The power and potential of student-driven engagement

A professor and an entrepreneur walk into a bar…

Not — in fact — the set up for a bad joke. But rather, the setup for an interesting debate a friend and I had over a beer a few weeks back. The topic? Student engagement.

But what’s to debate? Engagement is good. Engaged students are more likely to succeed, to persist, to graduate. When it comes to engagement, the more the better! Hard to argue — but what exactly do we mean by engagement?

My friend, a long time online instructor, works for an institution that defines student engagement as:

1) logging in at least three times per week,

2) participating in required weekly discussions (post once to original prompt and twice to fellow students), and

3) completing a weekly quiz.

These activities are the foundation of many online courses. They are required and are considered necessary for success. If students aren’t doing these, there’s no way they’ll pass. So for this institution, and many like them, student engagement = doing what’s required. It’s that simple.

But is it?

In my work, I get to spend a lot of time thinking about a different type of student engagement — not the kind that’s required by an instructor or institution, but the kind that’s driven by the student, based on her own needs and motivation. Let’s call this “student-driven engagement”.

Student-driven engagement is complicated. It’s hard to measure and difficult to interpret. But I believe it speaks to the heart of what we really mean (and desire) when we talk about the power of engagement to help students succeed.

To simplify, I think about student-driven engagement in three ways:

  1. What are students consuming?
  2. What are they contributing?
  3. What is the impact of their contributions?

Let’s dig into these a bit….

What does the student consume?

Beyond the required course materials, what other information is the student seeking out to help her understand her coursework?

Maybe she attends office hours, but never asks a question. It may not seem like it, but taking the time to be present and hear the questions of her peers is absolutely a form of engagement. Or, let’s say it’s 2:00 in the morning and she’s stuck. Does she turn to Google to ask her question and see what other resources are out there to help?

Regardless of the source of content, proactively seeking information when needed is one of the most common forms of student-driven engagement — one that directly helps students overcome challenges and succeed in school.

What does the student contribute?

Students are constantly engaging with educators and peers outside of what’s required — asking questions, answering others, forming study groups... Unlike required contributions, student driven contributions put the student in the driver’s seat, allowing them to guide the conversation toward what they find most confusing, interesting, and relevant.

Student-driven contributions provide a wonderful view into a student’s understanding of the curriculum. They help identify gaps in knowledge or misconceptions. They also give students an opportunity to demonstrate mastery, find new insights, and reinforce learning — all things that have been shown to support short and long term academic success.

What is the impact of a student’s contributions?

We all know there’s a difference between saying something, and saying something useful. Simply measuring “contributions” as engagement, without also asking if those contributions made a difference, paints an incomplete picture.

Ideally, we’d like to know something about the quality of a student’s contributions and whether they help others. High quality peer-to-peer interaction ultimately improves learning for everyone in the classroom — benefitting not just the contributor but those around her as well.


Whether it’s seeking resources, helping a peer, or just listening in, student-driven engagement has the potential to be a tremendous driver and predictor of student academic success. What’s more — students that proactively seek and share information are building valuable 21st century skills including collaboration, problem solving, information literacy, and communication. Skills that benefit them well beyond their immediate academic experiences.

So, why aren’t more institutions tracking student-driven engagement as a predictor of success? Because it’s really hard. Student-driven engagement often takes place outside of the traditional / virtual classroom. Instructors and institutions don’t always have the visibility they need to quantify the activity or measure the impact consistently, at scale. When faced with that reality, turning to more tangible measures of attendance and required interaction may be the only option available to them.

But I’m optimistic that times are changing. New technologies are emerging that gather information about a wider variety of student interactions — Student Success Apps, Interactive Bots, and Q&A Systems to name a few. These capabilities are specifically designed to encourage student-driven engagement, and they give institutions new insights into how, when, and why students choose to use them.

Ultimately — increasing the focus on student-driven measures of engagement won’t happen overnight. But the time is right to begin pushing ourselves in that direction and to learn how these behaviors can impact our students’ success in the classroom — and beyond.