How to measure the “pulse” of student engagement at your school

Kelly Hughes
Kelly Hughes

October 27, 2022

Student success and engagement are inextricably linked. Engaged students learn more, persist more, and participate as part of the school community more — both as current students and in the future as alumni. In fact, one report found that students who report having a great university experience are 31x more likely to be proud alumni and are 51% more likely to recommend their institution to family and friends. Conversely, disengaged students tend to have poorer academic performance and are more likely to stop out — and often, schools don’t see it coming. It’s no wonder that increasing engagement is top of mind for many higher ed leaders.

The best strategy to improve engagement is to track student sentiment at scale and act on what you learn. To make this as effective as possible, this should be an ongoing process with frequent student contact. 

So what does this look like in practice for an innovative — but time-strapped — higher ed leader?

Designing a student engagement survey that actually works

First and foremost, getting the cadence right is key. You want to be able to track any ebbs and flows in student engagement throughout the year. If you’re relying on annual surveys, you’re likely to react too late or miss an opportunity to act entirely. And if you only survey your students at the beginning and end of the academic year, you risk only hearing from them when they’re riding the high of starting a new educational journey or closing out a chapter that brings them year closer to their goals. Meanwhile, weekly surveys may lead to students experiencing survey fatigue, and are too frequent to demonstrate that you’re acting on all the feedback.

Feeling a bit like Goldilocks trying to figure out what’s just right? We’ve got you. We’ve found that monthly surveys are an excellent balance, allowing you to regularly check in on how students feel without overwhelming the.

Timing is only part of it. You also need to know what to ask. Your survey questions should be targeted and relevant — you may need alternative versions for different student groups depending on the time of year. But you need to ensure that the surveys aren’t so granular that distributing and analyzing them becomes too much of an administrative burden.

Again, it’s all about finding that balance. At Mainstay, we’ve modeled our new Pulse Surveys on three research-backed factors which contribute to student success:

  • Sense of belonging:
    Students’ perception that they are connected to and supported by the school and community. (Not-so-fun fact… did you know that only 12% of students report feeling like they totally belong?)
  • Self-efficacy:
    Students’ belief in their ability to accomplish a task or achieve a goal.
  • Engagement:
    Students’ enthusiasm for and engagement in their studies, perception of the quality of their learning environment, and degree to which they feel the school is invested in their success.
 
These three factors form the core survey content, though the exact questions vary by time of year and where the student is in their academic journey. And by modeling every survey on a common core, you can gather data at scale while ensuring that it is still structured enough to aggregate and track over time.

Taking your survey strategy to the next level

The goal of tracking student engagement is to truly understand sentiment across the student body, not just from students who are willing to set aside time to complete a long and involved questionnaire.

Understanding sampling bias

Here are a few things to keep in mind to maximize your survey’s reach and hear from as many students as possible.

1. Communication and follow-up

People are more likely to respond if they understand how their survey responses will be used. Your students want to know that their voice will be heard — no one wants to send feedback into a black hole. Let your students know to expect periodic surveys and explain their purpose: to help the school learn how to most effectively support them. And most importantly, make sure students see you following up on what you learn. If you start a new initiative due to feedback from the survey, tell them!

2. Survey length

Quick, convenient surveys are more likely to be completed. If you are surveying students monthly, our recommendation is to ask no more than 5 questions. Resist the temptation to stuff pulse surveys with tons of questions — you’ll see diminishing returns. 

3. Question type

Open text prompts are invaluable when it comes to gathering feedback, although they usually take more time to complete — which means they’re less likely to be answered. You can get away with more multiple choice questions than open-ended ones. Plus, multiple choice questions are easier to analyze at scale.

4. Survey tools and distribution

Where you build and distribute surveys influences how students will respond. One option is to create web-based surveys with tools like Qualtrics or SurveyMonkey and distribute the link through email. Or, you can use Mainstay to directly survey students through text messages — instead of needing to click through to a survey, students can receive and respond to each question as a text. We’ve written before about the benefits of texting over emailing students, but to summarize: students are much more likely to respond to texts and answer more quickly.  

Closing the loop with listening-based leadership

Picture it – you’ve gained a nearly real-time pulse on student sentiment. You’ve measured student engagement and gathered feedback. You have an initial internal benchmark against which you can track your progress. 

It’s time to close the loop and act on the insights you’ve uncovered.

Consider the following example:

By using our Pulse Surveys, you discover that many students don’t agree that the school has helped them see a connection between what they’re learning and their future career possibilities. You can take immediate action by enrolling those students in a campaign about the career services available to them and helping them set up an appointment with a career coach. 
 
For the longer term, you decide to more proactively communicate how students can use the career center even when they aren’t actively looking for an internship or job. This could include embedding this information as a larger part of the freshman orientation or experience. Or, as a leader, this data is useful as part of a larger conversation about career-connected learning at your institution.

Let's talk engagement

Mainstay takes the guesswork out of student engagement. Like everything we do, our Pulse Surveys are built on a foundation of research into what drives student outcomes. We’ve done the legwork so you can move beyond theory and onto systematically listening to and acting on student sentiment at scale. 

If we’ve piqued your interest, let’s chat about student engagement at your institution.

 Not ready to chat yet, but want to learn more about student engagement? Check out our white paper, Defining Student Engagement.

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Get a guided tour of Mainstay’s Engagement Platform

Mainstay’s Engagement Platform uses Behavioral Intelligence to help schools and businesses build meaningful relationships, optimize insights, and drive action.

Sign up for your personalized demo to find out how Mainstay makes it easy to spark conversations with your students or employees and guide them toward positive results.

Channels

Instant support — anytime, anywhere

Mainstay’s behaviorally intelligent chatbots make it easy to engage with students and employees on the channels they prefer to use:

SMS text messaging

Live chat

Web chat

Social media

Let's talk