Using Senior Exit Interviews to Improve Academic Programs
When Muhlenberg College’s dean of institutional assessment called for academic departments to develop internal assessment plans, the goal in the department of mathematics and computer science was to implement an approach that would be most useful internally. The department initially considered surveying its graduating seniors. But during their final semester, seniors are inundated with surveys from various units across campus, which could reduce the response rate. In addition, surveys tend to be static. As an alternative, the department decided on senior exit interviews.
“We decided that we wanted a dynamic process,” says Linda McGuire, chair of the mathematics and computer science department. “We wanted something where we actually had a conversation with people who were going to go out and become young professionals. We believed strongly that having that sort of conversation, particularly at a liberal arts college that emphasizes oral communication, that [senior exit interviews] would be a really great way to have a culminating encounter with our seniors. That led us away from surveys and more toward a dynamic interview process.”
How the process works
Each year the department agrees upon a set of interview questions. Some are consistent from year to year, such as “What have we done well?” and “What suggestions do you have for enhancing or refining our programs?” Other questions are included that address current concerns such as curriculum design or space issues.
Student participation is optional, but most take part. Each year there might be one student who doesn’t make an appointment for an interview. “I think if you frame it properly—‘We value your input. You’ve come through our program; we’re certain you’ll have important things to say to us’—you’ll have an excellent response rate,” McGuire says.
Students receive the questions ahead of time so they can think about how to respond. The interviews are conducted throughout March and April and each takes approximately 20 to 25 minutes. Because of the relatively small number of graduating seniors, a single person can manage all the interviews for the department. Scaling this technique to larger departments might require forming a committee to do the interviews or seeking help from the assessment office. “But there is something to be said for having people within the department conducting the interviews,” McGuire says.
The interviews are fairly straightforward. The interviewer asks the questions, takes notes during each interview, and compiles a summary report, highlighting common themes and noting additional commentary that was not universal.
Using the findings
McGuire typically compiles the summary report by June, which gives the faculty members several months to think about and discuss the findings and what changes might be implemented as a result. Sometimes the students’ comments are expected, but they often point to things that the department would not have known otherwise.
For example, recent results indicated that students would like more interaction with the faculty, and the department has implemented changes to address this issue, such as funding a colloquium series and increasing opportunities for informal gatherings. “It’s really made a difference in the community spirit within the department,” McGuire says.
Senior interviews also indicated students, particularly those in mathematics, perceived a problem with the college’s career center. “It was interesting because students a certain interpretation of what they saw as a problem with our career center. Employers don’t tend to walk in and say ‘I need all your math majors.’ The students interpreted this as the career center not knowing what to do with them. So we started having some conversations with the career center, and we found they were doing their job perfectly well but students had misconceptions about what the role of the career center was.”
To overcome this misconception, the department now has a liaison from the career center who comes to departmental events and gets to know students throughout the program and helps them learn what the career center does.
Another important finding from the senior exit interviews was that many students became interested in their majors as a result of taking introductory courses with tenured professors rather than with adjuncts. “That’s important for us to keep in mind. These surveys brought a lot of things to light that we weren’t necessarily focusing on until our students actually turned our eyes in that direction,” McGuire says.
McGuire says that regularly revisiting the findings of these surveys and devising new questions help move department meetings from “departmental bookkeeping” to conversations about department climate and other things that are important to the students. “It helps keep students at the center of the conversation and to build departmental initiatives around that,” McGuire says. “It’s been an easy way to engage people in discussions about everything from facilities to curriculum to even our own scholarship and ways to help students gain access to [that] scholarship.”
Findings from senior exit interviews also lend credence to the department’s requests for resources. “We can say it is student feedback that’s sending us in this direction,” McGuire says. “This isn’t 10 faculty members sitting around and coming up with proposals. These proposals are grounded in commentary, and this is what we’re reacting to when we come to you with proposals for space renovations, more computer classrooms, Website overhauls ….”
In addition to helping the department going forward, the exit interviews provide a valuable, memorable experience for the students. “If you really value connection to your students, this is a really lovely way to wrap up their career at your institution, to really treat them like adults, young professionals whose input you value,” McGuire says. “It leaves them with an important impression: that we realize you have important information and insights to share with us and we humbly request that you do so, so we can make improvements to what we do.”