Measuring What Matters
By Kevin Carey

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Irked by what they saw as flaws in U.S. News’s methodology for ranking colleges, a group of reformers in the late 1990s pioneered a new approach. With a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, a panel of educational experts set out to develop a way to quantify how well colleges actually teach their undergraduates. The result was the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), launched in 2000 and now in use at more than 600 four-year colleges and universities. Decades of research have demonstrated that certain teaching methods—those that actively engage students in the classroom—lead to greater student learning. By surveying a sample of students at each participating institution, the NSSE measures the prevalence of research-proven best practices. To measure high expectations, for example, the NSSE asks about the number of papers written, books assigned, and hours spent preparing for class. To gauge the level of student collaboration, the survey asks students how often they work together in and out of the classroom. To assess student engagement, the NSSE asks how often students make class presentations, work on community-based projects, and apply theories or concepts to practical problems.

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The NSSE’s founders hoped that participating universities would make this data public, creating new incentives for institutions to burnish their reputations through better teaching. But most schools chose to keep their survey results hidden, fearing that a low score would hurt their standing in the public eye.

An offshoot directed at community colleges, however, took a different course. Launched in 2002, the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) polls a sample of students at participating institutions to evaluate the prevalence of research-proven best teaching practices; hundreds of colleges have since used the survey. Unlike their four-year counterparts, all of these schools have chosen to make their results public.

CCSSE measures “best practices,” not learning outcomes. But a 2006 study, which compared students’ responses to CCSSE questions with their GPAs (controlling for prior academic performance to isolate the importance of CCSSE factors), confirmed that these practices do in fact enhance student achievement. Survey questions used to measure “active and collaborative learning” showed the strongest relationship. In other words, the more students work together in and out of the classroom, the more they contribute to class discussions and participate in community-based projects, the greater their likelihood of getting good grades and earning a degree. These findings held true even after controlling for students’ age, race, and gender.


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Kevin Carey, is the research and policy manager at Education Sector, an independent, nonpartisan think tank.  
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