Engagement by huanghengdong


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Engagement: Making Connections Outside and Inside
             CSU Conference – May 24, 2010 – Sacramento, California – James Rhem

      There are lots of ways to begin to talk about student engagement or

engaged learning. It’s something very closely associated with active learning, but

Chuck Bonwell, the foremost expert that I know on active learning, said in an

article in 2005 that despite all mention it’s gotten in recent years, there’s till no

“explicit consensus” about what that phrase actually means. One of the earliest

parings of the terms “engaged” and “learning” comes in the well known 1991

study by Pascarella and Terenzini where they write: “Perhaps the strongest

conclusion that can be made is the least surprising. Simply put, the greater the

student’s involvement or engagement in academic work or in the academic

experience of college, the greater his or her level of knowledge acquisition and

general cognitive development.” I suppose a respectful “Duh” might be the

proper response here. Let me give you one more official stab at defining “student

engagement”: Jillian Kinzie of the NSSE (National Survey of Student Engagement)

group down at Indiana University says: “Student engagement has two key

components. The first is the amount of time and effort students put into their

studies and other activities that lead to the experiences and outcomes that

constitute student success. The second is the ways the institution allocates
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resources and organizes learning opportunities and services to induce students to

participate in and benefit from such activities.”

      Are you asleep yet?

      If you are at all like me you do not find this kind of careful education-speak

very helpful. I’m basically a journalist covering teaching and learning in higher

education and as a writer and a dyed-in-the-wool humanist, I tend to take a

semantic approach to trying to unpack the meaning of a new phrase in the

discourse on teaching and learning. Buzz words crop up all the time, new

expressions. The cynical view is to see these new expressions as “buzz words.”

The sympathetic view seems them as a reflection of changing, perhaps

deepening, understanding. I want to pursue the sympathetic view because I think

a whole lot of older insights into teaching and learning coalesce in a fresh

understanding represented in this phrase.

      The latest book on student engagement is Elizabeth Barkley’ “Student

Engagement Techniques: A handbook of college faculty” from Jossey-Bass.

Barkley sifts through a lot of existing learning theory and comes up with a model

of student engagement arising from two sources – motivation and active learning.

(We’ll come back to active learning in a moment) But frankly I think a lot of what
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we are now trying to talk about under the umbrella of “student engagement,” we

used to talk about as “motivation.” The importance of motivation has been

recognized for a long time. There have been problems with that idea however. I

remember talking about it with Stephen Brookfield once and the skeptical

attitude he expressed toward general uses of the term. We talk about motivation

like its some sort of thing we could inject into students, he said. And of course

here he wasn’t thinking of “extrinsic” motivation, the kind of motivation that

comes from letting students know that if they don’t get that paper in on time,

they won’t get a good grade. He was talking about “intrinsic” motivation, the kind

of inner fire, that awakening of curiosity that makes a student want to know,

want to learn. We just can’t do that with rah-rah behavior and the shaking of

some sort of academic pom-poms if there are such things.

      Of course the tide in talking about motivation long ago turned toward the

positive, intrinsic sort, toward carrots rather than sticks in motivating learning.

      When I look at the idea of “engagement” in contrast to the common idea of

motivation that Brookfield expressed mild disdain for as something we do to

students-motivate them, I see that “engagement” implies a contract, a hook, a

faithfulness on both sides. Perhaps the engagement is leading to a marriage of
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hearts and minds around a center of understanding which, if not common (since

no two minds think just alike) is at least mutual in embracing the value of the

gathering point.

      To me that’s the ideal of engagement once made – a team effort, a mutual

commitment. The problem arises in that, as teachers we are often the suitors –

down on our knees holding out a ring. It’s true, some students come ready to say

Yes right away. They wanted to be offered the ring, they wanted to study with us,

learn what we have to offer. Others are half-way there – They like us well enough,

but they need time to think about it. A lot of students are like dates who just

wanted dinner at this restaurant: It’s a required course. They’ll give you that

good night peck by completing the required assignments, but really they can’t

wait for dinner to be over.

