Making Student Engagement Official

Robert Morris University has created a new dean position -- one exclusively in charge of promoting student engagement.
July 23, 2009

As more and more evidence makes the case for "engaging" students -- that is, involving them deeply in the process of learning -- colleges continue trying to determine how to do just that. For its part, Robert Morris University may be the first to have a dean dedicated exclusively to the idea.

Last month, Shari Payne became the first dean of engaged learning of the 5,000-student private university, located in Pittsburgh. Previously, as director of academic operations, she oversaw the pilot phase of the Student Engagement Transcript -- a program that tracks and certifies a student's participation in faculty-sponsored extracurricular and co-curricular activities. Activities must fall in one of seven areas: arts, culture and creativity; "transcultural/global" experiences, which include studying abroad; research; community service; leadership; professional experience; and independent study projects. Starting in the fall, the university will require incoming freshmen to demonstrate participation in at least two of the seven categories to graduate, on top of completing traditional requirements based on majors.

Surveys conducted by the university found that the majority of students would easily meet the requirement, based on their ongoing or previous participation in activities, said David Jamison, senior vice president for academic affairs. The program is intended to be flexible. For example, adult learners majoring in information systems can fulfill the professional experience requirement by doing internships, Jamison said.

As dean of engaged learning, Payne said her main duty is to make the now-mandatory program as efficient as possible by coordinating between all the de-centralized offices involved and approving new activities that fulfill the requirements. Whereas the dean of student life focuses primarily on student clubs, she will take a broader focus, including academic departments. The document is partly geared toward future employers, serving as proof of a student's involvement in campus life and complementing his or her academic transcript.

"The other thing it also does is, by definition, encourage students to participate in some of these activities," Payne said. "Students like to have well-rounded backgrounds and be involved. The engagement transcript encourages them to look at the broad spectrum of categories."

Last year, a report from the National Survey of Student Engagement -- which provides comparative data on student experiences at four-year institutions -- found that engagement techniques are on the rise in the classrooms, suggesting that engaged students perform well. Nearly two-thirds of freshmen and three-fourths of seniors at least sometimes discussed ideas from their readings or classes with faculty outside of class, it reported, and writing frequently is "positively related" to active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction and students' gains in learning and development.

Survey director Alexander McCormick said he had never heard of a dean dedicated exclusively to "engagement" before. The new position at Robert Morris University seems to be a step in the right direction, he said, but there's also a danger that the buzzword will get fuzzier.

"On the plus side, we're seeing student engagement be formally recognized and legitimated, incorporated into institutional structures like this," McCormick said. "But the potential downside is that the concept itself maybe gets diluted as you have a lot of different institutions developing their own local definition of what it means." For instance, some might define "engagement" in terms of academics, while others might define it in terms of non-classroom-related activities.

Terrel Rhodes, vice president for quality, curriculum and assessment for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said that while many campuses require their students to perform community service, it's unusual to make "engagement" a graduation requirement and to establish a dean to enforce it, though he liked the idea of having a dean in place.

"The evidence is suggesting that for students who take their learning and have to engage and apply it in real world settings... their learning is deepened and enriched," he said, adding, "Employers are saying we want to see that students can take learning and engage with it in these kinds of settings to use it and apply it."

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