Is Any and All Student Engagement a Good Thing? Or Are There Limits?

Is Any and All Student Engagement a Good Thing? Or Are There Limits?

Dan Goodwin

Coordinator, Student Organizations, University of North Texas

At the institution I work for, we just held our annual homecoming activities. For the student activities department, it single handedly is the busiest week of the academic year. We hold a picnic, service project, dance competition, bonfire, and a parade; needless to say, the hours are long and the participation high. The week highlighted the commitment of our student leaders across multiple programs and departments; the week couldn’t have happened without the involvement of those students. Coming off of homecoming week got me to thinking in the broader context about student engagement; in my first attempt to explain student engagement it was clearly shown that student engagement can be a great game changer in the success rate of students. But is any and all student engagement a good thing? Or without limitations, does it serve to the disengagement of students?

In further contemplating this question I thought about general issues society faces with time management and burnout. I read an article from US News that listed 6 ways a person would know they have too much on their plate. In looking at the list I thought about all the times I’ve felt burnt out personally and I also thought about all the times I may have contributed to the burnout of my students. I have taken the six ways and contextualized them for further discussion.

  1. You’re saying “yes” to everything. We love it when students agree to volunteer for a Friday night event or come in to help put together binders for a retreat. We also come to find that the pool of students willing to do those tasks is very small. Naturally we get along with these students because they’re dependable and hardworking, so we go back to the well often. The issue is that either the student isn’t comfortable saying no to your request for help or we’re not limiting their desires to be “helpful.” Students aren’t learning how to turn down requests and more importantly are gaining a heightened sense of themselves as irreplaceable.

  2. You’re feeling overwhelmed. I’m guilty at times of thinking that my students are somehow different than the others; like they are immune to sleep, studying, and pressure. At the end of the day, they have midterms and finals just like any other student. The difference between the engaged student and the student mildly involved is that the mildly involved student can focus in on their studies without an explanation. I have dealt with many students that clearly needed to focus on their academics feeling immense guilt; I have come to the conclusion that I should never put a student in a position where they feel guilty for focusing on their studies.

  3. You’re procrastinating. With the access to distractions right in our hands, it’s no wonder we constantly have to remind ourselves and our students not to procrastinate. While progress could be delayed due to distractions, it could also be a byproduct of not giving clear instructions, expectations, and a deadline. The planning process for programs and events in student affairs usually is messy, up against a deadline, and all hands on deck. If we’re dissatisfied with the progress we certainly could assume we have procrastinators on our hands but perhaps we should also ask ourselves if we’ve set them up for success from the start.

  4. You’re waking up in the middle of the night with work on the brain. A fond memory of alumni across the country is “pulling an all-nighter”; while it seems as if it’s a badge of honor, the experience was anything but. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that younger adults (ages 18-25) should get 7-9 hours of sleep per night. While each person may be different, I certainly don’t want to contribute to my students’ lack of sleep. So if our students are to be on our front lines, engaged with other students, and taking major involvement in our organizations, why would we want them interacting like zombies?

  5. You’re making rookie errors. I once worked with someone who made the mistake of writing on social media “lesson learned: if you want a job done right, don’t give it to your student, do it yourself.” The student development experience is having the freedom and ability to fail; I think a healthy experience of failure ultimately does a leader quite well. I believe a student that is too involved puts way too much pressure on themselves to produce. When you’re juggling so much on your plate you’re less interested in the process than actually getting the task done. If one of our most important assets in student development is the freedom to fail and learn from mistakes, let us create involvement that provides immediate results but lasting impact.

  6. You’re spending every weekend catching up on work. We complete eligibility checks each semester for our student organization officers which allows us to have a conversation about priorities. Many student leaders believe us to be too serious about the process and wish we would leave them and their priorities alone. I believe it is our responsibility to intervene where we can to point out the effects of over involvement. I don’t believe it is solely up to the student to identify the imbalance; if we didn’t have a process, nor a conversation, what culture are we promoting to our students?

Anecdotally I have come to the conclusion that engagement for a typical student should result in three out of classroom involvement opportunities. In my conversations over the years with students, anything over that number seems to be the tipping point. During advising appointments with uninvolved students I make three categories:

• Personal/Special Interest

• Academic

• Professional

I attempt to make the point to students that joining an organization is not the same as being involved in an organization. I fully realize that some students are looking for resume fillers; whether they realize it at the time or not is the question. I also realize that many students have part time jobs, are involved in community groups, have responsibilities to their families, etc. The point isn’t to limit a student. The point is to show the student what the involvement will look like and how they will fit it into their schedule. Would I rather have my students engaged in less or a member of more? I’ll take engaged every time.

It is very possible that a majority of students aren’t as engaged as we would like them to be. I believe growth in student engagement is a grass roots endeavor. At our institution an uninvolved student can make an appointment with an involved student leader to come up with three on campus opportunities to take part in. The key is that students are talking with their peers instead of an administrator. As relatable as I believe I am, I also understand that most of my students have never heard of Dave Matthews Band and thus I may not have as much in common with them as I’d love to tell myself.

I don’t believe that incentivizing student organization leaders to engage with students will bear fruit. The result would be student organizations meeting quotas that we have formed without any meaning behind it. To me, student engagement isn’t about touting the number of student organizations and members we have.

Lastly, I’m not against offering incentives for student organizations to attend a workshop or complete registration on time. If you have funds in your budget that would allow you to offer snacks and beverages at a workshop, then by all means, you should. Two things I have learned through much error is that the value you place on an experience is not inherently shared by any other person and that if you don’t have well thought out offerings it won’t matter the incentive you wave in front of them.

In the end maybe it shouldn’t be about the growth in numbers but more about the growth in students.


• What are you seeing on your campuses in relation to engagement? Do you feel like your students are too involved or not involved enough?

• If you use incentives, what are some types of incentives you use? Did you achieve what you set out to achieve because of them? Let’s continue this conversation and many others on twitter: @NewFoundGoody

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

About the Author: Dan Goodwin was born and raised in Illinois. He received his Bachelors and Master’s degrees in Recreation Administration from Illinois State University. Prior to his start in the field of student affairs, Dan spent 3 years as a golf professional in the Chicago, Illinois area. Dan presently works at The University of North Texas. Prior to UNT, Dan worked at Illinois State University (2009-2011) and Tulane University (2011-2014). Dan’s professional interests lie within leadership education and development and preparing others for life after college. He loves spending time with his wife, Kristin and their beagle, Bailey. He loves all things music and most things about Chicago sports. He once ate a 5LB gummy bear.

Dan Goodwin

Coordinator, Student Organizations, University of North Texas