Apr 22, 2019

Paying Attention to Student Engagement


Paying Attention to Student Engagement
Gary Daynes, Senior Consulting Associate

“Although people seem to be unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies…All tasks that call upon the power of attention are interesting for the same reason and to an almost equal degree.”

“Every time that a human being succeeds in making an effort of attention with the sole idea of increasing his grasp of truth, he acquires a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if his effort produces no visible fruit.”

–Simone Weil, Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God, 1942

We are deep into the second generation of higher education’s embrace of student engagement. You can judge its age by the age of its professional organizations–service-learning’s Campus Compact was founded 34 years ago; The National Resource Center on the First-Year Experience held its first conference 36 years ago; the Council on Undergraduate Research first gathered 41 years ago. The National Survey of Student Engagement began assessing the impact of these movements in 1999, before today’s first-year students were born.

You would be hard-pressed to find a college that hadn’t embraced student engagement. Most offer service-learning, undergraduate research, first-year experience courses, active learning, a vibrant co-curriculum, and staff to support these things. And you would be hard-pressed to find higher education leaders who don’t talk about the value of “engagement” both for student learning and for student well-being. Our first impulse, upon facing a challenge among our students, is to turn to a tool of student engagement.

Much of my career has been built on student engagement. I was an early adopter of service-learning, worked for a learning communities initiative, oversaw project-based learning and undergraduate research, and established a center for civic engagement and a college-wide electronic portfolio initiative. I’ve seen the ways that students’ college experiences have been deepened by participation in these things with me.

And yet, I worry that student engagement has lost its center. Here is why. At the founding of Campus Compact, CUR, NRCFYE, and NSSE, educators were responding to concerns about the students they served. Those students, by and large, came to college, lived on-campus, worked very little, and learned through lectures. They were “disengaged” and their disengagement showed itself in poor learning outcomes and in distance from the wider world. The adoption of student engagement activities, then, was a move to connect students with each other, their faculty, their disciplines, and the wider community.

Today, students have changed and the forms of engagement have multiplied. Few college students are isolated and insular in the way they were in the 1980s–they are instead constantly connected with each other, their friends, and their family, Most work, many seek out colleges more for the co-curricular than for the curricular opportunities available to them. Few are the faculty who lecture for entire semesters, and rare is the institution that doesn’t offer a full panoply of engagement activities and require students to be part of them. Students go to college as much to respond to the civic and social challenges of the world as to flee them. And colleges expect student engagement as a norm of behavior. We track engagement assiduously, and worry that a student who spends too much time alone, not participating in the life of the campus, is at-risk.

And yet, students report being lonely and facing depression in record numbers. Faculty find active learning to be inadequate to the challenges they face in the classroom. And in spite of our apparatus of engagement and the time and money invested in it, student retention and graduation rates are frustratingly low.

Simone Weil, the French essayist whose quote opens this post might suggest that our challenges are the result of our failure to pay attention to the right thing. We have, too often, made engagement the goal and the end in mind. And in so doing, we’ve lost track of its purpose–the purpose of all study, in Weil’s thinking–paying attention. Engagement activities can lead to attention, it is true. But they can also lead to distraction, and busyness, and the dissipation of effort across a wide range of activities. For Weil, attention has a single purpose–to learn the truth. Paying attention is a struggle, so much so that all activities relate to study must be focused on attention in order for the faculty of attention to develop and for the student to grasp the truth.

How might our efforts be different if attention came before engagement? Here are a few ways:

We would welcome introversion among students if that introversion were accompanied by deep engagement with certain topics and activities,

We would focus our engagement efforts on certain activities that we believed led to the purposes of our institutions,

We would add contemplative activities as part of our student engagement portfolios,

We would halt the other activities even if they are widely adopted at other institutions,

And we would devise a different measure of student engagement, one that focused on building the powers of attention in faculty, staff, and students. That measure would be more concerned with depth than breadth, and more concerned with results than participation.

Let me be clear. I am not advocating a return to the pre-engagement days, or the rejection of common engagement practices as being unhelpful. I am saying something different–that our students live in an engaged world and so heightening their engagement isn’t the problem. Directing it, though, is. And so before we seek to engage students for the sake of their participation, we should be sure that we have paid attention to the end in mind. We could do much worse than adopting the end that inflamed Simone Weil’s mind–grasping the truth by developing the faculty of attention.

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