By Monica Chapman
Freshman engagement at Ohio University is on the rise, according to the 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement.
For the first time in the survey's nine-year history, the NSSE provided Ohio University with a multi-year benchmark report, enabling the university to compare its 2008 results with results from 2002, 2004 and 2005. Ohio University freshmen reported gains in all five of the NSSE's measures of engagement: level of academic challenge; active and collaborative learning; student-faculty interaction; enriching educational experiences; and supportive campus environment.
Since 2005, the improvement in freshman perceptions is marked, with an average mean increase of 3.22 points across the five categories. Associate Director for Academic and Student Assessment Joni Wadley said the timing of the gains correlates with the university's renewed focus on the first-year experience.
"It was promising to see quantitative results that suggest that Ohio University's focus on the first-year is having a positive effect," said Wadley, who compiled the Ohio University Executive Summary of the 2008 NSSE results for the Office of Institutional Research.
Wadley was among the members of a committee formed in 2005 to make recommendations on how to improve the first-year experience. Under the leadership of Doug Orr, the committee -- Ohio University's Task Force on the First Year -- produced 34 action items, which led to increased participation in learning communities, required academic advising for undecided students, mandatory workshops for all first year students placed on probation and a universitywide majors fair.
"I think we have made significant progress on the first-year experience at Ohio University over the past three years since the task force convened," Orr said, "but more work remains and we can't rest on our laurels."
Under Orr's direction, some of the original committee members plan to reconvene Jan. 16 at an open forum on the first-year student experience to review progress and determine which recommendations to pursue next. Besides the NSSE results, Orr said the committee will examine a series of internal indicators, including probation and retention rates -- both of which are improving among the university's first-year students.
In 2008, the number of first-time students placed on academic probation after fall quarter dropped 2 percentage points from the previous year.
This past fall also marked an upswing in freshman retention rates, reversing the university's six-year downward trend in first-year retention on the Athens campus. Freshman retention rates climbed to 80 percent for the 2007 to 2008 period -- up 2 percentage points from the previous year.
Director of Learning Community Programs Wendy Merb-Brown said that both measures are likely linked to the growth of learning communities.
"The retention rate for students in learning communities is higher than for those who are not," she said. "It has been since early 2000. And because of those successes, we have been more intentional with our undecided students, particularly those in University College."
University College mandated participation in learning communities in 2007. That year, the college saw a 6 percent decrease in the number of first-time students on probation after fall quarter, while its freshman retention rate improved by 8 percent from the previous year.
This past fall, participation in learning communities reached an all-time high, with 2,177 students participating in 142 communities -- comprising approximately 55 percent of first-year students on the Athens campus.
According to Merb-Brown, the program better enables first-year students to bond with peers, faculty members and the broader campus community.
"We're just giving them the opportunities to make those connections, which is reflected in the NSSE," she said.
The 2008 report from the NSSE is based on information from nearly 380,000 randomly selected first-year and senior students at 722 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. Ohio University's NSSE peer institutions include Auburn, Clemson, Indiana University at Bloomington, University of Tennessee at Knoxville, University of Delaware, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Washington State University.
Compared to student responses at peer institutions, Ohio University's first-year students reported greater levels of student-faculty interaction and equal opportunities for active and collaborative learning. But freshmen also reported less engagement in enriching educational experiences, a less supportive campus environment and lower levels of academic challenge.
"While Ohio University freshman means are in most cases still below the means of our peer institutions, it was truly rewarding to see that our freshman means on the five benchmarks have increased since 2005," Wadley said. "Now after three years of focused efforts on improving the first-year experience for our students, we have data to suggest that my colleagues in University College and elsewhere are making a difference for Ohio University students, and that was the goal of the task force."
"A good first-year experience is vital to student success," Orr added. "The improved retention and probation rates are indicators that we are on the right track, but we know we still have room to improve."