Every student who enrolls at Beloit has a distinct college career that is specific to his or her experiences. It’s obvious if you think about it: No two students take exactly the same classes with the same professors, live in the same hall among the same set of peers, or participate in the same clubs. Beloit values individuality and celebrates what makes each student unique, providing multiple opportunities for students to participate in their own way in an interesting and connected community.
But recently Beloit has begun to examine whether students’ particular paths match up with broader college experiences that have been shown to lead to positive learning outcomes and to successful and fulfilling lives after graduation. For example, do students feel cared about by a faculty or staff member? Do they have a mentor at Beloit? Are they excited about learning? Are they engaged in extracurricular activities with their peers?
“These are important questions we need to ask,” says Provost and Dean of the College Ann Davies. “We want to highlight, in a Beloit-specific context, the practices and relationships that have a high impact on student success.”
To assess these common experiences, Beloit developed a short questionnaire— modeled after decades of higher education research connecting certain college experiences with positive post-graduate outcomes—to measure nine elements of the student experience that all students should be having.
The results of Beloit’s Student Experience Metrics survey have left members of the college community alternately cheering (for example, 98 percent of students reported that a faculty or staff member made them excited about learning) and scratching their heads (only 57 percent said they felt a sense of belonging to the campus). One thing is certain: The survey results provide institutional guideposts for faculty and staff as they examine their roles in providing a meaningful college experience for all students.
Wanting to know more
Beloit’s Student Experience Metrics survey was prompted by findings of a nationwide Gallup-Purdue University study that interviewed more than 30,000 college graduates (as well as other studies, including the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education). The Gallup-Purdue study found that graduates’ odds of being engaged at work and having an overall sense of well-being more than doubled if, as college students, they’d had meaningful interactions with professors, were involved in extracurricular activities, and had applied classroom learning to real-world problems, among other experiences.
“These are all experiences we care deeply about at Beloit, and we believe we provide them to all students, but we wanted to see if what we say we’re providing is actually happening,” says Director of Strategic Research and Assessment Ellie (O’Byrne) Anderbyrne’05, who led the design of Beloit’s survey and oversaw its administration through the college’s Office of Institutional Research, Assessment, and Planning.
Beloit’s questions were sufficiently broad in their intent to demonstrate that the college’s whole enterprise is centered on learning, from conversations and interactions in the residence halls to competition on the athletic fields to inquiry-based learning in the research labs. Students agreed or disagreed with statements ranging from: At least one professor at Beloit College has challenged me, to At least one staff person at Beloit College has challenged me (97 percent of students agreed to one or both), to I have had meaningful and honest discussions about social issues with students whose background or perspectives differ from my own (80 percent agreed).
Beloit intentionally kept the questionnaire short, asking only 20 questions, in the hope of getting higher student participation. The survey skipped questions about gender, major, class year, and other demographic or academic information. Using student ID numbers, the Office of Institutional Research was able to summarize the data according to certain demographics, including students with disabilities, domestic students of color, international students, athletes, first-generation college students, Pell Grant recipients, and white students.
Beloit administered the survey over the 2016 winter break, sending email invitations to the entire student body. The initial response rate was low, so Anderbyrne engaged several key constituencies—faculty and staff advisers, coaches, residential life staff members—in encouraging student participation.
“We know that students tend to do things when someone they know and care about asks them to do it,” Anderbyrne says.
The effort paid off. By the end of January 2017, 61 percent of the student body—nearly 800 students—had completed the survey, including 56 to 68 percent of each class, 66 percent of female students, and 55 percent of male students.
Putting the results to use
The survey results have prompted college-wide conversations about how to use the data to improve student experiences across the board. “Being able to align our work toward a set of markers is meaningful for all faculty and staff members,” says Dean of Students Christina Pape Klawitter’98, who noted that the college is “asking good questions about what we do. Our students are front and center, and we take our commitment to them seriously.”
The fact that only 57 percent of students reported they felt a sense of belonging to campus has captured much attention among Beloiters. Only 49 percent of sophomores reported a sense of belonging, as well as only 45 percent of Pell Grant recipients.
“This came in lower than we expected, and we need to keep plumbing that, asking more questions,” Davies says. “We may well need to be better at providing a sense of belonging, but we also need to ask, what does belonging look like? How do students define that?”
The college has already begun to learn more about how students define belonging. That survey question is one of two that Chen Bao’17, an economics and education major from Xi’an, Shaanxi, China, is examining as part of her spring 2017 Honors Term. After Bao attended a two-day seminar at Wabash College, she trained and led a student team that conducted 12 focus groups with a total of 48 students to gather qualitative data related to the survey.
“We kept each focus group small so that the participants would feel comfortable sharing their perspectives,” she says.
Though Bao is still analyzing the data from the focus groups, her preliminary findings show that belonging is defined by students in many different ways. “Some students felt that if they belonged to a circle of friends, say in a club or other group, they belonged to the campus,” she says. “But others, even if they had a group they felt they belonged to, they didn’t think they belonged to the whole campus.”
The students in the focus groups also discussed specific experiences, both positive and negative, that have made them feel included or not included on campus. Bao cited Beloit’s Initiatives Program for first- and second-year students, which fosters student development and integration into the learning community, as one positive example.
“The survey has been helpful from an equity and inclusivity perspective,” Anderbyrne says. “We think we’re helping students from a variety of backgrounds have these experiences, but there might be systematic ways in which students with disabilities or students of color, for example, aren’t getting them. This data helps us focus our efforts to improve the Beloit experience for all students.”
Bao is also investigating responses to a question that reflects Beloit’s longtime commitment to the Liberal Arts in Practice, the idea that students’ immersion in rigorous academics is enriched by opportunities to apply that learning outside the classroom. While only 42 percent of all students said that they’d had an internship or job that allowed them to apply classroom learning, 74 percent of seniors claimed this experience.
Bao found that students mostly interpreted this question as relating to off-campus opportunities (which present barriers, such as no or low pay, to some students) and didn’t always recognize on-campus experiences, such as class projects or work-study jobs, as valuable avenues to practice classroom learning.
“So much of the work we do at Beloit rests upon students being aware of what it is they’ve done,” Davies says. “We need to ask ourselves if the experiences we want them to have are being framed in ways that help them understand and articulate the experience.” Davies noted that student under-reporting may have impacted responses to another question: Have you worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete? Only 42 percent of students said they did. “These results point to questions around intentionality and self-awareness about one’s own experiences,” Davies says.
Beloit plans to conduct the Student Experience Metrics survey annually to monitor student experiences regularly and track how the college is doing in nurturing meaningful relationships and providing high-impact experiences to all students.
“To be the kind of equitable and inclusive campus we aspire to be, we need to challenge ourselves to provide these experiences for each and every student by the time they leave Beloit,” says Davies.
Marla Holt is a freelance writer based in Owatonna, Minnesota.
Illustrations by Sarah Becan’98
Beloit’s survey identifies nine college experiences that higher education research connects to positive outcomes after graduation:
- Having a professor or staff person who makes them excited about learning
- Having a professor or staff person who cares about them
- Having a professor or staff person who challenges them
- Having a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams
- Having a sense of belonging at the college
- Having worked on a project that took a semester or more to complete
- Having applied classroom education to non-classroom settings
- Having been active in cocurricular activities and organizations
- Having engaged meaningfully with students different from themselves