The heart of engaged learning: What students do and think
by Peter Felten
Herbert Simon, one of the most influential American academics of the 20th century, succinctly described the micro-level of student engagement: “Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn” (quoted in Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 1).
What precisely should the student do and think when they are engaged? My synthesis of the research is that to be fully engaged learners, students need to do five things:
- Time: Students need to spend time focused on educationally purposeful activities.
- Effort: Students need to put forth considerable effort in these activities, persisting through confusion and challenging themselves to move beyond their existing knowledge.
- Feedback: Students need to receive and respond constructively to feedback on their knowledge and performance so they can adjust their effort in ways that maximize their learning.
- Practice: Students need to practice applying and using what they are learning in different contexts so that they become fluent with their new knowledge and skills.
- Reflect: Students need to reflect on both what and how they have learned so that they can develop the metacognitive capacities that will allow them to learn even more deeply in the future.
As they act in these ways, to be fully engaged students also need to think three things:
- “I belong here”: Students need to believe that they belong in higher education and within their discipline of study to learn effectively; students who lack a sense of belonging are likely to interpret normal academic struggles as evidence that they cannot be successful as undergraduates.
- “I can learn this”: Students need to have a growth mindset in order to persist through the difficult stages of learning.
- “I find this meaningful”: Students who value what they are learning are more motivated and persistent because they find meaning in their work, even when it is difficult.
Highly engaged students will experience these factors as mutually reinforcing; they will willingly put in time and effort on academic work that they find meaningful, and they will deepen their sense of belonging as they respond to constructive feedback and practice what they are learning in diverse contexts. In short, engagement creates a reinforcing cycle that fosters continued and deepened engagement.
The heart of engaged learning, in other words, involves designing (and aligning) teaching, assessments, and curricula to challenge and support students to do and think in these ways.
Adapted from Felten, Peter. (2019 – forthcoming). Student Engagement in the United States: From Customers to Partners? In Masahiro Tanaka, ed., Student Engagement in Quality Assurance: International Collaborations with University Students for the Enhancement of Their Learning. Routledge.
Peter Felten is a professor of history, assistant provost for teaching and learning, and executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University.