BEI Survey: To Engage Students – Raise the Bar

Continuing our research report series focused on engagement in business schools, we turn toward potential barriers that stand in the way of increased engagement. Previously, our findings showed that business school policymakers are keenly interested in increasing stakeholder engagement—most critically, engagement among faculty and students. Yet, the results also indicate that these two groups are not fully engaged in business school life, which clearly suggests there are constraints limiting current engagement levels. We sought to understand how business school policymakers view the impact of some key areas that would facilitate engagement if present and stand to limit engagement if absent.

We specifically asked respondents to indicate the extent to which they view engagement barriers stemming from students, faculty, rewards and interdepartmental communication. The table below depicts the percentage of respondents agreeing or strongly agreeing to each potential barrier. Almost half of respondents see issues surrounding students as the primary barriers to increased engagement. For instance, 45 percent of respondents indicated that student work-family demands and professional demands stand in the way of students getting programmatically involved outside of classroom attendance. Interestingly, however, 42 percent indicated that students are not given clear expectations and feedback regarding extracurricular involvement. Finally, another 40 percent of respondents agreed that faculty are not rewarded for getting students involved outside of the classroom.

Student engagement

The Trap of Low Expectations

Taken together, policymakers seem to be suggesting that on the one hand their working professional student population is overwhelmed with competing commitments, and on the other hand admitting that expectations along with directed feedback are lacking in their programs. An answer might therefore simply be that when expectations are appropriately set for involvement, including tracking participation in co-curricular activities, students will appropriately allocate resources to engage more fully. These data bring to mind the well-known research on the so-called “Pygmalion Effect” or self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, when a teacher believes that her student is capable of achieving at a high level, the student typically rises to the teacher’s high expectation, often exceeding what otherwise might be expected of that student based on ability alone. Thus, one way to increase student engagement is to first change the mindset that assumes students are in fact “too busy” to engage and move to adopt a mindset that suggests engagement in co-curricular activities is an integral part of the learning process. In doing so, policymakers are likely to be much more explicit about the role of co-curricular activities in personal development and will also send much stronger signals about its importance.

Removing the Barriers

Counterintuitively, then, we are suggesting that despite the many commitments working professionals balance throughout their program, policymakers should seek to raise the bar with respect to engagement expectations. Here are some ideas for doing so.

  1. Discuss expectations for engagement early and often. Include expectations in recruitment and admissions materials. Devote time to socializing engagement expectations during an initial student orientation and ensure students are fully aware of all of the learning opportunities outside of the classroom.
  2. Educate students regarding the benefits of engagement activities. Make a clear line-of-sight connection for students between engagement in co-curricular activities and individual or career development. For instance, some research suggests that students who engage deeply in co-curricular activities are more likely to have increased interpersonal skills.
  3. Track engagement and give feedback about progress to students. In setting expectations, it’s reasonable to set some engagement goals for students. Such goals could include a certain number of “points” accrued by attendance at events or through demonstrated network growth and so forth.
  4. Augment the faculty reward system to drive increased involvement. In most business schools, faculty advisor roles for student groups receive little in the way of service recognition or compensation. At a minimum, advising a student group should count toward a faculty member’s service obligation. If resources are available, consider compensating faculty for this type of work and hold faculty to their performance expectations for such involvement.

Holding students and faculty to higher standards may feel like a difficult recommendation upon which to act for numerous reasons. Indeed, policymakers may feel that such expectations may reduce the attractiveness of the program, especially for students who thought they were signing up for highly flexible programs. Although it’s true that some students may reject the increased structure and commitment expectations outright, many more are likely to reap personal and professional benefits. As we’ve cited before, increasing one’s commitment is likely to have positive effects for people including, among other outcomes, a reduction both of stress and work-family conflict—the very worries policymakers are most concerned about when contemplating barriers to deep engagement.

Click below to read this survey report as a PDF.

Business Education Insider Survey 6 – How To Engage Students

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

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