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A phenomenological study of students' perceptions of engagement at a midwestern land grant university

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 2009
Dissertation
Author: Mary Beth Zwart
Abstract:
Student engagement is based on the "premise that students learn from what they do in college" (Pike, Smart, Kuh, & Hayek, 2006, p. 850). Students who are involved in educationally purposeful activities in college are developing cognitive and social habits which create lifelong learning characteristics and personal development (Carini, Kuh, & Klein, 2006). The purpose of this study was to determine students' experiences with the phenomenon of engagement in purposeful activity at a Midwestern land grant university. This phenomenological study allowed the researcher to determine individuals' common or shared experiences of student engagement (Creswell, 2007). Eleven participants were purposefully selected through nominations by academic deans and student affairs staff. Five themes emerged from the interviews: academic involvement, social network - meet new people, involvement enhances involvement, student engagement - transformational change, and investment of self. With relation to academic involvement, participants stated that relevant co-curricular engagement activities were most influential. Interaction with peers and faculty was instrumental is becoming engaged and staying engaged. Being engaged in activity before coming to college enhanced the engagement opportunities when arriving on campus. As well, engagement activities which caused participants to see a global perspective and think outside of themselves were life-changing. With respect to investment of self, participants valued the time spent with engagement activities as well as the flexibility of working on campus. Based on these findings the university needs to make relevant co-curricular activities available to students and faculty need to promote the positive aspects of engagement. As well, students need to be connected in a meaningful way to an activity or positive role model. Opportunities for students and faculty to relate and work together early in the college experience is integral to student engagement.

TABLE OF CONTENTS Page Abstract iii Doctoral Committee v Acknowledgements vi List of Tables xiii Chapter 1. Introduction 1 Purpose of the Study 4 Grand Tour Question 4 Sub-questions 5 Significance of the Problem ....5 Definition of Terms 6 Limitations and Delimitations 8 Organization of the Study 8 2. Review of Selected Literature Student Engagement Theory 9 Astin's Student Involvement Theory 10 Critics of Astin Theory 13 Tinto's Academic and Social Integration Theory 13 Critics of Tinto 16 Pre-College Experiences 18 IX

Student Engagement and Academic and Social Experiences 21 Academic Integration 24 Social Integration 28 Assessing Student Engagement 33 National Survey of Student Engagement 34 Critics of NSSE 35 Implications for Higher Education Institutions 37 Conclusion 42 3. Methodology 43 Research Questions 43 Sub-questions 43 Review of Selected Research Literature 44 Background of the Researcher 44 Research Design 47 Participants and Site 48 Data Collection 50 Data Analysis 52 Verification 54 Summary 55 4. Findings 56 Statement of the Purpose and Research Questions 56 Demographic Information 56 x

Emerging Themes 57 Academic Involvement 58 Social Network- Meet New People 64 Involvement Enhances Involvement 68 Student Engagement - Transformational Change 71 Investment of Self 75 Summary 79 5. Summary, Conclusions, Discussion, and Recommendations 81 Summary 81 Review of Literature 81 Methodology 84 Findings 86 Conclusions 88 Discussion 88 Recommendations for Practice 95 Institutions 95 Students 97 Recommendations for further study 97 Summary 98 References 100 Appendixes A. Participant Invitation 106 xi

B. Consent Form 108 C. Interview Protocol I l l D. Participant Profiles 114 E. IRB Approval Form 119 xii

LIST OF TABLES Page Table 1. Significant Statements: Academic Involvement 63 2. Significant Statements: Social Network- Meet New People 68 3. Significant Statements: Involvement Enhances Involvement 71 4. Significant Statements: Student Engagement-Transformational Change 75 5. Significant Statements: Investment of Self 79 xiii

