Writing & the National Survey of Student Engagement

Results of the National Survey of Student Engagement 2008 (pdf) is online. It's a large survey ""based on information from nearly 380,000 randomly selected first-year and senior students at 722 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S." (NSSE press release):

The survey—now entering its tenth year—annually provides comparative standards for assessing effective educational practices in higher education. Five key areas of educational performance are measured: 1) Level of Academic Challenge, 2) Active and Collaborative Learning, 3) Student-Faculty Interaction, 4) Enriching Educational Experiences, and 5) Supportive Campus Environment.

Some of the survey's key findings are:

  • Students taking most of their classes online report more deep approaches to learning in their classes, relative to classroom-based learners. Furthermore, a larger share of online learners reported very often participating in intellectually challenging course activities.
  • Seniors who entered as transfers lag behind their peers on several measures of engagement. They talked less frequently with faculty about their future plans, were less likely than their peers to work with their classmates on assignments outside of class, and fewer participated in co-curricular activities. On the other hand, they more frequently prepared multiple drafts of assignments.
  • Nearly a quarter of first-year students and one in five seniors reported that they frequently came to class without completing readings or assignments.
  • First-year students wrote on average 92 pages and seniors wrote 146 pages during the academic year. Seniors majoring in the social sciences and arts and humanities wrote considerably more than those studying the physical and biological sciences.
  • When courses provided extensive, intellectually challenging writing activities, students engaged in more deep learning activities such as analysis, synthesis, and integration of ideas from various sources, and they grappled more with course ideas both in and out of the classroom. These students also reported greater personal, social, practical, and academic learning and development.

The first finding is rather curious. I need to look at the report more closely, but it seems unlikely, at least to me, that online learning per se would create "deep" learning. Perhaps students who sign up for online courses are already the type who enage in "deep" learning. Perhaps online courses are taught by instructors who are not content with the status quo, but continually seek to improve their pedagogy, to improve student learning, to challenge students. And the students responded accordingly, as noted in the fifth finding.

The second finding on transfers is not surprising. It takes time when entering a new environment to know the ropes and to make friends with whom they could collaborate on homework. What's interesting is that a new environment in which one is somewhat alone apparently challenges individuals toward success, or "survival", and thus the "multiple drafts of assignments." Perhaps such a challenge is related to the first finding.

The third and fifth findings remind me of Csikzentmihalyi's research, which shows that challenge is a crucial part of learning and of enjoying that learning. As Csikszentmihalyi states:

It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to.

There may different reasons why students do not wish to learn, such as a belief that school learning is irrelevant to their lives. Still, Csikszentmihalyi's diagram of item #4 (this representation was created by Wesley Fryer) shows the relationship of challenge to one's level of skills, and thus to a state of flow:

The NSSE report, in other words, supports Csikszentmihayli's theory of flow. Students who are challenged enjoy learning and learn more. From Csikszentmihaly's book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience":

flow activities lead to growth and discovery. One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.

Writing is not the only activity that can challenge students. But it is an activity that does well at "pushing" and "stretching" our ability to write and, through the corollary skills of analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating, our ability to think. Writing is an activity that lends itself to creating a flow of learning.

Related posts:
Engagement and Flow
Curiosity and Learning

Related links:
online learning, writing, and student engagement (Alex Reid)
Educational Cultures in the "Arts" Faculties (Edu*Rhetor)
Encouraging colleges to look within (Insider HIgher Ed)
Writing leads to deeper learning, study finds (USA Today)
NSSE homepage