Student Engagement: Does It Always Improve Learning?

The question in the title can be considered in light of an interesting case study reported by a sociologist who teaches at a comprehensive university in Wisconsin. As a new faculty member without much teaching experience, he reports, “I was disappointed with the level of engagement in previous semester-long student research projects. ... A lack of excitement and engagement seemed to correlate with students' difficulty synthesizing their learning into a coherent whole and articulating sociological arguments in final papers about their cases.” (p. 208) Many of us can relate. Frequently students don't pull it all together on a comprehensive exam or final paper assignment. We are disappointed in what it appears they have not learned.

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The question in the title can be considered in light of an interesting case study reported by a sociologist who teaches at a comprehensive university in Wisconsin. As a new faculty member without much teaching experience, he reports, “I was disappointed with the level of engagement in previous semester-long student research projects. ... A lack of excitement and engagement seemed to correlate with students' difficulty synthesizing their learning into a coherent whole and articulating sociological arguments in final papers about their cases.” (p. 208) Many of us can relate. Frequently students don't pull it all together on a comprehensive exam or final paper assignment. We are disappointed in what it appears they have not learned. But this article's story is a hopeful one. It recounts how this faculty member went about changing students' learning experiences in the course. He decided that rather than having students work on individual cases (which were the topics of those disappointing final papers), he would have the class work collectively on one case, a case based in the local community. His students studied the social and environmental impacts of the largest confined animal feeding operation in Wisconsin. They toured smaller farms and the big facility where 8,000 dairy cows were confined. They conducted participant observations and in-depth, semistructured interviews, with each group of students focusing on a different element of local life affected by this large agricultural facility. To ascertain changes in the levels of engagement, student participation in in-class discussions, presentations, final papers, and entries in a journaling exercise were compared with student engagement in these activities in previous sections of the course. And students were more engaged than they had been previously. Moreover, 17 out of 18 of them reported that the project engaged them more than projects in their other upper-division sociology courses did. “This engagement, however, did not necessarily lead to deeper understanding, as many struggled to pull it together in the final paper.” (p. 209) So, responding to the title, in this case increased engagement did not lead to improvement in learning outcomes. Or did it? To try to understand why engagement with the new project didn't improve learning, the faculty author had a colleague convene a focus group with average performers in the course (students who earned grades in the low-C to low-B range, about a quarter of the class). A recording of the 90-minute discussion revealed that students had much to say about the course now completed several months earlier. “These students ... seemed to have increased significantly their understanding of rural sociological issues and concepts, for they could still explain key issues from the semester-long case study and use sociological concepts in doing so.” (p. 210) Apparently the design of the final paper project was not allowing students to demonstrate what they had in fact learned. At the suggestion of a colleague, the author decided to give students more options for that final assignment. In addition to two smaller papers and a group debate, students created a nonpaper artifact that demonstrated what they believed were the key learning outcomes from the course. The article contains examples of what students did for the project. It's the author's overall summary that is salient here. “Most students met my expectations for engagement with the project and were able to demonstrate understanding of sociological issues and concepts that their projects brought to light through the artifacts themselves and through explanations to peers, other faculty and me.” (p. 212) From this experience the author extrapolates three lessons. First, getting students engaged and involved with a project doesn't automatically improve the learning that they demonstrate on course assignments. No learning occurs without engagement, but ways of ascertaining learning must be aligned with the kind of learning that is occurring. Second, as instructor, you don't find out any of this without being an engaged teacher who adopts the inquiry approaches of a reflective learner. You have to face the disappointment of students not learning to the desired level, not automatically blame them but honesty ask why, and then pursue answers to that question, all of which dovetail nicely with the third lesson: “Successful adjustments and innovations in teaching do not happen in a vacuum. We need to be proactive in our own learning.” (p. 214) In this case, that meant tracking down clear definitions of engagement and exploring the relationship between what students were learning and how they demonstrated that knowledge. And these inquiries were not pursued in isolation. “Without the constructive criticism and valuable ideas from colleagues, my teaching and learning journey of the past several years may have been interesting, but it certainly would not have been transformative.” (p. 212) Reference: Van Auken, P. (2013). “Maybe it's both of us: Engagement and learning.” Teaching Sociology, 4 (2), 207–215.