1 Chapter 1 Introduction Involving and engaging students in academic and social experiences are critical to keeping students in college. Rodgers (1990) defined student development as "the ways that a student grows, progresses, or increases his or her developmental capabilities as a result of enrollment in an institution of higher education" (p. 27). It is one thing for a student to enroll in higher education and another for them to persist. The concept of student engagement is based on the "premise that students learn from what they do in college" (Pike, Smart, Kuh, & Hayek, 2006, p. 850). Student engagement has two key components: (1) the amount of time and effort student put forth in academics and other activities that lead to outcomes and experiences consistent with student success and (2) the way an institution allocates its human and other resources and organizes learning opportunities and services to participate and benefit from purposeful activity (Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Whitt, 2005a). Student engagement is considered to be a predictor of cognitive and personal development (Carini, Kuh, & Klein, 2006). The act of being engaged adds to the "foundation of skills and dispositions that is essential to live a productive and satisfying life after college" (Carini, Kuh, & Klein, 2006, p. 2). Students who are involved in educationally purposeful activities in college are developing cognitive and social habits which create life-long learning characteristics and personal development (Carini, Kuh, & Klein, 2006). According

2 to Kuh & Umbach (2004), college supports and channels the maturation process to form and integrate the attitude and values of a student's identity. Following along this same line, character development is enhanced by participating in educationally purposeful activity. Students need to understand the value of developing ethics and behavior patterns which prepare themselves to live civically responsible, socially aware, and economically productive lives after college (Kuh & Umbach, 2004). According to Pascarella & Terenzini (2005), The impact of college is largely determined by individual effort and involvement in academic, interpersonal, and extracurricular offerings, on a campus. Students are not passive recipients of institutional efforts to "educate" or "change" them, but rather bear a major responsibility for any gains derived from their postsecondary experience. This is not to say that an individual campus's ethos, policies, and programs are unimportant. Quite the contrary. But if, as it appears, individual effort or engagement is the critical determinant of the impact of college, then it is important to focus on the ways in which an institution can shape it's academic, interpersonal, and extracurricular offerings to encourage student engagement (p. 602) Academic, social, and pre-college experiences directly influence student engagement. Kuh (2007a) stated the time and energy students put forth toward their academic activities positively influences their grades and persistence.

3 Student engagement is a key to academic success and a "precursor for knowledge and understanding" (Kuh, 2007a, p. B12). Student habits and learning achievement in college promote life-long learning outcomes. Academic and social involvement have positive effects on integration and promote the importance of balance in students' educational experiences (Pike, Kuh, & Gonyea, 2003). Research related to pre-college, academic, and social experiences showed strong links to student success and engagement in college. Success in college is positively related to pre-college academic preparation, achievement, family income, and parent's education (Kuh, 2007b). After controlling for past academic performance, student engagement has been shown to be the best predictor of student success (Kinzie & Kuh, 2004). Fostering an environment of integration of academic and co-curricular experiences enhances student success and engagement in college (Kinzie & Kuh, 2004). Academic integration is achieved through knowledge acquisition of subject matter, teaching behaviors, class size, instructional techniques, and pedagogical approaches (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Faculty-student contact both inside and outside the classroom, peer group projects, tutoring, discussing racial and ethnic issues, and co-curricular activities foster social integration because students are more likely to stay in school when they are connected to students with similar interest areas and aspirations (Kuh, Kinzie, Buckley, Bridges, & Hayek, 2007)

4 Researchers have found that student engagement leads to retention and institutional accountability which has resulted in several types of theories being developed to explain the process of student retention, persistence and degree obtainment. According to Hu and Kuh (2002), effective colleges are those which channel student energy toward appropriate activities and engage them at a high level in the activities. The majority of research on student engagement and involvement has been completed through quantitative means. Even when surveys are designed to meet reliable self-report conditions, it does not mean surveys ask about behaviors linked to desired outcomes (Carini, Kuh, & Klein, 2006). Quantitative data only go so far. Purpose of the Study The purpose of this study was to investigate students' experiences with the phenomenon of engagement in purposeful activity at a Midwestern Land Grant University (South Dakota State University, SDSU). The study specifically investigated students' experience with pre-college, academic, and social experiences that have led to student success. Research Questions Grand Tour Question The main research question for this study was: What have been students' experiences with the phenomenon of engagement in purposeful activity at SDSU?

