How Administrators Can Support Engaged Learning

A Guest Article with Dr. Jason W. Osborne, Ph.D., PStat® of Miami University

Dr. Jason Osborne is an experienced senior leader in higher education. He is currently the Special Assistant to the President at Miami University, and the former Miami University Provost. Speaking on his experience in HE education delivery (including his work at the Miami Faculty) Jason Osborne gives his insight on how we can support our faculty to more effectively engage students.

Recently, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of beginning to play the piano. I tend to be a “hands-on” learner, meaning that I can watch someone demonstrate a technique or read instructions, but I don’t feel like I have learned it until I go and do it myself- often repeatedly, and often with some failure and practice cycles.  I suspect many of you can relate to this perspective.  Anyone who has learned a sport, an instrument, or a skill like driving an automobile will be familiar with the active engagement needed to master new skills or understandings, how important it is to have someone mentor you as you develop, and how motivation can wax and wane over time. All of this is called “engaged” or “active” leaning, to contrast it with the more classic educational model of a classroom where we expect students to sit quietly, listen to the teacher, memorize, then regurgitate information onto a test, and just carry on with normal academic affairs.

Take a moment to think about something you would like to learn in the next few weeks, whether it is a new sport, cooking technique, something handy around the home, or a skill at work. What appeals to you about learning that new skill, how do you want to feel while you learn it, and what actions or activities might support your learning? I bet that you have some personal interest in learning your new skill- whether because you thought it would be enjoyable, profitable, or you thought it was important for you to know how to do a certain thing. I also bet that the steps you might take to master this skill would require you to be actively engaged- in other words, to actively construct understandings, identify uncertainties, practice and model behaviors from those more expert than you, fail and repeat actions until you are successful, and then to refresh your memory and re-learn things you forget.  These are some of the hallmarks of engaged or active learning- something we naturally gravitate toward outside formal learning settings like classrooms.  

Why do we care about engaged learning?

Imagine getting your driver’s license after listening to weeks of lectures and taking a multiple choice test on driving, having never spent time behind the wheel being mentored by someone more expert? Imagine learning agriculture without having stepped onto a farm, business never having interned in a company, medicine without ever interacted with a patient. Most of us would find these ideas absurd, but historically, classroom instruction has been exactly this:  passive, unengaged, and inauthentic. In recent decades, there has been a movement in educational psychology and many other fields to bring more active and engaged learning into classrooms because we know that is how we as human beings best learn, remember, and later apply their learning. Not only are actively engaged students are more likely to be successful in the classroom, but they will also feel more satisfied and positive about their learning, and some forms of engaged learning can help set them up for lifelong success and a very bright future.

And it’s not just about the students - while engaged learning can take significant time and effort to implement successfully, for many educators there is nothing more satisfying than to mentor interested, engaged, motivated students while they learn and develop their expertise. Yet with the many stressors and competing demands faculty now face, we as leaders must help faculty members appreciate the importance of a more engaged and active classroom environment, and support faculty as they develop new classes and new degree programs, as well as their professional skills as scholars and teachers. In other words, we as leaders have to make sure we are appropriately supporting our faculty to adopt high-impact practices in the classroom and in identifying and adopting world class research methods in their scholarship.

What is engaged learning?

Using the "MUSIC" Model of Motivation

Engaged learning is a broad term encompassing a broad class of activities that encourage students to actively process and more deeply engage course material, which has been shown to lead to enhanced learning and often, more enjoyment. Active or engaged learning is essentially anything that motivates students to think about, process, and/or remember information. To do this, students have to expend energy on this activity (rather than on other competing demands), and focus attention. Engaged learning activities can range from “one-minute essays,” practicing new skills in the lab or field, or hands-on class activities including service learning, practica, industry internships, student research, or study abroad. There are many resources for faculty interested in exploring new directions in this area (e.g., Harvard Business Publishing; Educause; Vanderbilt), and your campus teaching center probably has professional development resources readily available.

While educators have been talking about engaged learning strategies in academic affairs for decades, recent pandemic experiences have brought a renewed emphasis and new innovations in creating an engaging learning experience for students. 

