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November 10, 2010
CONTACT: K.E. Schwab



McCormick calls student engagement ‘lens on student learning’


SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa - Alexander McCormick, director of the National Survey of Student Engagement, an assessment program used by Slippery Rock University, told faculty and staff that “student engagement is a lens on student learning” as part of his hour-long Professional Development Day address.

Speaking Tuesday in the University Union, McCormick explained NSSE’s mission and told the assemblage to dig into the data provided as a way to help improve their teaching – and student learning – all with the goal of increasing positive student outcomes.

McCormick became NSSE director in 2008 and holds a faculty appointment in the Indiana University School of Education’s educational leadership and policy studies department, where he teaches in the Higher Education and Student Affairs Program. He earned his doctorate in education and sociology and his master’s degree in educational administration and policy analysis from Stanford University.

He said his principle aim is to enrich the national discourse about quality and accountability in higher education, while also providing institutions with tools they can use to diagnose and improve undergraduate teaching and learning.

NSSE is one of those tools. The survey, which SRU offers both in paper form and online, is given to all freshmen and seniors each spring.

SRU’s response rate is well above the average at peer institutions, said Amanda Yale, associate provost for enrollment services. She attributes the high response to work done by the Office of Institutional Research in organizing and promoting the survey on campus.

McCormick’s SRU talk focused on how to boost student involvement and student engagement, which he said are prime factors in student learning and retention – thus leading directly to higher graduation rates.

SRU has significantly improved its student retention, and in turn, its graduation rate to 58 percent, in part by following and implementing recommendations and strategies revealed through NSSE reports, Yale said.

More than 1,400 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada have participated in the survey since it was first presented in 2000.

Individual institution survey results are confidential, but are reported in aggregate form to allow participating institutions the ability to create comparisons both against the national level and against peer institutions.

“What is student engagement? Why does it matter? And, how does it connect to other areas of student education?” McCormick asked at the opening of his address.

NSSE’s approach is that student engagement represents two critical features of collegiate quality. The first is the amount of time and effort students put into their studies and other educationally purposeful activities. The second is how the institution deploys its resources and organizes the curriculum and other learning opportunities to get students to participate in activities that decades of research studies show are linked to student learning.

“Student engagement boiled down to its most basics is the extent to which student engage in and are exposed to effective educational practices – those activities and practices that several decades of research show to be positively correlated to a whole range of desired learning outcomes,” he said.

“Probably most fundament to the idea of engagement is time on task – challenging academics. It’s faculty members holding students accountable to fairly high expectations and setting high expectations and being explicit about it. It is deep approaches to learning. There is discourse now in the learning sciences that distinguishes between surface learning [memorization] and deep learning, which requires students to operate on their knowledge in some way,” he said.

“We want students to stretch themselves and truly be engaged with what they are learning in their courses,” McCormick said. “Quality involvement of the faculty is a very important element of student engagement as well.”

He also outlined the importance of service-learning, showing how students correlate their academic work with the volunteer work and become more engaged in the entire process. “Active learning experiences, being involved with other students, are all powerful,” he said.

“Peer support for student success is also important,” he said, adding, that linking all of the elements are important to student success.

“Students have an important role themselves. They need to invest the time and effort. So part of what faculty need to do is show students that they need to invest the time and effort and to make it worthwhile and productive for them,” he said.

McCormick said the survey results provide an estimate of how undergraduates spend their time and what they gain from attending college. Higher education institutions can then use the data to help students focus on learning and offer suggestions to faculty to further engage students through special projects, joint faculty-student research, international travel and service learning, among others.

The survey, which empirically confirms "good practices" in undergraduate education, provides participating institutions a variety of reports that compare their students' responses with those of students at self-selected groups of comparison institutions – peer institutions.

The comparisons can be related to national benchmarks as well as trends.

McCormick summarized the nearly 100-question survey. “The whole first page of questions is about frequency of behavior and a range of activities. Questions about the degree of academic challenge, such as how much reading and writing students do; student involvement in active learning tasks, that is participating in projects with other students, making presentations, participating in class discussions; the characteristics of the cognitive tasks - how often a student is called upon in courses. And a number of questions about enriching experiences.”

“There are some questions about how students use their time: In a typical week how many hours do they study and do activities like work, relaxing and socializing with friends; commuting to and from campus; caring for other dependents; working for pay on campus; working for pay off campus; and so on,” he said.

“So we expect to get a textured picture of what student commitments are in their school life and outside of school and how they use their discretionary time,” he said.

“There are a few questions about co-curricular activities and a few questions to try to get at issues specific to the campus; several questions about the quality of campus relationships; self assessment of their cognitive and non-cognitive gains at the institution; a couple of satisfaction questions; and a couple of demographic questions are included,” he said.

SRU’s results are provided to the University’s deans for distribution, as appropriate, to individual departments and faculty for review and discussion. Institutional level reports are shared with the president’s cabinet and the directors of enrollment services and student life.

SRU faculaty and directors across the divisions are asked to cnisder how the results can be used in their departments and offices.

Contact Carrie Birckbichler, director of institutional research, or Yale for a presentation about a specific area regarding understanding the NSSE results.

Institutional-level reports and peer benchmark comparisons for SRU are available at:

To read how SRU faired on the most recent NSSE survey see:


Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania’s premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.