5 Sub-questions The following sub-research questions were also asked to better understand the phenomenon of engagement in purposeful activity. 1. What pre-college experience(s) did students perceive promoted engagement at SDSU? 2. How did students perceive pre-college experiences affected their level of engagement at SDSU? 3. What academic experiences did students engage in while attending SDSU? 4. How did students perceive academic experiences affected their level of engagement at SDSU? 5. What social experiences did students engage in at SDSU? 6. How did students perceive social experiences affected their level of engagement at SDSU? Significance of the Problem Astin (1984) stated "involvement has qualitative and quantitative features (p. 298). Pascarella & Terenzini (2005) stated additional qualitative studies will help educators fully understand the impact of higher education on students. Qualitative approaches may provide greater sensitivity than quantitative studies to many of the subtle and underlying complexities of college impact (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). Results can be determined and used to foster beneficial programming considerations; however, the question of "why" students engage in purposeful activity remains unanswered. Qualitative data will benefit the

6 university with reasons why the phenomenon of student engagement is occurring. Kuh & Umbach (2004) stated it was essential for institutions to know how students behave to determine if they are providing the type of experience necessary to promote character development. Character development is enhanced by taking part in a variety of educationally purposeful activities and significantly influenced by peer interaction (Kuh & Umbach, 2004). As well, determining positive in and out of classroom experiences positively influences character and provides evidence to be a precursor of qualities of college graduates later in life (Kuh & Umbach, 2004). This phenomenological study allowed the researcher to determine individuals' common or shared experiences of student engagement at SDSU (Creswell, 2007). The common or shared experiences can be used to develop policies or practices in relation to creating an environment in which students engage in purposeful activity and persist in college and contributes to the literature on student engagement (Creswell, 2007). Definition of Terms The following definitions are provided to ensure uniformity and understanding of the terms throughout the study. Those that are not referenced are adapted by the researcher to provide clarity, consistency, and understanding of their application within the context of this study.

7 Academic Experiences: observation and participation in events related to the institution of learning within the higher education setting. Land-Grant University: a public university in each state that was originally established as a land grant college of agriculture pursuant to the Morrill Act of 1862. In most states the original agricultural colleges grew over time into full- fledged public universities by adding other colleges (e.g., arts and sciences, medicine, law, etc.); in states where a public university existed prior to 1862, the first Morrill Act resulted in a college of agriculture being added to the university. Pre-college Experiences: direct observation and participation in events related to the secondary school years of 9-12. Purposeful Activity: exhibits a persistence toward a goal under varying conditions. Such activity requires that a goal be identified and that both persistence toward it and sensitivity to varying conditions which affect attainment of it be in evidence (Polkinghorne, 1983). Social Experiences: knowledge, skill, or practice derived from participation in events related to interaction between an individual and group. Student Engagement: the amount of time and effort students put forth in academic and social activities that lead to outcomes and experiences consistent with student success (Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Whitt, 2005a). Students used the terms involvement and engagement interchangeably. Traditional-Aged Student: Students who are 18 years of age to 24 years of age.

8 University Senior Undergraduate: Students who have completed 96+ credit hours (Institutional Academic Catalog, 2008). Limitations of the Study This study was limited by the truthful and candid responses of participants. Delimitations of the Study The study was delimited to thoughts and responses of 11 subjects at SDSL) during the spring 2009. In addition, the responses elicited reflect one point in time. The responses may not be generalized beyond this group or time. Organization of the Study The study is divided into five chapters. Chapter 1 has presented the introduction, statement of the problem, purpose of the study, significance of the study, limitations, and delimitations. Chapter 2 contains a review of related literature and current research regarding student engagement and persistence in higher education. Chapter 3 contains the study design, rationale, and methodology. An analysis of responses and findings is presented in Chapter 4. Finally the summary of the findings, conclusions, discussion, and recommendations are presented in Chapter 5.

