What Does it Mean to be Engaging Our Students?, Spring 2011

Accessible Version

By Ken N. Meadows, Educational Researcher, Teaching and Learning Services

Considerable attention is being paid to student engagement in learning at universities and colleges across both Canada and the United States. In fact, all Ontario universities regularly administer the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) as a component of the accountability agreements they have with the Government of Ontario (Conway, 2010). This has led to widespread discussion about the nature of student engagement (Conway, Zhao, & Montgomery, 2011). My involvement in a research project using the NSSE and another measure of student engagement, the Classroom Survey of Student Engagement (CLASSE; Ouimet & Smallwood, 2005), has led me to reconsider what it means to be engaging our students in learning.

I was involved in a research study at Western with Tom Haffie, Linda Dunn and Roger Graves (2009) that was part of a coordinated research program involving 10 Ontario universities (Conway, 2010), which examined the extent to which the NSSE is an effective measure of the impact of institution-specific engagement-related interventions. Our project investigated the First-Year Biology Literacy Initiative (BLI) whose purpose was to improve the overall “connectedness” of Introductory Biology by introducing various lessons and exercises that integrated Writing Across the Curriculum (McLeod, 1992) and information literacy (Association of College and Research Libraries, 2000). Specifically, the course tutorials were redesigned to increase students’ a) understanding of the inter-connections in course material, b) skills in summarizing biological information in writing, c) understanding academic integrity, plagiarism and proper citation, and d) skills in locating and evaluating biological information beyond the text book. Ultimately, the redesign was intended to support students’ active engagement in their own learning.

We designed a quasi-experimental research project to compare the Introductory Biology classes before the curricular redesign with the first cohort to experience the redesign on the NSSE and the CLASSE. For the NSSE and CLASSE, student engagement is defined as “the extent to which students are engaged in empirically derived good educational practices” such as the number of written papers or reports students write, how often they contribute to class discussions, the number of class presentations they do, and how often they have attended a review or help session. The NSSE assesses students’ experience in the current year at the institution and is targeted to first-year students and those in their graduating year. The CLASSE is focused on students’ experience in a specific course.

Our research results indicated that the relationship between student engagement and the BLI was modest at best (Conway, 2010). Students in the pre-BLI and BLI groups generally did not differ on engagement as measured by the NSSE, whereas results with the CLASSE were mixed. The BLI group made more connections between the lecture and lab material and reported higher levels of idea integration. However, they also engaged in significantly lower levels of peer and faculty interaction as well as expending less academic effort than their pre-BLI counterparts (Conway, 2010).

These results led me to consider that although the behaviours reflected in the NSSE and CLASSE are important for engaging our students, they are not sufficient to adequately assess the concept of engagement in its entirety. I would argue, as Schreiner and colleagues (Schreiner, 2010a, 2010b, 2010c; Schreiner & Louis, 2006) have done, that engagement includes a substantial psychological component and is not a strictly behavioural construct. Writing papers, discussing grades and assignments, and collaborating on assignments definitely provide the opportunities for students to engage actively in their own learning, however they are not the totality of engagement. Schreiner and Louis (2006) define engaged learning as a “positive energy invested in one’s own learning, evidenced by meaningful processing, attention to what is happening in the moment, and involvement in learning activities” (p. 9). Schreiner (2010b) labels the three components of psychologically engaged learning as meaningful processing, focused attention, and active participation. Meaningful processing involves going beyond surface processes of learning, rote memorization, and studying for the test. It involves deeper processing where students make connections between the course content and their lives and knowledge they already possess. Focused attention is being “fully in the moment… psychologically present in class, noticing what is new and different, able to see different perspectives on an issue,” being mindful (Schreiner, 2010b, p. 4). Active participation is the component most associated with engagement and reflected in measures such as the NSSE and CLASSE-- being actively involved in learning, making presentations, discussing course content with the professors, and writing papers or reports.

Schreiner (2010b) focuses less on active participation than on these other facets of engagement as she maintains that “much of student engagement is happening internally as students are psychologically processing and responding to the course content” (p. 4). She encourages faculty members to integrate active participation into their courses but also suggests strategies to help students to be psychologically engaged in their learning. She recommends that faculty members a) allow students to see their passion for the topics being taught, b) express interest in their students’ success, c) try to get to know their students, d) connect the content being addressed to their students’ personal lives, interests, and previous knowledge, and support ways for their students to do the same for themselves, and e) teach their students to attend to the course material more fully (e.g., suggests that they actively process information such as trying to identify what is new or different in what they are learning or generating questions as they process the information).

Hindsight being 20/20, it would have been interesting to include a measure of engaged learning (e.g., the Engaged Learning Index; Schreiner & Louis, 2006) to examine possible differences between the pre-BLI group and the BLI group on psychological engagement. The BLI tutorials were explicitly designed to increase the meaningfulness of processing and, to a lesser extent, students’ focused attention. I imagine that the engagement differences would be more consistent and stronger than those found with the NSSE and CLASSE and would definitely be more in line with how I now think about student engagement.


Association of College and Research Libraries (2000). Information literacy competency standards for higher education. Retrieved on January 2, 2008, from http://www.ala.org/ala/acrl/acrlstandards/standards.pdf.

Conway, C. (2010). Implementing engagement improvements through targeted interventions: Final report: Intervention processes, impacts and implications. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Conway, C., Zhao, H., & Montgomery, S. (2011). The NSSE National Data Project Report. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Haffie, T., Meadows, K. N., Dunn, L. K., & Graves, R. (2009). [The First Year Biology Literacy Initiative]. Unpublished raw data.

McLeod, S. H. (1992). Writing across the curriculum: An introduction. In S. H. McLeod & M. Soven (Eds.), Writing across the curriculum: A guide to developing programs. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Ouimet, J.A., & Smallwood, R. A. (2005). CLASSE - The Class-level Survey of Student Engagement, Assessment Update, 17, 13-15.

Schreiner, L. A. (2010a). The “thriving quotient”: A new vision for student success. About Campus, 15(2), 2–10.

Schreiner, L. A. (2010b). Thriving in the classroom. About Campus, 15(3), 2–10.

Schreiner, L. A. (2010c). Thriving in community. About Campus, 15(4), 2–11.

Schreiner, L., & Louis, M. (2006, November). Measuring engaged learning in college students: Beyond the borders of NSSE. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, Anaheim, CA.