SIP 4.6 What is Student Engagement?

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

Several college students in a classroom with a professor. All of the students have their hands raised.

In education, we hear a lot about “student engagement” and how important it can be for student success. Our definitions of “engagement” tend to vary according to our role on campus, however. For faculty, engagement can mean coming to class, participating in group discussions, or completing homework. For administrators, engagement can mean being active in student clubs and organizations or attending on-campus events. Whatever our definition of engagement, we can all agree on one thing: student success depends on involvement with and attachment to the educational experience.

Take a SIP of This: What is Student Engagement?

Regardless of our role or perspective, we seek to entertain the engagement strategies that will best promote positive outcomes for our students. It is becoming increasingly clear, though, that our work on campus no longer aligns solely with the “faculty” or “administrator” track–persistence, graduation, and student success are really understood to be a joint and common undertaking. So how can we work toward a common understanding of what “student engagement” might mean?

A review of the literature indicates that…”engaged students make a psychological investment in learning. They try hard to learn what school offers. They take pride not simply in learning the formal indicators of success (grades), but in understanding the material and incorporating or internalizing it in their lives”  (Newmann 1992)  Student engagement, therefore, encompasses the social/emotional aspect of the student experience as much as the academic one, and the resources and supports that we offer to help  students make this “psychological investment in learning” needs to span faculty and administrative roles.

So what does this mean for our practice? It means that we, the professional practitioners in higher education, must expand our practice and look for ways to complement our work with best practices from the other side of the tracks. For example, programs on campus like New Student Orientation and First Year Success are dedicated to student engagement on both academic and social/emotional levels. Don’t underestimate the powerful impact of peer-to-peer mentoring, ping pong tournaments, and free food on college student’s psyche! Faculty support of these programs sets the stage for a sense of belonging and dedication to the educational enterprise. On the other hand, faculty work tirelessly to create curriculum, degree programs, and departmental programming that will attract and retain students their way to graduation.  Administrators must seek ways to support and reward this development through institutional structures and regulatory practices such as Retention, Tenure and Promotion. Only by considering both sides of the coin will we find ways to foster student engagement and make it possible for all university employees to get on board.

Here are some ways in which you can encourage and support student engagement at MSU Denver:

  • Verbally and physically reiterate the message that MSU Denver students belong here. College is hard for everyone, and self-esteem or sense of belonging can suffer when the challenges get intense. But certain demographic groups (first-generation college students, students of color, students from undeserved high schools, students with socio-economic challenges, etc.) may react even more adversely to the challenges of college life by assuming that it is difficult for them because they don’t belong in college. Address this negative thought with a positive message–that growth mindset and connection making can help to mitigate obstacles and increase a sense of belonging.  Say it out loud! Encourage students to wear their MSU Denver gear (and wear it yourself)! Give away an MSU Denver pen or water bottle or sticker from time to time to create a sense of community and belonging! The more students feel they belong, the more engaged they will become.
  • At MSU Denver–a commuter campus–we frequently hear this buzz word posed as a question: how can we engage students who come, go to class, and leave again? Encourage students to find a place to call “home.” This may be an academic department, a club meeting space, the gym, or even –the Starbucks or Daz Bog–but they need someplace to feel like they are safe and they belong. (Cue the construction notice:  look for a new student lounge, The Nest, to be housed in the soon-to-be-renovated space on the front of the Student Success Building–likely to be open for spring semester!). If you are in a decision-making position, take steps to cultivate spaces in which students can hang out and just “be.” If students are here, their chances of engaging increase exponentially.
  • Encourage students to get involved in something. This might be an “extra-curricular” activity like a sport, a sorority, or a club. This might be an academic affiliation, like the Honors Program or Student Government Assembly. Whatever they decide to pursue, the activity should be meaningful to them. By making the connection between academic and social activities on campus, students will better understand how college fits into their lives, and how they fit into college–and the results can be stunning. As a matter of fact, research performed by MSU Denver’s own Team DELTA confirms this: Roadrunners who were involved in student organizations had a higher persistence and graduation rate–72% graduated in six years, whereas only 30% of students not involved in student organizations graduated on time!
  • Set high academic standards in your class and support students so that they meet them. Contrary to what might seem true, having low (or no) standards for attendance, participation, and achievement encourages students to slack off and tune out. Set the bar high and celebrate the effort that it takes for students to get there. Both the effort and the outcome will result in improved engagement in the academic endeavor at and psychological attachment to the university.
  • Provide wrap-around advising services to your students. Whether the conversation takes place in class or in office hours, solicit the sharing of interests and goals, of career aspirations, and of dreams. Ask your students how the classes they are taking today fit into the roadmap they have of their future. Steer them to on-campus resources like the Advising Center or Career Services so that they can begin to envision the connections between school and life.  Finding the connection between today’s lecture or assignment and a future career can set the hook for student engagement.

Still Thirsty? Take Another SIP of What is Student Engagement?

There is no magic bullet. Student engagement may well be as unique and individual as each student we encounter. And engagement–for students, faculty, and staff alike–might be an impossible undertaking given the complexity of schedules, challenges with work-life balance, and availability of resources. Still, it’s worth a shot! Even thinking about engagement can lead to a climate of attachment. So, dive in! Check out this great summary of twelve best-practice approaches to student engagement that are as different as the students we serve:

And for specific tips on how to message the idea of “belonging” to students, regardless of your role, see this by Greg Walton from Stanford:

For a more in-depth, “academic” approach to student engagement, take a gander at this study by Newman, quoted above: Newmann, F. (1992).  Student Engagement and Achievement in American Secondary Schools. Teachers College Press. pp. 2–3

Finally, don’t forget our in-house resources: the MSU Denver Student Engagement and Wellness web page is a gem! Please check this out yourself and refer students so that they can “Be Well, Be Supported, and Be Engaged”:

Results from MSU Denver’s student participation in the National Survey on Student Engagement can be enlightening. NSSE data is used in many different areas on campus to predict student success and to inform practice:

The last word: engagement of active students breeds engaged alumni. The greater a sense of belonging that a student has while pursuing his or her degree, the greater the chances of that student giving back once on the path of career success.  This type of investment benefits us all!

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  1. Thanks for sharing some awesome tips on student engagement. We will try some similar tactics to refine the training process for our answering service agents.

    1. @AnswerMTI thanks for the feedback! We are glad to be of service. Feel free to share a few of your efforts here as well. When it comes to strong instructional practices, the more the merrier!

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