Maclean's rankings—based on surveys like NSSE—help students decide where to go to school.
John McDonald/the Gauntlet

Student judgment

Survey results tell university administration where to spend its money

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Students have received their fair share of report cards in their long educational careers. Now, students surveys provide an opportunity for them to do the grading.

November has been a month that has seen a surplus of results announced in various surveys pertaining to university performance. National Survey of Student Engagement, the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium, and, of course, Maclean's magazine 17th annual university rankings were all released this month.

NSSE is a student survey originally initiated in the U.S. and later adopted by Canadian universities in 2004. NSSE is a significant research project that delves into and seeks to discover the nature of student life both inside and outside the classroom, aiming to answer questions about student engagement at universities and ultimately to discover what contributes to a positive learning environment.

"The best university experience is where a student and the faculty interact, where there is co-operation among students, an environment that encourages active learning where the students receive prompt feedback, where the institution emphasizes time on task, communicates high expectations, and respects diversity," said University of Calgary vice-provost students Ann Tierney. "It's the research in this area that really forms the basis of the survey."

CUSC is a Canadian-made instrument that focuses­--unlike NSSE--more on satisfaction than it does student engagement.

"CUSC and NSSE are different tools and should be treated differently," stated U of C Students' Union vice-president academic Brittney Sargent. "The data received from both surveys should help create a more holistic view of the strengths and weaknesses of the university."

Data obtained through NSSE allows for the creation of various university benchmarks. These benchmarks provide a quantifiable measure that allows universities to focus on problem areas while simultaneously acknowledging programs that are actually working.

Tierney noted she thought survey information is much more useful than ranking information because it allows universities to compare information within their institutions from faculty to faculty.

As for the U of C, NSSE benchmarks showed that we ranked below average compared to other Canadian and U.S. universities. Specifically, the U of C ranked below average in terms of student/faculty interaction, an enriching educational experience, and a supportive campus environment. Not all of the benchmarks were entirely negative, however. The U of C ranked favourably with other Canadian universities but below its U.S. counterparts.

"It is difficult to compare any Canadian university to an American college," said Sargent. "The systems and cultures are so different that these comparisons are just not that useful. The focus for the SU is on other large, research-intensive, Canadian schools and how we can improve out services compared to them.

"The benchmarks only provide a generalized overview of the information contained in that section," continued Sargent. "If the university wants to address specific issues, they must look at individual questions."

Sargent explained calculating what makes for a better university ans what satisfies students is a complex formula.

"Students are the best source of information about what areas need to be addressed at the university and they know their [own] needs," she said.

Both NSSE and CUSC are tools used by universities to assess how they are doing. Tierney explained the university is using surveys like NSSE in their budget more now.

"We are actually very much factoring in into our budgeting process," said Tierney. "[The provost] is asking for people to identify initiatives in each of their department or faculty that address some of the issues rased in NSSE about engaging students, providing enriching educational experiences, providing a supportive campus environment, student-faculty interaction. Those sorts of things that are coming out of NSSE are very much right into the way we do our budgeting and planning process."

Sargent agreed that using NSSE to gauge the student experience and then add that into allocating resources was a good idea.

"The identification of areas for improvement that comes from the student level is a very important step in addressing student issues," said Sargent. "I think that it is critical that the university use student feedback when setting budget priorities."

Tierney noted the university only has so much money to spend, so NSSE is useful in prioritizing.

"[It is] a way of saying, okay we're here today and this is where we want to get to," said Tierney. "These are the kinds of things we think we need to do to improve this experience for students and this is how much it will cost."

In addition to internal student polling, universities are also judged through external sources such as Maclean's magazine. Over the years, Maclean's has been ranking universities in order to give students, parents, and those wishing to attend university an insight into the different schools across Canada.

Maclean's has provided evaluations of each university by hierarchical ranking based on quality of faculty, availability of resources, quality and volume of research, access to quality libraries, and reputation.

"These rankings give a good starting point for students," said Maclean's managing editor on higher education Tony Keller. "But, no one should treat the Maclean's rankings as an end point. You have to decide for yourself through research, not just through us."

It is worth noting, however, that due to earlier criticism of Maclean's rating methods, they have opted this year to change their methods on information gathering.

"We're only using publicly available data such as [Statistic Canada] and student surveys [NSSE and CUSC]," said Keller. "No data has come directly through the universities, which allows it to be objective, fair, and totally transparent. [Hence,] no cost to anyone and no one can complain that we're wasting valuable time."

Previously, Maclean's had used a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy request to access results from the 2004 NSSE and 2005 CUSC for publication in their Jun. 2006 university student rankings issue as a result of a number of universities pulling out of Maclean's rankings and refusing to give Maclean's student survey data that the magazine used to compile their rankings.

The U of C is still ranked in Maclean's despite their lack of active participation.

"The university still doesn't support the methodology behind the Maclean's research, but we don't believe they shouldn't still publish their results," said Turner.

In addition to formal student surveying bodies such as NSSE and CUSC, Maclean's looked at student and faculty awards, both nationally and internationally, and the faculties recorded in securing research grants from the three federal granting agencies.

"In the report, Maclean's focused on the quality of the undergraduate experience by assessing university performance through 14 indicators across the six most important areas which include quality of students and classes, faculty, resources, student support, library, and overall reputation," said Keller.

To rank Canada's 48 universities Maclean's used 2006's CUSC, 2006's NSSE or, if the university participated in neither, Maclean's administered their own survey, which was based off of CUSC. One university chose not to participate in any of the surveys.

Maclean's separates Canada's universities into three categories; medical doctoral-- U of C fits in here--comprehensive and primarily undergraduate.

The U of C was ranked 10th--moving up from 13th in 2006--of the 15 medical doctoral universities in Canada.

In terms of national reputation, the U of C ranked 18th best overall, 19th in highest quality, 14th in most innovative, and 14th in creating leaders of tomorrow.

To obtain results for reputation Maclean's compiled the views of 11,826 university officials, high school principals, guidance counsellors, heads of a variety of national and regional organizations, as well as CEOs and recruiters at small and large corporations throughout Canada. Interviewees were asked questions about quality, innovation, and leadership of Canadian universities.

"The rankings speak for themselves," said Keller. "You can see all the indicators and where each university has finished on the indicators."

Approximately one quarter of U of C graduating students expressed that their university experience was below what they had expected. Additionally, only 18 per cent of the undergraduate student body stated that they were overly satisfied with the quality of teaching they received at U of C.

"Student surveys are valuable and the U of C does quite poorly on these," said Keller. "It is what it is, however the U of C is trying hard to improve."

Nevertheless, not all students are convinced of the merits of these surveys.

"It's difficult to really understand what should make up the undergraduate experience," noted sixth-year computer science student Juan Rivera. "It would be extremely difficult to determine the weighting that individual questions should have in mapping out a strategy to fundamentally change the undergraduate experience."

Despite these setbacks, Turner said she views these results as a positive display for the U of C.

"The result of all those rankings show that the university is on the right track because we have moved from 14th in 2005, 13th in 2006, and now 10th in 2007," said Turner. "We are showing improvement."