Assessment is Tool to Improve College

  • Julie Weitzman '08 and Robert Walter, associate professor of Earth and Environment, collaborate on a project.  

Ask Franklin & Marshall College first-year students if they plan to do an independent study or self-designed major, and a third will say they will consider it.

Fast forward to their senior year and the picture changes.

Ask the seniors, and more than half have had such an experience, with the vast majority of these being independent studies.

When compared to many of the nation’s other top liberal arts colleges, this is an area in which Franklin & Marshall College excels, according to the National Survey of Student Engagement. The College has participated in the survey every year since 2000.

NSSE, pronounced “Nessie,” aims to provide prospective students with insights into how they might learn and develop at a given college. At the same time, the survey provides an academic institution with a valuable snapshot of its students’ experiences and areas that can be improved. A total of 769 academic institutions, including some of the most elite liberal arts colleges in the nation, participated in the survey in 2008.

“We are committed to doing what we can to improve the educational environment, embracing assessment and accountability and using that information to promote change,” said Alan Caniglia, senior associate dean of faculty and vice provost.

For example, Caniglia said, the College recognized in 2003 that it must better promote study-abroad options because only about one in five seniors had this experience. As many as half of those who indicated as first-year students that they were interested in studying abroad never took advantage of that opportunity.

“We made some changes to the procedures for students to study abroad, and faculty are more actively advising students about the benefits of such an experience,” Caniglia said.

More students are now participating in such programs. Approximately two-thirds of those interested in studying abroad actually do so. In addition, more incoming students are expressing interest in this experience. An indicator of the College’s progress is that nearly a third of the Class of 2008 participated in a study-abroad program.

Students now have the option of studying abroad during the summer and taking courses led by Franklin & Marshall faculty. Those programs allow those who might not be able to study abroad for a semester to have an international academic experience.

Caniglia noted that while substantial progress has been made in this particular area, the College must continue to improve, as it has not yet reached the level of its NSSE peers, a group that includes Amherst College, Colgate University, Gettysburg College and Williams College.

The survey includes five benchmarks for student engagement.:

  • academic challenge;
  • active and collaborative learning;
  • student-faculty interaction;
  • enriching education experiences (study abroad, foreign language study, community service, co-curricular activities, etc.); and
  • supportive campus environment.

“The good news,” said Caniglia, “is that if we compare F&M to these liberal arts colleges in the five benchmark areas, we are essentially at par and occasionally better than par in comparison to our very highly regarded Nessie peers.”

Liberal arts colleges scored better than the NSSE average of all participating institutions.

“One of the major findings of the Nessie project is that liberal arts colleges seem to have more of the things that lead to positive learning outcomes than do other types of academic institutions,” Caniglia said.

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