Experiential Student Engagement

By Ann M. Pearson

Student engagement is one of those oft-cited rally cries for colleges in the pursuit of student success. When students are authentically engaged in a project, lesson, event, or content, their enthusiasm drives learning and mastery. It’s fun to watch, and it represents the best possible method to establish a love of lifelong learning. The fine arts have this model down pat. Students spend hours inside and outside of traditional class time to learn lines and stage cues, musical compositions, and choreography for performances that last only a few hours. They invest countless hours perfecting stage design, costumes, gallery pieces, ensemble compositions, and the front-of-house details for marketing, ticket sales, and performance management. Very rarely do these students need to be enticed to complete this class work for an external grade. Motivation expert Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, asserts that true motivation comes from autonomy and the ability to exert self-control. Fine art students are motivated in ways we don’t always allow in a traditional classroom setting.

Many of my colleagues at San Jacinto College are working to change that and bring experiential student engagement into their courses. Rhonda Bell, Dean of Allied Health, notes why simulations work so well in the healthcare field. Bell reports that at San Jacinto College, “Educators incorporate human simulators, standardized patients, and well-planned scenarios to create active learning environments. This methodology facilitates experiential learning in these safe, real-life scenarios in state-of-the-art simulated hospital environments.” Learning the nuances of chest compressions, starting IVs, and catheterization are just more effective on simulated patients for all parties involved—do-overs in this discipline can be painful.

Philosophy and history students can take on the roles of specific figures from history and work with each other as if they were these figures to understand all aspects of that time and the thought patterns that led up to governmental, social, and religious changes students may not have comprehended from only reading about the events.

One year I coordinated with the students in my literature class to have them take on roles of figures in the Victorian period to create an interactive scene for a test grade. The whole-class role-playing project involved significant research, practice, and study. The students discussed the arbitrary nature of class structure when some were randomly cast as servants and some aristocracy. Students learned about the importance of money, education, sanitation, and pluck. For the first time, several students admitted, they finally got why people would leave everything they had to emigrate to an unknown land to risk success in a different social climate. Despite the extraordinary effort we all put into this project, I repeat it as often as possible because those students will not forget that learning experience.

Another way we promote engagement is to include numerous opportunities for students to work with other professionals beyond their professors. We have a program called the embedded librarian that assigns a dedicated research librarian into a class to work directly with those students with the instructor of record. Information literacy is crucial for students as they navigate the constantly changing landscape of the overwhelming amount of data to which we have access. Noted academic librarian Dr. Connie Capers Thorson reminds us all that librarians have so much practical knowledge to share with students that we need to incorporate them more often in our courses. Our libraries are like treasure chests sitting open on our campuses that many students pass daily without even looking into. Learning how to take advantage of this wealth will serve students forever.

We have opportunities across disciplines and all over campus to engage students in thinking and learning. Student engagement doesn’t have to be elaborate or long-term, but the end results will be.


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