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Ontario universities assess learning interventions

BY HARRIET EISENKRAFT | FEB 09 2009

Eleven Ontario universities are going back to school, or at least into the laboratory of higher learning, in an effort to improve undergraduate student engagement.

The project was launched by the Higher Educational Quality Council of Ontario, an arm’s-length research agency of Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges, Training and Universities.

The project encompasses 13 experiments in university classrooms, student services and learning centres that are testing whether interventions can improve learning outcomes for undergraduate students. It compares student responses after these interventions with earlier student responses.

The project is based on institutional results from the widely used National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE (pronounced “Nessie”), an assessment tool of postsecondary learning activities. That survey, created by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, posits that the more students are engaged in certain kinds of activities, the higher the quality of their education. All Ontario universities, as well as many other Canadian universities, have participated in the NSSE since 2006.

NSSE measures five areas of performance that correlate to good educational outcomes by asking students to answer hundreds of questions about a broad range of activities. For example, students answer how and how often they interact with faculty, and how supportive they find their campus environment. NSSE compiles the results into scores, or benchmarks, that describe how well a particular university is doing compared with similar types of universities here and in the U.S. However, it is not a ranking system.

Since the first 11 Canadian universities took part in 2004, institutions’ results have fluctuated but have improved only slightly.

While the NSSE survey provides a lot of data, by itself it doesn’t inform institutions on how to alter activities to get better outcomes for their students, said Chris Conway, director of the office of institutional research and planning at Queen’s University and principal investigator for this research project.

“The question continues to be: ‘We’ve done NSSE, now what’?” said 
Mr. Conway.

“We need to get involved in real experiments, or interventions, to test whether or not our activities make a real difference in NSSE scores.”

A steering committee chose the 13 experiments in a competitive process open to all Ontario universities. Every experiment addresses at least one of the NSSE benchmark items, with a strong focus on two where Ontario universities under-perform compared with peer institutions: student-faculty interaction and active and collaborative learning.

One experiment, called “Prof Talk,” will increase student-faculty interaction in a large first-year course. Other experiments will test redesigns of curriculum components and interventions to improve writing and to enhance student advising.

Students who take part in the 13 experiments will answer NSSE survey questions, with their answers compared to those of a control group from a previous year, before the intervention began, controlling for other variables.

A second mandate of the project is to test the robustness of NSSE as a survey tool. The final report will discuss the empirical results of all 13 experiments and will be made public.

Mr. Conway said the results will be widely applicable. “People will be able to connect the dots on how the approaches might apply to their university. Otherwise, it’s just a nice research project.”

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