In the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education we used a longitudinal approach, assessing first-year students shortly after they arrived on campus and then following them for at least four years.

We collected student and institutional data at multiple points during the study, supplementing quantitative data from surveys and assessments with interviews at a subset of institutions. In what was perhaps the most critical component of our work, we collaborated with institutions to ensure that they could use study data to address their unique concerns and improve student learning.

In our research, we found that four broad categories of teaching practices and institutional conditions predict growth on a wide variety of student outcomes including moral reasoning, need for cognition, openness to diversity and challenge, and positive attitude toward literacy. These four categories of high-impact teaching practices and supportive institutional conditions were derived from survey questions in the Wabash National Study about student experiences. The questions come from both the Student Experiences Survey and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).

Data Collection

We collected demographic information, reports of precollege and collegiate experiences, and measurements of liberal arts outcomes from students at all 49 institutions. These data enabled us to understand how specific college experiences impacted the achievement of liberal arts outcomes.

Participating students completed surveys, including the NSSE, that asked about their high school and college experiences, including:

  • Participation in activities
  • Exposure to effective teaching
  • Diversity-related experiences
  • Involvement in active learning and integrative experiences
  • Cocurricular/out-of-class involvement
  • Influential interactions with faculty and peers

Students also completed quantitative instruments designed to assess six liberal arts outcomes.

In-Depth Interviews

We conducted in-depth interviews with a subset of students from six institutions in the 2006 group. These interviews helped us understand the ways educational experiences affected students’ achievement of the seven selected liberal arts outcomes and how students interpreted these experiences. The interviews also helped us develop theories to test in the quantitative component.

The interviews:

  • Involved approximately 50 students from each of the following six institutions: Bard College, Columbia College (SC), Wabash College, Whittier College, San José State University, and the University of Notre Dame
  • Were both structured and open-ended, conducted with a holistic approach grounded in self-authorship
  • Were approximately 90 minutes long
  • Began in fall 2006 and continued each year through fall 2009 to document changes in development


Students were assessed a total of three times—in the fall and spring of their first year and again in the spring of their fourth year.

  • Enter College

    • Gather student background information

    • Give students outcome measures

  • End 1st Year

    • Ask students about their college experiences

    • Give students outcome measures

  • 2nd Year

  • 3rd Year

  • 4th Year

    • Ask students about their college experiences

    • Give students outcome measures

Institutional Support

Data from the Wabash National Study was used to address a variety of institution-specific questions about issues such as retention, persistence, and student success. The data also provided feedback on specific campus programs. We worked with faculty, staff, and students to discover the questions that were of central importance to their institutions so that we could customize our data analysis to address their specific questions and help them use the data to improve student learning and strengthen liberal arts education. We also were able to connect an institution’s existing student data with Wabash National Study data to examine a wide range of issues. When institutions had similar questions, we facilitated collaborations between institutions.