9 CHAPTER 2 Review of Related Literature Chapter 2 provides an extensive review of the literature and research related to student engagement. The chapter will be divided into sections that include (a) student engagement theory, (b) pre-college experiences, (c) student engagement and academic and social experiences, (d) assessing student engagement, and (e) implications for higher education institutions. Theories have been developed and studied based on student development growth and sociological perspectives. Development theories suggest a sequential movement toward greater "differentiation, integration, and complexity in the ways that individuals think and behave" (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005, p. 19). The movement through these stages is seen as orderly, sequential, and hierarchical usually over a lifespan (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). The culmination of developmental theories is self-definition and self-direction (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Student Engagement Theory Sociological perspectives look at student change from an external point of view (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Two of the most notable are models have been developed by Alexander Astin and Vincent Tinto. These developmental and sociological perspectives have served as the conceptual framework for student engagement studies to determine characteristics which promote student engagement and student persistence.

Astin s Student Involvement Theory One of the major theories of student involvement that is extensively utilized in research was proposed by Alexander Astin. Astin (1984) described student involvement as the "amount of physical and psychological energy that the student devotes to the academic experience" (p. 297). Astin (1984) outlined five postulates of the involvement theory: 1. Involvement refers to the investment of physical and psychological energy in various generalized or specific objects; 2. Involvement occurs along a continuum no matter the object. Different students will foster varying degrees of involvement in a given object; 3. Involvement has qualitative and quantitative features; 4. "Amount of student learning and development associated with educational coursework is directly proportional to the quality and quantity of student involvement in the program" (Astin, 1984, p. 298); and 5. "Effectiveness of any educational policy or practice is directly related to the capacity of the policy or practice to increase student involvement" (Astin, 1984, p. 298). Student involvement theory was created to tie pedagological theories to student development outcomes (Astin, 1984). Content theory, resource theory, and individual (eclectic) theory positive and negative components are described by Astin (1984).

11 Content theory or subject matter theory states "student learning and development depend primarily on exposure to the right subject matter" (Astin, 1984, p. 299). Students learn by reading, attending class, and studying sufficient hours. In a negative light, professors with the greatest knowledge may not exhibit positive pedagological ability (Astin, 1984). Students are assigned a passive role in content theory. Highly motivated students, good listeners, and readers excel in this environment (Astin, 1984) The resource theory of pedagogy equates adequate resources with positive student learning and development (Astin, 1984). Resources include physical (laboratories or libraries), human (faculty members, counselors), and fiscal (financial aid and endowments). In respect to human resources, quality versus quantity comes into debate. Improving the educational environment of students equates to increasing the proportion of "high quality" faculty (Astin, 1984). In turn, a lower student-to-faculty ratio leads to increased learning and personal development (Astin, 1984). The focus of this theory becomes accumulation of resources versus the utilization of resources (Astin, 1984). Quality should reflect educational effectiveness rather than resources or reputation (Astin, 1985). High quality institutions maximize the intellectual and personal development of its students. According to Hayek & Kuh (2004), what students do in their first year of college is more important than what institutions have in terms of resources. The individual or eclectic theory assumes no one "approach to subject matter, teaching, or resource allocation is adequate for all students" (Astin,

