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Student Engagement

I took advantage of our unexpected ice day today to write about the cluster initiative and student engagement. Two ideas that have arisen from conversations about clusters that might have an impact on student engagement are: 1. giving students choice in determining their educational experience; and, 2. providing students with opportunities to do work that touches the world outside the University.

The thing that excites me most about the cluster initiative is the renewed focus on and questioning of how we engage students in their educational experience. In particular, I’m excited about the conversations we’re having about the ways in which we can improve our students’ sense of ownership of their education. I’ve written about some of these things before but I think it will be helpful for me to bring all of those thoughts into a single post.

First, there is a fair amount of research that shows student engagement is positively impacted when students are given choice in their educational experience. (Go to the Library Databases and do a search on “student engagement” and “choice” to find many scholarly examples.) One area where this research can be seen is in the gamification of education. Gamification is taking game elements and applying them to non-game environments, like classrooms, in order to motivate the participants in those environments. In other words, by looking at the research on why players are motivated to play games, we can identify game elements that, if we put them into other situations, might motivate people to engage more fully in that non-game situation. As early as 1987, researchers were trying to figure out what motivates game players to play. For example, in their article “Making Learning Fun: A Taxonomy of Instrinsic Motivations for Learning,” Malone and Lepper identified player choice as a significant motivating factor and encouraged the introduction of choice in the classroom. What does that mean?

It means that student engagement is increased when the students are presented some sort of choice in their educational experience. I have used this idea in several of my classes. For example, I’ve designed my Creating Games class so that no particular assessment in the class is required. Students know how many points they need to earn in order to achieve a particular course grade so they develop a goal for the grade they want to achieve. They are then able to plan a strategy for reaching their goal. Early in the semester, I encourage them to earn points by developing a strategy (remember–nothing, including the development of a strategy, is required) by choosing which of the assignments in the class they plan to complete. In fact, if they don’t find enough assessments that interest them in the opportunities that I provide, they can propose their own which then become available as choices for all students and become a permanent part of the class. I presented this work to the Pop Culture Association Conference in 2013, showing that the grades for the course had significantly improved. In particular, in Fall 2009, before I made this change, the students in Creating Games earned 4 As, 6 Bs, 8 Cs, 4 Ds, and 6 Fs. That was a pretty typical set of grades for the course up to that point. In Fall 2011, after I made this change, the students earned 18 As, 4 Bs, and 2 Cs. I’ve taught Creating Games at least once a year every since that time and these are now pretty typical grades in the class. Although grades and student engagement are not the same thing, one of the observations I have made is that when a student does poorly on a particular assessment, they then reengage with the material to complete a second assessment in order to earn more points. This seems to me to be exactly the kind of engaged behavior we want to promote in our students when they fail to grasp some material in our classes.

The research on the motivating role of choice in student engagement has led the General Education Working Group (GEWG) to think about other ways we might encourage student choice. The first example we came up with has to do with how our incoming students are introduced to their curriculum. It is understandable that when a student has chosen a particular major, they are automatically scheduled into the introductory course(s) for that major. What makes less sense if we are concerned about student engagement is that we automatically schedule students into 4 of their 5 courses, even when some of those courses are general education courses which can be fulfilled in a variety of ways. I remember when we made the decision to do this “hard scheduling.” We found that students were frustrated during orientation when they tried to register for classes because there were so few seats available in the general education courses that they often couldn’t find enough for a full schedule. That frustration was difficult for everyone involved in the registration process. We decided to avoid the frustration by scheduling students into the gen ed courses before they arrived on campus so that if there weren’t enough seats, we could deal with it before the students were around to see the messiness. In the process, we turned a situation where students had some possibility of choice and high possibility of frustration into a situation where students had an extremely low possibility of choice and a low possibility of frustration. That’s not a bad thing. But an unintended consequence is that students aren’t engaged in many of their gen ed courses because they weren’t engaged in choosing them. They see those gen ed courses as just something they have to get through, a set of boxes that they just have to check in order to get to their “real” education, their majors. A better solution to the original problem would be to examine our processes of course scheduling to find a way that we could ensure there are enough seats in the gen ed courses that students want to take and then allow the students to choose their own courses. I’m not sure what that solution might look like but I think the cluster initiative provides the impetus we need in order to try to give students that choice.

Second, one of the foundational ideas of the cluster initiative is that students will engage in “real world” work. There is quite a bit of research that students are more engaged in their education when they see the ways in which their work touches the outside world. (Again, go do some searches in the library databases for “real world” “student engagement” to find examples of that research.) I think there are a lot of ways to implement this “real world” component to engage students.

