Peer Review

Engaged Learning: Are We All on the Same Page?

Engagement is increasingly cited as a distinguishing characteristic of the best learning in American higher education today. Vision statements, strategic plans, learning outcomes, and agendas of national reform movements strive to create engaged learning and engaged learners. Despite this emerging emphasis, 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 such as intentionality, balanced breadth and depth, complexity, multidisciplinarity, integration, and contextual awareness? And, while we are asking questions, perhaps we should begin by asking--Engagement with what?

Educators think of engagement in four related but different ways. The most fundamental is student engagement with the learning process: just getting students actively involved. The second is student engagement with the object of study. Here the emphasis is on stimulation of students' learning by direct experience of something new. Another is student engagement with contexts of the subject of study. This gives emphasis to the importance of context as it may affect and be affected by the students' primary subject. When social and civic contexts are considered, this inevitably raises ethical issues. Finally, there is student engagement with the human condition, especially in its social, cultural, and civic dimensions. According to this way of thinking, the human condition is the ultimate subject of study to which individual subjects and disciplines should be understood as subordinate. Each of these ways of thinking about engagement has an interesting history, relationship to the others, and relationship to the goals of liberal education.

Student engagement with the learning process is a concern as old as teaching itself. The disengaged student daydreaming in the back row has always been a challenge for his or her teacher. To successfully compete with all the other forces impinging on the consciousnesses of children, adolescents, and young adults, teachers must gain a larger measure of influence than they are normally granted by developmental processes established through some four million years of human evolution. Passion, sensitivity, creativity, and persistence have long been important to teachers' success in getting students to pay attention to the learning process and become engaged learners. Today, teachers make extensive use of pedagogies designed to compel students' active engagement. Grounded in advances in our understanding of how students learn, these pedagogies of engagement include frequent short-term feedback, writing across the curriculum, cooperative learning, and learning communities. The National Survey of Student Engagement, which assesses the extent to which these pedagogies are used on various campuses, has become one de facto operational definition of engagement.

Although just paying attention to the learning process may be enough engagement for students to acquire knowledge and skills, teachers who value liberal learning* are not likely to consider this sufficient. They will be interested in transformative learning--learning in which students grow in response to what they have learned. Here, engagement is more intense and more personal. As students attempt to reconcile what they learn with what they previously believed, they demonstrate growth in understanding, values, and commitment typical of mature cognitive development (Perry 1981). The idea that intense personal engagement in the learning process is important to the development of values has achieved cultural currency. For example, in a recent interview in Newsweek magazine, Wynton Marsalis emphasized the importance of intense personal engagement for development of aesthetic values in music when he stated, "The entire country has been in decline in terms of the arts. . . . Short of being given rituals of initiation into adulthood--and art courses that demand engagement and development of your taste--there is nothing to do but descend." In some cases, new learning challenges old values and results in new values. In other cases, new learning deepens already-held values. As the learner's values are examined and refined, broader experience and growing confidence enable growing commitment.

Teachers who want their students to engage with transformative learning processes confront an additional challenge. Beyond the challenge of just getting students to pay attention, teachers find that students resist transformation--it necessarily threatens the student's current identity and worldview. Socrates found that his students resisted conclusions to which he led them when those conclusions differed from their already-held beliefs. Teachers have the same experience today. A survey of students at an elite liberal arts college revealed that the majority did not want to engage in a discussion unless they had firmly held views on the specific issues and felt well prepared to defend them (Trosset 1998). Students felt that the purpose of discussion was not so much to learn as it was to defend one's already established views and convince others of them.

The emphasis in engaging the object of study is different. Here students are asked to directly examine, characterize, analyze, and evaluate the object of study so they may build knowledge in response to it. This approach has always been fundamental to learning in the sciences. Laboratory and field exercises and experiments produce direct engagement with the object of study and, in using the methods of empiricism, students learn just as scientists learn. For objects of study typically not examined in the sciences, the same concept is readily extended in close examination (close reading) and rigorous analysis of history, literature, cultural anthropology, etc. Engaging the object of study assumes engaging the learning process, whether or not learning is transformational. Learning environments typical of institutions committed to liberal learning give priority to providing both opportunities and motivation for students to engage the objects of their study.

Engagement with the contexts in which the subject of study is situated adds two dimensions to learning. One is breadth. Complementary disciplinary perspectives on a single subject produce a more holistic and thus realistic analysis. This is as true in science disciplines as it is in any other disciplines. Let's say we were learning about the population dynamics of fish in a lake. We would understand this better if, in addition to the population's birth and death rates, we knew the effects of pollution and weather cycles on fish populations and the effect of the local human economy and culture on fishing pressure. If eating fish is taboo, it would have a different effect than if fish meals are customary for all major holidays. Such an approach to learning helps to remedy the alienation that some learners feel in response to analytical reductionism. Although research that concentrates on ever smaller fractions of nature intentionally isolated from context in controlled experiments achieves levels of precision that are truly impressive, its relevance to our understanding of the wider world is often an unresolved question. Alfred North Whitehead, one of the great scientific/ mathematical analysts of the twentieth century, argued that despite their power, abstract systems of scientific knowledge should not be mistaken for the concrete reality of nature (Whitehead 1967). Many learners, students and their teachers alike, find exchanging some precision for the realistic complexity that comes with engaging context to be a gratifying trade.

