Introduced in 2000 by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) measures the extent to which students engage in educational practices associated with high levels of learning and personal development. This survey, administered to first-year students and seniors, is widely used across institutions in the United States and beyond. The NSSE results shape national conversations around effective pedagogical strategies, institutional improvement, and the overall quality of the collegiate experience. In 2021 and 2023, Wake Forest joined 473 US institutions in distributing the NSSE. With 22% of seniors completing the most recent NSSE, there is much to be learned about our students and their learning experiences.

Understanding the student experience is important for faculty, staff, and administrators who are interested in effectively educating students. If programs collect their own student data, they can benchmark their findings against the averages of all WFU students in the NSSE findings. A review of NSSE findings can be helpful for programs as they try to benchmark their students’ experiences with those of other Wake Forest students. The information can also be used to identify areas for growth as we begin to enact our new strategic framework.

NSSE results are available on the Institutional Research website along with other interesting surveys of students and faculty. Each survey includes an executive summary describing key findings and includes results that have been analyzed to indicate meaningful areas of difference between Wake Forest students and other students from similar institutions. The reports also highlight differences between different groups of Wake Forest students by comparing the responses of students from different identity groups including race/ethnicity, gender, and first-generation status.

The NSSE offers valuable insights into students’ perspectives, highlighting both strengths and areas for improvement. This blog post aims to summarize key findings from the most recent NSSE results, shedding light on what WFU faculty can learn and enhance for the benefit of their students.

  1. They are glad they picked Wake – 92% evaluated their overall educational experience positively, 86% indicated that if they could start over again they would attend WFU, 86% felt comfortable being themselves at Wake Forest, and 77% felt valued by Wake Forest. 
  2. They are working hard – but not always on their schoolwork- 94% reported spending significant amounts of time studying and on academic work. In a typical week, students reported spending 16 hours preparing for class, 9 hours participating in co-curricular activities, 7 hours working for pay, and 3 hours engaged in community service. 
  3. They are actively integrating knowledge across courses – 88% frequently connected things they learned in courses to their prior knowledge and more than 70% frequently combined ideas from different courses or connected learning to societal issues. 
  4. They are participating in High Impact Practices (HIPs) – High-Impact Practices (HIPs) demand considerable time and effort, facilitate learning outside of the classroom, require meaningful interactions with faculty and students, encourage collaboration with diverse others, and provide frequent and substantive feedback. When reviewing seniors’ reports of their participation in HIPs, it is impressive to note that 75% completed internships, more than half participated in courses that included community-based projects, study abroad, and culminating senior experiences such as capstone courses, and nearly half (47%) collaborated with faculty on research projects. In fact, the only HIP experienced by fewer than a third of our students is a learning community.  
  5. They believe they have learned a lot – The survey data reveals some interesting areas in which seniors feel they have learned a great deal over the course of their WFU education. Nearly all seniors (94%) reported enhancements in critical thinking. More than three-quarters reported improvements in writing, speaking, analyzing numerical information, working effectively with others, and developing personal values. Fewer seniors believed they made important gains in solving complex real-world problems (72%), understanding people of diverse backgrounds (65%), or being an informed and active citizen (66%). 
  6. They believe they are highly skilled in many key areas – More than 90% of our seniors are confident in their ability to write, think critically, analyze arguments, problem-solve, and be creative. More than 75% are also confident in their research, persuasive speaking, leadership, networking, and technology skills. Interestingly, only 46% of seniors expressed confidence in their financial and business management skills, and only 42% expressed confidence in their entrepreneurial skills.

NSSE compares our student responses to those of students from 32 other institutions that are similar to Wake. Although the differences between Wake and peer institutions only yielded small differences, the differences reveal some particular strengths that we should be proud of!  

