Taking advantage of a culture of student involvement

Some of you have expressed concerns about our students’ high level of involvement in extra-curricular activities and its potential effect on academic engagement as well as mental health.  There seems to be plenty of evidence to support this concern – some of the most poignant being the writings of our students themselves in the Observer and on the Augie Blog.

Yet there is one lesser known data point regarding our students’ social behaviors that reflects well on a cultural norm within the student community.  In addition, I’d like to suggest that we might learn something from our students’ social behaviors that could be a powerful lever in deepening academic engagement.

A question on the National Survey of Student Engagement asks students how often in the last year they “attended an art exhibit, play, dance, music, theatre, or other performance.”  The response options are 1= Never, 2= Sometimes, 3= Often, 4= Very Often.  Instead of focusing on the absolute numbers here (mostly because there is no consensus ‘window’ within which we want our students’ response to sit).  Rather, I want to present this data in the context of a comparison with other comparable private liberal arts colleges and what that might suggest.

It turns out that both our freshmen and seniors attend these kinds of performances substantially more often than students at comparable private liberal arts colleges. In fact, the difference in average response between our students (freshmen – 2.70, seniors – 2.60) and students at comparable colleges (freshmen – 2.44, seniors – 2.36) is extremely statistically significant, meaning that this difference is likely attributable to something happening here.

This suggests to me that there is something in the student culture that encourages and values supporting the arts.  Our students place a relatively high value on attending and supporting friends involved in those performances.  This finding corroborates independently gathered anecdotal evidence from the Office of Student Services.

What does this have to do with deepening academic engagement? If students are in the habit of supporting their friends’ co-curricular accomplishments, I would suggest that this apparent cultural norm provides a real opportunity to increase the relative value of and interest in students’ academic accomplishments. Public presentations of student scholarship can serve as a spark to inspire informal conversations among students about intellectual ideas and their application to the world around them.  Although traditionally associated with the fine arts, there is plenty of evidence to suggest placing a greater value on public presentations or exhibits of scholarship can deepen academic engagement outside of class across many disciplines.

By the way, our NSSE data also indicates that our students don’t talk about ideas from readings or classes with others outside of class at the same rate as students at comparable institutions. Hmmm . . .

Make it a good day,

Mark

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