve received a lot of personalized attention. I’ve been able to develop personal relationships with the faculty. Being around them all the time has created more time to learn.”

Like Green, Cole spent a semester abroad (in Florence), and she also participated this year in the college’s new SOFIA (Summer Opportunities for Intellectual Activity) program. Connor Shields, a junior from Naperville, participated in the first SOFIA in 2010, where he created several musical instruments. He also took part in another innovative academic experience this semester, an interdisciplinary Victorian culture course that was team-taught by members of the art, English and educational studies faculty.

“As an art major, studying poetry was outside my comfort zone,” said Shields. “It was precisely because of this that the course challenged me and gave me new perspectives.”

While addressing NSSE benchmarks, Monmouth College relies on some of its traditional strengths, such as being the Alpha Chapter of two national women’s fraternities, along with new developments, including the construction this year of a 19-bed Greek life house and the return of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity.

Similarly, the college has long been known for its friendly and nurturing campus atmosphere, but this year’s addition of the position of director of student success is helping to take that to another level.

“The heart of our enterprise is academic success,” said vice president for student life Jacquelyn Condon. “The NSSE survey is an important tool as we assess how deeply our students are involved in the learning process. The results have informed our decisions about academically enriching activities and programs that we have launched such as the Midwest Journal of Undergraduate Research, numerous summer research projects and our Scholars’ Day celebration.”