What Is Student Engagement in Learning?

Credit: iStock.com/Laurence Dutton
Credit: iStock.com/Laurence Dutton
Pete Burkholder recently published an interesting article in this newsletter questioning the widespread push in higher education for “engaging” student activities. He first adopts Jose Eos Trinidad et al.’s (2020) definition of engagement as “enjoyment” and then notes that student enjoyment does not automatically mean student learning. Students might enjoy an activity but not learn much from it. Thus, he cautions readers not to develop student activities on the assumption that because students enjoy them they must therefore be learning.

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Pete Burkholder recently published an interesting article in this newsletter questioning the widespread push in higher education for “engaging” student activities. He first adopts Jose Eos Trinidad et al.’s (2020) definition of engagement as “enjoyment” and then notes that student enjoyment does not automatically mean student learning. Students might enjoy an activity but not learn much from it. Thus, he cautions readers not to develop student activities on the assumption that because students enjoy them they must therefore be learning.

Burkholder is right that student enjoyment does not necessarily equate with student learning. This is an important lesson, and I have fallen into the trap of equating enjoyment with learning. But the deeper issue concerns the definition of “engagement.” The word is thrown around teaching conferences and publications as if its meaning were apparent to everyone, but is it?

Burkholder and Trinidad settle on “enjoyment” as the meaning of “engagement,” but that is not the only possible definition, and not even the most common. We most often use “engagement” to mean “connection to.” I might say, “The hitch needs to be engaged before moving the truck,” or “We have engaged the enemy,” or “He’s engaged in proving the theorem.”

It is this sense of being mentally connected to a task or concept that is, or should be, the real meaning of engagement in an academic context. This is because engagement is necessary to learning. Our working memory, the one we use in an immediate task such as listening to a lecture or reading an article, can hold only a small number of ideas at once, generally thought to be around four (Oakley & Sejnowski, n.d.). But this memory lasts only as long as the task. It is a bit like the memory in a computer’s RAM, which goes away when the computer is turned off.

To retain the information, we need to move it to our long-term memory, which can be likened to a computer’s hard drive. That requires thinking about the topics in our working memory. This focus creates the neural connections in the brain that constitute knowledge.

That is why it is important to break up any learning module such as a lecture or online activity with periodic activities that ask students to reflect on what they have heard or seen. That can be as simple as dropping questions into a video every five or 10 minutes or using audience response systems to ask students questions during a lecture. These activities engage students’ minds on the topics being examined in order to generate retention, which is necessary for learning.

Once we understand this principle, we can design learning activities that produce student engagement. Burkholder uses the example of a digital storytelling activity that he employed in his class a few years ago. Students enjoyed the activity, but it ultimately did not adequately serve his learning goals. He makes it clear that he is not against digital storytelling per se, and he never says that it did not produce any learning at all. The issue was more a cost-benefit analysis—that the amount of learning the activity produced did not justify the time and effort the activity required. His point is that we can’t allow the enjoyment students get out of an activity supersede what they learn from it.

Again, he is indisputably right about this, and I agree that discussions of student engagement often seem to use the term to mean “enjoyment.” But there are other ways we can define engagement, and “mental focus” better captures what we mean when we use the term in reference to our students.

Using the digital storytelling example, the activity’s value is that it forces students to seek out and illuminate an underlying theme in discrete facts or events. For instance, Michael Forster Rothbart uses images of Chernobyl and narration to communicate the devastation, which persists today, that the event brought about. We might think that surely the mess must have been cleaned up by now, but the digital story shows us that this is not the case. The digital storytelling format communicates this lesson intellectually and emotionally.

Students can also use digital storytelling to reflect on their own experiences. A forestry student who spends the summer as forest ranger in a national park could pull the photos she took into a story about what it means for humans to be stewards of nature. Plus, digital storytelling forces students to think about how they can communicate a message persuasively to an audience, whereas most of their academic work is aimed at communicating with only their instructor. As we live in a visual world, the ability to communicate visually and though narration is a useful skill for students to have to contribute to civil discourse on important topics. In fact, students already use social media apps, such as Snapchat and TikTok, to create short stories from their photos and videos that communicate a theme. Digital storytelling can harness this interest by teaching students how to communicate globally significant topics visually.

Of course, I am in no way anti-enjoyment when it comes to student activities, and I doubt that Burkholder is either. I think that some faculty consciously or unconsciously believe that activities that students enjoy must not yield real learning. These faculty are right in thinking that enjoyment should not be the primary justification for an activity, but it can be a happy byproduct. Jane McGonigal even argues that popular multiplayer games, such as World of Warcraft, actually teach important skills that we should be using to improve the world. Enjoyment can help motivate students to put more time and energy into a learning activity.

References

Oakley, B., & Sejnowski, T. (n.d.). Learning how to learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects [MOOC]. Coursera. https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn

Trinidad, J. E., Ngo, G. R., Nevada, A. M., & Morales, J. A. (2020). Engaging and/or effective? Students’ evaluation of pedagogical practices in higher education. College Teaching, 68(4), 161–171. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2020.1769017