I’ve just recently been working with a school in interpreting CIRP Freshman Survey data, but this time with a slightly different eye, as my son is one of the new first-year students who took the survey, and I have a slightly more personal reason to make sure the university gets the maximum benefit from the information the survey provides. Often I am working with national data on the surveys trying to identify national trends. Looking for practical applications on a campus is really one of the more interesting ways to get involved with the survey, and, honestly, a lot of fun.
I won’t give you the specifics of this school’s findings (as that would go against one of our basic principles on non-disclosure), but I give a little bit of the larger picture.
Here’s what I looked at.
What are the characteristics of students who are successful in college that we know from CIRP research, and what does the CIRP Freshman Survey have to show us about the likelihood of such success?
One thing we know is that interacting with faculty is key. So what I look for in the Freshman Survey are two things: experience interacting with teachers in high school and the expectation to do so in college. As they say, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. I look at how often incoming students, as high school seniors, told us that they asked a teacher for advice after class. Another item is how many hours per week, on average, they did this. You want to have students who already know that this is important and have acted upon it. Then you also want those who in the last question on the questionnaire tell us that they expect to communicate regularly with their professors. Finally, do they expect to get involved in a professor’s research project? All these point towards higher cognitive gains in college.
I also want to look at peer interactions, and, again, what have they done, and what do they think they will be doing in college. Experience tutoring is tied with higher grades in college. Have they tutored in high school? Experience being tutored also helps in college. It’s not just for those having lots of trouble. Tutoring can be an essential additional source of understanding for all students, and it pays off. Do they have experience studying with other students? And, most importantly, do they expect to discuss course content outside of class with other students. This is a key factor in higher grades as well.
One of the most influential theories in higher education has been Alexander Astin’s theory of student involvement. Above are two examples of being involved in academics, but other types of involvement lead to other types of gains. Being involved in athletics and in fraternity or sorority work can lead towards greater leadership skills. Socializing with students of a different race or ethnicity can lead towards a greater appreciation of and skills in working with diverse people.
If a college wants to promote such skills (and what college does not?), then the first step is finding out where their incoming students are in terms of experience and in knowing if these are important behaviors to engage in during college. Armed with that information, colleges can move forward at the appropriate level to move students forward in reaching their goals.