Digging Deep: Exploring Student Engagement at Institutions of All Sizes

Digging Deep: Exploring Student Engagement at Institutions of All Sizes

Dan Goodwin

Coordinator, Student Organizations, University of North Texas

I was talking with a student the other day, the kind of informal conversation that you may have with a student in passing not expecting there to be much substance from either one of us until I casually asked how the semester was treating him. He replied, “Dan, this semester has been crazy! I’m taking 15 hours and now that I’m in my major classes, they’re no joke!” I nodded along and thought to myself “welcome to college,” but as he continued, my take on his plight transformed. He went on to explain that in addition to his class load, he also had two part-time jobs so he could afford rent, utilities, and groceries. Finally, he mentioned regret. Regret that the student organizations he was previously involved in just couldn’t fit into his schedule any longer.

I had this conversation right at the time I was asked to write this series for the Learn Forward Blog; the timing was impeccable because my first post is an attempt to explore what student engagement is, why it is important, and what it looks like at different size institutions.

There have been many takes on the definition of student engagement and I have found it beneficial to operate on the following meaning of student engagement in my work in student affairs:

Engagement is the quality of effort a student puts into “educationally purposeful activities that contribute directly to desired outcomes” (Astin, 1993; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991 from Hu & Kuh, 2002, 555).

The conversations I have with my students, which are the same kinds of conversations you’re likely having with your students, are based on the idea that the level of student engagement we desire of our students simply isn’t as attainable any longer.

In the past, we have characterized students that aren’t engaged as lazy, bored, and unmotivated, and without direction, among other things. As we have reframed our assumptions, we must now ask ourselves, what are the barriers to engagement for them? For many, it has everything to do with a lack of very important resources; time and money. For some, lack of student engagement could be an overabundance of offerings, inconvenient timing, or lack of interest in the offerings altogether. What we express as educators and the realities of our students need to be met in a certain harmony that allows growth for both entities.

The very essence of our careers is predicated on college students being involved on campus. Alexander Astin’s Theory of Student Involvement was published 31 years ago and explained that students who were involved co-curricularly yielded more success and development. In 2005, Kuh and Pike explained that involvement in student organizations, leadership positions, and activity in residence life improved retention rates and yielded better academic performance. We have built many of our brands based on these theories and put them into taglines such as “students that are more involved get better grades, come join a student organization.” The fact that we believe in these theories so much is the exact reason that we need to approach the notion of student engagement with as much determination, creativity, and understanding as possible.

An Op-Ed published in the Washington Post back in June by Hunter Rawlings, the former President of Cornell University and University of Iowa received a lot of favorable buzz within higher education circles. He stipulated that “If we are going to treat college as a commodity, and an expensive one at that, we should at least grasp the essence of its economic nature. Unlike a car, college requires the “buyer” to do most of the work to obtain its value. The value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum.” While his points were being made from an academic perspective, we can transfer those same points to involvement outside the classroom.

In student affairs we are not the sole reason a student derives value in the programs and services we offer. When I got my start working in campus recreation, we used to say that our job was to “get out of the way and allow students to make memories.” What I mean specifically is that I’ve found whenever a student looks back on their time in college they most likely won’t talk about me or my office, but on the experience itself; the only time they’ll reference me or my office would be if we made the experience completely terrible for them. We have a role in the process much like a professor has a role in the learning process, but much like the student engagement in an academic class, student engagement outside the classroom is in part determined by the students themselves.

Finally, it’s important to consider the role government and society play within student engagement. There are more calls for institutional funding to be connected to the job placement rates of graduates; something we all agree is aided by out of classroom involvement. More than ever we connect our programs to learning outcomes and measure success by the number of attendees. While learning outcomes are important to the development of students and assessment is important to the development of programs, the justification to outside entities creates a certain pressure that is unhealthy. While we certainly need to be good stewards of the funding we receive, I believe the attention on higher education spending and calls to make college more affordable have a negative impact on the so-called "fluff" or out of classroom involvement we present. When an environment is created where funding of programs are directly tied to confining learning outcomes and misleading participation numbers to essentially prove to anyone but the student the value of the program, it becomes difficult for student experiences to organically occur.

So what exactly does student engagement look like on college campuses of every size? The short answer is that it depends on a variety of factors. A great anecdote to this question can be found in Malcom Gladwell’s book “David and Goliath” which attempts to demonstrate how we misunderstand advantages and disadvantages. One of the stories he tells is about a student who attends her dream school but it does not provide the kind of opportunities she thought it would. She then transfers to what she considered in the beginning of her search to be the “lesser school” but finding herself with all the opportunities she envisioned she’d experience in college. In my own experience, I’ve worked at a small, private institution where the resources were significant and I’ve worked at larger, public institutions where we’ve had to be more resourceful. In the smaller environment, the access to the student was much easier than I’ve found in the larger environment; an assumption I made was that smaller environments encourage greater participation rates. What I’ve found in both environments is that you’re going to see pockets of students getting involved and you’re going to see large chunks of students that view college as a commodity; a means to an end viewpoint isn’t exclusive to one setting. What I have learned after some trial and error is that perhaps it is not about the amount of resources I have at my disposal but the way in which I approach leveraging those resources. Perhaps sometimes student engagement can be created by a simple, “Hey, how’s your semester treating you?”

So the burning questions I have for you are this:

  • What is your definition of student engagement?
  • In what ways have you changed your expectations of the engagement of your students?
  • Do you feel that added the justification of programs has hindered your ability to develop students?

I love talking about student leadership stuff, music, travel, and food and I’m on twitter @NewfoundGoody and would love to keep the conversation going!

Missed a post? Read the entire Student Engagement Series here.

Dan Goodwin

Coordinator, Student Organizations, University of North Texas