Tony Gurr

What’s the “weather” like…in your SCHOOL? (Part Two)

In Our Schools, Our Universities, Quality & Institutional Effectiveness on 22/03/2011 at 5:31 pm

I have always loved educational institutions that work to measure their own effectiveness and levels of student engagement by asking themselves:

  • How many books do we have in our library?
  • How many citations do our academics pick up in an average year?
  • How many square meters are our classrooms and lecture halls – and how many learners do we manage to squeeze into each one?

OK. That last one was a bit “mean” – but you would be amazed how many institutions still use it as a “quality indicator” – albeit under the nom de plume of “classroom utilisation figures”.


I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news – I feel I just simply have to “pop that little bubble”.

Frederick Taylor has sadly passed awayalmost 100 years ago!

Our schools and universities are not factories – our learners were never meant to be viewed as “raw materials” to be “whipped into shape” by standardised 50-minute “monologues” and put through a quality control process defined primarily by “high-stakes tests”.

We got it all wrong!

We cannot increase levels of student engagement by telling learners how many books we have in the library – and most learners will never see the relevance of a citation index (unless they start a PhD and are forced into the game of “publish or peril” themselves).

Student engagement begins and ends with the notion of “learning” – it is not about “content delivery”, it is not about “passing exams” and (another bubble is heard “popping”) it is not even about “grades” (that’s just what we have “learned” students that it is all about – and most parents, too).

Engagement is closer to what Carl Rogers said of the “significant learning” we should all aim to produce in our learners:

  • ……learning which is more than an accumulation of facts. It is learning which makes a difference – in the individual’s behaviour, in the course of action (s) he chooses in the future, in (her) his attitudes, and in (her) his personality.
  • I want to talk about learning. But not the lifeless, sterile, futile, quickly forgotten stuff that is crammed in to the mind of the poor helpless individual tied into (her) his seat by ironclad bonds of conformity! I am talking about LEARNING – the insatiable curiosity that drives the adolescent boy (girls) to absorb everything (she) he can see or hear or read about gasoline engines in order to improve the efficiency and speed of (her) his ‘cruiser’.
  • I am talking about the student who says, “I am discovering, drawing in from the outside, and making that which is drawn in – a real part of me”. I am talking about any learning in which the experience of the learner progresses along this line: “No, no, that’s not what I want”; “Wait! This is closer to what I am interested in, what I need”; “Ah, here it is! Now I’m grasping and comprehending what I need and what I want to know!”

Engagement is today seen as having two key components:

  1. The amount of time and effort students put into their studies and other activities that lead to the experiences and outcomes that constitute student success
  2. The ways in which an institution allocates its human and other resources and organises learning opportunities and services to encourage students to participate in and benefit from such activities.

We, as teachers and educators, can have a direct and profound impact on the first of these – our institutions can do the same by putting learning at the heart of their decision-making processes.

The bottom line is: the more engaged learners are, the better the chances that learning will take place.


It always seemed to me that the best way to try and measure the level of student engagement is not to ask:

  • How many books are in the library?
  • Do your teachers and lecturers “teach” well?

But rather questions like:

  • How many books have you read this month?
  • How much work do you do with other learners outside of class?
  • What types of real-world problem solving projects have you been assigned?
  • How often have you been on field trips to art exhibits or other cultural events?
  • Which are you required to do more of in class – memorise facts or analyse ideas?
  • How often do you teach or tutor other students – in or out of class?
  • How frequently do you use e-mail or other forms of social media to communicate with your teachers?
  • How often do you work with teachers and lecturers on activities other than coursework (community projects, school committees, college events, etc?

Am I just being dumb? A dreamer, perhaps?



The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE – pronounced “nessie”), an annual questionnaire by Indiana University researchers, does just this – and MORE!

You might not have heard about it – after all hardly any of the traditional Ivy League schools use itnot that they are “scared” by such surveys or anything like that!

In the 10 years since it was first administered, NSSE has become the pre-eminent survey of college students in the USA – and nearly 1,400 four-year colleges and universities have participated at least once, with over 3.5 million students having completed the survey.

NSSE is designed around questions that seek to gauge whether (and how often) students “do things” such as interact with faculty and classmates, use campus services and put effort into their studies.

Along the way, it has helped reframe the discussion about “what matters” in college.

Of course, NSSE doesn’t directly measure learning, the end goal. But what it does measure – student engagement – offers a very useful “proxy”.

It is certainly a huge leap forward from many of the “university league tables – that ask presidents, provosts and deans to rate their “peers” (and themselves). Bit like me saying I am the most handsome and intelligent guy around – and my wife agrees – so it must be true!

In the USA, NSSE is not universally used. It has, however, become popular with those colleges and universities that have reputations for putting learning at the heart of what they do and inspired similar surveys for community colleges, law schools and high schools. It has spawned companion surveys of faculty and subsets of students.

Further, versions are now being used or explored in Australia, South Africa, the UK and elsewhere. Many schools use custom-designed surveys of their own schools, too, but a big part of NSSE’s appeal is that it enables schools to compare themselves with peer institutions.

Why not take a closer look at the samples – and see for yourself. You might also want to look at the other partner surveys – all great ways to take the GALLUP “Magic 12” to the next level.


If you are interested in some “bedtime reading” on engagement and climate, take a look at my “new” library: Tony’s ENGAGEMENT Library

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