Engaging Learners…

Mobile Learning

Uploaded to Flickr on August 17, 2006 by In Veritas Lux

A week or so ago, I listened to George Kuh speak about NSSE data, student engagement and what to do about improving it.  We heard about ”high impact” educational practices like learning communities,  collaborative assignments, undergraduate research, community service and experiential learning. These are all good things and we know students are more engaged in the kind learning activities that connect their studies with their lives outside of the classroom.

And yet, there was very little discussion about what we do as members of the university community to help students articulate, form and re-form their goals.  It seems to me that this is pretty central to being engaged.  And it’s a process that doesn’t begin and end in college or university – but, in supporting students, maybe we have an obligation to help them think consciously and critically about their education and how they might make it work for them.   I think that’s what was eating at me throughout the session.  Who defines success? How will students be truly engaged in their educational experience if they are not sure why they are there in the first place?  What can their institutional experience offer them and what do they need to find out there in the big wide world, on their own and with others?

I looked at the NSSE questions as they were delivered at my institution and I didn’t see one that directly asked students about their goals. There was something related to the university’s role in “helping you understand yourself” , but I don’t think this is the same thing.

UBC doesn’t fair so well when it comes to student experience with some of the learning experiences that George Kuh and others define as “high impact”:
•    Only 9% of first year students participate in community or service projects as part of their courses. 71% never take part in such activities.
•    By their senior year, only 21% of students have done research with a faculty member.
•    Only 16% of students participate in a learning community (where they are taking more than one class with the same group of students).
•    37% never talk with faculty members about career plans.
•    Only 33% of first year students work collaboratively with other students in class.

There was some support for the idea that one way to improve student engagement in “high-impact” activities is to ensure they get credit for it – so that it is not an “additional time burden” for students but that it becomes part of the requirements for a degree.  However, as one student so articulately replied, “slapping an extrinsic reward on something that should be intrinsically motivated is a questionable idea.” And, I think he hit the nail on the head.

So much of what drives the activity of the “academy” is about extrinsic motivations (grades, money, institutional ratings). Maybe we’ve forgotten how to do “instrinsic”. Maybe it takes too much time to help learners find their own learning paths, to examine their motivations and goals related to learning (broadly) and consider what part their university experiences play in helping them to meet those goals. Maybe we don’t consider this kind of intentional activity as valuable (or as valuable as learning “content”). Maybe we’ve decided that we are the experts, after all, and we should tell students what they need to learn – not the other way around.  I can’t help but thinking that (if this is the direction we are moving) we may be going in the opposite direction of real engagement.

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