This week:

  • I point to some key findings in the newest annual National Survey of Student Engagement.
  • I share readers’ feedback on how they have reformed their gateway courses.
  • I ask whether your college or department has developed alternatives to teaching evaluations.

Some Good News on Engagement

The just-released National Survey of Student Engagement celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. In a look back, it has pulled out a few key trends suggesting that colleges have improved some measures of engagement. The survey was designed to better understand how undergraduates experience college, on the idea that it could help institutions improve student success.

For one, the percentage of first-year students who say they have discussed career plans and other topics outside of class with their professors increased 10 percentage points from 2004 to 2019.

“This suggests that by and large, faculty who teach first-year students have devoted more effort to having meaningful conversations with students outside of the classroom - a form of engagement that helps to socialize new students, promotes their persistence, and facilitates their ongoing development,” the survey notes. “It also suggests that institutions have intentionally structured orientations, career services, and support units to connect students to the resources they most need.”

An analysis of results from 57 colleges that used NSSE’s academic advising module found a clear correlation between the perceived quality of academic advising and a first-year student’s likelihood of returning to the college the following year. In short, the quality of advising seemed to matter more than the quantity. The survey found that first-year students who said they received high-quality advising also had twice as much interaction with professors and were more likely to say they planned to return the next year, compared with students who described their advising as low quality.

The survey, commonly known as NSSE, also found an increase in another measure of engagement. The proportion of first-year students who say they spent more than 15 hours a week on academic preparation grew from 34 percent in 2004 to 45 percent in 2017 (the figure has stayed relatively flat since then). That’s important, the survey’s authors note, because previous NSSE analysis found a correlation between time on preparation and retention and graduation rates.

Other highlights from the survey:

  • The proportion of seniors and first-year students who said that there was substantial emphasis on “diverse interactions” went up 10 percentage points from 2004 to 2019. For seniors it rose from 43 percent in 2004 to 55 percent in 2019.
  • The percentage of students who said they received support for managing their nonacademic responsibilities, like work or family, has also grown over time, from 23 percent in 2004 to 33 percent more recently (that figure has leveled off in recent years).

The findings got me wondering: What sorts of things do you discuss with students you advise, formally or informally? Clearly, more professors are talking about noncourse-related work. If that’s your experience, how do you handle those conversations? Drop me a line at, and your thoughts may appear in a future newsletter.

Reforming Gateway Courses

In a recent story and newsletter I wrote about the challenges of gateway courses and asked readers to share their experiences with course reform. Here’s what a few of you had to say:

  • Carrie Hall of Kennebec Valley Community College, wrote in to describe how she rethought an introductory college composition course, which used to have one of the highest percentages of students receiving D’s, F’s or withdrawals (the DFW rate). Some of the design changes made by Hall, who is co-chair of the liberal studies department, focus on teaching students about how people learn and incorporating self-assessment into the curriculum. These tools, she writes, help students reflect on their learning, better understand why she asks them to participate in certain activities, and give her a clearer picture of what students think of their own concept mastery. This allows her to target her feedback and help students hone their metacognition skills.
  • Suzanne Wilson Summers of Austin Community College teaches a two-course U.S. history sequence, required for many degrees at public colleges in Texas. Because these courses cover so much ground, she writes, it’s no surprise that many students fail. In recent years she has revamped her courses, swapping big exams for chapter tests and a lot of short writing assignments that require students to focus on broad historical themes. She also requires students to seek out academic support on campus by building that into several assignments. DFW rates have dropped as a result, and today most of her students pass the course. “Having a very clearly scaffolded course with assignments designed to help students learn,” she writes, “rather than to ‘weed’ them out, makes all the difference.”
  • Andrew David teaches large freshman biology courses at Clarkson University. He was hired by the university to revamp the courses, which suffered from inequity issues common to gateway courses. His changes have correlated with an increase in student grade averages — even as the material has become more rigorous — and a rise in first-year retention rates in the major. To accompany the large lectures, he created small discussion sections, led by undergraduate teaching assistants to encourage a peer-mentoring model of learning. He has also started phasing out formal exams. Instead, students work in groups to apply a concept learned during the semester to a real-world problem. He builds research and brainstorming time into the course. “This strategy in my opinion does a much better job of assessing student learning than knowledge-based tests,” he writes, “because it forces students to employ their metacognitive skills.”

Alternative Teaching Evaluations

Julienne Empric, a professor of literature at Eckerd College, wrote in to request that we ask whether you’ve come up with alternatives to the traditional evaluations of teaching driven by student course evaluations, which research has found to show bias against women and professors of color.

I’ve been wondering about that myself, so I’m curious to hear your responses. Has your college or department created an alternative or supplementary strategy to evaluate teaching? How is that strategy incorporated into the evaluation process? And what has the response been from the faculty, tenure and promotion committees, the administration, and others? Drop me a line at, and I’ll share responses in a future newsletter.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us, at,, or

Correction (2/21/20): This newsletter originally said FSSE had promoted a NSSE advising module. That module is actually NSSE’s own; the newsletter has been updated to reflect that.