Liberal Education

From the Editor

At first blush, the term “engaged learning” appears to be one of those bits of educationese that name something—typically a new educational trend or “movement”—that would be hard even to imagine opposing. (After all, who would be for disengaged learning?) Such terms seem to engender consensus. But what does “engaged learning” really mean?

Having reviewed the relevant literature, Lynn Swaner concludes there is no "unifying definition of engaged learning.” In fact, she reports, “there is considerable confusion in the literature regarding the term ‘engagement,’ which is further compounded by its growing popularity among scholars
and practitioners.” Stephen Bowen, writing recently in Peer Review, concurs: “an explicit consensus about what we actually mean by engagement or why it is important is lacking. Is engagement an end in itself, or a means to other ends? Is engagement as important as other characteristics of a good education?”

In light of this confusion, one novelty of the Bringing Theory to Practice project is its specificity. Developed in 2003 by AAC&U and the Charles Engelhard Foundation, the project is currently gathering evidence of measurable and replicable outcomes that link specific forms of engaged learning—namely, service learning and community-based research experiences—to behavioral choices and to student development. Moreover, it explores the key questions about engaged learning through a focus on certain prevalent patterns of student disengagement, including substance abuse and depression.

Three years on, the Bringing Theory to Practice project has involved over two hundred colleges and universities. Forty institutions have received grant support for their programmatic or research work, and seven institutions now serve as national demonstration sites and as the focus of the project’s research. The Featured Topic section of this issue presents perspectives on what these participating campuses have learned.

Notwithstanding the sanguine belief in the possibilities of engaged learning on which it is premised, the Bringing Theory to Practice project does not promise to solve the problem of student disengagement. Indeed, as Swaner readily admits, “it is unlikely that engaged learning will constitute a ‘silver bullet’ for either substance abuse or depression, given the complex causes and risk factors for both.” Rather, what the project is now exploring is a particularly promising approach to the problem. The results of that exploration—findings from the research, the demonstration sites, and the related work on campuses—will appear in the summer 2007 issue of Peer Review

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