BEI Survey: Fostering a Positive Educational Climate Through Engagement

In our previous look at MBA student engagement, we found that business schools deploy numerous tactics designed to more richly engage students, with some tactics being seen as more successful than others. One of the potential net effects of such engagement efforts is the contribution to an enriching and high quality educational climate. In this latest segment of our engagement research, we examine how policymakers view the current educational climate of their business schools.

The idea of organizational or institutional climate can be best understand as consensus or shared perceptions of relevant features, events, practices and processes (Jones & James, 1979). When applied to educational environments, these characteristics form the basis for judgments about the overall quality of student life and often include aspects of the learning environment, demographic composition, peer support, availability of resources, and so forth. Outside of higher education and into the realm of primary education, the National School Climate Council defines climate as the shared “norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structure.” They further develop this definition via 12 climate dimensions.

Given these definitions of educational climate it should come as no surprise that student engagement is seen as a key contributor to the overall quality of an institution’s programs. For example, research now links levels of student engagement directly to important program quality outcomes like student learning. Similarly, in the present BEI engagement survey, we found that policymakers clearly see linkages between student engagement and the development of a positive educational climate.

For instance, 94 percent of respondents positively endorsed the statement, “activities outside the classroom make for a richer educational environment” and 87 percent agreed that “students who are immersed in what our school has to offer beyond classes are ultimately more successful.” Thus, policymakers understand that educational climate matters and that student engagement is a critical component of such climate. And to be certain, climate within an institution makes a real difference to its stakeholders in terms of their overall satisfaction, commitment, involvement, psychological well-being, motivation and performance. Therefore, creating an overall positive educational climate is one of the key reasons to improve engagement.

In Their Own Words

We asked respondents to describe their current climates by instructing them to indicate up to five words that best describe their business school’s educational climate. We organized the results in the word cloud below.

Educational Climate Cloud

Of the 135 unique words offered by respondents, a few key themes pop out most:

  • Over 37 percent of the words describe educational climates as academically “rigorous,” “challenging,” “demanding” or “intense.”
  • Another 20 percent connote a pragmatic curriculum such as “applied,” “relevant” and “practical.”
  • Another third of the words seem to offer descriptions speaking to the nature of relationships within the school, such as “collaborative,” “collegial,” “faculty-engaged,” “personal” and “supportive.”
  • Another set of common words describe climate through aspects of program delivery, such as “flexible,” “experiential,” “cohort” and “team-based.”

When taken as a whole, the words respondents chose to describe their business schools’ climate clearly include many aspects of programs that are promoting facets of student engagement. In fact, many of the words generated by our respondents have strong content linkages to the key dimensions in the National Survey of Student Engagement:

  • Level of academic challenge
  • Active and collaborative learning
  • Student-faculty interaction
  • Enriching educational experiences
  • Supportive campus environment
  • Reading and writing
  • Quality of relationships
  • Institutional emphases on good practices
  • Higher-order thinking
  • Integration of diversity into coursework

Business school policymakers most certainly used words to describe educational climate that suggest levels of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, quality of relationships, student-faculty interaction and support on campus. At least in the minds of policymakers, engagement is likely seen as a key part of creating a positive educational climate.

Nevertheless, when asked about levels of engagement in their own schools, policymakers in our sample largely agreed that very few students in working professional programs even have the time for activities outside of class—given their more pressing work and family priorities. This may explain why policymakers rarely used words such as “developmental,” “enriching” and “career-focused” in their climate descriptions and, as we noted in an earlier posting, may also explain why policymakers indicated that “extra” educational experiences are only moderately successful.

If business schools are to build truly supportive climates for students, they must start to find more creative ways to provide engaging experiences that work with, not around, working professionals’ competing demands. For example, instead of offering a speaker series an hour before evening classes begins, business schools can engage alumni and current students within organizations to sponsor “lunch and learns” that take place onsite where students work (or close by).

Similarly, since not all students can reasonably attend a given “event,” creating short video or webcast libraries of speaking events allows students to effectively integrate learning into their own schedules. More active socialization should not only focus on orienting individuals about administrative or informational aspects of graduate school, but also on socially “priming” students with expectations about the school’s key values and overall educational climate, which is yet another underdeveloped approach. In fact, such efforts seem especially pertinent considering that policymakers listed a “lack of clear expectations about extracurricular activities” as one of the key barriers to high levels of engagement. There are also likely implications for recruitment and admission processes, such as looking for past evidence of active engagement or even communicating “fit” with the educational climate of the institution to potential applicants.

The overall point of this discussion is that educational climate and engagement, especially among students, are inextricably linked. This means schools must take a more proactive and concerted approach to conceptualize, build and maintain the educational climates they view as most relevant. Our review of the existing literature, however, reveals that very little attention has been given to climate in the graduate business education domain. If having engaged stakeholders is indeed important for institutional success, being a “mission-driven institution” must therefore include a focus on how one’s educational climate is aligned (or misaligned) with one’s mission.

Click below to read this survey report as a PDF.

Business Education Insider Survey 3 – Fostering Climate

By Erich C. Dierdorff and Robert S. Rubin, DePaul University Driehaus College of Business

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