Using three key areas to connect NSSE and course design

By Patrick Kelly, Manager of Learning & Instructional Design, Educational Development Unit, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) survey covers a wide range of student engagement indicators, and a recent post asked the question “How might these data inform our teaching practice?“. In this post, I connect NSSE indicators with course design to identify opportunities for further fostering student engagement. Student engagement has been shown to have a positive impact on student learning (Auken, 2011; Trowler & Trowler, 2010), and strategies such as collaborative learning (Barkley et al., 2014), appropriate student assessment methods (Lizzio et al., 2002), active learning (Silberman, 1996) and providing student choice (Weimer, 2017) can help foster student engagement.

Based on the most recent NSSE results at the University of Calgary, here are three areas to reflect on and consider implementing into your course design to further foster student engagement:

Collaborative Learning

Data from the 2017 NSSE survey indicate that the University of Calgary is doing really well in the area of collaborative learning, especially students’ perceptions of their experiences working with one another on course projects and assignments. But, can this be too much of a good thing? We often hear that larger-scale group work can pose challenges, such as group members finding time to meet, resolving group conflicts, and implementing equitable grading. However, thinking broadly of collaborative learning, there are many opportunities in small to large enrollment courses where students can work with one another in low-stakes settings, including:

  • Think-pair-share: the instructor poses a problem to students, providing sufficient time for them to think individually before pairing up to discuss their solutions, and then share their answers with the class. The end goal is for students to reflect upon and discuss their thoughts, hear different points of view or approaches, and explore why they think their answers are correct or unique. There are many variations of think-pair-share, such as think-pair-tweet, think-pair-present, think-pair-square, or think-pair-draw.
  • Classroom response systems such as Top Hat: students respond to a problem using their mobile devices and see the varied responses in real time, which can be used to further encourage small group discussions and address misconceptions or knowledge gaps. Click here to read an interesting article related to the impact of peer instruction as a teaching technique.
  • Send the problem: the instructor gives each group of students a different problem to address (Barkley et al., 2014). Each group records their solution, and after a few minutes the problem is passed on. Once the problems have been exchanged, the next group reflects on the provided solutions and expands upon them. The solutions to the problems can then be discussed and posted online.
  • Jigsaw: small groups research a component of a given problem or topic before presenting/teaching it to other groups or the entire class.
  • See the following websites for other collaborative learning strategies :

Effective Teaching Practices

Course design can also be used to reflect on the NSSE survey’s Effective Teaching Practice items, such as “Clearly explained course goals and requirements”, “Taught course sessions in an organized way” and “Provided feedback on a draft or work in progress.” Research confirms the importance of course organization and structure for student learning (Lizzio et al., 2002). To help design a well-organized and structured course, start by writing student-centred course learning outcomes. Course learning outcomes are fundamental to an aligned course, and often provide a road map for both the course design and student learning. Course learning outcomes can be used to:

  • Select appropriate content.
  • Organize the course into a logical learning sequence to help scaffold student learning.
  • Identify opportunities for ongoing feedback to inform students of their progress (Lindstrom et al., 2017).
  • Spark early discussions with students on the nature of the course and expectations.
  • Ensure lessons and activities contribute to the course’s flow and big picture.

We can draw upon constructive alignment (Biggs, 2014) as a framework for using course learning outcomes in course design. Constructive alignment, a framework widely used in course design, combines student-centered learning with the alignment of course learning outcomes, student assessment strategies, and learning activities.

Find more resources on how to write effective course learning outcomes here.

Reflective and Integrative Learning

Another NSSE item that can be incorporated into course design to foster student engagement is “connect[ing] your learning to societal problems or issues.” Research confirms that relevance is integral to strengthening student learning (Kember, Ho & Hong, 2008). This can be achieved by connecting relevant areas of the course to students’ interests, real-world authentic issues, or students’ academic careers and professional lives (Ambrose et al., 2010). Providing these connections helps students find meaning in their learning, and to see how they will use this knowledge in their future. This can be accomplished within a course by:

  • Modeling how to approach and solve real-world, authentic problems.
  • Linking concepts to current events or relevant examples.
  • Engaging students with authentic learning.
  • Inviting guest presenters.
  • Using journal activities/assignments to promote reflective and self-evaluative learning.


Although NSSE is intended as an institution-level survey tool, looking through the list of NSSE engagement indicators and descriptive items is a wonderful reflective practice for identifying areas to foster student engagement within a course.  This post has provided practical strategies and resources for using collaborative learning, constructive alignment, and relevance to help instructors design engaging courses.


Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. and Norman, M. (2010). How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Auken, P. (2011). Maybe it’s both of us: engagement and learning. Teaching Sociology, 41(2), 207-215

Barkley, E., Major, C., Cross, K. (2014). Collaborative learning techniques: a handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Biggs, J. B. (2014). Constructive alignment in university teaching. HERDSA Review of Higher Education, 1, 5-22.

Kember, D., Ho, A., Hong, C. (2008). The importance of establishing relevance in motivating student learning. Active Learning in Higher Education, 9(3), 249 – 263

Lindstrom, G., Taylor, L., & Weleschuk, A. (2017). Guiding Principles for Assessment of Student Learning. Retrieved from Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Calgary website:

Lizzio, A., Wilson, K., & Simons, R. (2002). University Students’ Perceptions of the Learning Environment and Academic Outcomes: Implications for theory and practice. Studies in Higher Education, 27(1), 27-52.

Trowler, V., & Trowler, P. (2010). Student Engagement Evidence Summary. Report Commissioned by the Higher Education Academy. York, England: Higher Education Academy. Retrieved from

Silberman, M. (1996). Active learning: 101 strategies to teach any subject. Allyn & Bacon: Needham Heights, MA.

Weimer, M. (November 29, 2017). Benefits of giving students choices. [Blog post]. Retrieved from

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