What Keeps Students Engaged?

by Alex Gay

posted on 05-20-2019

What’s the top priority at your institution? If yours is like many higher education institutions, it probably has something to do with student engagement and success.

According to Hanover Research, “Higher education institutions, faced with declining enrollments and mounting financial pressures, are prioritizing retention and implementing targeted interventions to drive student success.” The higher education graduation rate is hovering below 60%, so “targeted interventions” are becoming more and more crucial.

What targeted interventions should you implement to help students stay engaged? Here are four options that tap into building digital literacy to consider as your institution strives to increase student engagement.

Attending college has a high ROI, especially when paired with digital literacy

Many students come to college and need to work to support themselves and sometimes others, too. They may be surprised at how hard it is to balance their school work and job. And educators may be surprised at how early the tenuous work-school balancing act begins.

“Many students balance college and jobs,” said Jon Maruc, the higher-education editor at The Hechinger Report. “[Emily Fourmy Cutrer, president of TAMU-Texarkana], who teaches a freshman seminar, said six students in her class of 20 told her they worked 40 hours a week, eight worked 30 or more hours and the rest worked at least part-time.”

Especially if students are financially supporting others, they may choose earning money over going to class. Why? Because students “don’t understand the cost-benefit of going to college,” said Alan Seidman, author of Crossing the Finish Line: How to Retain and Graduate Your Students, “and we do a bad job of explaining that.”

Learning digital tools to foster/cultivate digital literacy at your institution has a huge ROI, and it’s something worth specifically pointing out to students. Digital literacy has practical benefits like applicable skills students can apply directly to the workplace.

For example, the New Media Lab Experience at Mesa Community College (MCC) gives students the opportunity to create multimedia projects for a variety of disciplines. Through these projects, they learn digital skills that are increasingly in demand in the modern workplace.

“What was very interesting to us was just the thought and vision that [MCC’s interim president Sasan Poureetezadi] had around equipping students … with a skill set that was, and has become even more, in demand by today’s employers,” said Bradley Buchanan. “The digital economy is interesting today; most people have a multitude of devices, so when they interact with content on the web, they are looking to engage at a deeper level.”

When your institution offers digital literacy experiences, you can confidently say that your institution prepares students for a modern economy. And when students understand how attending your institution will help their future, they’re more likely to stay engaged.

Offer attractive programs

Of course, if you’re going to claim attending your institution has a high ROI, it’s vital that you offer great programs that really will help your students’ futures. It needs to be obvious to students—even before they set foot on campus—that attending your institution is worth it.

“Educators and advisers in the nation’s capital are trying to maximize the number who complete college,” said Nick Anderson, a reporter covering higher education at the Washington Post. “The first step, they say, is to ensure students get there.”

Start by rethinking your offerings. Are your programs giving students a great experience? Do your students have the opportunity to create interesting, relevant, and modern projects? Are your classes offering digital creative training? In your recruitment efforts, highlight your study abroad programs, digital creative projects, fascinating classes, and engaging atmosphere. And be sure to deliver on your promises.

“The students find it extremely engaging to use Adobe Creative Cloud to get their work done in any class, anywhere across the curriculum,” said Todd Taylor, director of the writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Nursing, business, public health. Even physics, chemistry, religious studies, and anthropology are using these tools not to learn how they work, but to help support teaching and learning.”

Help professors create engaging classrooms for first-year students

According to CollegeAtlas.org, 30 percent or freshman drop out after their first year of college. How can you specifically help freshmen stay engaged?

It’s important to tap into motivation says David Gooblar, a lecturer at the University of Iowa. Here’s how he breaks down the three main variables that influence student motivation:

One way professors can tap into motivation is by assigning digital creative projects. These projects are valuable because they teach soft and hard skills that are applicable to the modern workplace; they are flexible and can be adjusted depending on students’ confidence with technology; and they encourage a supportive classroom environment as students collaborate, create, and learn together.__

First-year students in any discipline can create a mood or vision board (to teach themes or goal-setting), design a brand logo for themselves (to practice branding for future careers), or create a digital story based on an item, principle, or news event their professor assigns.

Consistently make incremental innovations

To keep students engaged, it’s important to test your assumptions. Think a tradition is working as well as it always has? Look closer, and you may find you’re wrong.

Incremental innovation means “consistently starting small initiatives that will add to the information and efforts surrounding student retention,” according to Ex Libris. “While [Middle Tennessee State University] achieved this through enhancements to their advising software and a new degree audit package, incremental innovation is not limited to a specific technology — it can involve new processes or even new ways of gathering student feedback.”

One incremental innovation is to have instructors consistently update their classes each semester to be geared toward the modern workplace. The workforce of today values soft skills, so perhaps one semester a professor could incorporate creative projects into her curriculum, then the next semester she could add persuasive communications assignments, then the next she could add a few collaborative projects, and so on.

These soft skills can be incorporated into any curriculum in any discipline and can be effectively taught through digital literacy initiatives and projects.

For example, the required composition course at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill assigns students to use Adobe Creative Cloud for their coursework.

“Communication is a big part of any field of study, and Adobe Creative Cloud delivers powerful tools that support critical thinking, reading, writing, and listening,” says Todd Taylor, Professor of English and Director of the school’s First Year Writing Program.

This program is helping students become comfortable with digital tools and feel confident in business skills like creating business presentations and sharing documents for review. These skills prepare students for the modern workplace.

Students will tune out, but the good news is you can do something about it. As your institution taps into digital literacy through targeted interventions like communicating the ROI of college, offering attractive programs, helping professors engage first-year students, and consistently making incremental innovations, you’ll help your students stay engaged.

Get a closer look at how digital literacy helps students stay engaged.

Topics: Industry, Education, digital literacy,