Engagement and Student Success: No Shortcuts

The Center for Community College Student Engagement recently published Engagement Rising, an optimistic report on eleven years of results of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE). The CCSSE is a survey that asks students about their involvement with their college, classes, faculty and peers. Many institutions have used the CCSSE, providing a sample size large enough for national bench-marking. I was initially excited that the report sees consistent and continuous improvement across the board. After digging deeper, I am not as confident that more engagement means greater student success.

Student engagement emerged fifteen plus years ago as a tool for institutions to get a better handle on academic quality from students’ perspective. Scholars correlated higher levels of student engagement with higher levels of student success. Initially adopted by four-year institutions as the National Survey of Student Engagement, the NSSE surveys first year and senior year students. The CCSSE is similar and is given to continuing community college students, usually in their sophomore year. CCSSE questions students on active and collaborative learning (how often do you ask questions in class, talk with your professor, have a serious discussion, etc.), effort (being ready for classes, using resources, etc.), interaction with teachers (talking about grades, assignments, communicating via email or after class, etc.), academic challenge (analysis, synthesis, reading, writing, etc.), and support for learners (does the college provide advising, counselors, etc.). The CCSSE is completely voluntary and colleges are not required to give, use, or share the results of these surveys.

Over the past decade students report positive changes in many areas: they are giving more presentations, working more in groups, coming to class prepared more often, communicating more often with faculty and advisors, and receiving more support from their college. One of the cheering findings of Engagement Rising is the trend in part-time students, who now report engagement that appears more like that of full-time students. The CCSSE asserts that institutions that work with the survey can focus on implementing high-impact practices to improve student engagement.

Overall, more community college students report being more engaged. However, when it comes to time on task – student effort in academic work – the results are not promising.

Students do not self-report spending increased time on the academic work over the past decade. This matches the findings of other researchers. The traditional rule of thumb is that successful students need two or three hours of studying for each hour in the classroom. In actual practice, students report dedicating just under an hour of studying and doing academic work outside the classroom for each hour in the classroom.

Students do report that over the last ten years colleges have encouraged students to spend more time doing academic work. Colleges are telling students to work more but it is not changing behavior.

In other words, colleges are asking students to focus on academic work, students engagement has increased, but students are not spending more time doing academic work. How can student engagement improve without a corresponding increase in student work?

I would like to believe that improvements in pedagogy have increased student engagement, but without more student academic time on task, it seems unlikely. Pedagogy might be improving; it may also just be changing. I think that much of the source of these macro gains in engagement has been the wide-scale attention institutions of higher education have given to student academic management. Student academic management, or helping students be effective students, is an extraordinarily important and somewhat neglected part of the puzzle.

Being a successful college student requires much more than curiosity and a willingness to learn. Students have to know how to navigate multiple systems, from financial aid to advising to academic support centers – and they have to be willing to do so regularly. Students have to learn how to select more appropriate courses, read a syllabus, and understand a professor’s expectations (and bear in mind that increasingly, their teacher is a part-time faculty member, which means no office hours and no consistent reliable relationship with the college). Remember, too, that most college degree holders now complete their education at multiple institutions. We can safely assume that a course that matters to a student’s degree – and that a student understands is relevant and matters – is probably more likely to foster student engagement.

Colleges have invested in academic student management by hiring advisors and support specialists, creating programs and courses, and communication and systems infrastructure. They are creating educational environments that foster student engagement, shepherding students into situations where engagement is the norm.

The need for this kind of environment is tremendous at community colleges. Community college students usually come to higher education with greater constraints and less support than those who study at four-year institutions.

Overall, the changes in academic student management have reaped rewards. Students are more likely to take relevant courses, have known support services at hand, and learn in a more structured collegiate environment. They have the tools to know how to navigate the system, and that, in itself, makes greater engagement likely. The challenge is to turn that increased engagement into dedicated academic work.

Student engagement without time on task is of limited value. There is absolutely no substitute for time on task. Meaningful learning demands time, focus, and energy. It is work, plain and simple. We in higher education need to make sure that students understand and value academic work. Creating an environment is not enough. Academic work is not glamorous, but it is at the heart of learning and students success. Work gives an education meaning.

Student engagement that leads to more hours reading, writing, analyzing and studying is where we have to go. Students who understanding this – and work at their education – succeed. Without academic work, there is not quick path to success.

David Potash

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