Rider’s melting pot adds flavor to survey results

By Alexis Schulz and Alex Zdatny

In his inaugural speech in 1990, Rider’s new president, Dr. J. Barton Luedeke, said that diversifying the Rider community would enhance the institution’s appeal. Twenty-four years later, the results of an academic performance and involvement survey shows the institution has made tremendous strides toward this goal.

Rider scored above average in exposing students to diverse communities in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). This survey collects information from four-year colleges and universities regarding student involvement in programs and activities. Luedeke’s wishes of implementing change in the university can be seen in these results.

“We must genuinely value diversity and make the inclusion of all people a meaningful reality in this institution,” he said in his inaugural speech.

In total, 30 percent of first year students and 34 percent of seniors voluntarily participated in the survey, which is higher than the national average.

On the basis both of diversity and of willingness of the faculty to consult with students, Rider was above average compared to most Mid East private institutions. This includes the states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware and Maryland. 

“When students leave the bubble of Rider, we want them to be able to react successfully,” said Anne Law, the chair of the psychology department and assistant to the provost. “Learning doesn’t end after four years.”

Rider first participated in the NSSE survey in 2001. During that time, the survey focused solely on academic performance. In 2012, NSSE changed to be more focused on student engagement and different types of learning. According to the provost, Dr. DonnaJean Fredeen, Rider wanted students to complete the 2014 survey to see “some fresh data” because the university population had changed since the last survey was administered.

Law said NSSE focuses on factual results, rather than opinions of students.

“The instrument itself is not an opinion survey,” said Law. “It’s a survey that asks students to estimate how much time they spend doing various things or how important various things are to them.”

The survey concentrates on specific categories such as academic challenges, peer learning, experiences with faculty, and the campus environment. NSSE contains in-depth questions about high-impact practices such as studying abroad, learning communities, research with faculty, and senior seminars. There are also questions regarding academic challenges including applying facts or theories to problems and in-depth analysis of an idea, as well as interactive learning such as applied learning to practical situations.

The goal is to take the results from students who voluntarily took the survey and compare them with other schools’ averages.

“We develop a comprehensive plan with the results and begin to respond to the existing strengths,” Law said. “We are very interested in what students are saying.”

Dr. Victor Thompson, assistant professor of sociology, who has had experience in working with surveys such as NSSE, said there have been criticisms of the survey especially when it is used to compare colleges.

“We need to be careful about making comparisons across institutions,” he said. “Even NSSE acknowledges this concern with their statement on the ‘Use of Student Engagement Results for Rankings’ where they are explicit in their concerns that they ‘[do] not support the use of student engagement results for the purpose of ranking colleges and universities.’ Astonishingly, the first thing colleges do with their NSSE results is to compare themselves to other schools.  Given the relatively limited access to data from other institutions because of the private nature of NSSE, the lack of clarity around weighting of the sample, inappropriate weighting, and the lack of variability across institutions, institutional comparisons should be taken with a grain of salt.  I wouldn’t trust them at all.”

Diversity within the survey refers to students conversing with ethnically and racially different people within the university community. Many Rider students felt the results of the survey were similar to their own experiences.

“The fact that Rider is so diverse had a big impact on me coming here, considering that I come from a town and high school that are primarily white,” said Victoria DeLena, junior popular music culture major. “Not only have I met numerous people of other nationalities, but I’ve learned about other people’s cultures from a simple conversation.”

The survey pointed to high averages in interactions between students and professors. This refers to the faculty’s willingness and added interest in conversing and working with students both within and outside of the classroom. Alyssa DiFlora, junior elementary education and English major, said she feels that professors at Rider have a strong connection to their students and the survey reflected that.

“I feel that most of the professors would like to ensure a relationship between teacher and student that improves the learning process,” she said.

Among other survey results, 54 percent of freshmen and 87 percent of seniors who took the survey reported that they participated in high-impact practices. Law said, as a professor, she thinks research, internships and activities are especially important for first-year students.

The average was lower in higher-order learning for first-year students. This includes things such as critical thinking and problem solving.

For senior-year students, the average was lower in reflective and integrative learning, quantitative reasoning, effective teaching practices and supportive environment.

While Rider compared its NSSE results to other Mid East private schools, Law said it would be inconclusive to compare results directly between academic programs at Rider.

“It’s challenging to compare students across majors, because not enough students across the colleges answered the survey,” Law said. 

For high-impact practices and time spent preparing for class, first-year students as well as seniors remained near the average of Mid East private schools.

According to the results, 85 percent of freshmen and 87 percent of seniors who participated in the survey said that their overall experience at Rider University was “excellent” or “good.”

“We want Rider students to succeed, but statistically we are mostly similar to other schools,” Law said. “We want to pick some areas to really excel in and work on that.”

CLARIFICATION: On Feb. 18, 2015 this story was edited to clarify Dr. Victor Thompson’s concerns about the use of NSSE data to compare one institution to another.

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