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Attention freshmen and seniors: the University wants to find out what you really think. So once again, we’re asking you to take the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).

The 2016 survey, which kicks off today and runs through April 4, wants students to assess their classwork, their campus interactions, and the University’s overall learning environment.

The survey is “based in research on the kinds of practices that foster student engagement, which then fosters better student success,” says Laurie Pohl, vice president for enrollment and student affairs.

Officials hope for the same high level of response as the last time BU participated in the NSSE, in 2014, when 62.7 percent of first-year students and 55.5 percent of seniors completed the survey. That compares to averages of 18 and 23 percent for other schools with enrollment over 10,000.

Each student is being sent an email with an individualized link to the online survey, which takes about 15 minutes to fill out, and they can answer the questions on their computers, tablets, or even their phones. For their time and effort, students get $5 in Convenience Points on their Terrier Card. Pohl says the University will again work hard to get students to participate. Efforts range from banner ads on buses to direct encouragement by RAs, which worked well last time. “We had a great partnership with the Dean of Students office, especially Residence Life,” she says. “Our ability to demonstrate that we acted on the data is going to continue to drive that participation. The results were shared with trustees, with the provost, with the deans.”

In 2015, more than 300,000 students at 500 schools took the NSSE survey, which is run by the Indiana University School of Education Center for Postsecondary Research. The University participated in 2001, but did its own student satisfaction studies in 2004 and 2008. Believing the NSSE is now better calibrated for a large research university, BU went back to it in 2014, Pohl says, and plans to run the survey every other year going forward.

The survey gauges the time and effort students put into their studies and other educationally purposeful activities, and how they assess the University’s efforts to help them learn. The first category this year asks students how often they have done things such as contribute to class discussions and work on group projects: Very Often, Often, Sometimes, or Never. A sample survey is available here.

BU is given its own results as well as national benchmarks for comparable schools. The 2014 results indicated that compared to other private research universities, BU’s areas of strength included “higher-order learning” and participation in internships and study abroad programs. Among areas needing improvement, according to the survey, were “quality of interactions” and “supportive environment.”

The Task Force on General Education used the NSSE to help us understand what BU is doing well in terms of engaging students in a challenging academic program and what needs improvement,” says Elizabeth Loizeaux, associate provost for undergraduate affairs and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English. “One thing we learned is that BU students report significantly more ‘discussion with diverse others’ than students at other private research universities. That’s important and something we as a community can build on.”

The NSSE results are taken seriously by the University in guiding change, Pohl says. For one example, both first-years and seniors at BU rated academic advising here significantly lower than the average, although there were exceptions, she says, among them the Questrom School of Business.

“Coming out of those results, advising is something we have really taken on university-wide,” says Pohl. “We’ve broken it down by department and schools and colleges. In some cases they have gotten their own data sets so they can dig into it more and see if there are particular populations or departments that are doing better and what can we learn from them.”

The Advising Network, a brown-bag lunch series, and a spring symposium on advising are all efforts that have come out of student retention studies as well as from the NSSE, she says.

“It’s not going to give you the answers,” Pohl says, “but it tells you where to start digging in.”

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Joel Brown, writer, BU Today at Boston University
Joel Brown

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@bu.edu.

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