When engagement with contexts includes social and civic contexts, the subject's ethical dimension is revealed. This was not always considered to be appropriate. There was a moment in the history of the analytical ideal when cold objectivity and disengagement from social context was considered essential to the purity of science. The dysfunctional consequences of this view were immortalized in a 1965 song by satirist Tom Lehrer who, in a parody of rocket scientist Werhner von Braun, wrote: "'Once zey are up, who cares where zey come down? / Zat's not my department' says Wernher von Braun." Of all the aspects of a subject that may be intellectually stimulating from a detached, abstract perspective, some will hold greater social and civic significance than others. Thus, awareness of the subject's social and civic situation can guide analysis and interpretation, and can shape priorities for future learning. Understanding context also helps to anticipate the consequences of our acting on knowledge. Among programs that train students for the professions of engineering, law, nursing, and medicine, among others, the importance of engaging the social and civic contexts of professional practice has become an article of faith.

There are some teachers for whom engagement with the human condition, especially in its social, cultural, and civic dimensions, is the most worthy, compelling, and legitimate approach to learning. We are, after all, humans ourselves, and we should be most capable of, and in need of, learning about humanity. If engagement with the object of study reflects the analytical ideal that dominated intellectual developments through the 1960s, then engagement with the human condition reflects the "cultural turn" of the 1970s that continues to the present (Bender 1997). Beginning with the view that all knowledge is socially constructed and highly influenced by the social context of its construction, it would follow that understanding necessarily depends on knowledge of the sociocultural context. Although scientists have found this perspective less essential than others, it unquestionably has been the dominant view shaping intellectual developments in the humanities and social sciences in the last thirty years. Rightly, then, it is a powerful influence in shaping goals for learning in these disciplines. The cultural turn is so pervasive that it may be equally influential in institutions dedicated to liberal education and in others, although the priority given to student-teacher interaction in liberal education may favor more thorough development of this perspective on engagement.

Many of these concepts of engagement cover ground similar to that covered by initiatives in higher education known by other names:

  • Engagement with the learning process is similar to active learning.
  • Engagement with the object of study is similar to experiential learning.
  • Engagement with contexts generally is similar to multidisciplinary learning.
  • Engagement with social and civic contexts is similar to service learning.

Perhaps the most important contribution of engagement is the focus it brings to the learner's personal relationship to learning. This emphasis is consistent with our recent appreciation that knowledge is more constructed than received, and that the primary agent of learning is the student. Thus, teaching and learning are different, and a focus on the learner is essential to the improvement of teaching. From this perspective, we can understand engagement as both the means to an end and an end in itself. Teachers strive to produce engagement as a means to learning. If a student is engaged in any of the ways discussed above, then learning of some kind would seem assured.

Among the essential characteristics of an undergraduate education that prepares graduates for life in the twenty-first century, engagement is surely as important as any other. Intentionality, balanced breadth and depth, complexity, multidisciplinarity, integration, contextual awareness, and engagement are at once characteristics of the learning process and characteristics of what is learned. Although none of these acts independently, engagement would seem a prerequisite for the others. Considered within the full range of meanings discussed above, engaged learners are those who complement and interpret what they learn from others with direct knowledge based on personal experience, who develop appropriately complex understandings situated in relevant contexts, and who recognize learning's moral implications and consequences. Inasmuch as it contributes to such signature outcomes of a contemporary liberal education, the emphasis on engagement has served learners well and will continue to be important for the foreseeable future in science and many other disciplines.

* For an elaboration of the goals of a contemporary liberal education, see Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College (AAC&U 2002).


Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). 2002. Greater expectations: A new vision for learning as a nation goes to college. Washington, DC: AAC&U.

Bender, T. 1997. Politics, intellect and the American university, 1945-1995. In American academic culture in transformation, ed. T. Bender and C. E. Schorske, 17-54. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Perry, W. G., Jr. 1981. Cognitive and ethical growth: The making of meaning. In The modern American college: Responding to the new realities of diverse students and a changing society, ed. A. W. Chickering, 76-116. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Trosset, C. 1998. Obstacles to open discussion and critical thinking: The Grinnell College study. Change Magazine. September/October 1998: 44-49.

Whitehead, A. N. 1967. Science and the modern world: Lowell lectures, 1925. New York: Free Press.

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