1984, p. 300). Content and instructional methods need to be identified and matched to each individual student. Students understand the importance of advising, counseling, and independent study (Astin, 1984). Due to the individualized nature of the theory it is extremely expensive to implement and difficult to put into practice (Astin, 1984). When taking into account all three theories, Astin (1984) incorporates aspects of each into the student involvement theory. Active participation is a key to student involvement. "Learning will be greatest when the learning environment is structured to encourage active participation by the student" (Astin, 1984, p. 301). Focus is on student motivation or involvement. Behavioral mechanisms or processes which facilitate student development are explored. Another aspect of the student involvement theory is student time. Although finite, student time and effort directly affect student development goals. The amount of time a student devotes to purposeful activity directly links to how talents are developed (Astin, 1985). Institutional policy and practice affect how students spend their time and amount of effort they devote to academic programs (Astin, 1984). Positive aspects of the student involvement theory include 1. "Students learn by becoming involved"; 2. Provides basic understanding of literature with regard to environmental influences on student development;

3. Incorporates several principles from psychological research and learning theories; 4. Can be applied to both students and faculty; and 5. Used by researchers, administrators, and faculty to build effective learning environments (Astin, 1985, p.36). Critics of Astin Theory Research questioned whether or not Astin's propositions constitute a theory (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). According to Kerlinger (1986), a theory is defined as "a set of interrelated constructs (concepts), definitions, and propositions that represent a systematic view of phenomena by specifying relations among variables, with the purpose of explaining and predicting the phenomena" (p. 9). In relation this definition, Astin's "theory" is more a principle rather than a detailed description of the behaviors (phenomena) being predicted, the variables influencing involvement, mechanisms in which variables relate to and influence one another, or the specific nature of the steps by which growth or change occur (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). However, Astin's concept or principle has served as the conceptual framework for significant amounts of research and useful interpretations of the impact of college on students (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Tinto s Academic and Social Integration Theory Taking a different approach to student involvement in college, Vincent Tinto explained persistence and dropout in higher education. Tinto's theory of

student departure was developed to explain, not simply describe, the processes which culminate in an individual leaving higher education (Tinto, 1975). Without the ability to define dropout adequately and target specific at-risk populations, institutional planners will be unable to provide flexible admissions and transfer standards (Tinto, 1975). Building on Durkheim's theory of suicide and work of William Spady who first applied Durkheim's theory of suicide to dropout, Tinto hypothesized that "persistence is a function of match between and individuals motivation and academic ability and the institutions academic and social characteristics" (Cabrera et al., 1992, p. 144) Tinto's (1975) model "explains the processes of interaction between the individual and the institution that lead differing individuals to drop out from institutions of higher education" (p. 90). Dropout as defined by Tinto (1975) can be broken down into two working definitions: 1. Forced withdrawal - due to insufficient levels of academic performance and/or breaking established rules of social and academic behavior; 2. Voluntary withdrawal - or student choice to leave. This definition includes leaving and not returning (stop-out), or leaving one institution and transferring to a different institution. Dropout from college is a longitudinal process of interactions between the individual and the academic and social systems of the university (Cabrera, Nora, & Constaneda, 1992; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1980, 2005; Tinto, 1975). These interactions continually modify goals and institutional commitments which lead to

either persistence or varying forms of dropout (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1980; Tinto, 1975). Goal commitment refers to an individual's motivation to complete college. Institutional commitment relates to an individual's commitment to the respective institution. (Cabrera et al., 1992; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1980). Tinto (1975) stated family background, individual attributes, and pre- college experiences influence the educational expectations and a commitment level a student possesses. Upon entering college, academic systems of grade performance and intellectual development and social system of peer group interactions and faculty interactions integrate and lead to persistence or drop out situations (Tinto, 1975). Tinto (1975) theorized that the "higher the degree of integration of the individual into the college systems, the greater will be their commitment to the specific institution and to the goal of college completion" (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1980, p. 96). An individual with low goal commitment is more likely to drop out from college. Pascarella & Terenzini (1980) stressed the importance of identifying at-risk drop outs and intervene with counseling or other institutional programs to avoid withdrawal from higher education. Berger & Braxton (1998) strongly supported the inclusion of organizational attributes as a potential source of social integration. Organizational attributes positively affect social integration as well as show indirect effect on student intent to persist (Berger & Braxton, 1998). Organizational attributes directly link to institutional characteristics and programming options to create an environment of engagement and persistence that Tinto outlined.

