Sometimes you find a nugget where you least expect it

As many of you already know, data from the vast majority of the college ranking services is not particularly applicable to improving the day-to-day student experience. In many cases, this is because those who construct these rankings rely on “inputs” (i.e., information about the resources and students that come to the institution) and “outputs” (i.e., graduation rates and post-graduate salaries) rather than any data that captures what happens while students are actually enrolled in college.

But just recently I came across some of the data from the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings that surprised me. Although this ranking is still (in my opinion) far too dependent on inputs and outputs, 20% of their underlying formula comes from a survey of current students. In this survey, they ask some surprisingly reasonable questions about the college experience, the responses to which might provide some useful information for us.

Here is a list of those questions, with the shortened label that I’ll use in the table below bolded within each question.

  • To what extent does your college or university provide opportunities for collaborative learning?
  • To what extent does the teaching at your university or college support critical thinking?
  • To what extent does the teaching at your university or college support reflection upon, and making connections among, things you have learned?
  • To what extent does the teaching at your university or college support applying your learning to the real world?
  • To what extent did the classes you took in your college or university so far challenge you?
  • If a friend or family member were considering going to university, based on your experience, how likely or unlikely are you to recommend your college or university to them?
  • Do you think your college is effective in helping you to secure valuable internships that prepare you for your chosen career?
  • To what extent does your college or university provide opportunities for social engagement?
  • Do you think your college provides an environment where you feel you are surrounded by exceptional students who inspire and motivate you?
  • To what extent do you have the opportunity to interact with the faculty and teachers at your college or university as part of your learning experience?

Below is a table of average responses comparing the average responses of Augustana students with average responses from students at other US institutions. Although I haven’t been able to confirm it by checking the actual survey, it appears that the response options for each item consist of a 1-10 scale on which the participant can plot their response to each question.

Question Augustana Average Response Top US Institution Response 75th Percentile US Institution Response Median US Institution Response 25th Percentile US Institution Response Bottom US Institution Response
Collaborative Learning 8.5 9.5 8.4 8.1 7.7 6.7
Critical Thinking 8.8 9.6 8.7 8.3 8.0 7.1
Connections 8.5 9.4 8.5 8.2 7.9 7.0
Applying Learning 8.4 9.4 8.5 8.1 7.8 6.8
Challenge 8.2 9.4 8.6 8.3 8.0 7.2
Recommend 8.6 9.8 8.7 8.3 7.8 6.7
Prepare 8.3 9.4 8.3 7.8 7.4 6.2
Social 8.9 9.7 8.7 8.5 8.1 7.2
Inspire 8.0 9.3 8.1 7.7 7.2 6.0
Interact 9.3 10.0 9.2 8.9 8.4 7.3

Two things stand out to me in the table above. First, our students’ average responses compare quite favorably to the average responses from students at other institutions.  On six of the ten items, Augustana’s average student response equaled or exceeded the 75th percentile of all US institutions. On three of the remaining four items, Augustana students’ average response fell just short of the 75th percentile by a tenth of a point.

Second, our student’s response to one question – the degree to which they felt challenged by the classes they have taken so far – stands out like a sore thumb. Unlike the rest of the data points, Augustana’s average student response falls a tenth of a point below the median of all US institutions. Compared to the relative strength of all our other average response scores, the “challenge” score seems . . . curious.

Before going any further, it’s important to take into account the quality of the data that was used to generate these averages. The Wall Street Journal/Times says that they got responses from over 200,000 students, so if they want to make claims about overall average responses they’d be standing on pretty solid ground. However, they are trying to compare individual institutions against one another, so what matters is how many responses they received from students at each institution and to what degree those responses might represent all students at each institution. Somewhere in the smaller print farther down the page that explains their methodology, they state that in most cases they received between 50-100 responses from students at each institution (institutions with fewer than 50 responses were not included in their rankings). Wait, what? Given the total enrollments at most of the colleges and universities included in these rankings, 100 responses would represent less than 10% of all students at most of these institutions – in many cases far less than 10%. So we ought to approach the comparative part results with a generous dose of skepticism.

However, it doesn’t mean that we should dismiss the entirety of this data outright. In my mind, the findings from our own students ought to make us very curious. Why would data from a set of about 100 Augustana students (we received responses from 87 students who, upon further examination, turn out to be mostly first-year, female, pretty evenly scattered across different intended majors, and are almost all from the state of Illinois) produce such a noticeable gap between all of the other items on this survey and the degree to which our students feel challenged by their courses?

This is exactly why I named this blog “Delicious Ambiguity.” This is messy data. It definitely doesn’t come with a pre-packaged answer. One could point out several flaws in the Augustana data set (not to mention the entirety of this ranking system) and make a reasonable case to dismiss the whole thing. Yet, it seems like there is something here that isn’t nothing. So the question I’d ask you is this: are there other things going on at Augustana that might increase the possibility that some first-year students would not feel as challenged as they should? Remember, we aren’t talking about a dichotomy of challenged or not challenged. We are talking about degrees of quality and nuance that is the lifeblood of improving an already solid institution.

Make it a good day,


One thought on “Sometimes you find a nugget where you least expect it

  1. Lendol Calder says:

    When talking with first year students (I have lots of them in classes, and once upon a time I was an FYA), I ask them about the biggest surprise so far in their college experience. The most common answer by far is “The courses are not as hard as I thought they would be.” I don’t recall ever hearing, not even once, “The academics are so hard!” So this finding does not surprise me.

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