      Moreover, the truth is as teachers, we are more attracted to some students

than others. Perhaps we’re drawn to the low-hanging fruit of the already

motivated bright student who’s ready to take the ring, the ones who may even

think they’re doing us a favor by accepting. Maybe we like a bit more challenge

and find ourselves courting the undecided. Maybe we’re that sort who want to

convert the resistant: There are those amazing individuals who seem able to take
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students with no interest in a subject and have them come away loving it. God

bless them – I wish their gifts were transferrable.

      Most of us are Yeomen seeking to do the very best with whatever gifts we

have and whatever skills we can learn to enhance those gifts.

      All of which brings me to the nexus forecast in my title for these remarks :

“making connections outside and inside.”

      I’ll get back to giving an overview of the theory—what others have said and

done with the concept of engagement -- in a moment, but from the outset, I want

to put my understanding of engagement as a human transaction at the center of

all that I have to say about it.

      We have a beautiful ideal in the concept of engagement – an ideal of a

connection made and thriving, of promise moving toward fulfillment.

      It’s a better ideal than “motivation” alone because it implicitly honors the

fact that students have intelligence, values, points of view, that will be, need to

be, brought to bear if deep or meaningful learning is to occur.

      But because we as teachers are in the suitor’s position – often with

students who’ve been sent to us in the arranged marriage of a required course,
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there is the danger of unconsciously approaching engagement in ways very

similar to how we may have approached motivation – as something we must do

to students → motivate them → engage them.

      It’s a subtle danger because, yes, it’s up to us to do something and the

result we hope for is motivated, engaged students.

      But there’s a lot to be gained in recognizing the limits of our power. It

highlights the need to focus on authentic, vulnerable, compassionate, patient

(firm) offering of self (intelligence) in teaching – a very tall order indeed.

      In some ways, then, engagement or rather the effort to create engagement

is a persistent invitation rather than an eloquent description or direction. It’s an

“asking” rather than a “telling.” But asking rather than telling is a familiar bit of

wisdom about good teaching. It’s the way Socrates taught isn’t it? As Joseph

Albers, the legendary 20th century artist who taught at the fabled Black Mountain

College in the 1950s and later at Yale once said “Good teaching is more a giving of

right questions than a giving of right answers. “

      Well, you may be thinking, that all sounds very poetic, but I have a lot of

information I have to get across to the students, and of course you do. I am

talking mostly about something like tone or attitude in the approach – because in
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fact one has to describe, direct, tell, present in many aspects of teaching. But as

we’ll see in some of the more practical discussions of engagement in a moment,

the “telling” can often be in the form of asking: By that I mean in the setting of a

significant question, problem, or task for example.

      But right here at the moment I do mean something like tone or attitude. Let

me explain:

      As I’ve said, I’m more of a journalist than original thinker about teaching

and learning, but you can’t care about a subject and write about it for 20 years

without having an idea or two from time to time.

      The “Affective Field” is a phrase – an idea—that I seem to have coined as a

by-product of my work on exploring the portrayal of teachers in the movies from

Mr. Chips to the present day.

      In looking at the movie portrayals, I’ve been interested in extracting the

cultural archetype of the teacher – not the caricature—the archetype.

      And a key element in the effectiveness of the archetypal teacher is his or

her establishment of an appropriate “affective field.”
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      I might describe that field as an environment of trust, basically, but that

doesn’t say enough. Integrity, fairness, openness (even some level of

vulnerability) are also descriptors I should mention.

      I call it an “affective” field because I want to acknowledge and bring to bear

in thinking about the environment – the neglected but profound insights into

learning of the Bloom group when, led by David Krathwohl, it went on after the

publication of the seminal cognitive taxonomy of educational objectives to create

and publish their taxonomy of affect and learning.

      Equally, I want to bring into the discussion the very, very exciting ways that

current neurobiological research has confirmed and extended understanding of

how indissoluble cognition and affect are in learning. [Let me mention just two

books I have found very stimulating reads in this area both by Antonio Damasio:

the first called “Descartes’ Error” and the second “Looking for Spinoza.”]

