Saturday, June 19, 2010

Instigators of Academic Student Engagement

By Susan Codone

Engaged StudentIf you are a typical professor, you probably try different pedagogical techniques to try and activate and maintain student engagement.  Engagement is known by many descriptors.  This article focuses on academic student engagement -- that state of being that students reach when they are fully involved in an  academic task, rather than student engagement outside the classroom, as often talked about by college administrators and measured by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).
Let’s be clear; we’ve all seen engagement, and  we know it when we see it.  Anyone who has watched a teenager play videogames or a college student post a new status to Facebook has seen some indicators of engagement – total attention, a suspension of time, an immersion into the event.  For professors, the difficulty lies in getting those students who are so easily engaged in other environments to engage in the classroom.

Some see engagement as the integration of intense pedagogical techniques designed to coach students to lose themselves in a task.  Some writers link student engagement directly to active learning, like Jo Williams and Susan Chinn, writing in 2009 in the Journal of Information Systems Education.  In their article, Using Web 2.0 to Support the Active Learning Experience, these authors say that teachers are paying more attention to the crucial relationship between engagement and active learning in the classroom and are rolling out a variety of pedagogical methods, including technology, to stimulate engagement. 

There are so many definitions and descriptors of student engagement that it would be difficult to catalog them all.  The graphic on the right lists descriptors pulled from multiple sources that describe academic student engagement.

To cut through those descriptors, focus instead on three major instigators of student engagement that appear ubiquitously in the literature:  intense pedagogical techniques, deep learning, and social media and networking technologies.

Intense Pedagogical Techniques

Chen, Lattuca, and Hamilton (2008) say the apex of engagement is full and unbroken immersion in demanding activities.  What kind of activities cause such immersion?  Many professors rely on active learning and other cognitive techniques to spur students into engaging with course content.  Techniques such as reading, writing, discussing, metacognition, solving problems, systems thinking, constructivist thought, meaning-making, engaging in higher order thinking, and working in Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development all can influence engagement.

Engaged Brain
But by themselves, not one of these pedagogical techniques instigates engagement automatically.  There must be a mental toggle into a state of immersion, and acceptance on the part of the student to think differently about the content.  Colin Bryson and Len Hand, in their article The Role of Engagement in Inspiring Teaching and Learning (2007) in Innovations in Education and Teaching International, say that the perception of the student regarding the teacher and the content is a precursor to any form of engagement.  They also say that a positive disposition in the teacher makes an enormous difference in students' ability to engage.

Higher order thinking, deep information processing,  active learning,  proximal development, systems thinking, constructivist thought, meaning-making and other cognitive factors are all important in getting students engaged – but ultimately, students must agree to buy into the academic task in order to become engaged.  How else can we get them to do that?

Deep Learning With Technology and Social Media

One way is to use the drawing power of technology to pull students in and make them lose themselves in the learning process.  Van B. Weigel, in his book Deep Learning for a Digital Age: Technology’s Untapped Potential to Enrich Higher Education, makes a push for a radical infusion of technology into the classroom.  Written in 2001, Weigel’s book predates such tools as sophisticated learning management systems (LMS's), easily-created websites, and social knowledge and social media.  His argument, though, is that technology can be used to create communities of inquiry in which conditionalized knowledge and metacognition can develop – which is his definition of deep learning, and thus, engagement.

Building on Weigel, the website Learning and Teaching Info goes further to differentiate deep learning from surface learning, describing deep learning as

  •          linking prior knowledge to new knowledge
  •          focusing on significance
  •      relating information across courses
  •          relating theory to everyday experiences
  •          organizing and structuring content
  •          emphasizing the internal learner
But again, like pedagogical techniques, these deep learning strategies will only encourage “deep learning” or student engagement if the student accepts the task and builds internal motivation to accept it. Is deep learning a precursor to engagement, or a result of engagement?  Or both?  How else can technology be used to engage students?

Social Networking Technologies

The recent phenomenon of social networking is lauded for its universal appeal, ability to draw young people in and allow them to openly display their lives, and its supreme networking service that even reminds you of your friends’ birthdays.  Are college students engaged when on FaceBook?  Miikka Salavuo, writing in the Journal of Music, Technology, and Education (2008), notes that social media is an excellent platform for learning. In Social Media as an Opportunity for Pedagogical Change in Music Education, she recommends that social networking platforms like FaceBookElggMySpace, and Ning be used as an alternate to LMS's because they offer increased participation, presence, and ownership, as well as the ability for students to use the expertise of others, create lasting connections, and network widely.  For example, Sarah Palin's Facebook page is noted as an example of a social media content repository; using the FaceBook Notes feature, Palin writes political articles and posts them on her page for her Facebook fans.  In the same way, professors could generate written course content and use Facebook Notes to post this content for students to read  and comment on -- while they're already in Facebook perusing other pages.

social networking

Then, of course, there is the excellent means of social networking provided by FaceBook and other applications that can allow students and professors to create online communities of practice, with regular dialogue, posted material, and other media such as video and photographs.  While the technology and tools recommended in Weigel's Deep Learning will likely continue to change regularly, the era of social media is on us, and will evolve but probably not be totally replaced. The evidence is in; we know that students can become engaged using technology like social media applications; why not use it in and outside of the classroom?

In a June 14, 2010 email correspondence with Dr. David Jonassen, Distinguished Professor of Education, Director for the Center for the Study of Problem Solving, and eminent cognitive science researcher at the University of Missouri Columbia, he responded to these questions.

"What happens cognitively when students engage in the classroom? What are the indicators? What are the precedents?"

His answer:

"That’s a complex question. Neurologically, the cerebral cortex lights up, especially the caudate nucleus. Motivationally, students engage and persist on task. Why do students engage? Personal relevance, necessity, curiosity, etc. There are no really valid measures. Only behavioral.

While we may indeed need more research on which neurological switch to throw to instigate engagement, in the meantime we know we have tools.  Intense pedagogical techniques, deep learning with technology, and social networking encourage students to engage.  All are complementary tools.  All can be used simultaneously or as single powerful tools.  All require professors to step out of their traditional pedagogical training and teach differently.  All, ultimately, depend on the student's intrinsic motivation for success.  Finally, all can encourage engagement, making it less elusive and much closer to reality in our classrooms.

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