The nature of student engagement in higher education is evolving at a heady pace. It seems likely that several trends, occurring in and out of the classroom, will continue to accelerate.
Student Engagement in the Learning Process
For decades, the learning and measurement sciences have told us how to optimize learning in physical and virtual classrooms. Higher education has either ignored or been slow to adopt these findings. Ironically, students now expect to consume and interact with information in ways that are consistent with what these sciences have been telling us for decades. Drivers of higher completion rates and stronger employment outcomes are also propelling these changes.
Here are a few of the more important science-guided practices that seem likely to evolve into standard practice.
Active learning engages students in the learning process. It is gaining momentum among progressive instructors and has been adopted in a few progressive institutions. Active learning shifts the faculty role from sage on the stage to guide on the side, focused on facilitating the active engagement of students in the learning process. This transition from teacher-centered to learner-centered instruction requires the active participation of all students and makes non-participation stand out. On balance, students prepare at the content level prior to class. During class, they engage in a variety of hands-on activities facilitated by the instructor. Done correctly, these activities solidify not only remembering the content but also translating it into skills-based outcomes. The common strand among many active learning techniques is that the primary role of the instructor is coordinating students constructing their own learning in contrast to lecturing on content while the student passively listens.
In addition to improving learning outcomes, the active learning classroom is better aligned with the world of work. It requires extensive horizontal engagement with other students and vertical mentoring and feedback from the instructor. This helps develop, within students, the ability to communicate, work in teams, manage projects, and otherwise interact effectively as will be required by employers.
The effectiveness of classrooms that integrate horizontal and vertical learning activities is substantiated through research and is now widely recommended (although sparsely adopted) in face-to-face, online, and blended learning. At the same time, the horizontal learning components have been ignored by the current generation of competency-based education programs that confuse adapting to each learner’s needs with isolating learners from each other. This lack of innovation is unfortunate. Programs that ignore horizontal components sacrifice one-third to one-half of the potential learning outcomes and commit learning to levels that fall toward the lower end of learning taxonomies. Vertical-only adaptive learning courses recreate century-old correspondence courses with attendant low completion rates and repeat after me learning.
Relevance and Authenticity of Curriculum & Learning Experiences
The second trend driving change in the classroom is a demand for relevance and authenticity. Employers, taxpayers and students are seeking more direct relevance and authenticity between what and how they learn in the classroom, and what they will be doing in the real-world environment in which they work and live. Connecting relevant information learned in theory and applying it in practice to real world situations—through simulations, case studies, team projects, internships, etc.—increases student engagement and better reflects the needs of the workplace. Outcomes-based curriculum with embedded authentic formative and summative assessments – with an emphasis on formative evaluation – ensure that relevant outcomes remain the focus of the instructional process and provide timely and important feedback to students as well as to faculty.
The third major trend occurring in the classroom is the personalization of instruction. Notwithstanding the potential lack of focus on horizontal components (a shortcoming that can be addressed), adaptive learning has the potential to personalize the learning experience in ways that increases engagement and deepens learning. Competency-based delivery models have the potential to meet students where they are and allow them to progress at a rate more consistent with their individual goals and capabilities. It is important that emerging adaptive and competency-based models remain grounded in the learning sciences to ensure student engagement is in place to support optimal learning outcomes and persistence.
Student Engagement Outside the Classroom
Many of the forces driving change in higher education classrooms are also driving change in student engagement outside the classroom.
Communicating and “Connecting” with Students Collectively & Individually
Communicating relevant information to students consistently and effectively has always been challenging. Over the past three decades, I have lived this constant challenge of facilitating authentic communication that “connects” with students across my roles as coach, faculty member, athletic director, and for 20 years, senior administrator. The tools for communicating with students evolved from traditional bulletin boards, phone calls, letters and printed newsletters to the enhanced capabilities of the web, email and the more dynamic interface and broader reach these new technologies provide. About the time administrators felt they were catching up, social media exploded and consumer demand for mobile applications that provide relevant and personalized information reached higher education. Mobile applications are enabling students to communicate with higher levels of personalization and relevance. New applications are student centered and offer underlying data analytics that help inform the right messages to reach the right students at the right time. The best of these applications connect students to appropriate support services such as tutoring, research assistance, and career service support.
Similarly, advancements in technology have provided new retention CRM systems that provide a platform for faculty, staff, and administrators to collaborate in coordinating engagement with students by the right person at the right time and place throughout the student life cycle.
Building Quality Relationships with Every Student
The advancement of new student communication and retention technology solutions will not contribute to student persistence unless they facilitate contact between students and the people dedicated to building quality relationships with them.
The addition of student success coaches or advisors, who are responsible for building relationships with each student, tracked the expansion of online programs and now needs to expand further across all students and instructional delivery modalities.
The goal of supporting students in achieving their educational goals requires systemic processes for personalized and relevant communications that build quality relationships with each student. Trying to predict which students will and will not succeed has proven to limit the objective of supporting each student in attaining their educational goals. Even students with a 3.5 GPA who appear to be progressing nicely toward degree completion can make precipitous and unpredictable decisions to leave the institution without anyone in the institution knowing why before the fact. Thus, the primary objective of the student success coach or advisor role is to build a personal relationship with each student such that the student will reach out if something occurs in their academic or personal life that poses a risk to persisting toward their academic and career goals.
Engaging & Equipping Students with the Thought Patterns for Success
Recent neuroscience studies related to student persistence reaffirm the dynamics of multiple psychological frictions throughout the student life cycle. Everything gets better when we equip students with an understanding of the thought patterns that underpin persistence and success in college and elsewhere. We need to help students understand that what they are feeling is not unique to them, but is common to many who successfully completed college before them, as well as to many of their current classmates. It is also important to equip students with the thought processes necessary to change or “reset” the habits, attitudes, beliefs and expectations that may be inhibiting them from reaching their full potential. Understanding that the locus of control lies within one’s self and not with something or someone else, is a determinant of persistence and “grit,” and can be life-changing for many students.
I am concerned about another mental health issue. I see many students who are unable to maintain attention and focus. The speed at which information is presented today, and the speed at which it changes, has increased the proportion of students who cannot keep pace. Whether through increased diagnostic capabilities or an increased incidence, we are seeing more students suffering from severe anxiety, ADHD, and the common accompanying symptoms of having difficulty maintaining attention and focus on important goals and tasks. Increasingly, we will be called upon, as educators, to equip students with the skills to filter and prioritize that are required to be effective in a world of 24/7 stimulation. Providing the “mental technology” that students need to persist and succeed in college and life is an essential part of an effective student engagement model of the future.
I see merit in looking holistically at the major disruptors, both globally and within higher education, and how these disruptors are changing student engagement. I also think we benefit from self-examination of our organizational cultures, policies, and practices. Are we well served by three-year program review cycles and five year strategic plans that fail to anticipate the external environment? Are we doing business in a way that supports the rapid innovation required to meet the evolving expectations of today’s learners for personalized and relevant engagement? If not, what changes are needed and by what metrics can we judge their success?
One generalization seems certain. If our policy and practices were working well a decade ago, they may not be suited for the coming decade. Narrowing the gap between the accelerating pace of change in the world around us and the time it takes us to adapt our organizations to these changes is likely one of the most significant challenges facing institutions of higher education.