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Recreation centers play a vital role in the university experience. These services offer students opportunities to participate in both structured and unstructured activities such as fitness classes, intramural sports teams, and outdoor adventures like hiking and camping. Recreational facilities and events encourage students to develop health and wellness practices and are associated with a number of positive health and learning outcomes.

This research note explores students’ satisfaction with campus recreation services and the learning outcomes associated with them. The findings, summarized as five key insights, are drawn from a national dataset constructed from the responses of over 2,500 college students to the Benchworks Recreation Services Assessment during the 2017-2018 academic year.

A major consideration for any assessment project is the timing of it. In fact, questions related to timing are some of the most common questions that Skyfactor’s Analytics & Research Team gets from clients. And, it’s a good question to ask. Considering the timing of your assessment is a crucial component of a good assessment project. Previously, our Director of Analytics & Research, Sherry Woosley, wrote about the timing of assessments, in particular whether or not there are advantages to surveying in fall versus spring.


While the particular timing of your assessment is important, so is the frequency. Another common questions we get from clients relates to how often to assess, in particular, if a benchmarking assessment should be administered every year. This question is especially common for campuses that have conducted benchmarking assessments for multiple consecutive years and say that, at a high level, the results simply don’t change that much.


There are certainly valid reasons for considering a shift to conducting a particular benchmarking assessment every other year or as part of a cycle. Cost, in particular, is one benefit. There is an assumption that, since the high-level results don’t change much from year to year, that an every-other-year approach will save money and provide a sufficient snapshot of any changes over time. And, campuses may save money or be able to triangulate data better by pulling in other assessments in the “off-years.”


But, there are real benefits to conducting a benchmarking survey each and every year that must be taken into consideration.


Justifying Needs

Annual benchmarking data allows a department to make a more compelling case for justifying particular needs. By breaking down results across campus, departments are more easily able to identify exactly where improvements should be made. For example, for a housing department looking to make a difference on facilities satisfaction, identifying specific buildings that need improvement (even something as simple as new paint in common areas) can go a long way.

Identifying issues not only at a granular level but also as they come up allow for campuses to justify changes, especially minor changes that can have an immediate impact. One of the common reason campuses administer a survey in fall versus spring is to allow time to react and implement changes during the current academic year that reflect the pressing needs of your current students. Surveying each year allows your campus to take quick action and make a difference.


Motivating Staff

One of the value points of benchmarking data is the ability to use data to motivate and excite staff. Many campuses use the ability to share reports to current staff as a mechanism to review performance and identify areas of improvement. And, since reports can be filtered to a population or area that is directly applicable to individual staff members, it makes the data more personal. Sharing filtered reports with residence hall directors, assistant directors of student activities, orientation leaders, and more, you can use annual results to motivate your staff and focus their efforts on areas that can make a difference.


Studying Smaller Populations

Annual surveys allow for opportunities to better focus on smaller populations. At the aggregate level, campus-level results may look really good! However, many benefit from using the survey to target specific populations to improve experiences more intimately. If you are using the survey on a yearly basis, you are better able to address issues that disproportionately affect smaller populations, as well as focusing on improvements to different, smaller populations each year.


Demonstrating Improvement

Annual benchmarking data allow your campus to demonstrate the impact of your efforts each and every year. Our efforts to improve the student experience never stop. So, collecting data each year allows for better demonstration of the impact of particular efforts. The before and after snapshot of a new programming effort, targeted staff outreach, new learning outcomes, or facilities improvements are incredibly valuable to demonstrating that your efforts make a difference. If left to data collected only every few years, it’s more difficult to identify which efforts had an impact on the learning and satisfaction of your students.


Ultimately, collecting data annually allows for campuses to better tell a compelling data story highlighting their hard work. While those who work closely with student affairs departments understand the incredible impact of their efforts, compelling data points are necessary to justify resources, education external stakeholders, and justify efforts, in particular in a time where campuses are being asked to do more with less resources. Annual data collection empowers departments to tell a more impactful story of the hard work they do each and every year.

Whether to demonstrate the impact of efforts, justify resources, better identify needs, or continually motivate staff, there are significant benefits to collecting reliable and valid benchmarking data each year.

