Thursday, March 18, 2010

Student Engagement: Does Success Require Faliure?

In the 2009-2010 academic year we agreed that all entering students would have a mentor assigned to them. The mentor would be one of the student's learning community faculty members if the student was in a fall learning community. If not, the mentor would be an administrator. The entire senior administrative staff (including the President and Provost) participated as mentors--each assigned to 3 to 5 students.

The school year is mostly over, and reports are rolling in from the administrative mentors. Almost universally there have been frustrated by the failure of their efforts. Many students never responded to contacts from their mentors. Of those who did, only a few stayed engaged for more than a single meeting.

This result, and a decline in our scores on the NSSE "faculty/student interaction" index even while we are trying to increase it has led to some anguish on campus. These events have gotten me thinking that a campus trying to create a system that encourages all students to be engaged will necessarily have more and more failed interactions between faculty (and staff) and students.

Here is my thinking: engaging students depends on three things: offering a wide range of engagement opportunities, getting all students to participate in at least some of them, and ensuring that of the things individual students engage in, at least one of them turns out to actually engage the student (which in turn depends on a student knowing what they find engaging).

The paradoxical result of these requirements is that a good system of engagement--one that stands a real likelihood of engaging nearly all students--will be home to lots of failed interactions. The Center for Civic Engagement, for example, might host many service opportunities, but each opportunity will only attract a few students, of whom even fewer will stay engaged. We will work feverishly to connect mentors with students--but most of those efforts won't succeed because most students won't find meaningful connections with most mentors. We will let students form dozens of clubs, but only a few will flourish while most will limp along with a handful of participants, offering events that attract only a few students.

So, lots of failure, but the overall result at the level of individual students will be a system that is likely to engage them in one way or another.

There are two (at least) big implications of this fact: 1. anyone involved in engaging students will have to spend a lot of time managing frustrated "engagers"--those people whose efforts are rebuffed by students, and 2. any effort to assess engagement has to look at the system as a whole (is the system likely to offer engagement opportunities that will appeal to nearly all of the students who choose our campus?), and students as individuals (do most students find something--anything--that engages them?). Only after assessment at these levels does it make sense to assess at the program level.

1 comment:

Peter Ingle said...

I have to wonder whether how "engagement" is defined by older academics is part of the problem.

I know my son finds playing games online to be engaging. He is not interacting with people face to face and from his stand point he is not learning. Yet he is mostly certainly engaged.

If we measure engagement by how many things students go to on campus or the result of their opinions about the state of the activities on campus we might actually be measuring engagement based on the beliefs of academics and not the people we want engaged.