Meaningful engagement is the foundation for building strong relationships between students and their school. When these relationships are maintained and cultivated, they have the power to fuel success for everyone involved. 

The concept of student engagement has been the topic of debate among higher education leaders for decades — but the term itself is fairly new. 

So, what do we really mean when we talk about student engagement? 

Is it defined by involvement in on-campus activities, active participation in classroom discussions, or social interaction among peers — like after-hours study sessions? All of these experiences are part of the student engagement equation, but they aren’t the only factors to consider. 

The lack of specificity around what student engagement means has too often led institutions to invest in approaches that are not ideally suited to their student success objectives. That’s why it’s critical to identify what student engagement means for your school. There may never be a universally agreed-upon definition of student engagement, but understanding what it means at your school can save you from spending time and money on the wrong strategies and tools for your needs. 

Mainstay’s quick guide, “How to define student engagement at your college,” is your handbook for identifying what student engagement means at your institution. This free resource includes the foundational building blocks and critical questions you can use to spark conversations about student engagement with other leaders at your school. 

In our white paper, “Defining student engagement: The search for higher education’s most elusive success metric,” we propose a shared student engagement definition. The guide breaks down that definition and transforms it into actionable steps you can use to pinpoint exactly what student engagement means at your institution.

Here’s a bit more information about what went into our proposed definition:

A definition of student engagement that’s rooted in history 

In the mid-1980s, psychologist and professor Alexander Astin first came up with the “Theory of involvement.” At its highest level, it attempted to measure the amount of physical and psychological energy students devote to their academic experience.

Astin acknowledged that there were gray areas within his concept — in particular, that engagement often occurs along a continuum. Astin also hypothesized that there was a direct relationship between student involvement and academic performance — a correlation many higher education leaders are well aware of today. 

Fast-forward to 2000, when Indiana University’s National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) was introduced as a way to capture real-time information on student engagement, directly from students themselves. Dr. George Kuh, founding director of the survey, wanted to move beyond the hype of college rankings, and help higher education institutions and their students measure the experience of campus life itself. Since then, about 6 million students have taken the survey, which has enabled administrators to better understand the amount of time and effort students put into “educationally purposeful” activities, and how well the institution supports these endeavors.

The concept of student engagement has grown in importance in the years since, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, many questions still remain on how exactly to define it — and how to foster engagement both in and outside of the classroom.

Building a shared definition of student engagement

Having a shared definition of student engagement provides a foundation that helps institutions keep students connected and on track to graduate — and sets them up for success after college. Based on our close collaboration with partner institutions, Mainstay considers four key measures when creating strategies and tools that support student engagement. These building blocks are the foundation of our proposed definition, and they can inform yours, as well:

  • Involvement. How are students spending their time — and, more specifically, how much of that time is devoted to activities that help them succeed both in and out of the classroom?
  • Interaction. How can you drive positive outcomes by promoting student interactions with peers, instructors, counselors, coaches, and technology-based support networks?
  • Intentionality. How can you cultivate an environment that is conducive to organic interactions beyond the walls of the classroom?
  • Quality of effort. When an institution intentionally creates opportunities for involvement and interaction, quality of effort is likely to follow. How can you help make these activities more meaningful for your students? 

Building on existing frameworks with these four foundational building blocks, Mainstay defines student engagement as: “A measure of a student’s level of interaction with others, plus the quantity of involvement in and quality of effort directed toward activities that lead to persistence and completion.”

A truly engaged institution will also work to remove barriers to performing basic activities, and intentionally create opportunities for involvement and interaction that foster a culture of deeper learning and connection.

Use Mainstay’s methodology to redefine student engagement at your school

The concept of student engagement is fluid and continuously evolving. Putting student engagement into action will look different for every institution, depending on each institution’s unique needs and objectives and its students’ varied backgrounds and goals. 

Instead of prescribing a rigid definition, our hope is that you will use this guide to spark important and ongoing conversations about what student engagement means for your school and your students. The definition you create will be an invaluable tool as you develop a plan for helping students succeed throughout their educational journeys and beyond.

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