Learning and education is a complicated ecosystem involving individual and environmental dynamics. According to modern psychological theories, like Brett Jones’ MUSIC model of motivation, faculty can enhance student motivation by helping students:

  • M (Empowered): feel empowered to making decisions about their own learning;
  • U (Usefulness): understanding how what they are learning is useful and relevant to their short- or long-term goals, or something they care about or they can relate to;
  • S (Success): feel that they can succeed if they exert the effort to do so (which contrasts with the idea that some people are born with levels of intelligence or ability)
  • I (Interest):  feel interested in what they are learning or in the instructional activities
  • C (Caring):  feel that the instructor cares about them and their learning (especially in challenging times)

Not only do these ideas make sense if we reflect on our own experiences, but there is a robust body of research supporting each of these factors in driving well-deserved success for students. Active or engaged learning principles help students clearly connect course material to their lived experience in particular domains or topics they care about, can help them feel more interested and motivated, and be willing to take more “educational risks” in class- like asking or answering a question, taking on extra work, or signing up for more advanced courses.

These models also can guide administrators in academic leadership roles in thinking about how to support faculty efforts by highlighting opportunities to support engaged learning- which often requires resources or infrastructure.

How do administrators support a culture of engaged learning?

8 Tips to Encourage This Culture

Understanding the benefits of active, engaged learning for students and faculty, we as Provost, Dean, or other academic leaders can be instrumental in supporting the adoption and implementation of these high-impact practices.

  • 1. Create a shared vision - As we consider new degree programs, or expanding faculty positions in existing programs, we have the opportunity to create a shared vision for how these principles of human development can be incorporated into the academic domain.  For example, when we at Miami were examining proposed investments in faculty-generated Boldly Creative proposals, we intentionally discussed the vision for each new degree proposal with the faculty, department chair, dean, and provost leadership team to ensure all shared the same understanding of how the student experience would be shaped and how it aligned with strategic goals and values of the institution. You need to make sure everyone is bought in, and that everyone from as high up as the Executive Vice President needs to be on board.
  • 2. Ensure faculty-focused policies - We as leaders must first understand the importance of high-impact practices like engaged learning.  This prioritization must start from the very top with the Provost and President. We have to talk about the importance of a practice, and we have to mean it when we say that we believe a practice is important. Even the most research-focused universities are educational institutions, meaning excellent and impactful teaching must be measured, recognized, rewarded, and resourced appropriately. We have to ensure faculty-focused policies such as promotion and tenure policies, merit raises, hiring guidelines signal that teaching excellence is expected, valued, and rewarded as part of a strategic plan.

