Teaching + Learning News 2.05

2015-01-07: The NSSE Edition

Semi-regular reports on higher-education teaching and learning from the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Arts. By Michael Ullyot, Associate Dean (Teaching + Learning): saving your inbox from overload since 2014. Follow me on Twitter, if you do that sort of thing. 

This is a special edition of the newsletter, centred around the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) results for the Faculty of Arts. That’s followed by the regular sections of this newsletter: News and Announcements, Workshops, Speakeasies, and Consult your Colleagues.

Feedback and submissions are always welcome. Leave a comment below, or drop me a line.


Welcome to Winter 2015! If you’re like me, the start of term next week is coming too quickly. I’m in Vancouver for the MLA Convention, but still need to wrap up a few things from last semester before restarting next week. (It’s never too late.) And I’ve been ruminating and writing about the purpose of an academic blog and the intellectual virtues we teach our students; about the audiobooks I’ve heard and the books I’ve left unread; and (in preparation for next week) the ideas I’m teaching about Shakespeare and the badge system I’m using for student participation.

If 2015 is going to be a productive year, let’s start with a look back at what we can learn from 2014.

Special Edition: The NSSE 2014 Results

The NSSE happens every three years, and poses about 40 questions to first-year and senior-year students about their learning experiences. (Read the full survey here.) The questions are about things like their study habits, assignment types, classroom activities, motivation and demographics.

Then NSSE parses all of the students’ responses into reports on how universities and faculties are doing in what it calls Engagement Indicators and High-Impact Practices. (Bear with me.)

The results for the Faculty of Arts, from the 2014 survey, are really interesting. I’m writing now to share those results, and to make an announcement.

But before ‘the reveal,’ let me just say three things:

  1. Don’t overanalyze the data. It doesn’t represent 100% of our students: for our faculty, we got responses from 41% of first-years and 48% of senior-year students. Then it slots those responses into broad categories (like indicators and practices) that are useful, but imperfect.
  2. Approach the data in the spirit of inquiry, not self-defence. What does it say about what we’re already doing well? What do we value? What do we aspire to do?
  3. Start a conversation about these results. The positive ones tell us what the Faculty of Arts can teach the University of Calgary – because we’re really strong at comparing diverse ideas, scrutinizing one’s methods, and generating new ideas. The negative ones tell us about things we might do more often, like collaborative learning that goes beyond group presentations.

The Faculty of Arts is more than just an archipelago of departments and programs; we have a common purpose of understanding the human arts and social sciences. We should view our NSSE results as a chance to develop a shared vision for how we foster this in our students.

Okay, enough mission-speak. To the results. You can view them in this embedded window, or use this direct link.


Engagement is a joint project that demands much more than a committee of inquiry. It requires an open discussion about what we value, and what we want to encourage.

So here are my initial observations on the Faculty of Arts NSSE 2014 data. For each page I note a few features, and some potential next actions on this project. These are not definitive interpretations or official policy statements; they’re only meant to start the conversation.

Page 1

The first page is a series of “Engagement Indicators.” For definitions and examples, scroll down to “Engagement Indicator Descriptions and Component Items” on that page.

For the most part, these figures are more neutral than they look. The first four of them (below) owe more to the nature of what we teach in Arts than how we’re teaching it.

  1. Reflective & Integrative Learning is significantly above the institutional average. This includes accounting for diverse viewpoints; doing self-scrutiny & metacognition (thinking about thinking); and connecting a range of ideas.
  2. Learning Strategies are also above average, because they cover reading comprehension and summary.
  3. For the same reason, our Quantitative Reasoning (analyzing numerical information) scores are low because, well, most of our departments don’t do graphs.
  4. Collaborative Learning (group study/projects) scores are quite low because our disciplines privilege individual scholarship. We can debate whether or not they should, and whether we should encourage collaborative learning beyond class presentations. But like the others, this indicator doesn’t feel like a surprise.
  5. Both Higher-Order Learning and Effective Teaching Practices are better-than-average, but only for our senior-year students. This suggests that suggests that first-year students are doing more information-consuming than -producing, as we might expect. We improve that by talking about how to balance knowledge with skills – not only what to know, but how to evaluate it – earlier in our programs.

