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Change Magazine - July-August 2014
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July-August 2014

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Editorial: Engagement and Motivation

We talk a lot in the academy about “engagement,” which we consider essential to motivating students to persist in and complete college. But what induces students to give us their attention and learning their all? Some clues to the answer thread through in the articles in this issue, as varied and unrelated as they may seem.

William Sullivan addresses this question most directly, in his article on the Lilly Program on the Theological Exploration of Vocation (PTEV). He talks about how the program helps students develop a sense of agency and control by pursuing a “quest”—the holy grail is theirs to define, and the pursuit of it can determine the direction of a life path. This reminds me of Josh Berman's Listening to Students feature on college coaching in the November/December 2012 issue of Change, in which the coaches' repeated question, “What do you want to get out of your time here?” turned him into “an adult who's ready not just to identify his or her aspirations but to go after them.”

But engagement is not entirely an individual affair. We are a social species, and collaboration is a highly engaging form of work. One of the key questions that we need to answer as online learning becomes ubiquitous is what kinds of collaboration can be done at a distance and what kinds require face-to-face interaction. As Burck Smith (in the January/February 2013 issue) and others have reminded us, brick-and-mortar institutions need to figure out what the campus has to offer that the cloud does not if they want to stay in business.

The good news is that in-person interaction is far from dead. As Edward Glaeser points out in Triumph of the City, technology innovators, the masters of virtual presence, foot the costs of meeting in person in some of the highest-rent districts in the country. That said, though, a remarkable amount of collaboration can happen online, given the right virtual environment.

In her article on engaging and motivating online students, Anne Trumbore demonstrates that those who are propelled by an interest in a topic and a capacity to do the work are much more likely to persist in and complete courses if that motivation and capacity are harnessed by means of student collaboration and virtual learning communities. Although this may be less true for academics (who are atypical in this regard) than for their students, a recent Lilly- and Teagle-funded study by the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College and the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium (HEDS) determined that peer interactions drive higher-order cognitive work in college, including analysis, synthesis, and application.

Students are not the only ones who need to be engaged and motivated if higher education is to thrive. Cooperation has benefits at the institutional, state and national levels too. Dennis Jones makes it clear that the nation's and states' completion goals cannot be met unless policymakers coordinate their efforts to enable students to enter and graduate from college. The inability of increasingly polarized politicians to work together in pursuit of common goals (our collective IQ seems to be diminishing just when we need it the most) seems like a receding promise these days. But without it, chaos ensues.

Other themes emerge in this issue that have relevance to the motivation of students and policymakers, as well as of faculty and administrators. Some research suggests that the desire to be treated fairly is hard-wired in primates—when treated unfairly, we and our closest relatives are apt to explode, sulk, or go on sit-down strikes. (To see a video of a monkey “having a tantrum because she just realized her friend is getting a juicy delicious grape in exchange for a rock, and she's only getting a lousy slice of cucumber,” go to

Adrianna Kezar and William Elliott point out the lack of fairness in, respectively, the way we treat adjunct faculty and in the differential benefits of college to graduates, depending on their families' wealth. We have seen mounting frustration over the gap between the rich and poor in this country, reflected in microcosm on our campuses, and the potential for serious social disruption in these effects of the wealth gap. Sit-down strikes may be the least of it.

People want to be treated not just fairly but with respect. This includes a sense that one's contributions are being taken seriously. Graduate students and their faculty mentors in the Stanford/SJSU program clearly see each other as partners, each of whom benefits the other, and Trumbore discusses how the shift from instructor-created to student-created content empowers online students. In T. Mills Kelly's class, students' moral dilemmas as they struggled with the implication of their trumped-up Wikipedia entry became the central locus of learning.

Being treated with respect requires being in the know—dupes are in a one-down position. Larry Shinn emphasizes the importance of campus communication as an aspect of shared governance, particularly in the face of change.

But the truth standard is high in the academy. That's why I treasure Change's Playing the Numbers feature: We offer it on the grounds that readers want their perceptions and decisions to be shaped by real data and informed opinion. And the data themselves are not exempt from critical scrutiny: Patrick Kelly and Christina Whitfield show us how difficult it can be to answer a seemingly simple question—what percentage of college students graduate?—down in the measurement weeds.

Finally, students' willingness to let their institutions and people engage and motivate them is undoubtedly shaped to some degree by how authentic we are—to what degree we model the lessons we want to teach them. Do we want them to be passionate about what we teach? The students in the Wabash study made it clear that we can make that happen only if we have authentic passion for those subjects ourselves. Do we want them to treat people fairly? Then our treatment of a crucial part of our labor pool, adjunct faculty (not to mention non-professional staff), needs to improve. Do we want them to be rigorous truth tellers? Then our communications must be clear, truthful, and open to debate.

It may be the case that in any profession, giving people agency, community, fair and respectful treatment, and information is the way to engage and motivate them. But in none is it more imperative than in ours.

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