      All of this is background to a few single statements I want to make, but it’s

important, even, to me, exciting background that has shaped my thinking, my

understanding. So let me mention just two other bits of solid research I find

relevant here. Harvard’s Robert Rosenthal was at the center of both of them.
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      The first has to do with his many years of work on what he calls the

“Pygmalion syndrome.” Rosenthal established in controlled experiment after

controlled experiment that a teacher’s unspoken attitude, his or her

presumptions about a student (or class), have a powerful effect on how well they

do in that class.

      [explain, example]

      The second has to do with the so-called “thin slices” study in which

students viewed a brief segment of silent video of professors teaching and then

predicted how they would rate them as teachers. To an astounding degree the

ratings these students gave these faculty had a strong positive correlation with

the actual end of term evaluations their real students gave them.

      Do you sense where I’m going with all this and perhaps the reason I used

the world “field” in my little coinage?

      Einstein spent his life looking for a general field theory of physics, over-

riding principles that governed the interactions of matter, time, space. When it

comes to effective teaching and the matter of student engagement, it seems to
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me there is a general controlling “affective field” arching over the whole


      We size them up and it has a frighteningly powerful effect on how they do.

They size us up and that assessment seems to be accurate and to say a lot about

how effective we will be.

      In short, however much we may want to make teaching objective and

mechanical, however much we may want the silver bullet, the right technique or

pedagogy to apply, teaching is first of all a human relationship. We like to think

it’s an intellectual or simply a cognitive relation but that’s because as an academic

culture we haven’t yet fully embraced the scientifically established centrality of

affect in learning. Not fully.

      What all this means when it comes to the matter of “engagement” (and

notice here I’m not saying “student engagement” because here I want to propose

broadening our understanding of the idea of this relationship—to move it firmly

away from any notion of something we do to students and toward an idea that

includes first the very deepest engagement with ourselves)
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       When it comes to deep learning (about which we hear so much) students

learn first from who we are, not what we know. At the risk of sounding

tautological, they learn about what we know because of the way it has helped us

become who we are, even as who we are has shaped how we have assimilated

what we know and thus how we, in our very beings, shape what we know—

shading or highlighting its excitement and potential value for our students – who

are our co-travelers for a time on this little journey of life and learning and

meaning making.

       I’ll come back to this idea of deep engagement with ourselves as teachers a

little later.

       Let me set it aside for the moment. I fear I may have gone too far by letting

myself become too abstract, too philosophical too quickly. So let me turn to more

familiar, more concrete, and perhaps more utilitarian ground for a bit.

       Existing models of engagement don’t focus on the teacher and inner

engagement; they look outward toward the students. (We can’t be fretting about

whether we’re good enough all the time!) Barkley’s book is an example. It’s a

huge aggregation of existing thinking re-formed into a theory of engagement.
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That model may simply be a new label for a re-arrangement of existing

knowledge, but progress in understanding is often made that way.

          Barkley sees student engagement as the result of two things: motivation

and active learning. Well, we’ve embraced the importance of motivation for a

long time and understood that it was a shifting mix of intrinsic and extrinsic

factors. So we have tried to create courses with a proper balance of carrots and


          We’d like students to be intrinsically motivated. Our ideas of teaching and

engagement are based on that, but human nature being what it is and students

being where they are in their human development, we know we need to have

some sticks—some deadlines, clearly stated assessment criteria, etc.

          For all our acceptance of its importance, motivation still seems to me

somewhat mysterious, or if not mysterious, fraught with so many variables that it

almost amounts to the same thing—at least on those deep levels of intrinsic


          Active learning is another matter. If you’ve ever struggled with depression

or know anything about it at all, you know that an axiom of therapy is that it is
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almost always easier to act yourself out of feeling than it is to feel yourself into


      The same thing applies to teaching and learning. When we act, when we

cause students to act, we are on the road to possessing and discovering our own

knowledge and learning. It’s ours; it’s real in a way that knowledge seldom is

when we’ve just heard about it—whatever the “it” we were studying is.