Which other indicators do we want to improve for 2017? There are four others where we’re on par with the University of Calgary at large. How does that sit with us?
For instance: I’m surprised that our Discussions with Diverse Others score isn’t higher. It suggests that we could expose our students to even more novel ideas and more diverse perspectves than we’re already doing. Our upcoming “Teaching Controversial Topics” workshop might give us some guidance here.

Page 2

On the second page (let’s move faster through these now), you can see on the first and last charts that Arts’ first-year students don’t study or write as much as their peers do. While the upper-year students spend more time on their work, the numbers are still lower – except for writing, as we’d expect from our essay-focused assessments.
We might be able to ask more of our students: more reading time, more preparation for class. Not more writing, but a bit more emphasis on spending the necessary time with the material.

Page 3

Finally, the third page weighs how students view the Engagement Indicators (left/blue bar graph). We’re meeting the first three, namely critical thinking and written/oral communication. But we do less well on the fourth (diverse viewpoints) and fifth (collaboration).

  • Take a look at the final two graphs on that page: students’ overall experience, and their regret/satisfaction with their decision to do an Arts degree here.
  • Our first-years are a bit more enthusiastic (2%) than the UofC average. But for upper-years we’re 5% lower — so don’t open the proverbial champagne just yet. 7 out of 10 graduates would call their experience in Arts “Excellent” or “Good.”
  • This feels like a lagging indicator: the result of our leading indicators in the earlier sections (particularly page 1).
  • We need to talk more openly, as a faculty, about how to make students more satisfied with their degrees while preserving academic standards and disciplinary practices. For example, we can’t mandate more group projects: we privilege individual scholarship. But we can talk about diversifying viewpoints and arguments.

All of my thinking on this project is aimed at improving our NSSE 2017 results. So here are a couple of actions the Faculty is taking now, in Winter 2015, to do that:

  1. Listening to the faculty. We’ll invite members of every department to join a conversation about working our NSSE data, not working for it. For instance, we might talk about more of our first-year students taking seminar courses; or our senior-year students doing capstone projects. Or improving our students’ study-abroad participation, or community-based projects, or research with faculty members. We can’t do everything at once, but should we move some of these metrics up by 5%? How would we do it?
  2. Listening to the students. Focus groups with students will help us zero in on particular questions. Where do they see room for different learning experiences? What works well or poorly in (say) their collaborative or community-based projects?
  3. Appointing Dawn Johnston as our Coordinator of Student Engagement for the Faculty of Arts, starting on July 1st. The Dean’s appointment of Dawn signals the importance of this project to the Faculty of Arts, and our desire to improve the ways we can engage students in their learning. One of her tasks will be:
  4. Digesting this data by discipline. I’ve asked for breakdowns of this data for every department in the Faculty, so we can have discipline-specific conversations about next actions. Dawn will take this up in 2015-16 (after July 1st).


-BREAKING-NEWS-with-vintage-radio-microphone-T-ShirtsNews + Announcements

Two items of news in this edition, on the Faculty of Arts Co-operative Education Program and how faculty members involve their students in it, including our recently-launched Advisory Board; and on the January slate of university-wide Teaching and Learning Workshops. (For the series that are limited to faculty in Arts, see below.)

Submissions of news items, of interest to a wide audience in the Faculty of Arts, are welcome. Just send me a note.

This month there are university-wide workshops on Flipping your Classroom, on the Teaching and Learning Grants and Awards, and (for graduate students) on facilitating class dicussions.

For all upcoming events at the Taylor Institute Educational Development Unit, check their event calendar.

How do I get involved?

There are a variety of ways that faculty can support the Faculty of Arts Co-operative Education Program. Here are some options specific to the the Faculty of Arts, and some drawn from the CAFCE Co-op Manual.

