What is Student Engagement and Why Does it Matter?

“Student engagement” is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days. Let’s take a look at what it means for you.

Hey, John Picone here! Let me ask you a question: What does the term “student engagement” mean to you? If you don’t have a clear, concise answer to that question, and one that includes a measureable action plan, don’t worry… you’re not alone. It’s not surprising then that student engagement is likely to mean something different to different schools, the student, your faculty, and even between campuses. Knowing what drives engagement at your school is vital to the success of your students and your school.

Student engagement occurs when students make a significant, psychological and emotional investment in their learning and take pride in incorporating what they learn into their lives. While it is not surprising that engaged learners have more positive educational outcomes, such as regular attendance, higher graduation rates, greater loan repayment rates and gainful employment, the question remains, “What are the critical factors influencing student engagement?”

Recent studies have shown that two factors critical to driving student engagement are a student’s personal characteristics and the resources of the school. Student characteristics such as prior academic performance, attitudes towards grades, study habits, and student interests are strong predictors of how well a student will perform in school. Also, a student’s perception of school resources such as the enrollment process, admissions representative, faculty, advisor, classes and campus, all play a vital role in affecting student engagement.

When it comes to student engagement, there are some things you can do to make a positive impact. You’ll need to make a consistent, diligent effort, but even implementing a few simple things can drive engagement and in turn improve educational outcomes. For example, ensuring that teachers know their student’s name can make a difference. If you need some ideas or more information, you can find plenty on our blog about the student engagement study we did with Imagine America.

Once implemented, how do you measure how successful your efforts are, or even if they have any impact at all? Well, one way is to look at the numbers. GPA, graduation rates, loan default rates, and job placement statistics- all numbers that you manage today – pay attention to them and watch for trends. Another way to see if your students are engaged is a simple one: ask! Survey your current students and compare results against previous surveys and national norms. The biggest advantage that surveys bring is that you can get actionable information about what’s lacking so you can take steps to improve.

With enrollments down, now more than ever it is important to identify deficiencies in both the student and your school where improvements can be made to keep the student engaged in their educational experience... So if you want to excel as an institution and be a magnet for aspiring graduates, you know what to do: Engage!

That’s all I have for today! I want to thank you for spending a few minutes with me. Be sure to visit our blog for more videos and helpful articles, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter for news and information on workplace and human resource issues, student achievement, and more.


There is surely more to student engagement than student characteristics and school resources. The author’s definition of engagement fits nicely within frameworks based on intrinsic motivation. One such theoretical framework that has generated a broad range of research is Self-Determination Theory. This theory is based on individuals’ experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

While personal characteristics as a critical factor is understandable, I would expect school resources to be far less critical for student engagement than many other factors, such as student-teacher interaction, inclusion in decision-making processes, teacher characteristics and style, among others. I mention these because they are likely to produce greater effects on an individual’s psychological experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness than the possible effects school resources may produce.

Brett Wells's picture

Jose, thank you for your thoughtful comments. Please realize that “Student Characteristics” and “School Characteristics” each have a number of components. For example, School Characteristics can be further broken down into support from advisors, the ease of the admissions process, and the structure of classes—just to name a few. Such umbrella terms are intended to give a more parsimonious understanding of our Student Engagement Survey. In essence, some students are more “engageable” than others, and some learning environments foster more engagement than other environments.

During the development of the Student Engagement Survey, we paid great deference to the empirical literature on the relationships between personal characteristics (e.g., self-esteem, self-efficacy, internal versus external locus of control, intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, perseverance, study attitudes and habits) and educational outcomes. The survey questions were written to tap into these constructs.

Just like you, all researchers have intuitions and hunches (e.g., “I would expect school resources to be far less critical for student engagement that many other factors”). Such thinking, however, highlights the importance of data—they can tell a compelling story and, more importantly, they can help researchers make informed decisions. Data from our representative sample of nearly 4,000 career college students suggested that the construct of School Resources, for example, was highly predictive of Student Engagement and was moderately predictive of Educational Outcomes. Sometimes our hunches are wrong.

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