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the importance of building student communities to student success. Long story short, valuable connections are happening across campuses each and every day. And, we need valid data points to pair with the powerful stories we have on the prevalence and impact of these connections.


Given the importance of campus connections to sense of belonging and broader student success, it is of value to explore the physical spaces where these connections often occur. One area on campus that is primed to be a central point of building and strengthening community is the student union. Student unions and student centers, by their very nature, are intended to be a hub of student life, activity, and connections on campus. And, these environments are increasingly designed and intended to support student learning.


Designed in partnership with ACUI, the ACUI/Benchworks College Union Assessment provides campuses with valuable data on the college union experience. The assessment contains a wide range of questions, ranging from when and how these use the facility to satisfaction with different services. It also measures key learning outcomes that we would expect our students to gain as a result of their interactions and experience in these facilities. And, with over a decade of data from over 250 colleges and universities in the United States, we’ve learned a lot about the college union experience.  


So, what have we learned? Here are three, high-level things we consistently seen in the national data:


Students visit unions frequently


If a facility is meant to be the hub of student life, it should be a facility that students frequent often. And, data from our assessment shows that this is indeed the case. For the 2017-2018 academic year, nearly 90% of survey respondents indicating visiting their college union at least one during the academic year. Of those who visited at least one, four out of five visited their union at least once per week, while nearly 25% reported visiting at least one a day or more. And, while those visits are spread throughout the day, the period of time with the highest traffic is between 9am and 2pm, when two-thirds of respondents indicated they typically visit their college union.


Students visit for a variety of reasons


From providing options for dining to spaces for student activities, and offices for key services, college unions are remarkably diverse in their services and offerings. And, the national data on why students visit their college union or student center reflect the wide-ranging purposes of the facilities themselves. When asked to identify the top three reasons out of over fifteen for visiting their college union, almost everyone--98%--indicated that food-related offerings were a top reason for visiting. Other top reasons for visiting their college union included:


  • Studying (91%)
  • Meeting others (88%)
  • Attending programs or events (78%)
  • Visiting the bookstore (77%)
  • Relaxing (71%)
  • Attending student organization meetings (68%)


So, the national data reflect that, while students are visiting their college union for more transactional needs, like buying textbooks or getting lunch, they are also utilizing the facility for connecting, as many of the top reasons for visiting include meeting other students, attending programs, or attending organization meetings.


Unions successfully help to build a sense of community


For a college union to be successfully fulfilling its mission of serving as a hub of student life and helping to build a sense of community, we would expect more than usage data showing numerous visits for a variety of reasons. We would also expect student perceptions of those unions--centered around both satisfaction and learning--to highlight the role that unions play in supporting student success. Nationally, the data from the ACUI/Benchworks College Union Assessment reflects just that.


Across a variety of outcomes, union visitors indicated that their experience with unions, their activities, and their services all reflect a facility that is truly the hub of student life and connections. For instance, nearly three out of four union visitors were both satisfied with the extent to which their college union promotes a sense of community on campus and agreed that their union is a place to get involved in campus life.


Furthermore, student perceptions also reflect the role of unions and union activities in contributing to learning. For instance, 40% of union visitors indicated that their college union experience enhanced their ability to interact socially. And, 26% of visitors indicated that their college union activities expand their understanding of their role as a citizen of the college community.


To top it off, unions do this while being conscious of student activity fee dollars. When considering the fees paid to support their union with the quality of activities and services provided, 88% of union visitors rated the value of how their dollars were spent as at least “Fair.” 37% of visitors rated the value of their dollars as very good or higher.


So, at a high level, unions help to bring students together; provide opportunities for learning that, among other things, build campus connections; and provide all of this and more at a valuable rate for students.


Want more? We’ve got you covered

There’s much more to the college union experience than three high-level findings. How do the visit rates differ across key populations? What concepts most closely predict high union effectiveness? How does frequency of visits relate to reasons for visiting or satisfaction with the facility? For these points and more, check out two of our recent research notes, one of which goes deeper into what we’ve learned about the college union experience and the other explores frequency of visits and how it relates to union perceptions and usage.   



And, if you have other questions that we haven’t addressed yet in these notes, ask us and we’ll add it to our list!