  • Consult with Co-op Coordinators for an understanding of the program, from process to opportunities, in order to promote student participation
  • Become a member of the Co-op Advisory Board
  • Ask a Co-op Coordinator to give a brief, 5-10 minute presentation to your class
  • Start conversations with students about how their program knowledge would apply in the workplace
  • Discuss with students how a Co-op designation will add value to their degree and help them stand out
  • Suggest industry contacts that the Co-op Coordinators can follow up for potential job placements

Overview of the Arts Co-op Program

  • Students typically apply to the program in their second year of study and upon successful completion of three, four month full-time (paid) work terms receive the Co-op designation on their diploma.
  • Usually there are 150-200 students in the program, spread across the 30+ programs of study that offer Co-op. That includes students on and in between work terms.
  • Students are registered in a Co-op course while on a work term and pay a fee equivalent to one academic course. During work terms, the university considers them full-time students.
  • Co-op Coordinators give students pre-employment assistance and training with resumes, cover letters, interviews, job searching, networking and success in the workplace.
  • Students on a work term are supported with site visits and must complete assignments to receive Credit (not a GPA value) for their degree.

For more information or to book an appointment with a Co-op Coordinator in the Arts Students’ Centre, here’s how to contact us.

Teaching + Learning Workshops

These are cross-disciplinary workshops that will directly affect your course designs and delivery. Each has a topic chosen by you and your colleagues, and has an immediate and concrete impact: you’ll draft a rubric or a laptop policy to use right away.

They are also expressly designed for teaching faculty in the Faculty of Arts. The Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning offers a broader array of workshops open to you. Registration for our series is required, so I can recognize your participation. (Remember, you get formal recognition if you attend three or more workshops in an academic year, or if you present in any workshop. This will testify to your professional development in merit, promotion and tenure applications.)

Here are the remaining workshops in Winter 2015. Most have firm dates, and some have full details if you click on the links. Dates and times are varied to accommodate different teaching schedules.

  1. Turning a Class into a Community: Tues 13 Jan 2015, 11-12, SS1339
  2. Teaching Controversial Topics (1): Tues 27 Jan 2015, 1-3, SS1339
  3. Bums in Seats: late Feb 2015
  4. Teaching Controversial Topics (2): Thurs 5 Mar 2015, 1-3, SS1339
  5. Preventing Plagiarism: Wednesday 11 Mar 2015, 2-3, SS1339
  6. Your Teaching Dossier (2): May/June 2015


These are student-faculty gatherings for panel discussions and informal conversations on various topics. Each will invite a few faculty members to speak on a question, to spark conversations.

Our two remaining Speakeasies will focus on these two questions:

How and why should I live a creative life?
We spend far more time consuming culture than creating it. We have a fear of failure, and that makes us too timid to explore ideas and ask the questions that lead to wisdom.
The solution? We should live a more creative life, thinking and acting in ways that make new possibilities for our lives and our world. Creativity opens our minds to the world, and shapes the world to our minds.
When + Where: 18 March 2015, 5pm, Faculty of Arts Lounge (SS104)

Consult your Colleagues

Have you ever struggled with a pedagogical problem, only to discover that someone two offices away resolved it in her class last term?

Consult your Colleagues is an anonymous advice column for issues that arise in your teaching. Last time, here are the questions that your colleagues asked:

To pose a question for the next edition of the newsletter, please e-mail me your questions: I promise to keep them in confidence. (I’ll do the same for responses, but only if you ask me to.)

One Response to “Teaching + Learning News 2.05”

  1. Dr. Tania Smith

    Michael, thanks very much for your thoughts on the NSSE. It’s good to see a focus on our faculty in comparison with the rest of the university. However, I think the potential for large range of internal diversity within our faculty should be noted, both in teaching methods and in resulting NSSE outcomes.

    Prior to the Arts Faculty merger, there were significant differences in NSSE ratings between faculties of Humanities, Social Sciences, Fine Arts, and Communication and Culture. The Fine Arts and C&C ratings were generally higher in various aspects of Student Engagement than were Soc Sci and Humanities programs. See the U of C NSSE 2007 pdf reports (still online), which include graphs breaking down some data by faculty: http://www.ucalgary.ca/nsse/2007 .

    I also have a PowerPoint presented by the NSSE action team in 2007 that shows much more detail for each faculty now within “Arts” — For example — Here’s a screenshot of a graph showing faculty-breakdown for NSSE results on “Worked with classmates outside of class to Prepare an Assignment (Senior Students).” It showed that among Arts faculties, C&C had the most positive ratings by far (topped only by Engineering and Business), followed by slightly lower ratings in Fine Arts, then less for Social Science, and the lowest ratings by far were in the Humanities. http://screencast.com/t/bAooKrDO7


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