In “Student Engagement and Learning,” Jillian Kinzie presents an overview of the current research on student engagement and learning. Taking into account decades of work on the subject, she concludes that “engagement is . . . a robust proxy” for learning. More specifically, in a “host of studies,” measures of student engagement correlate positively with measures of student learning (p. 141). More plainly, when students are engaged, they are usually learning—and vice versa.
The obvious pedagogical takeaway: We are encouraged to engage students more and to engage them more deeply. In other words, “Engaging pedagogies matter . . .” (p. 151).
In addition to this broad affirmation of efforts to engage students in the learning process, Kinzie proposes four specific propositions for how we should apply the research on student engagement and learning.
Expectations Matter to Student Learning and Success, Particularly in the First Year of University. (p. 143)
Kinzie writes that we need to establish expectations for engagement that are “high” as well as “appropriate” to the students’ abilities. Establishing expectations includes communicating expectations clearly (even “spell[ing] out what students need to do”), holding students accountable to expectations, and supporting students in meeting them (pp. 143, 145). Doing these things is particularly important for first-year students. First-year students often report spending less time studying than they had anticipated spending (p. 144). They also often establish their “pattern of time allocation” for the rest of college (p. 145). Finally, high expectations correlate with “higher-than-predicted student engagement and graduation rates” (p. 143).
Stimulating Educational Experiences and Certain ‘High-Impact’ Practices Raise Student Learning and Impart Greater Benefit to all Students. (p. 145)
Perhaps wryly, Kinzie notes that “the passive lecture format where faculty do most of the talking and students listen is contrary to almost every principle of an optimal learning environment” (p. 145). Accordingly, she recommends established practices such as as “active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, peer interactions, and experiences with diversity,” which “encourage students to devote more time and effort to their learning, help them develop a learning support network, and are associated with higher levels of learning for all students” (p. 145). Additionally, she recommends broad implementation of “high-impact practices,” including “learning communities, first-year seminars, service learning, senior capstone, undergraduate research, internships, and study abroad,” which have been demonstrated to lead to significant learning gains (p. 147).
What Faculty Emphasize and Think Is Important to Learning Influences What Students Do. (p. 148)
Perhaps counterintuitively, Kinzie reports that students “generally . . . do what their faculty expect and require of them” (p. 148). Obviously, they do not necessarily do what we want of them, what we hope of them, or what we want to expect from them, but, pretty much, what actually expect and require.
Educators Must Be Concerned with the Total Learning Environment—In and Outside the Classroom. (p. 149)
Finally, Kinzie urges broad support for student learning from all corners of the university and in respect to all aspects of university life. This includes faculty, student affairs, and administration. It includes not just curriculum and pedagogy but also “new construction, space renovation, landscape planning, campus extension, interior design,” “new student orientation,” and so on (pp. 149-50). Everything about a school should “be organized to help guide students toward” learning (p. 149). Turning an old phrase, Kinzie writes that “it takes a whole campus to educate a student” (p. 151).
One caveat is in order: not all so-called “engagement” equally contributes to student learning. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa differ from Kinzie on how well a proxy “engagement” may be for learning—at least, depending on how engagement is defined and measured. They point to one study that suggests that measures of engagement from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) “do not track strongly or consistently with objective measures of learning” (p. 132). This finding does not negate the studies cited by Kinzie that establish the link between learning and engagement (including engagement as measured by NSSE). In fact, it too affirms that there is one, even if not always a strong one.
At the same time, the study does lend credence to Arum and Roksa’s larger point that just because students are engaged in activities does not mean that they are learning (p. 132). They point out that many students and teachers do not seem to use active learning activities very skillfully. “Engaging activities,” they write, “are likely conducive [to learning] only in specifically structured contexts that focus students’ attention appropriately on learning” (p. 133). On this point, Kinzie concurs, insisting that engaging practices “must be done well” if they are “achieve their full potential” (p. 151).
So even though getting students engaged matters (and not just for learning but also for student satisfaction and retention, as Kinzie [p. 143] and Arum and Roksa [p. 92] both confirm), engagement does not always or automatically lead to learning. In light of this, I would propose another proposition:
If students are not engaged, they probably won’t learn. If they are, they might.
Kinze urges us to keep in mind the research on student engagement “whenever student deficiencies or lack of motivation are raised as explanations for low levels of student engagement and poor academic performance” (p. 149). While some students may never engage in the ways that we would like them to, most students probably will when given opportunity, support, and accountability. We know that what we do impacts what students do (p. 149). While students will ultimately have to decide whether or not to step up to the plate and swing at the ball, we share responsibility for encouraging and enabling them to do what they need to do to learn.