Posted by: Ellie Kutz | June 1, 2011

Engaging Learners across the Curriculum

What do courses in Arthurian Literature, Critical and Creative Thinking, American Studies, Applied Linguistics, Marketing, and Freshman Writing have in common?  In each case the instructors are using online tools to engage learners: to invite them to share their understandings through online discussions, to share their writing by posting to blogs and wikis, and/or to engage in collaborative projects.  Other presenters at this year’s combined CIT and Educational Technology Conference focused on non-technologically based ways of engaging learners through writing activities, film study, service learning.  Across almost all sessions and disciplines, student engagement was a common theme.   

The Profile of Student Engagement at UMass Boston

In recent years there has been a national focus on the issue of students’ engagement in their education—looking at the time and energy that students spend on their learning and at their attitudes and motivation.  The National Survey for Student Engagement ( has been gathering information about student demographics and about the extent to which first-year and senior students engage in educational practices that are associated with high achievement since 2000 at campuses across the US, and UMass Boston has been participating since a preliminary version of the survey was tested in 1999.  The Office of Institutional Research webpage ( ) offers snapshots of some of our results.

The NSSE focuses on five benchmarks:   level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student interaction with faculty members, enriching educational experience, and a supportive campus environment, and although UMass Boston’s demographics differ from the norm across institutions (our students being older and more culturally diverse), on the first four of these benchmarks, our students’ find these elements present in their own learning to a degree that matches or exceeds the assessments of their counterparts at other universities. However, one striking difference was that our students (both freshmen and seniors) were much less likely to have spent time working with other students or engaging with fellow students socially outside of class.  This isn’t surprising, given that our students do not live on campus and that many of them work off campus for more than 20 hours a week (twice as many of our freshman respondents report working more than 20 hours a week than respondents from all public 4 year institutions) and are more likely to be caretakers for dependents (again twice as many of our freshmen).

 Student Engagement in the Classroom

 The classrooms that most engage students are often those that support active learning.  Active learning can be seen as:

 Anything that students do in a classroom other than merely passively listening to an instructor’s lecture. This includes everything from listening practices which help the students to absorb what they hear, to short writing exercises in which students react to lecture material, to complex group exercises in which students apply course material to “real life” situations and/or to new problems  (Paulson and Faust).

UMass/Boston faculty, as represented in their conference presentations, are actively involved in supporting such active learning on the part of their students.  For example,  Amy Rex Smith has students in her large lecture nursing classes engage in a variety of small group classroom activities, moving beyond “Death by Powerpoint: Engaging Diverse Students in the Large Lecture”;  Duncan Nelson has students write and share their writing experiences in an experience he calls “Writing Out Loud”; and Lamonte Egle, Evelyn Navarre, and Cheryl Nixon of the English Department are working to have students embrace “multiple levels of engagement” beyond traditional discussion format in their work on “Breaking the Rules of Discussion:  How to Rethink the Student-Centered Classroom.”  Service learning engages students by allowing them to apply their learning to “real life” situation, and members of UMass Boston Service Learning Outreach Team (Joan Arches, Carol Chandler, Susan DeSanto-Madeyo, Annette Floreczak, and Jackie Lageson) shared the ways in which an interdisciplinary faculty team is creating a related cluster of courses that address community-identified needs at the Harbor Point Apartment Community.

 Student Engagement Online

 Engaging students in their learning is one of the key challenges of online courses, and the Quality Matters standards for the institutional peer review of online courses identify student engagement as one of the eight major standards that courses must meet.  Gene Shwalb (Instructional Design), Carol Allen (Nursing) and Kate Kiss (Applied Linguistics) discussed their own experience of that peer review process through which both Carol and Kate have had their courses certified as meeting the Quality Matters standards. In a separate presentation, Kate shared her strategies for helping students become more interdependent and involved in collaborative activities that build a class community, for example, having students do a collaborative analysis of a text in small groups.  And Bob Schoenberg of Critical and Creative Thinking involves his learners in “Student Collaboration Online” by pairing them with online learning buddies, as well as through the carefully structured use of chat, message boards, email and file-sharing for collaborative work. It’s clear then that where students are meeting only online, faculty can continue to support their engagement by re-imagining many of the techniques that are used in the classroom—having students participate in group projects, share and respond to each others’ writing.           .

Student Engagement in Hybrid Courses

Face to face courses with online components can make collaborative, engaged work possible for students who would not be able to schedule face-to-face meetings and while allow time for more extended discussions and other activities like peer response to writing than would be possible only during classroom time.  As students do more of their learning online, the potential for increasing student engagement in online environments increases for several reasons.  Because much online learning is asynchronous, allowing students to post responses to discussions and assignments at different times, online exchanges typically allow learners more time to think critically and reflectively.  Online sites such as Wikispaces can support interactive, collaborative work in learning communities that become communities of inquiry (as has been the case in the Gateway Seminars for entering students in the College of Science and Mathematics). And, at the same time, the online environment supports multimodal communication, incorporating visual and other means of representation that can promote new thinking..  Conference presenters Lynnell Thomas (American Studies) and Mara Earley (English) support the sharing of student writing online through their use of Blackboard and Wikispaces (see article in this issue), while Susan Mraz uses the visual and audio capabilities of Voice Threads to enhance her students’ learning of Spanish.

Recent studies of engagement in online learning, using NSSE data from other institutions, suggest that student engagement in online courses is generally equal to and often exceeds engagement in the work of face-to-face classrooms, so that a large percentage of students feel challenged to do their best work (see Robinson et al), particularly where faculty create purposeful course designs that promote interaction, participation, and communication.  And while early NSSE  responses showed UMass Boston students reporting that they were less likely to have used technology and e-media in their learning, by 2004 (perhaps with the addition of more technology resources for faculty and students and the offering of significant outreach and faculty training around that time) that difference had disappeared.

The faculty presentations at this year’s conference showed the extent to which our faculty are incorporating active and collaborative learning strategies, not only in the classroom but through a rich variety of online activities outside of the classroom, significantly increasing the opportunities for our students to become fully engaged in their learning despite other constraints in their lives.

 Paulson, D. and Faust, J.   Active Learning for the College Classroom. Also cited by

Robinson, Chin Choo, Hulinger, Hallet, New Benchmarks in Higher Education: Student Engagement in Online Learning. Journal of Education for Business; Nov/Dec2008, Vol. 84 Issue 2, p101-109.


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