George D. Kuh has won so many higher-education awards that he can't convincingly feign the modesty expected of prize winners. In Philadelphia last month, he got a big laugh when he said, upon being handed his latest honor: "I'm just going to accept as fact that I'm deserving of this award."
The honor was the 2013 Robert Zemsky Medal for Innovation in Higher Education, named for a leading figure in higher-education management and policy who was the award's inaugural recipient last year. Each year's winner is chosen by alumni of the University of Pennsylvania's executive-doctorate program in higher-education management.
One good indicator of Mr. Kuh's influence and esteem is that even colleagues with reservations about some of his best-known work describe him as a "towering figure" who "really launched the field of assessment of institutional quality."
Mr. Kuh, a longtime researcher at Indiana University at Bloomington who is now an emeritus professor of higher education, has persistently focused on how students learn and grow, and how colleges and universities can best help them to do that.
Colleagues say the awards he has received acknowledge such feats as encouraging institutions to focus less on rankings—those issued by U.S. News & World Report, for example—and more on assessing how conducive their programs and campuses are to learning. "We've needed more evidence that what goes on inside colleges and universities actually makes a difference," Mr. Kuh says by phone. "That's what really matters to the quality of undergraduate education."
He has sought to relate his findings in more than 350 publications, including 30 books, monographs, and national reports, about student success, learning outside the classroom, campus culture, student leadership, and much else.
He was the founding director of the National Survey of Student Engagement—nicknamed "Nessie"—a questionnaire that asks students what they have done during an academic year: how much time and effort did they spend reading, writing, talking to faculty members, working on problems, and more.
Developed in 1998, the tool quickly became one of the most widely used student surveys. It soon influenced college operations, government policy, and students' enrollment decisions. Some 620 institutions are using it this year; about 330,000 students will complete it. It has variants around the world and at the graduate-school level.
Mr. Kuh calls the survey a complex way of characterizing the quality of college engagement along parameters that education researchers have determined foster learning. "Surprisingly," he says, "in 1998, nobody had a short, easy-to-use tool like this that you could administer nationally via the Web."
In theory, Mr. Kuh, who is a vibrant 66, retired in 2010, but he continues to work at Indiana as director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. His co-principal investigator is Stanley O. Ikenberry, a similarly respected colleague at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The institute shows universities and colleges how to use assessment data to develop practices that have a high impact on learning, including first-year seminars, online project portfolios, internships, capstone courses in the senior year, and service learning. When engaged in those activities, says Mr. Kuh, "students report being far more engaged and gaining far more from their college experience."
Not all education researchers are persuaded of NSSE's value. Some find its measures too vague or overlapping. And, the critics note, the survey depends on students' accurately reporting their own educational activities.
Does it even demonstrate much beyond what common sense suggests? Mr. Kuh allows that educators should not be surprised that, for example, students' "time on task" benefits their learning. But when it comes to determining best educational practices, detailed study is warranted because, he says, these are things that administrators and students "have to learn how to do. Most of our students need structure."
He regrets that measures like the student survey often serve noneducational purposes—administrators use favorable findings to tout their institutions over others, and legislators deploy the less-favorable results to flog their state systems, whether to show their constituents they are good wardens of the public purse or to appeal to anti-higher-education sentiment.
He allows that it doesn't help calm policy makers that the survey has unveiled some unfortunate statistics; for one, that students typically spend only about a dozen hours a week preparing for classes.
Something must be done to help students become more engaged by their studies, argues Mr. Kuh. "At the end of the day, the numbers that NSSE provides are less meaningful than the sense that people make of them. That's what the student-success movement is about today."