March, 2002

Millikin University and the National Survey
of Student Engagement: Using Assessment Data
to Improve Student Learning

It would be hard to miss all the recent news critical of existing methods by which colleges and universities are assessed and ranked. Many critics have pointed out the inadequacies of the U.S. News and World Report rankings and especially their lack of attention to any measures of student learning outcomes. In addition, however, too many assessment models miss a key component--feeding results back into continuous improvement of programs. One exception to this rule is the National Survey of Student Engagement. More than 470 different 4-year colleges and universities use this instrument to receive information not only to demonstrate their strengths to prospective students, but also to improve the learning that occurs on their campuses and the programs that can truly help students succeed in college.

At the heart of Millikin University's learning experience is the Millikin Program of Student Learning (MPSL). Evaluated in the 2001 NSSE, this innovative curriculum allows students, through regularly scheduled meetings with faculty, to connect and shape various areas of their study. The most recent NSSE study measured the impact of the MPSL over four years, and, although scores for Millikin seniors in all survey categories improved from year 2000 to year 2001, these scores did not improve at as high a rate as other institutions in the survey. This data is particularly significant because the 2001 senior class was the first class at Millikin to experience the MPSL curriculum throughout their entire Millikin education.

Still, Paul Folger, Coordinator of Institutional Research and Assessment at Millikin, feels that the NSSE is a "great way to monitor changes" at the institution. Mr. Folger is particularly pleased with NSSE in comparison to other assessment instruments because this survey "allows national comparison." He emphasizes that NSSE questions measure "what students are doing not just what their opinions are." He also stresses that students get more out of their educational experience when they are "engaged" and NSSE measures that student engagement.

Although "we are very pleased with results in academic-based areas of the survey," he notes that one area of concern from this year's results is "supportive campus environment" or social life. Millikin is a small school in a moderate sized city, without the community resources of some larger neighboring institutions. Awareness of these findings from NSSE will allow the faculty and administration to find ways to help students become more involved in extra- and co-curricular activities that the University currently offers and perhaps create more outlets for social interaction in the future.

Mr. Folger also commented that the graduating class of 2001 might have reacted to something of a "guinea pig" effect. "We underwent a major curricular change in 1995. The senior group that went through the entire program may have reacted to the dramatic difference from the upperclassmen's learning experience at the time."

The National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE (pronounced "nessie"), was designed by assessment experts to measure the level of academic challenge, time on task, and students' participation in "educationally purposeful activities directly influencing" quality of learning and overall education experience. As a survey, NSSE annually assesses the extent to which students at four-year colleges and universities take part in educational practices that many research studies show are strongly associated with high levels of learning and personal development.

NSSE's "enriching educational experience" category looks at elements such as community service, practical experience, and participation in activities outside the classroom. The "active and collaborative learning" category evaluates elements such as making class presentations, participating in community-based projects, and working with other students on projects outside of class. Millikin students scored particularly well in these two categories. All of these elements are essential parts of the University Seminar Program at Millikin, an introduction to university life and to Millikin's commitment to service learning that is required of all first year students. NSSE rankings for Millikin freshman were in the highest percentiles.

Also mentioned in the 2001 NSSE report is Millikin's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program. This program teams a student with a faculty member to do an in-depth research project demonstrating that Millikin undergraduates enjoy research opportunities similar to the opportunities given to graduate students elsewhere.

Information in the NSSE report has also been used by Millikin administration to support accreditation information and has been built into reports to Millikin's Board of Trustees. The Faculty Council on Curriculum is intensively using NSSE data in its continuing effort to monitor the positive impact of recent curricular changes.

Millikin University participated in the pilot NSSE survey instrument. The survey was given to Millikin freshman and then to the sophomores the following year, allowing the originators of the survey to validate the questions and survey structure.

For more information on Millikin University, see For information on the Millikin Program of Student Learning go to For more information about the National Survey of Student Engagement, see