  • 3. Provide professional development - We have to ensure we have effective support and professional development resources for faculty. Most higher education institutions, like Miami University, have Centers for Teaching Excellence (or similar).  These centers are staffed by expert faculty and staff to help us implement high-impact, evidence-based practices. These centers often conduct original research to identify and evaluate high-impact practices, making them highly effective resources.  As an example, while we were planning for the fall semester during the spring of 2020, facing the new global COVID-19 pandemic, our CTE worked with multiple groups to quickly identify promising high-impact practices and resources that faculty could adopt, and provided extensive mentoring and support for these faculty.  
  • 4. Offer effective teaching evaluations - We need to effectively evaluate teaching effectiveness, rewarding those who are doing well, and supporting the continual development of our dedicated faculty. Effective teaching evaluation is not merely asking students to do an anonymous survey at the end of the semester (e.g., we know these are biased and provide incomplete information). Other evaluation methods (e.g., self-reflection, peer evaluations of teaching) compliment student evaluations nicely, but are time consuming, can require well-trained peers, and are often requiring resources that we as academic leaders must provide. It needs to be a priority within your strategic plan. effective teaching evaluation helps every faculty member and should also be rewarded and supported rather than used punitively.
  • 5. Work together to make professional development work - Professional development within a faculty is a team sport, requiring faculty, staff, and resources all working in concert to support the development of these skills (or other skills, such as world class research methods). Disciplines have cultures, as do departments, and institutions. If the culture is a barrier to the adoption of new teaching methods, that must be addressed by leaders within academic affairs before one can expect progress on this strategic priority.  For example, within our Farmer School of Business at Miami University, new faculty positions are accompanied by plans for supporting those new faculty in teaching, scholarship, and other domains.  This is a model the dean supports and encourages, and helps create a shared understanding of expectations in clear and concise terms.
  • 6. Ensure physical infrastructure is enough - We need to examine the physical infrastructure where learning happens. Many campus buildings were designed before flexible, engaged, active learning became a concept. You may find yourself teaching 400 undergraduates in a required entry level course.  Structurally, large classes present challenges to engaged learning that can be overcome (with resources), but the physical environment might be more challenging.  You may be in a lecture hall with seats that don’t easily swivel or move, preventing engaged learning activities like small discussion groups. As our campuses grow, it might be challenging to have enough STEM lab space to accommodate all students and faculty.  We as leaders need to identify and address structural barriers like the physical infrastructure, asking our expert faculty what ideal learning environments look like within their classes, what equipment or resources they should have, and then we need to prioritize improving educational spaces. As a side benefit, modern and appealing learning environments can help with ultimately influencing faculty and student recruitment and the development of new degree programs.
  • 7. Ensure faculty have modern tools - Modern and effective learning management systems, on-line lab simulations (like Labster and similar), classroom polling and communication methods, industry standard software, data analysis, mathematical sciences, and so forth. This is especially key in units focused on professional education, such as business, engineering, medicine, education, mental health, or art. Some of these investments can be more cost effective AND ALSO lead to more engaged educational experiences teaching.  In a STEM classroom lab, expensive materials and physical space can be constraints to each student having the educational experiences desired- and furthermore, if the lab does not go as expected, limited supplies may inhibit attempting the lab successfully a second or third time. Yet we know learning and success does not always happen on the first trial. So modern simulation software (or other instructional technology) can allow students to experiment and re-try activities, enhancing learning and engagement.  Modern rapid prototyping equipment like 3d printers and scanners can transform and engage learning while also preparing students to function in the workplace, where resources like these can be commonplace.
  • 8. Develop industry partnerships to prepare students - We as leaders need to look at the modern workplace we are preparing our students to move into and create learning spaces that adequately prepare them for both personal and professional challenges. We as leaders can cultivate industry partnerships and relationships with donors funding agency partners to ensure our faculty can teach using industry standard software, tools, and equipment.  At Miami University, for example, our industry partnerships brought valuable resources to programs like health care equipment, professional software and hardware, and mentors and coaching for our students.    

Adopting new teaching practices, as mentioned above, takes TIME and ENERGY from our faculty- two resources that can be in short supply these days. We cannot expect faculty members to always “do more with less,” but rather we can signal this is a mission-critical priority if we provide support and resources to achieve this goal as part of a strategic plan. We must help faculty find the time to focus on these important, mission centric, actions. I recommend asking your faculty what would help them the most- some of the resources we offered included course releases, summer support, materials, software, business analytics, teaching assistants, co-teaching or team teaching opportunities, travel to educational conferences, and modern research methods., Modest investments like these can signal that you really value teaching and will surely provide significant return on investment to your graduate school and the students you serve through enhanced faculty and student satisfaction, success and retention, which can provide additional budgetary benefits from this faculty and student retention and success.

About The Author - Jason Osborne Miami University

Jason W Osborne is an experienced senior leader and faculty member in higher education (HE). He is currently Special Assistant to the President at Miami University, having previously served as Miami University Provost. Jason has also led HE faculties and has served as Dean of the Graduate School and Associate Provost for Graduate Education at Clemson University, as Department Chair at Clemson University, the University of Louisville, as a graduate program coordinator at North Carolina State University and Old Dominion University, and was a faculty member at the University of Oklahoma and Niagara County Community College. Jason also worked as a researcher at the University of Buffalo Medical School.

Alongside his work at Miami University, Jason W Osborne is a successful author in statistics and quantitative research methods. He has authored a number of books in statistics, linear regression, practical assessment, exploratory factor analysis, data analysis, data cleaning, and business analytics. He is proudly part of the American Statistical Association as an Accredited Professional Statistician. Osborne’s work has been cited over 36,000 times by scholars and practitioners around the world (he is in the top 2% of cited scholars in the US and a national leader in writing about applied statistics and quantitative methods).

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