Assessing the Hamilton Experience

by President Joan Hinde Stewart

President Joan Hind StewartAny 200-year-old institu­tion must evolve in order to stay relevant. At Hamilton, we constantly work to improve the student experience — both curricular and extracurricular — so that our graduates are prepared to contribute to the world they will inherit. We study what works, what does not and what we can do to make the time our students spend on College Hill as productive as possible.

The Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, led by Assistant Dean Gordon Hewitt, supports our efforts. Gordon and Assistant Director Chau-Fang Lin coordinate our preparation for reaccreditation by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools and its required mid-term Periodic Review Report. They also collaborate each year with the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA to administer nationally normed surveys to Hamilton students when they first enroll and when they graduate.

The National Survey of ­Student Engagement (NSSE), another assessment tool, ­measures what it calls “engagement indicators” and “high-impact practices” for first-year students and seniors and provides statistical comparisons with peers and other four-year colleges. Hamilton participates in this study every three years, and we recently received preliminary results from the spring 2014 admini­stration of the NSSE survey.

The 10 engagement indicators fall into four categories: academic challenge, learning with peers, experiences with faculty and ­campus environment. For every indicator, Hamilton scored at or significantly higher than a group of our peers. This was true for first-year students and for seniors. On average, Hamilton students spend more time preparing for class than their peers at other colleges.

NSSE also asked students the average number of pages of assigned writing. First-year ­students at Hamilton reported writing significantly fewer pages for their professors. Fewer? How can this be at a college that emphasizes writing? Hamilton’s pedagogy explains the incongruity. Faculty members teaching writing-intensive courses at Hamilton require fewer papers in favor of greater feedback throughout the semester. The emphasis is on ­substantive and repeated revisions of papers. A longitudinal study of writing at Hamilton, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and described in How College Works, a recent book by Professor of Sociology Dan Chambliss and Chris Takacs ’05, validated that approach.

Seniors recognized the value of their Hamilton education. When asked in the NSSE survey how much Hamilton contributed to their development as critical and analytical thinkers, 96 percent of respondents said “very much” or “quite a bit.” Similarly, 93 ­percent acknowledged Hamilton’s role in preparing them to write clearly and effectively, and 88 percent credited their Hamilton teachers with helping them to speak clearly and effectively. Overall, 96 percent of first-year students and 95 percent of seniors rated their experience at Hamilton as “excellent” or “very good.”

These results are gratifying because they reflect well on the continuous, incremental improve­ments we make at Hamilton in order to ensure that our students are prepared to fill meaningful roles in their communities and in the world.

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