      So Barkley’s book is most valuable perhaps for the enormous catalog of

active learning techniques it pulls together as “engagement” techniques. Few of

us have heard of all these approaches and you can page through the book as you

would a catalog until something speaks to you as attractive, something concrete

and provocative you might try.

      This is important, this looking for something that speaks to you, because as

I’ve tried to emphasize, engaged teaching is the common acknowledgement that

everyone teaches from within human relationship more than from a technique.

You teach out of who you are, and so what speaks to you from the catalog is

obviously going to be more effective for you than something that doesn’t.
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      I think your own Mark Stoner’s model of engagement is a bit more probing

and thus more useful as a guide to enacting engaged learning. Mark also sees it

arising from two pillars but instead of motivation and active learning, he talks

about Dialogue and Experience. Essentially, he honors but leaves alone the

mystery of motivation and concentrates on opening up the conceptual

understanding of the active learning side.

      And his model connects with what I’ve been saying about deep

engagement with ourselves—because his vision of dialog includes dialog with self

as well as others. Of course Mark has student self-reflection foremost in mind, but

the teacher’s inner dialog as I’ve said seems to me equally important for engaged

teaching and learning.

      So Mark’s model of engaging students in learning involves getting them

talking and writing and reflecting with their peers and with themselves around

some Experience, some significant problem, challenge, question or task—

something they can do, observe, and reflect upon.

      All of this dovetails nicely with best practices—the things that have proven

effective in a range of pedagogical approaches—cooperative learning, problem-

based, inquiry-based, etc.
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      So far I’ve emphasized over and over that engagement is not something we

do to students just as motivation isn’t something we inject them with. I’ve said

that engagement is a relationship, a dialogical relationship both between us and

them and between our public, operational selves and our private contemplative


      One of the very practical things I’ve come across in the last few years that

can help make that implicit dialog more explicit and thus more effective is

something called CLASSE, a step-child of NSSE.

      You can’t not have heard of NSSE – the National Survey of Student

Engagement—I mentioned it at the very beginning of this talk. It’s a national

survey that began to shake up administrators and intensify the conversation

about engagement a few years ago. NSEE is a series of questions for students

aimed at assessing how frequently they engage in activities reflecting what are

regarded as “best practices” in teaching and learning and these best practices
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derive from things like the Seven Principles of Good Practice of Chickering and

Gamson from 1987 and the literature on active learning and so on.

      Well, I’ve sat through what feels like countless presentations on NSSE. And

if you are like me, all those carefully parsed statistics are mind-numbing. They’re

at an institutional level and it’s very hard to see how to benefit from the findings

at the level of my particular course.

      Indeed when the survey first came out the reaction was one of buck-

passing. “It must be the Law School that’s bringing us down” or if the English

department looked bad, the faculty might say, “oh that’s the 19th century area,

not the department as a whole.”

      So then FSSE was developed to compare what faculty thought was going on

with what students thought, that opened a level of dialog on engagement, but it

was still up in the tree top at the institutional level.

      Finally (and this hasn’t gotten the attention it warrants), Bob Smallwood

and Judy Ouimet developed CLASSE. CLASSE, too, relies on best practices as its

background, but it involves one questionnaire for students and a parallel one for

faculty. You have samples there as handouts. And in addition to the questions
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that speak to what students are doing that are regarded as activities that signal

engagement and that faculty feel are especially important to their mode of

teaching, the survey has a place for eight unique questions faculty can add.

      Smallwood began by using these parallel surveys as an alternative to the

usual end of term assessment. Oimert figured why wait and has begun using them

as a mid course formative assessment that affords the faculty member a chance

to see what seems to be working and what isn’t in terms of engaging students

while there is still time to make changes. I think CLASSE is a wonderful instrument

for faculty to use to begin to investigate how engaged their students are. They

can use it independently; they don’t need department or institutional support.

      So, if you are looking for something practical and concrete to take away and

use from these remarks, I offer you my endorsement of CLASSE as a means of

moving from abstractions to real data that may help you lead your students to

greater levels of engaged learning.

