OCAD U is listening: How student surveys help set the agenda

Bunny ears

If you’re in either first year or your fourth year at OCAD, you should find an email in your inbox from President Diamond inviting you to participate in a survey: the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). I know, I know – you’re busy, you have projects due, you get asked to do a million of these, does it really matter anyways? YES! All surveys matter (we wouldn’t bother to design and mount them if we weren’t looking for input.) But NSSE matters A LOT. Here’s why:

  • Unlike most surveys, NSSE is run consistently every few years (it used to be every two years, now every three) which means we can measure our progress on certain issues over time.
  • Secondly, NSSE is run at all Ontario institutions and most of the independent art and design schools in the US, which means we can compare how we’re doing to comparable institutions.

So in short, NSSE helps us set priorities for change. Here’s an example from the last time we ran NSSE (in 2011).

The survey asks students to identify obstacles to their academic progress, given a range of response options. Here’s what our first year students told us in 2011:

Graph showing % of first year students indicating barriers to academic progress

Clearly, financial pressures and work obligations stand out with 45% of first year respondents indicating that was a major obstacle. And our Financial Aid & Awards team has launched a major outreach and financial literacy campaign to make sure students in need access bursaries and work study opportunities.

But let’s look at what happens when we compare the responses from fourth year students:

Graph showing % of fourth year students indicating major obstacles

Financial pressures remain the most commonly cited obstacle — still up there at 47%. But what also stands out is the increase in students citing “course availability & scheduling”, “difficulties with academic regulations” and “lack of good academic advising” as a major obstacle.

Is that something common across all Ontario universities? Well, yes and no. Here’s the average of the responses of fourth year students from the rest of Ontario (in blue) compared to our fourth year respondents (in green):

Graph comparing Ontario and OCAD U responses on barriers to academic progressLook at the difference on the academic regulations question – clearly much more pronounced at OCAD U than in the rest of Ontario. This made us take a serious look at a number of our policies and procedures. The Grading Policy, long a source of complaint from both faculty and students, was replaced this Fall. The Academic Progression (Undergraduate) policy will be eliminated, moving to a system of course-based prerequisites. And in January 2013, we completely revamped the way student advising is delivered, moving to a centralized model, located right off the Great Hall, so students know exactly where to go if they are in doubt about which courses to take, in what order, and how to navigate the policies and procedures.

This does not mean we’re ignoring that big issue sitting down there at the bottom (or any of the others, for that matter.)  But I think the academic regulations response represents a really interesting example of how we can use good solid evidence to isolate issues and set priorities for institutional change. Hoping we see a positive shift on at least that indicator on this round of NSSE.

Now go answer the survey invitation. We are listening:)