March 16, 2021

Experiential learning and mental health top of mind in national student engagement survey

Results show student satisfaction with UCalgary has been gradually increasing since 2011
students studying on campus
UCalgary students provide feedback through the NSSE survey every three years. Photo taken prior to COVID-19. Photo credit: Riley Brandt

Student satisfaction with the University of Calgary has been gradually increasing since 2011, according to results from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).

A large part of this can be attributed to the university’s strategic planning and investments in teaching, learning and student support services. Notable achievements include the launch of the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, the development of the University of Calgary Teaching Awards program, the Campus Mental Health Strategy, and Experiential Learning plan.

“The university’s academic plan has been a roadmap for our teaching and learning initiatives,” says Dr. Dru Marshall, provost and vice-president (academic). “It’s important to track the data and see if our implementations on campus are resulting in better experiences for our students, and I’m delighted to see these positive survey results.”

Experiential learning and mental health

Experiential learning gives our students the opportunity for hands-on learning in real-world settings. It includes learning through internships, field studies, co-ops, laboratories, creative performance, simulations, capstone projects, practicums and undergraduate research projects, among many others. These activities are referred to as high-impact practices in the NSSE survey.

A notable metric from the 2020 NSSE survey results is the growth of students’ involvement in high-impact practices. The number of fourth-year students who reported participating in high- impact practices has gone up from 32 per cent in 2014 to 38 per cent in 2020. Similarly, the percentage of first-year students planning to undertake these activities during their program has risen to 40 per cent in 2020 from 35 per cent in 2017.

“Experiential learning is an integral part of our student experience. It prepares student to grapple with messy problems, sort through different perspectives and develop new ways of thinking and doing,” says Marshall. “Experiential learning will be a cornerstone of the UCalgary student experience by 2025.” 

Another key area the university outperforms our Top 5 and U15 competitors is in the areas of overall well-being services which include recreation, health care and counselling.

A student’s overall well-being is absolutely key to their academic success and, through listening to feedback from previous NSSE surveys, we have been able to reduce barriers to help-seeking and provide exceptional services and facilities that help our students flourish in the post-secondary environment,” says Dr. Susan Barker, vice-provost (student experience).

Student rating of overall experience

When asked how they would rate their overall experience, 78 per cent of first-year students at the University of Calgary rated it as “excellent” or “good” compared to 75 per cent of students at Top 5 comparator institutions and 78 per cent of students at U15 comparator institutions and Canadian institutions as a whole.

Seventy-four per cent of senior students at the University of Calgary rated their overall experience as “excellent” or “good” in 2020 compared to 74 per cent within Top 5 comparators, 76 per cent within the U15, and 77 per cent at Canadian institutions overall. The University of Calgary’s ratings of student experience are similar to those in 2017 for first-year students, but represent a slight decrease for senior-year students.   

“NSSE provides an important opportunity for undergraduates to tell the institution what is working for them and where they need help. The student voice is an integral part of our community now more than ever,” says Semhar Abraha, VP academic, UCalgary Students’ Union.

About the survey

The 2020 NSSE survey asks undergraduate students in their first and senior years to assess their levels of engagement related to 10 engagement indicators in four key themes. Approximately 45 per cent of first-year students, and 44 per cent of senior (fourth-year students) participated in the survey, the highest response rate across the country. Eighty-nine per cent of responses to the 2020 NSSE survey were completed before the cancellation of classes due to COVID- 19.