Linda Suskie

 A Common Sense Appr​oach to Assessment in Higher Education


Challenging students to do their best work

Posted on December 7, 2015 at 9:50 AM

I always look forward to the annual report of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), and this year is no different. While the report packs plenty of information into a few pages, I was especially intrigued by the section on motivating students to do their best work. NSSE has found that only 54% of first-year students and 61% of seniors were “highly challenged” to do their best.


What can faculty do to challenge students to do their best? NSSE found that students who felt challenged to do their best had coursework with “complex cognitive tasks.” Their courses were clearer and better organized, and they received prompt, formative feedback. Course learning activities included “success-oriented learning strategies” such as active reading, reviewing notes after class, and summarizing what they learned.


But what really struck me was NSSE’s finding that the extent to which students are challenged is unrelated to the institution’s selectivity and, indeed, inversely related for seniors. NSSE concludes that “admission selectivity is neither a prerequisite for nor a guarantee of a high-quality educational experience.”


Ironically, right after this report was released, the Association of American Universities, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities released a joint letter to the U.S. Secretary of Education to request consideration of “differential accreditation, which would allow institutions with a consistent record of strong academic programs to go through a less burdensome review process than institutions with a less proven track record and weaker outcomes.”


This sounds reasonable, but what exactly are “strong academic programs”? NSSE’s research makes clear that the quality of undergraduate education cannot be determined by admissions selectivity alone. Indeed, I’ve got a whole collection of articles from various pundits asking whether the focus of many highly selective universities on research productivity undermines the quality of teaching. Simply put, at these universities faculty may see no incentive to improve their teaching beyond the merely adequate. No, I'm not aware of any substantive research on this, but that's the point.


My undergraduate mentor was the late Julian Stanley, an expert in psychometrics who turned his research attention in later life to educating the gifted and talented. His position was that if we give these students a challenging education, they will make even greater contributions to society--contributions that we greatly need from them. As much as our most capable students end up contributing, how much more might they contribute if they were given a truly great education that challenged them to stretch and do their very best work—more than even they thought they were capable of?


I’m all for fast-tracking the accreditation of institutions with “strong academic programs,” but only if we clearly define those as programs that we know through systematic evidence truly give undergraduates the best possible education through consistently great teaching and learning experiences.

Categories: Curriculum & teaching