Engaged students learn more — and that's what Southern Oregon University students do, according to the annual National Survey of Student Engagement.
For the fifth year in a row, the survey rated SOU high in five areas — level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, interaction with teachers, enriching educational experiences and supportive campus environment.
The survey compares 564 universities. SOU increased in all five areas, with a 25 percent improvement n student-faculty interaction, 11 percent in supportive campus environment and about 6 percent in the rest, compared with five years ago.
A third of SOU students participated in the survey, which found SOU freshmen perform as well or better than similar universities in all five benchmarks, while seniors did as well or better on three benchmarks.
This means that first-year students tend to write more, work more with other students on projects, make more class presentations, read more books on their own, attend more artistic events, vote in elections and discuss work with professors more than students at other universities, said SOU spokesman Jim Beaver.
Students on campus Friday agreed with the positive findings.
"The students are really involved. I'm one-on-one with all my professors," said pre-nursing freshman Tessa Matteson, from Hillsboro. "It's got a private school feel here and it's a lot of fun. I like it and feel definitely engaged."
Sociology senior Cole Linhart notes that she and her friends all volunteer, join clubs, read non-text books and form discussion groups, leading to "more of a community, a place with a family feeling, where you know students from so many different crowds." Teachers, says Linhart, a valley native, are always encouraging and available in office hours or e-mail to give feedback on her work so "I learn more and am not floundering and not knowing what to expect."
SOU won high accolades with freshmen, said Dee Perez, Director of Community Based Learning, because of its intense focus of this vulnerable group, where colleges see the highest dropout rates.
"If their goal and dream is education, we're going to help, so they don't get frustrataed and lost in the machine," said Perez. "Big universities ... don't have the resources and it's sink or swim for freshmen. That's not our philosophy."
SOU's high marks for "active, collaborative learning," reflect its course away from the old "passive style learning — sitting, taking notes and spitting it back on tests," she said. "That doesn't work for a lot of students. We emphasize doing instead of listening, seeing theory put in action and also community learning, in the field, hands-on."
Biochemistry senior Andrew Rynerson, a transfer from San Diego, remarked on "great relations with professors and students, easy to talk to, love it here. Everyone's more friendly and the teachers are much more personable and want to know who you are and that you'll be good in your field. I'm in two clubs related to the health professions and am getting to know everyone in the field. Overall, my experience is a happy one."
The survey, performed annually by Indiana University, has become a valuable tool, not only for promotion, but for measuring student perception of their experience, how hard they're working, how involved they are in activities and how connected with peers, teachers and the community, said Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Jim Klein.
"It demonstrates that we're doing what we say we will do," he said. "It's also a measurement of accountability that tells us what we have to work on."
While freshmen did as good or better than peer universities, SOU seniors did so in only three catagories, needing improvement, said Klein, in "supportive campus environment" and "enriching educational experiences."
Psychology junior Jordan Wilson says consistently small class sizes are key to it being "easy to talk to professors, getting a feel for each other and knowing what they're looking for. In a big lecture hall, it's harder to retain information."
"The professors are really engaged with us," said chemistry senior Carly Wood from Sacramento. "Students are always in the library and they're intelligent. I feel free to ask for help from my fellow students and professors."
A PowerPoint of the NSSE for SOU may be read by searching "nsse" on www.sou.edu.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.