Critics of Tinto Critics of Tinto's theory of student departure state flaws in the concepts of social and academic integration in relation to specific groups, epistemology foundation, and the link to Durkheim's suicide theory. Pascarella & Terenzini (2005) showed research related to the concepts of academic and social integration is not appropriate for various racial and ethnic minority groups and adult student populations. Braxton, Hirschy, McClendon (2004) stated no strong empirical data between academic integration and commitment and student departure. Berger & Milem (1990) stated a review of empirical studies indicated revisions of Tinto's study are necessary to make the model more internally consistent. Additional constructs from other theoretical perspectives would improve the model and provide information related to the social and academic integration (Berger & Milem, 1990). Braxton et al. (2004) stated Tinto's theory does not apply to four-year commuter colleges. This finding could be a product of environment in which commuter colleges lack a defined and organized social structure. With relation to epistemology of Tinto's research, Attinasi (1989,1992) criticized Tinto's research for "drawing analogies' to concepts and theories developed on other populations and phenomena" (Braxton et al., 2004, p. 19). The population for the theory of college student departure begins with the

sociology of life each day or the direct experiences of college students (Braxton et al., 2004). In relation to Durkheim's suicide theory, Durkheim theorized that suicide occurs when and individual is not well integrated into communities of a society (Braxton et al., 2004). Two forms of integration are outlined in the theory: (1) normative integration, or similar beliefs and values; and (2) collective affiliation with other members of society (Braxton et al., 2004). When extended to college, student departure occurs when (1) students fail to experience academic normative congruence; or (2) they feel intellectually isolated from academic communities of their institution (Braxton et al., 2004). Braxton et al. (2004) stated that Tinto (1975) does not match the meaning of academic integration with the extensions of normative congruence and collective affiliation. Braxton et al. (2004) stated the use of personal intellectual development experience by a student does not correspond to normative congruence, and Tinto (1975) failed to delineate the role of intellectual isolation (collective affiliation) with academic interactions of the college or university. Braxton et al. (2004) outlined two pathways for scholars to take: 1. Revise the current Tinto theory to account for student departure in residential universities and abandon the use in commuter universities; or 2. Develop new theories to account for departure in each setting individually.

Full document contains 134 pages
Abstract: Student engagement is based on the "premise that students learn from what they do in college" (Pike, Smart, Kuh, & Hayek, 2006, p. 850). Students who are involved in educationally purposeful activities in college are developing cognitive and social habits which create lifelong learning characteristics and personal development (Carini, Kuh, & Klein, 2006). The purpose of this study was to determine students' experiences with the phenomenon of engagement in purposeful activity at a Midwestern land grant university. This phenomenological study allowed the researcher to determine individuals' common or shared experiences of student engagement (Creswell, 2007). Eleven participants were purposefully selected through nominations by academic deans and student affairs staff. Five themes emerged from the interviews: academic involvement, social network - meet new people, involvement enhances involvement, student engagement - transformational change, and investment of self. With relation to academic involvement, participants stated that relevant co-curricular engagement activities were most influential. Interaction with peers and faculty was instrumental is becoming engaged and staying engaged. Being engaged in activity before coming to college enhanced the engagement opportunities when arriving on campus. As well, engagement activities which caused participants to see a global perspective and think outside of themselves were life-changing. With respect to investment of self, participants valued the time spent with engagement activities as well as the flexibility of working on campus. Based on these findings the university needs to make relevant co-curricular activities available to students and faculty need to promote the positive aspects of engagement. As well, students need to be connected in a meaningful way to an activity or positive role model. Opportunities for students and faculty to relate and work together early in the college experience is integral to student engagement.