  1.  We Challenge Our Students and Teach Them Well – Student learning is heavily dependent on effective teaching. Our seniors are more likely than seniors at peer institutions to report that their faculty frequently provides organized instruction, clear explanations, illustrative examples, and effective feedback. Wake seniors were more likely than seniors at peer institutions to report that their coursework emphasized challenging cognitive tasks such as application, analysis, or synthesis and that they were required to evaluate, support, or critique arguments using numerical and statistical information. Impressively, 98% expressed confidence in their ability to think critically and analyze arguments and information. Together these areas of strength indicate that we are helping our students learn deeply by combining challenging work with effective pedagogy.  
  2. We Get Along – Our seniors reported higher quality of interactions with faculty than did students at peer institutions. This is great news because positive interpersonal relations promote student learning and success. They also report more frequent engagement in collaborative learning, both formally in group work and informally through study groups or helping friends. Students with supportive relationships can find assistance when they need it and are positioned to learn from their faculty and each other. 
  3. We Support Our Students – Our seniors also felt more supported at Wake than did seniors at peer institutions reporting high availability of services and activities that support their learning and development. This is important because access to cognitive, social, and physical support is associated with higher levels of student performance and satisfaction. 

We did not compare poorly to peer institutions on any metrics, but within Wake Forest, some of our students reported less positive experiences than others.

  1. Underrepresented Ethnic Minority (URM) Students View Inclusion Differently Than White Students – Fewer URM seniors than White seniors felt Wake was supportive of students’ racial/ethnic identities (46% vs 63%), gender identities (46% vs 63% ), disability statuses (38% vs 54%), and economic backgrounds (48% vs 33%). URM students were also more likely than White students to participate in a diversity-related club (49% vs 16%) or activities related to specific groups (42% vs 23%). 
  2. Uneven Participation in HIPs – Despite our high levels of overall levels of HIP participation described above, more women than men participated in internships (82% vs 67%) and study abroad programs (58% vs 44%). More White students than URM students participated in internships (80% vs 64%) and study abroad programs (56% vs 41%). In contrast, more URM students than White students worked with a faculty member on a research project (58% vs 42%). Given the importance of HIPs to student learning and success, we might consider whether there are opportunities to increase URM and male student participation in internships and study abroad. 

The recent NSSE results shed light on both the strengths and areas for improvement within our institution. Notably, the overwhelming majority of students express satisfaction with their overall educational experience, emphasizing the positive impact of effective teaching and challenging coursework. The strong sense of community, quality interactions with faculty, and robust support services further contribute to a positive learning environment.

However, the findings also highlight specific areas where attention and action are warranted. Disparities in the perception of support for underrepresented ethnic minority (URM) students underscore the need for a more inclusive environment. Additionally, encouraging all students to participate in High-Impact Practices (HIPs) presents an opportunity for further growth, with a focus on increasing URM and male student involvement in internships and study abroad programs.

You may not be aware of the many ways institutions and departments can benefit from strong survey responses. Because NSSE provides rich, reliable information on student learning behavior and effective educational practice, colleges and universities have found many uses for NSSE results including accreditation self-studies, alumni outreach, assessment and improvement, benchmarking, faculty development, general education reform, grant proposals, applications, and progress reports. I received questions from faculty about whether we can access the responses of students from a particular division or program. Unfortunately, current analyses are limited to a few comparisons between large groups of students because we have so few respondents. Hopefully, when we next administer the NSSE in the spring of 2025 we will increase responses with your support! 

As Wake Forest continues to enact its new strategic framework, the NSSE results offer a roadmap for improvement and innovation. By addressing the identified areas for growth, the University can ensure a more inclusive, engaging, and enriching educational experience for all students. The commitment to understanding and enhancing the student journey remains paramount, reflecting Wake Forest’s dedication to fostering a community where every student can thrive and succeed.

The Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (FSSE) offers a complementary perspective to the NSSE by capturing faculty perceptions of student engagement. Next week, we will share a blog that highlights findings from the last FSSE. Then, on April 2nd, all Reynolda Campus and School of Professional Studies full-time and part-time faculty will receive an email invitation to participate in the next FSSE survey. 

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