Engineering Majors Hit the Books More Than Business Majors Do, Survey Finds

November 17, 2011

The average full-time undergraduate student studies about as much as faculty members expect—15 hours a week—but the duration varies by major, according to this year's National Survey of Student Engagement, released today.

Engineering majors spend the most time studying, 19 hours a week, but even among those who exceed 20 hours, nearly a quarter still often show up for class without assignments completed, the report says.

Business majors study the least, 14 hours a week, along with social-science majors, whose professors' expectations, at 18 hours a week, are furthest from reality.

Students who expect to struggle to pay for college also anticipate more academic and social difficulty, the report says.

For 12 years, the survey, which is known as Nessie, has become a fixture in the field of student affairs, with nearly 1,500 four-year colleges having participated and used the data to evaluate their effectiveness.

In recent years, however, scholars have challenged Nessie's validity.

This fall the journal The Review of Higher Education, in a special issue on student engagement, published sharp critiques of the survey. Its measures of learning have a high percentage of error, the critics said, and its questions are too vague for students' answers to be meaningful. Nessie's researchers, who are based at Indiana University at Bloomington, will respond in the winter issue.

The release of this year's report coincides with the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, which publishes the journal and initially planned a symposium there featuring critics and the director of the survey, Alexander C. McCormick. Last month the association's president canceled the event, prompting some complaints.

Mr. McCormick acknowledges that the survey isn't perfect and says reasoned critiques are welcome. Last year extensive information about the methodology used in the Nessie surveys was posted online, he points out, and the Indiana center that conducts the surveys will provide one of the skeptical researchers with additional material. "We decided that we wanted to be as transparent as we can," Mr. McCormick says.

In the introduction to this year's report, he argues that the survey offers important insight into educational quality. "More than a survey," he writes, it's "an agenda for action to improve undergraduate education."

Learning Strategies

The report also examines how full-time seniors in different clusters of majors spend their time beyond studying. Although business students, on average, study the least, they spend the most time working: 16 hours a week. Business and education majors spend the most time caring for dependents.

For the first time, the survey asked about learning strategies, generating some disappointing results, the report says. More than 85 percent of students take careful notes during class, but only half discuss effective studying habits with faculty members or classmates. Two-thirds of students stay focused while reading course materials; only half frequently write summaries of their readings.

Online students report greater use of different learning strategies, according to the report, which says that "it would be beneficial for institutions to actively encourage students to become skilled at a broader range of strategies."

On average, first-generation students spend less time preparing for class but are more likely to discuss effective learning habits and to try out various techniques, such as reviewing notes after class, the report says. Mr. McCormick offers one possible explanation: "They might be more mindful of their need to understand these things."

A Range of Challenges

First-year students who say it will be hard to pay for college also anticipate other challenges, the survey shows. They expect trouble in learning course material, interacting with faculty members, and getting help, as well as in managing time and making friends. "Meeting these students' need for support," the report says, "may increase student persistence and success, particularly in these difficult economic times."

The vast majority of seniors are preparing for life after college: Eighty-three percent of them report discussing career plans with a faculty member or adviser. Three-quarters of them perceive substantial gains in job-related knowledge and skills, according to the report; half have had internships. The percentage of students with internship experience varies widely by major. The highest proportion, not surprisingly, is among education majors, nearly all of whom say their course of study requires field experience.

Last spring 416,000 freshmen and seniors at 673 four-year colleges in the United States completed the survey. Participating colleges get detailed measures of their students' "engagement," or the extent to which they are immersed in academics and campus activities.

The report evaluates institutions' performances in five categories: level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences, and supportive campus environment.

Nessie researchers continue to reach out to participating colleges, offering workshops and Webinars to help them interpret and apply their results. The report includes many snapshots of colleges that have started or adjusted programs and services to improve student engagement, and Nessie's Web site provides a searchable database of examples.

This year, for the second time, all freshmen and seniors at participating colleges received the survey questionnaire, rather than a sample of those classes. That way, according to the report, even when response rates hover around 30 percent, data are robust enough to be meaningful when broken down to, say, the department level.

Nessie plans more changes in 2013: refining some of its measures of learning, adding new ones, and updating the language of the questions to apply more broadly to online students. The future survey will also include more questions about quantitative reasoning and peer-to-peer learning.

The survey is administered by the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, is sponsored in part by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and is paid for by the participating colleges. This year's report, "Fostering Student Engagement Campuswide," is available free online and for $20 in print from the National Survey of Student Engagement.

Dan Berrett contributed to this article.

Chronicle of Higher Education

Chronicle of Higher Education