By now it is cliché to point out the “disruptions” facing and the “revolutions” occurring in higher education today. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are drawing hundreds of thousands of students, and nearly as many headlines, as a radical force for change. The financial model for many colleges and universities also is teetering on a cliff edge as mounting student debt and an institutional addiction to tuition increases erode what had seemed to be solid ground not so long ago.

And then there’s the problem of student learning. As Academically Adrift revealed, and many suspected, not all of our students are learning nearly so much as we had promised or hoped. Some now claim that it’s time to toss out the course credit hour. Or, as Randy Bass argues, perhaps we have entered a post-course era, a time when the formal curriculum is no longer “the primary place where the most significant learning takes place” in an undergraduate’s education. And then there’s the drumbeat for gamification, transforming college by applying the lessons of successful game design.

In the face of all of this, why should a new Center, or a faculty member, or an institution, focus on something as last century as engaged learning?

One answer to that question is that research clearly demonstrates that engaging in certain activities contributes to student learning. George Kuh and others have identified “high-impact practices” that scholars have found to correlate with the kinds of student outcomes that AAC&U calls the “Essential Learning Outcomes”:

  • Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world;
  • Intellectual and practical skills like critical thinking and competency in written and oral communication;
  • Personal and social responsibility;
  • Integrative and applied learning.

Engaged learning activities, Kuh’s high-impact practices and others (more on those in the next post), are a means to those ends. We care about engagement because it helps our students to learn.

However, another answer to that question is that engagement is more than just a means. As Lee Shulman argues,  “Engagement … is not just a proxy for learning but a fundamental purpose of education.” In higher education, students encounter a wide range of ideas, experiences, and people. Meaningful engagement with those forms of diversity is the point of higher education. Engagement, then, can be an end in itself.

And there’s one more answer, too. While engaged learning is both a means and an end, it’s also a heuristic – it’s a tool that allows us to explain what we experience in the world. As Shulman reminds us, heuristics like engaged learning “help us think more clearly about what we’re doing, and they afford us a language through which we can exchange ideas and dilemmas…. They are powerful in these ways as long as we don’t take them too seriously, as long as we don’t transform mnemonic into dogma or heuristic into orthodoxy.”

In this blog and through the Center for Engaged Learning, we intend to explore the complexity of engaged learning – as a means, as an end, and as a heuristic. We welcome your comments and suggestions.

Peter Felten is the Director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University. He also is assistant provost, director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching & Learning, and associate professor of history.

How to cite this post

Felten, Peter. 2013, May 24. Why engaged learning? [Blog Post]. Retrieved from