One way to implement a “real world” component in our classes is to have the students create artifacts that will be seen by more than just the instructor. For example, noted educator, writer, and researcher Cathy Davidson has written, “One reason why I always provide a public, online component for the work produced by my students is publication gives a level of identification and reality to the work students produce.” (If you aren’t familiar with Davidson’s work, I highly recommend it. Start with HASTAC, the group she co-founded to focus on “changing the way we teach + learn.”) I have used this idea myself in my Analyzing Television class. The first time I taught the class, I had students write a series of short papers that I read and graded. They were ok. The second time I taught the class, I had the students individually create blogs and post their papers as blog entries. Although these blogs were public, I was really the only one who was reading them. Again, the entries were ok. The third time I taught that class, in Spring 2016, I created a class blog that I gave all the students in the class “Contributor” access to so they could submit their series of blog posts there. Each time they submitted a blog post, I publicized the blog via a variety of social media platforms, including the Communication and Media Studies Department Facebook page, where they could all see it. I talked in class about the public reading their work. And whenever there was a comment on someone’s post, I talked about it in class. The quality of their work as a group got better and better as they realized that people besides me were (potentially) reading their work. It seems that we might improve student engagement by rethinking the kinds of assignments we give in class. Are there ways that we can reduce the number of assignments that we give that are meant for the teacher’s eyes only?

Another way that we can provide opportunities for student work to touch the outside world is to have them work on projects that have some real world application or impact. We can do this in a number of ways. One example from this semester is the Resilience Project which is described as “an interdisciplinary exploration.” Ten faculty members and nearly 200 students from a variety of courses in disciplines as diverse as Art, Environmental Science, Philosophy and others used their disciplinary perspectives to create work related to the idea of “resilience.” Their work has been combined with the work of visiting artist Jason Mitcham to create an exhibit in the Karl Drerup Art Gallery where gallery visitors see and interact with it. Another example from this semester is that students in one of Roxana Wright’s classes is using real data from an external partner as the content on which they learn and practice a variety of types of business analysis. There are many external partners who are interested in figuring out how to get students in our classes involved in the many projects that the partners are working on.

The last thing I’m going to write about concerning how to get student work to touch the outside world is the one I’m most excited about. We currently use Moodle for our learning management system (LMS). An LMS is an electronic space where the materials of a course can be gathered. I use Moodle to post my courses’ syllabus, semester schedule, and assignments. I usually also set the course page up so that all student work is submitted on Moodle. This makes grading easier for me since I only have to look in one place for all submissions. I also grade the student work right there in Moodle which is convenient for the students because they have access to all of their grades as soon as I enter them. But Tom Vander Ark has pointed out in Education Week that LMSs have a serious pedagogical problem: “… the data and work produced on them belongs to the institution. Finish the course, leave the school, and its all gone.” The message we send to students when we use an LMS is that their work is not their own, that it belongs to someone else. The work belongs to the course. The message we send to faculty when we use an LMS is even worse. When a faculty member is setting up their courses in the LMS  for the semester, they usually import the structure and content of the course from a previous semester. So when I teach Creating Games, I create the Moodle page by importing items from a previous semester when I taught Creating Games. The only thing I don’t import from semester to semester is the work of the students. The only thing that is not important in a course I teach, not worthy of carrying over from semester to semester, is the work of my students. That’s a powerful, horrible message to send to the faculty member.

Luckily, there are people who have been thinking about the importance of student work for a while. Eight years ago today, Jim Groom wrote about the need for students to create and own their digital identities by claiming “a domain of one’s own.” The phrase is a play on Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own,” in which she argued that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” The idea of a domain of one’s own is that each student is given their own domain name that they get to choose and the space associated with that domain to be able to create their own web site containing whatever materials they want to put their and arranged in whatever way they see fit. For example, when I first started at PSU, each faculty member was given space on the domain to create web pages if they wanted. My space was (is–although I no longer use it) Note that this URL clearly identifies the fact that PSU owns this space. Because PSU owns the space, I don’t have access to do whatever I want with the space. For example, I (probably) couldn’t add and configure my own private installation of WordPress (I say probably because I have never asked permission to do that). If I owned the domain, the URL would be something like Note that now it looks like I own this space…because I do. The Domain of One’s Own project makes domain names and the space attached to them affordable for students. Jim Groom started Reclaim Hosting so that he could provide this service to individuals and to institutions.

The exciting news is that PSU has just started a pilot Domain of One’s Own pilot program. The vision is that students will get their own domains and keep their work from their classes there rather than (or maybe sometimes, in addition to) Moodle. The work then persists and stays with the student rather than disappearing at the end of a course. And, of course, the work is public. The student will also have the opportunity to do whatever they like with that space. They can install WordPress and other tools. They can organize things as they see fit. They own the space. And in the process, they will learn valuable technical skills. I think this change in pedagogy has the potential to have the greatest impact on student engagement of anything we’re currently working on.

I think this post shows what I’ve been saying a lot lately. There’s a lot going on on campus!

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Beyond the Skills Gap Revisited – Desert of My Real Life

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