Students' 'Episodic' Engagement

January 22, 2010

WASHINGTON -- Jim comes to college with big academic ambitions, struggles with his grades as he balances course work with basketball and a social life, but emerges having found a career path that flows from his interest in sports.

Yasmin, a high school overachiever like many of her peers of South Asian descent, gets A's and B's but feels like her grades aren't good, values social relationships over her mostly "boring" courses, and seems to relish her academic work only at the point (in her junior year) when she sees it as linked to her to her personal and family life.

Oma, a Southerner with family in Africa, enters college with the weakest academic credentials of the three and gets the worst grades of the three once there. But she is captivated by an African history course she takes as a freshman; does summer field work that meshes her interests in history and music; and leaves college seemingly on a path to do graduate studies.

These students, three among the scores of Northeastern liberal arts college students that are part of a study by the New England Consortium on Assessment and Student Learning, offer greatly varying portraits of how students "engage" with their academic work and what happens to them as a result.

The unsurprising fact that students are very different from one another, and the slightly less expected reality that any individual student can be significantly more or less engaged at various points in his or her academic career, suggest the need for a far more nuanced understanding of the "student engagement" theory of learning than has sometimes been the case, several researchers involved with the consortium said at a presentation Thursday at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities here.

"Assessing the effect of engagement is messy -- and much more complicated than we've thought it was," said Suzanne Lovett, associate professor of psychology at Bowdoin College, who presented with her Bowdoin colleague Nancy Jennings and Lee Cuba, professor of sociology at Wellesley College. That is particularly true, they said, when it comes to the question of whether academically "engaged" students have higher grades than others -- a generalized conclusion of most engagement studies, but one that's not as clear-cut as it seems.

It's not that the three researchers or their colleagues from the consortium's other members (Bates, Colby, Middlebury, Smith, and Trinity Colleges) doubt that student engagement matters; unlike some recent critics of the National Survey of Student Engagement, who question its scientific validity, they believe that such surveys can give colleges helpful, broad data to help them assess how effective their large-scale educational practices are.

But by focusing at the institutional level and looking at individual students at a single point in time, rather than over time, much of the existing research on engagement may fail to capture the extent to which an individual student's connection to and immersion in his or her academic work can ebb and flow, among other limitations. The consortium's project combines quantitative surveys with interviews (many done by student peers) throughout a student's college career.

The researchers' presentation Thursday delved deeply into the representative cases of the three students whose college careers are (oversimplistically) described above, checking in with them multiple times each year (even, via Skype, when they studied abroad, as two of the three did) about their academic, social and other experiences (a sample of the sophomore year questionnaire is here).

The in-depth interviews reveal when students are focusing on their academic work ("It’s just interesting, and again, I could just apply everything I learned to the real world and that’s what I did, and it will definitely help me in the future,” Jim says of why he's liking sociology courses in the fall of his junior year) and when they're not, as Yasmin admitted near the end of her sophomore year: “I wish I was a little bit more academically charged and motivated. In high school I was ridiculous. I couldn’t, I couldn’t bear being second. I always had to get the top grade. I was ridiculous. If I had met myself back then I would have been like, ‘God, this girl needs to get a life.’ So now I’m kind of like just always partying and chilling, and I need to snap out of it, and I don’t know how to because my GPA is not that hot, and I know I can do better, but I just can’t find the motivation. So I need to find a major and I need to find the motivation.”

They reflect, in very specific ways, when exposure to professors has lit a fire under students ("I’ve just learned so much from it," Oma says of her first African history course. "Over one semester, I’ve just learned too much. Like a lot of information that I find very interesting. And I love the professor. I like how he teaches and like every morning I’m just ready to go to that class.“) and when pressure from parents has nudged students toward one curricular choice over another (as it did with Yasmin).

Summing up findings from a research effort that has a primary goal of showing how individualized and ever-changing student "engagement" is predictably challenging, as the researchers were quick to note. But one of their primary (preliminary) recommendations is that precisely because engagement is dynamic rather than static, college officials trying to measure the impact of engagement on student performance should consider changing the unit of measurement from overall grade point average to performance in an academic term, or even a single course.

The study suggests a "complex," and unclear, relationship between engagement and student grades, the researchers say. "Some students need to achieve a certain level of grades before they feel engaged," said Lovett, while for other students, there appeared to be little or no connection between how enmeshed they felt in their work and their grades in those courses.

Yasmin had the best grades but was clearly the least engaged, said Jennings, while Oma "had a modest GPA but was one of those exceptionally engaged students." For Oma, as with some of the others, she gets most immersed in those courses in which she has a personal interest (Oma actually talked her way, as a freshman, into the upper level courses that sparked her interest by attending a speech given by the instructor). And while her love of history does not result in better grades in history courses, neither does her GPA (about 3.0, overall) get in the way of her academic pursuits. "We watched for some evidence that her grades might become an issue, but at this point she hasn't let C grades [in some history courses] derail her interest in history," Jennings said.

The interplay between personal lives and academic engagement is equally complicated, the researchers find. For Jim and Yasmin, the two seem to compete. “Grades are important, but I know that if I get really, really good grades that will only keep me happy for like two days right after I get them," Yasmin said. "If I have like a really good semester in terms of my social life I’ll be much happier in the long run…. I know that’s really sad that everything I do should be driven by you know, how I’m interacting with my friends and if I’m having a good relationship and if my parents are happy. But like truly, that is what is most important to me… So yeah. Good grades would be awesome but they’re definitely not the most important thing.”

For Oma, meanwhile, finding her way academically (in terms of satisfaction and interest in her course work) helps ground her socially and personally in a way that had not previously happened for her. She hated the cold at the Northeast college and struggled to find her way at the predominantly white institution. But by the end of her sophomore year, her academic satisfaction has provided an anchor, and it alters her view. “I couldn’t have chosen a better place, honestly. I mean it doesn’t make it perfect. There are a lot of challenges for me -- there are a lot of challenges for a lot of students. But academics balances out all of those things and it’s just a great school.”

In the question and answer session that followed the presentation, an audience member posited that engagement may have more to do with students' expectations for how they will perform academically than with their actual grades. Yasmin came in with strong credentials and high expectations, and when she underperformed academically, she played down the importance of academic engagement.

While Oma's grades were lower, she performed better in college than her weaker credentials and her own lower expectations might have suggested, and found joy in her course work that, as the researchers discussed her, brought Jennings to the brink of tears.

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