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Engagement | Community
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Understanding and Evaluating Engagement in Higher Education

Engagement has been an associated with both positive changes in skills and abilities and greater psychological adjustment during the college years. The study of student engagement has been notable for the variety of approaches and terminology in the literature. This “tangled web of terms” (Wolf-Wendel et al. 2009) has made for challenges in understanding similarities and differences across research programs that use different approaches.

The confusion has been particularly evident in the research on engagement among college students that has been inspired by the work of Astin on involvement and Kuh on engagement. Although Astin’s involvement has encompassed both the energy expended on and time invested in tasks, most of the research that has used involvement theory including that of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CRIP) has emphasized time on task. Like Astin’s involvement, Kuh’s engagement constructs also have tended toward assessing time spent in certain activities. In Kuh’s framework of engagement, however, these activities have been benchmarks of effective educational practice. For example, in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), engagement has been measured in terms of five such benchmarks: “academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences, and supportive campus environment.” (Wolf-Wendel et al. 2009, p. 414). Thus, Kuh’s engagement measures were intended to connect student behavior to effective educational practice while Astin’s involvement focused more broadly on student investment in activities associated with college life. Although there are distinctions in the approaches of Kuh and Astin and despite the fact that the terms are used interchangeably by some researchers, the common theme in these approaches has been that learning and persistence were related to how students spend their time and energy in academic, extracurricular, and social experiences

In our study, measures of academic engagement have differed from Astin’s involvement in that they focused on how students perceived what they have intended to do and have felt rather than how much they actually did. Our measures have also differed from Kuh’s engagement in that our measures of academic engagement were intended to connect to motivations by measuring what students generally think or feel about their engagement rather than time on task in specific types of educational activity. This approach to engagement comes from motivational research (Fredricks et al. 2004; Gasiewski et al. 2012). In the motivational approach, academic engagement has been considered a multidimensional construct, which has included perceived behavioral and affective dimensions (Fredricks et al. 2004). Behavioral engagement has been defined as student involvement in academic activities and has included measures of effort and participation in class discussions (Gasiewski et al. 2012). Emotional engagement has been defined in terms of both perceived positive and negative emotional responses to academic experiences. These emotional responses can range from feelings of interest and enjoyment to anxiety/worry and discouragement (Connell and Wellborn 1991; Miserandino 1996). Taken together, behavioral and emotional engagement have provided a broader foundation for understanding the dynamics of learning in the college classroom.

Behavioral Engagement, Effort (reliability 0.86)
  • I try hard to do well in my major classes.
  • In my major classes, I work as hard as I can.
  • In my lab/study groups, I work as hard as I can.
  • I try hard to do well in this class.
  • In this class, I work as hard as I can.

Behavioral Engagement, Participation (reliability 0.74)
  • When I’m in classes in my major, I participate in class discussions with my classmates and instructors.
  • When I’m in this class, I participate in class discussions with my classmates and instructors

Emotional Engagement, Positive (reliability 0.84)
  • I enjoy learning new things in my major classes.
  • When I’m in classes in my major, I feel good.
  • In my major classes, when we work on something I feel interested.
  • In my lab/study groups, when we work on something I feel interested.
  • My lab/study groups are fun.
  • I enjoy learning new things in my lab/study group

Emotional Engagement, Negative (reliability 0.83)
  • When I’m in classes in my major, I feel worried.
  • When we work on something in my lab/study groups, I feel discouraged.
  • When I’m in my lab/study groups, I feel worried.
  • When I’m in this class, I feel worried.
  • In this class, when we work on something in class I feel discouraged.

Works Cited:

Connell, J. P., & Wellborn, J. G. (1991). Competence, autonomy, and relatedness: A motivational analysis of self-system processes.

Gunnar, Megan R. (Ed); Sroufe, L. Alan (Ed), in Self processes and development. The Minnesota symposia on child psychology, vol. 23., (pp. 43-77). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Fredricks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C., & Paris, A. H. (2004). School engagement: Potential of the concept, state of the evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74(1), 59–109.

Gasiewski, J.A., Eagan, M.K., Garcia, G.A., Hurtado, S., & Chang, M.J. (2012). From gatekeeping to engagement: A multicontextual, mixed method study of student academic engagement in introductory STEM courses, Research in Higher Education, 53, 229-261.

Miserandino, M. (1996). Children who do well in school: Individual differences in perceived competence and autonomy in above-average children. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88(2), 203-214.

Wolf-Wendel, L., Ward, K., & Kinzie. J. (2009). A Tangled Web of Terms: The Overlap and Unique Contribution of Involvement, Engagement, and Integration to Understanding College Student Success. Journal of College Student Development, 50, (4), 407-428.