Dr. Alan Harrison talks about how to make the U of C a better place to learn.
the Gauntlet

U of C plans undergrad census

Survey to rank student experience

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It's almost census time again, but the government isn't asking the questions this time around.

The University of Calgary plans to conduct a census of all first and fourth year undergraduate students in March 2007. The results of the $25,000 National Survey of Student Engagement will be used as a benchmarking tool to compare the U of C to other universities in Canada and the U.S., and to determine if the U of C has improved since last time it conducted the NSSE in 2004.

"[NSSE] is an instrument in use in literally hundreds of universities in North America, which means our results, together with the results we get from universities generally, will give us a good sense of how we are doing relative to other universities," said U of C vice-president academic Dr. Alan Harrison.

The NSSE was one of two surveys Maclean's magazine used to compare the experiences of undergraduate students at Canadian universities in its June 19 University Student Issue. The magazine used the freedom of information and protection of privacy act to access the survey after the U of C--along with 11 other universities--refused to participate in the Maclean's survey.

Last time the U of C conducted the NSSE, the sample size was approximately 1,000 first-year students and 1,000 fourth-year students, said David Johnston, Student Academic Services executive director, e-strategy. Only 40 per cent of those students replied to the web-based survey. This time, the U of C will survey all of the approximately 10,000 first and fourth-year students, and is aiming for a 50 per cent response rate.

The NSSE divides data into five benchmarks for effective educational practice: level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interactions, enriching educational experiences and supportive campus environment. The 2004 results showed U of C lagged behind other Canadian and U.S. institutions in each of the five categories.

Harrison said the U of C has been working hard to improve the quality of education in light of the last NSSE, and he hopes to see these efforts reflected in the next survey.

"We've talked about a learner-centred environment, we've talked about creating a high-quality learning environment, we've integrated scholarships, research," said Harrison. "The learning environment is judged, ultimately, by what the students say about whether the things we're doing are meaningful, educational and purposeful."

Harrison stressed that comparison to other universities is not the main objective of the NSSE.

"It's less about how well we're currently doing compared with other universities, and it's more about getting a sense of what we can do differently so that next time we participate our scores have gone up," said Harrison.

Harrison also noted the larger data set can be broken apart into smaller data sets to identify problems in individual faculties or programs, something not possible with the smaller 2004 survey.

In order to get the needed student support to conduct such a large-scale survey, Harrison wants the Students' Union to help, and made a presentation in the SU Students' Legislative Council Tues., Sept. 26 to ask for their support.

SU VP academic Shannon O'Connor said she needs further assurance the census will indeed benefit students before the SU will support the project.

"I won't say the SU is supporting this yet," said O'Connor. "I'm going to need a guarantee of them following through on the data if we're going to endorse it. If [students] are going to take the time to fill this out, they should be privy to the results."

O'Connor noted she thinks a larger sample size will be useful to identify problems she already suspects in specific faculties, though she wouldn't say which ones.

The other Canadian universities that participated in the 2004 NSSE were the University of Alberta, University of British Columbia, Carleton University, McMaster University, Queens University, University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, University of Western Ontario and York University.

Harrison noted there are plans in the works for a similar survey of graduate students in the spring.

Students can expect more information about the 30-question, web-based survey in the winter semester, said Johnston.