Thursday, September 24, 2015

An Engaged Thirsty

As Frankie pointed out in a recent comment, the answer to every higher ed problem these days is increasing student engagement.  Textbook publishers (oh; excuse me; learning system providers) tout the ability of their products to increase engagement; administrators offer workshops on the subject; buzzword-hip faculty either lament or tout their students' lack of engagement or their magic formula for increasing same.  However, like many buzzwords, this one is sorta vague.  So, I'm wondering:

Q: If and when you use the word, what do you mean by "student engagement"? What do you think your colleagues, administrators, and/or course package providers mean by it? 

If you're so inclined, we could dig deeper: Where did this use of the word come from, anyway? I'm guessing the National Survey of Student Engagement (b. 1998), but even a quick perusal of their site suggests that, like many quantifiable metrics, theirs has been boiled down -- or perhaps diluted is the better metaphor -- to the point where little of the original meaning and purpose is left (in fact, one might argue that many of the marketed solutions offer, at best, a homeopathic dose of the activity that might result in actual engagement).  Are there other, more descriptive, terms with which we used to describe what we now lump under the engagement catchall?

Or we could just wander off in whatever direction suits us: satirical, profane, scatological, and/or off-topic answers are, as usual, welcome; it is, after all, Thursday, the semester is well underway for most of us, the autumn equinox (Hi, Frod!) is past, dark is falling fast, and we are, understandably, thirsty. 


  1. I like this guy's take on the satisfaction-related surveys:

    After a recent (very gloomy) chat with colleagues about program direction, I think the consensus was the following:

    There is some good work on the topic, i.e.

    However, it's mostly bad, with overlapping terminology that has not too much to do with teaching.

    We collectively thought that "student success", "student engagement", and "student satisfaction" were all terms we don't want any non-teaching staff dealing with. For our own internal use, we came up with:
    success = arbitrary measures calculated by the institution, such as graduation rates.
    engagement = relevant to the classroom, but not beyond.
    satisfaction = includes point of graduation reflection / post-graduation thoughts about the program (i.e. extends into the future in a way that engagement cannot).

    Much of our most useful feedback comes from people a few years after they've graduated, so we can live with the term "satisfaction" but not really with "success".

    Finally, we couldn't locate anything at the peer review level that could show treating students as customers had any merit.

    Great topic, CC, even if it's one that makes me cranky.

  2. Maybe not totally unrelated was this job listing posted in today's Chronicle of Higher Ed:

    We are accepting applications for qualified individuals to become a Mystery Shopper

    1. You will receive funds for the assignment.
    2. You will receive instructions for your assignment via email on the location
    and details of the task.
    3. You to complete the task quickly and quietly.
    4. You will be asked to visit the business location for doing business be it
    restaurants, shopping stores etc.

    You will receive a flat amount of $ 150 per assignment.
    The company will provide you with all the costs necessary for the assignment
    and any other costs incurred during the performance of your duties.

    your first step should be to fill your personal data like the example below:.

    It's very exciting and hopefully will be successful. There is no fee to become a shopper and You do not need previous experience and you'll get paid $ 150 for each task performed.

    We look forward to working with you.Send your interests via email to

  3. Engagement (instructor) - students conscious, aware, (marginally) interested in the content
    Engagement (school) - happy students
    Engagement (me) - the crucial facet of the job I have lost pretty much all interest in.

    CC -
    I have taken a break from CM for awhile because while I surely appreciated the camaraderie, the double edge sword also cut deeply with the realization of just how all-out fucked this system is and likely will always be.

    There was a viral photo recently of a check for a donation to his child's school that a father wrote using "Common Core math." As many educators pointed out, the wasn't CC math that was used, as CC only represents general standards, but a problem solving METHOD. Seeing this reminded my of my own education and later career, where I have seen so many methods come and go, all supposedly presented to solve a problem I'm never sure actually existed - yup - student engagement.

