Students seeking greater challenges


By Bob Klanac
Thursday, May 10, 2007
Western may need to take a closer look at the level and types of academic challenges offered to students and explore new ways for students and faculty to interact.

The bi-annual National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) was the subject of an April 26 Western Academic and Administrative Leaders' Forum and the results, while pointing to a number of strengths, also showed room for improvement.

The NSSE survey measures student participation in programs and activities provided by institutions for learning and personal development. Western has participated since 2004 and is among select universities that allow survey data to be made public.

In general, Western ranks near other Ontario universities in most categories, however Ontario universities tend to perform more poorly than U.S. counterparts.

Debra Dawson, Director of Western's Teaching Support Centre, acknowledged Western's high rankings in categories including supportive campus environment, academic support, inter-student support and an enriching educational experience but cautioned the benchmarks aren't as important as asking "are we where we want to be?"

The benchmarks in Western's survey comparators were categorized 'all Ontario universities', 'Carnegie research universities' and 'all NSSE schools'.

Given Western's focus as a research-intensive university, Carnegie schools were highlighted by Dawson as a good comparator for Western. Results were further organized into responses by first-year and senior students.

While Dawson acknowledged Western performs well against all three NSSE comparators, the lower level of student-faculty interactions at Western emerges as a troubling issue in survey results.

"It's not surprising to learn that first-year students don't feel comfortable approaching faculty, but the relatively high ranking for senior students is startling," she said.

In a related question, 61 per cent of first-year Western students claimed to have never made a class presentation, almost three times as high as the Carnegie students and even a quarter higher than the Ontario average.

"This suggests that students are not engaged," Dawson said. "Our students don't speak as much and our students don't write as much."

Western's low ranking in students who put in extra effort to work to an instructor's expectations were the lowest in both first-year and senior student results.

"We'd like to see more of a challenge," said Dawson.

Dawson said the NSSE shows a supportive campus environment is clearly one of Western's strengths and the impressive percentage of students who would stick to Western given the choice to do it all over again "is something that we can be quite proud of.
We do significantly better than the others in this."

"But we need to examine the level of academic challenge and find more ways that students and faculty can interact."

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