Office of Institutional Research Releases Survey Results
Issue   |   Wed, 04/29/2015 - 01:33

The Amherst College Office of Institutional Research conducted an enrolled student survey this year which asked students about their academic and social experiences at the college. Along with Amherst College, 30 peer institutions, which are all members of the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, conducted similar surveys. The survey was accessible to students from mid-February to mid-March.

The survey asked its participants questions about student activities, interactions with faculty members, student health and daily experiences and overall satisfaction at the college. The findings will be shared with campus administration and the broader campus community in an effort to improve the experience of Amherst students. Amherst participated in the survey in 2011, 2013 and 2015. This year, the college had a student response rate of 39 percent, and respondents were well distributed by class year, race and gender.

Administrators at peer institutions will also share and compare data in order to contextualize Amherst students’ experiences with those of students at peer institutions. Additionally, a research brief for the survey says the results will be used to study “environmental factors that relate to engagement,” which will help the college understand how to create better opportunities for students.

Newly appointed Director of Institutional Research Hanna Spinosa hopes that the data will allow the college to target its efforts to improve campus life.

“We use these surveys to inform programming and to know what areas of weakness we should address,” Spinosa said.

The survey specifically asked students about academic pursuits both inside and outside the classroom. One focus was student participation in what is called “high impact educational practices,” which include writing-intensive courses, internships, undergraduate research, global learning and capstone courses and projects. These practices, with the exception of the mandatory first-year seminar and capstone projects, are not constructed into the curriculum.

The results suggested that participation in internships increased as students grew older, with 86 percent of seniors having participated in an internship during their time at Amherst. By senior year, nearly half of the student body has engaged in research with a professor. About the same number of students has participated in some sort of community-based learning course. Participation in high-impact practices has also increased over the years. The survey results showed that students who are more engaged in high-impact practices are generally more satisfied with their college experience.

Under questions relevant to academic engagement, nearly all students reported that they have intellectual discussions outside of the classroom with each other, while three in four students reported that they have intellectual discussions with faculty outside of class. The research brief asserted the importance of student-faculty relationships: “As a purposefully small institution, it is essential that students at Amherst have the opportunity to develop connections with faculty.”

Survey responses confirm some success on this front. By their second semester, 8 in 10 first-year students report knowing a faculty member well enough to ask for a letter of recommendation. That number is 98 percent for surveyed seniors. Results showed that 40 percent of students were undecided on their majors when they entered college and that 28 percent reported changing their major at some point.

As for student satisfaction, survey results show that 49 percent of surveyed students are dissatisfied with the “sense of community on campus,” while 43 percent report that they are dissatisfied with “social life on campus.”

These statistics are likely not unique to the college, according to Spinosa. Rather, they are consistent with increasing trends of dissatisfaction among students at liberal arts schools. “This generation of students is definitely more critical,” Spinosa said. “The trend overall, especially among liberal arts schools, is that we are critical.”

Spinosa said she looks forward to helping the college and the student body more effectively use the data collected by the Office of Institutional Research. “We often ask the students to take these surveys seriously, but you rarely have the opportunity to interact with the data and make changes based on the data,” Spinosa said. “I want to partner with our students and be as transparent as possible.”

One way Spinosa wants to facilitate this student participation is by holding a full presentation of the data next fall, during which she will present survey results to the student body and compare the college’s narrative with those from other schools. Spinosa said that she did something similar while working at Occidental College as assistant dean for academic affairs.

“We allowed students to use existing data to engage with their school communities, ask relevant research questions and ultimately move forward effectively,” she said. “With student participation, I definitely think we can do that here at Amherst.”