Engaged Students Are Successful Students, But Only When We Do It Right

Raising Hands

By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Design
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

If you work in higher education, you know all the buzz words: learning styles, differentiation, backward design, active learning, and so on. While it’s easy to scoff at buzz words as just another fad, it is also important to realize that common terms like these help educators start conversations about what matters most in the moment. The buzz word that seems to capture what matters most right now in higher education is “student success”. Students at Delaware Technical Community College are said to succeed when they achieve educational goals through their experience at the College, whether these goals come to fruition through a degree, certificate, transfer, or other achievement.

As the importance of student success continues to grow, educators search for new ways to measure and improve success. The Center for Community College Engagement [CCSSE] (2012) declares that “student engagement—in particular, the CCSSE benchmarks of active and collaborative learning and support for learners—is an important predictor of college completion” and that “promoting student engagement is the overarching feature of successful program design”. In the same report, CCSSE recounts the triumphs enjoyed by one college in bolstering student success by increasing student engagement. In fall of 2008, Montgomery County Community College piloted a change to two of their developmental math courses. While the content of the courses remained the same, the instructional methods were redesigned from a traditional model (“presenting definitions, providing examples, and doing practice problems”) to a concept-based model that engages students to become “active participants in their own education” by challenging them to develop the steps needed to solve problems.  In the fall of 2009, 68% of students in the pilot program passed the course while only 44% of students in the traditional offering passed. This is just one example among many that demonstrates how increasing student engagement within the classroom can set students up for success.

Student engagement promotes success, but how can we tell when our students are engaged? According to The Great Schools Partnership (2014), “student engagement refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion” expressed by students during their studies. Therefore, the more we can capture students’ attention, pique their curiosity, foster their interest, encourage their optimism, and ignite their passion—specifically with what we do in our classrooms—the more we can help ensure that they succeed. Zepke and Leach (2010), in a synthesis of 93 different studies, define engagement as “students’ cognitive investment in, active participation in and emotional commitment to their learning”. It’s important to note that both of these definitions focus on what the student is doing or feeling—not the teacher. A student can be engaged during a lecture, just as much as a student can be disengaged during a practical and realistic role play activity. As educator Jerry Farber notes, “I’ve had more than enough opportunity to observe (and to hear countless reports of) ‘active learning’ sessions that are at least as alienating and unproductive as the droning, read-from-yellowing-notes lecture that is so often invoked as a foil by the people who give the teaching workshops. The problem, as always, is pedagogical mindlessness” (quoted in Weimer, 2009). If we are trying to engage students, then, our focus should be not solely on what we do, but on how the things we do affect the hearts and minds of our students.


Center for Community College Student Engagement (2012). A matter of degrees: Promising practices for community college student success (A first look). Austin, TX: The University of Texas at Austin, Community College Leadership Program. Retrieved from http://www.ccsse.org/docs/Matter_of_Degrees.pdf

The Great Schools Partnership. (2014, April 28).Student engagement. Retrieved from The Glossary of Education Reform website: http://edglossary.org/student-engagement/

Weimer, M. (Ed). (2009, December). Building student engagement: 15 strategies for the college classroom. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from http://www.uai.cl/images/sitio/investigacion/centros_investigacion/innovacion_aprendizaje/literatura_especializada/report-building-student-engagement.pdf

Zepke, N., & Leach, L. (2010, October 26). Improving student engagement: Ten proposals for action. Active Learning in Higher Education, 11(3), 167 – 177. doi: 10.1177/1469787410379680. Retrieved from http://disde.minedu.gob.pe/xmlui/bitstream/ handle/123456789/1942/Improving%20student%20engagement%20%20Ten%20proposals%20for%20action.pdf?sequence=1

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