    Fast forward to today - I am toiling as "associate faculty" (the for-profit edu-machine doesn't use the word "adjunct) where the crisis du jour is solving the problem of doctoral students (DOCTORAL!) who cannot complete their programs. A recent workshop ostensibly to help faculty better mentor said students pointed out that many reach the dissertation stage without fully understanding what that entails. Only a couple people had the chuzpah to actually ask: "How could ANY student complete 2 - 3 years of doctoral coursework - including sequences on methodology and structuring an investigation - but arrive at dissertation not knowing what one is or requires?"

    Of course the TTCBM (truth that cannot be mentioned), it probably has something to do with the wide open door admissions policy and the retention at all costs mentality.

    This leads to yet another TTCBM -

    Engagement (school) - students who believe that paying entitles them to a degree so they keep paying.

  4. When I say engagement, I mean that the student is "on task." They are not surfing the web, checking messages on their phone, or copying notes from a class they missed. In other words, they are not doing anything thing that they want to do, but doing things that the rest of the class is doing. I can't force a student to learn, but I can at least try to keep their attention. I don't know what the administration means by engagement; I am too scared to find out.

  5. According to this study from UGA , student behavior is a stronger predictor of engagement than institution. Just as graduation rate and post-graduation salary are mostly a function of student characteristics.

    But that doesn't stop politicians and the public from holding universities responsible for these things.

    And then college presidents are not going to say, "look, guys, these are individuals we're talking about here. Once they're eighteen, we honestly can't do that much to change them. Take Harvard's entering class, lock 'em in a box for four years, and their life outcomes will be just as good."

    No, no one's going to say that. It's much easier to hold the faculty responsible.

    1. As long as there are airholes in the box and a slot for pizza delivery. Pretty sure Harvard-calibre corpses don't have much greater economic activity than SucksToBeU-calibre ones...

  6. My previous institution took NSSE seriously, and it drove me a bit up a wall. The presumptions and assumptions involved in connecting techniques with engagement and engagement with success are many and varied, and it has to be seen as a complex relationship: NSSE, on the other hand, says "Students say X made them feel engaged, so you should be doing more X, and if you're not doing X then we'll score your engagement lower."

    Circular, too.

  7. Inside the classroom, I say "students were engaged" when I evaluate a TT or adjunct's teaching and most of the students appear to be paying attention rather than having checked out mentally. Some students are depressed or substance-impaired or exhausted by their toddlers and jobs. But if the majority of students are not "engaged," then I think the faculty member is not doing the job right.

    I teach science at a community college and see a lot of faculty influence in student engagement: in their choices of visuals and handouts, examples, and style of speaking; in their use of eye contact (or not); and in their general demeanor of appearing interested, nay passionately curious, about the content. Classroom management also plays a role: does the faculty member make an effort to learn student names (depending on class size)? To patrol and enforce classroom policies about cell phone and laptop use? To wake up sleeping students? To tell students who are studying for other classes to put those materials away?

    Outside the classroom, I take "student engagement" to mean "participation in the life of the academy" as locally defined. Do students show up for class, do the work and then take off for their jobs? That's minimal engagement, and that's all we can ask for when students don't have rich parents or scholarships. Do they join clubs or teams; attend games, performances, or special lectures; run for positions in student government; circulate petitions; stage sit-ins; participate in optional field trips? That kind of engagement, I think, is correlated with "student success" as defined by grades and earned degrees, but correlation, of course, is not causation.

  8. I say students are engaged when they act the way college students as little as one generation ago were expected to act: like students, who want to learn what’s being taught, and are willing to show initiative and to do significant work to get this knowledge.

    Disengaged students are people who act like the ones described by Peter Sacks in his 1996 book, “Generation X Goes to College,” or by Henry Bauer in his 1997 essay, “The New Generations: Students Who Don’t Study.” Bauer characterizes them quite well thusly:

    "1. An increasing number of college students do not study seriously.

    "2. Their attitude is increasingly a “Gimme!” one: they expect good grades without working for them.

    "3. The students expect to be respected even as they offer their instructors little respect."

    I often call student like this “modern students.” As Bauer acknowledged, not all student are like this: I still get students for whom “it is a true pleasure to have in class.”

