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Despite the popularity of rankings like U.S. News and World Report and The Princeton Review, most higher education leaders and faculty—affiliated with top, middle and bottom tiered schools—believe they are not the best way to measure what a student can expect at any given college or university. Overall, institutions are often most frustrated by what is and isn’t measured (endowment size rather than endowment distribution; student to faculty ratio rather than quality of faculty teaching most students; alumni giving rather than alumni success). The consensus is that these measurements do not tend to lead to an accurate picture of a college’s quality of education.

Yet, in the decades old rankings critique, one survey has been held in high esteem among colleges and universities nationally, the National Student Survey of Engagement (NSSE). “NSSE stands out for many institutions because it seeks to not only to measure what students think about their experiences, but how they use their time,” Bard College at Simon’s Rock Provost and Vice President Mary Marcy explains. “Where US News is more a blunt instrument that measures the scale of things, NSSE measures how we use what we have. They measure what actually happens in the classroom.”  

The Way NSSE Works

Each year NSSE asks students at colleges and universities across the country to reflect on the time they devote to various learning activities. The topics explored are directly linked to research surrounding student success in college. NSSE then charts these responses against the College’s peer institutions, which include some of the country’s top liberal arts colleges. All responses are sourced from those given by 67 randomly selected students at Simon’s Rock. The survey’s tone and seriousness is distinctive and evident in just the first few (of the hundred or more) questions alone:

  • Were you asked questions in class or asked to contribute to class discussions?
  • Did you prepare two or more drafts of a paper or assignment before turning it in?
  • Were diverse perspectives included in class discussions or writing assignments?
  • Did you discuss ideas from your readings or classes with faculty members outside of class?
  • Did you work harder than you thought you could to meet an instructors standards?
  • Were you asked to memorize facts, ideas, or methods from your courses and readings so that you could repeat them?
  • Did you analyze the basic elements of an idea experience or theory such as examining a particular case or situation in depth and considering its components?

The results, which are driven by these and many other questions, paint a far more accurate picture of what students can expect at Simon’s Rock, and other institutions. One conclusion that can easily be drawn from this year’s and previous year’s findings, “We don’t do well when it comes to having students memorize facts and figures,” Marcy says.

Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Anne O’Dwyer summarizes the results this way: “They highlight that Bard College at Simon’s Rock is above all other colleges surveyed when it comes to level of academic challenge, enriching learning experiences, student-faculty interaction, as well as engagement in active and collaborative learning.” O’Dwyer is basing this conclusion on a report that thoroughly compares Simon’s Rock responses to those reported by students at the nation’s other top liberal arts colleges and universities. Here’s just a taste of some of the findings:

The Academic Experience at Simon’s Rock— Well Above Average

  • 97% of first year (FY) students responded that they believe Simon’s Rock places a substantial emphasis on academics.
  • 81% of FY students reported that they frequently worked harder than they thought they could to meet faculty expectations.
  • Only 37% of FY students (far below the average of the colleges surveyed) reported having to memorize facts, ideas or methods. Whereas, 97% of first year students (well above the average) reported that a substantial emphasis was placed on analyzing basic elements of an idea or theory, with 88% (above the average) reporting that a substantial emphasis was placed on synthesizing and organizing ideas.
  • 86% of FY students report that they frequently discuss readings or ideas from coursework outside of class
  • 81% of students say that the faculty are available, helpful and sympathetic; 57% of them have done research with their faculty member and 95% of first years report getting frequent and prompt verbal and written feedback from faculty

A Supportive, Diverse Campus

  • 83% of FY students report having frequent, serious conversations with students who are different from themselves in terms of their religious, political or personal beliefs
  • 86% of FY students frequently have serious conversations with students of a different race
  • 94% of FY students report a favorable image of the College with 88% of seniors reporting that they would choose the College all over again if they could start over.
  • 94% of FY students feel that the College has a substantial commitment to their academic success.

While the College certainly celebrates its successes that are evidence in the findings, Marcy points out that, more importantly, “We review them and try to understand where we do well and where we can do better, and assess change from one year to the next.”