      With CLASSE, you begin to have something I might describe as a meta-level

of the instructional dialog strategy Mark Stoner highlights in what he’s written on

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      The results of the dialog between CLASSE’s parallel surveys begins to show

whether students are connecting with the approach faculty are taking.

      If they are, you are likely to say “Hurrah” – and maybe you should. But

maybe you shouldn’t. I like CLASSE, but I don’t offer or believe in silver bullets.

Engagement with best practices (and here I mean by that “overt participation in”)

is generally associated with significant learning. But there’s no guarantee that

overt participation in these is creating the deep learning to which most teaching

now aspires.

      The dialog between you and them these surveys offer may show that

they’re nominally engaged, but you may find they still aren’t learning as you’d

like—and that means you need to do or try something different.

      And here’s where I think that inner dimension—that deep dialog with self—

must come into play.

      I know an N of one is always suspect as a source of convincing evidence in

academic circles—yet we’ve often learned a lot from N of one—Thoreau, St. John

of the Cross, et al—without really seeking to put myself in their company I do

know that the authority of our own experience has a lot of power—something we
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must form the habit of looking at often reflectively, critically, if we want to teach


        I taught last semester for the first time in many years. I thought I’d be good

at it. After all, I’ve been talking to the brightest people about it and writing about

it for 20 years—but I came away from the semester with a great sense of let-

down that I’m still processing.

        The course was a seminar for juniors and seniors called The Impact of

Photography, a Human Issues course at a small Dominican Liberal Arts college

with a community outreach component.

        I filled the course with every good thing I could think of ...

        But in the end I came away feeling I’d failed them—failed my students.

        I began this talk with an image of a suitor on his knee as an emblem of the

invitation to engagement. It was a fun image but not in the end a very good one

for suggesting what we should do as teachers tasked with engaging our students.
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      In the last few years my independent scholarship in the history of

photography has caused me to make several hiking trips into the Sierra Nevada

mountains and it’s to those recent experiences I turn for a better image of how I

might have worked with my students in a more engaged and productive fashion—

this is my inner dialog with my deeper self.

      I made these trips with an adult colleague, but I am imagining myself as a

father with several children or the leader of a scout troop leading the group to a

campsite I want to get to by nightfall.

      The campsite of course represents my goals, my ambitions for the course—

the children, the scout troop, are my students—and [I’m] the teacher urging them

along the trail. We start out happy and full of energy. But they get tired. They’ve

never been to the campsite like I have and they just don’t feel the same urgency

about keeping up the pace that I do. They’re also hungry and thirsty in ways I

hadn’t fully anticipated.

      This is the point where I should have disengaged with my ideals somewhat

and re-engaged or engaged more deeply with different ideals. My aim in teaching

has always to be to accept them as they are and do all I can to help them learn.
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      Perhaps we won’t make it to the campsite tonight. We may have to make

camp along the way. If we go more slowly, we may likely learn things we’d have

missed keeping strictly to schedule.

      And in my own case I’m not really talking about covering the syllabus so

much as the pace and progress of critical thinking skills—which was after all my

major goal in the course.

      What would it have taken for me to be a more effective, engaged teacher?

It would have taken a firmer, quieter confidence in who I am and not only the

worth of what I have to teach but my ability to teach it via a variety of means.

      It would have taken more engagement with my capacities for compassion,

for patience—with a willingness to scrap my plan for a new plan.

      To foster student engagement and engaged learning as I see it requires

laying pretty much everything I am on the line. It requires a combination of

openness, patience, caring, vulnerability and confidence that is not easy to come

by and sustain. Yet I think that’s what’s called for—an inner engagement of that

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       Student engagement isn’t something we do to students or even a table we

set for them. It’s a journey we take together, a meal we cook together—carrot

stew, perhaps, stirred with appropriate sticks.

Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since
cannot make yourself as you wish to be.
Thomas A. Kempis

One must learn by doing the thing; for though you think you know it,
you have
no certainty, until you try.

"At the Day of Judgement we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done." Thomas A.

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