    Significantly also, Bauer noted in 1997 that:

    "4. With the rarest exceptions, educational administrators and leading spokespeople have
    not acknowledged these circumstances."

    That university administrators were seemingly oblivious of student disengagement, and often refused to acknowledge it existed when pressed, was also noted several times by Sacks in his 1996 book. Here at Fresno State, this aspect of the problem changed in 2004, when our Provost acknowledged student disengagement in an e-mail message to the entire faculty. What to do about it has been a topic of lively conversation among faculty and university administrators ever since.

    (I do feel lucky today, by the way: I managed to get through this Autumnal Equinox without any news reporters asking me about it. This is more common during the Vernal Equinox, though. In recent years, I have taken to hiding during the Vernal Equinox, since a TV audience can’t understand the concept. This is because it can’t be explained to them in the time allowed by their limited attention span. TV news people don’t want to hear that.)

  9. jesus h christ on goddamned mother-fucking cracker.

    When I was in college, some of the students actually got engaged to the proffies. Then, of course, then got married. That was engagement.

    1. I think the question on everyone's mind (then and now) is in what order did going to bed together and getting engaged occur? Enquiring (not to say prurient) minds want to know.

    2. People didn't talk of such things. Not in public, anyway.

    3. "like students, who want to learn what’s being taught, and are willing to show initiative and to do significant work to get this knowledge."

      Ah. In my world, that's not "engagement"; that's the academic equivalent of a letter to Penthouse. Something to wish actually ever happened in real life.

    4. Proffie: Now you know why I was so profoundly dispirited when recently attending a conference at Caltech. Every last one of their students has more talent in their little fingers than even the best of mine do in their entire bodies, and if there is any gift the gods give out to mortals unequally, it is scientific productivity. It is easy for me to imagine every Caltech graduate publishing more scientific papers (that get cited more) in a single year than all of mine do in their entire lives---which is easy when the number is zero.

  10. I just mentally re-edit:
    "Students are engaged with X"
    "Students give a shit about X for it's own sake"

    Needless to say, I don't use the word very much myself.

    1. That would be my aspirational definition, too. But I'll settle for student willing to give the material an honest effort because they trust that I have a reason for including it in the course.

  11. Way up in the comments, Cindy brought up her apprehension as to "what the administration means by engagement". Maybe I have some insight. Things "mean" what they are defined to be, in the literal sense, but people often speak of "meaning" in terms of implications and consequences.

    A story. I am on the roof, fixing a hole where the rain gets in, and Spouse Hep yells up to me that Daughter Hep "has a flat". With a sense of foreboding, I ask, what does that mean? For I am considering these possibilities:

    It means one of her car's tires has suffered a loss of air pressure, thereby allowing its erstwhile round shape to include a substantially non-round part.

    It means she has leased accommodations of one to several rooms most likely on a single level of a building in or near the city where she recently landed an internship.

    It means she will be a bit late getting home today, because a repair must be effected.

    It means she is never returning home to stay, and that her room will become for a while a shrine to its former full-time occupant until we finally acknowledge that it has really been a guest room for several years.

    Now to administration's "meaning" of "engagement". It means anything they want it to mean, even if they can't tell you specifically.

    Engagement is shiny and desirable and elusive. Increasing engagement is why administration is placing more stairclimbing machines in the fitness center. (I have my own stairclimbing ritual: it's faster than taking the shitty Donorbux Building elevator to my 7th-floor office.)

    You have to think big with engagement. If you ask to include something new in the budget, administration will ask how it will affect student engagement. If you can't show that it will result in 100% engagement, you are not thinking big enough, and you're not getting it.

    Engagement is something that can always be improved, and even if your students have become more engaged since last review, since you haven't achieved 100% improvement administration is justified in keeping your salary in the left tail of the region's bell curve. (Jonathan Dresner touched on something related.)

    OK, I thought I had more, but I'm done for now.

    1. Engagement can indeed be used as a club to bludgeon the faculty, but then some administrators can seemingly use anything as a club to bludgeon the faculty.