At a recent #DLNChat, one of the questions, answers, and resulting discussion prompted me to ask Karen Costa (writer, faculty member, and faculty development facilitator extraordinaire) to write a piece for us on her comments. Today’s blog post is thought-provoking and, I hope, word-changing for you. Thank you, Karen, for reminding us about the importance of choosing our actions and words with a specific intent in mind.

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

Lindsey Downs, WCET

I’m a word person. Word people analyze words, consider their meanings and etymologies, and question when words are being misused. We recognize that words hold immense power to help or harm. Wooden letter blocks in a drawer

A few words strung together can become a rallying cry on behalf of freedom or oppression. In the tradition of the appreciative inquiry model of change, word people believe that “words create worlds.”

During a recent #DLNChat (a monthly Twitter chat co-hosted by WCET), we discussed the topic of student engagement, and in typical word person fashion, I wrestled with the meaning and use of those words.

What is the Meaning of “Student Engagement?”

In today’s blog post, I will attempt to answer the question: what the heck are we talking about when we talk about student engagement?

There are two big concerns that I have about the ubiquity of the phrase “student engagement” in higher education.

A Magic Salve?

First, it’s a bit like the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding who sprays Windex on everyone. We try to put “student engagement” on everything and treat it as a magic salve. Would we be better served by considering our words more carefully? Does this overused term prevent us from having hard conversations that are often the only path to meaningful change? What are we really talking about when we use this term, because if we don’t know where we’re going, how will we know when we get there?

We arrive then, at my first ask: when you use the term “student engagement,” define it. Get specific. What are you really talking about when you talk about student engagement? When you see this term being used in the wild — in a Twitter chat, at a conference, or in an article —ask the author what they mean by it if they haven’t already explained it. Let’s drill down, get specific, and hash it out in the spirit of effective communication and in recognition of the immense power of words.

Speaking again of words, you might have already guessed that the title of this post was intentional, and the Raymond Carver fans are probably thinking about his short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It might sound unromantic, but for me, love isn’t about the grand gestures or the sweeping generalizations; it’s about showing up for one another in very specific ways, day after day. We too often use student engagement like a declaration of love that has no substance behind it. It’s the guy from high school who promised you the world, but never called you back, doesn’t know your middle name, and forgot your birthday. Let’s not be that guy; let’s love, and engage, through meaningful specifics.

How dThree students sitting on steps o you get and keep your students’ attention? How do you humanize your online courses and express care for your students as fellow human beings? How can you infuse your courses with creativity, trying new methods, and refining old ones, to get students excited about learning? How can you regularly assess students’ growth and offer personalized suggestions to help them move forward? Rather than relying on a higher education catchphrase, let’s get serious about the science of teaching and learning.

Inclusive Engagement

Here’s my second concern about student engagement: because I studied sociology as an undergraduate, in what initially seemed like a terribly, impractical choice that has turned out to be anything but, I am always very curious about power structures.

Vicki Trowler, in her review of the student engagement literature for The Higher Education Academy, wrote,

The definition of ‘student engagement’ an author, manager or representative uses often contains assumptions about who carries the responsibility for student engagement, and thus who can – or should – be tasked with the accountability.

Saucier recently defined engagement as, “complete investment in your task at all levels (cognitive, emotional, behavioral, physical; e.g., Fredricks, Blumenfeld, Paris, 2004; Rupayana, 2010; Sinatra, Heddy, & Lombardi, 2015; Skinner & Belmot, 1993; Steele & Fullagar, 2009).”

Complete investment in a task across all of these domains seems like a luxury item that few can afford. Who gets access to the level of focus demanded from that definition? Not single mothers. Not people of color managing constant demands on their bandwidth. Not students wondering where their next meal will come from.

I am wary of any definitions of student engagement that do not involve institutional accountability for the learning conditions we create for our students (and the teaching and working conditions we create for our faculty and staff).

Alternatives to “Student Engagement”

Rather than asking if students are engaged, let’s ask these questions:

  • Do we offer flexible options for students who wish to participate in co-curricular activities?
  • Does our advising office have evening and weekend hours?
  • Are we running a 9-5 shop from Monday to Friday when our students need us on evening and weekends?
  • Does our curricula represent the diverse cultures of our students, and do students have opportunities to share their immense knowledge and life experiences with their peers and teachers?
  • Who benefits from vague and outdated questions about student engagement?

What looks like a disengaged student might just be a new-traditional (formerly known as non-traditional) student who doesn’t fit into an outdated model of higher education. What looks like a disengaged student might be blinking neon sign reminding us to meet our students where they are, as they are.

The challenges that our industry faces are too plentiful and vast to waste time and energy on shilling higher education jargon. We need every tool at our disposal, words included. How can we be more intentional about choosing words that speak to the needs of our students? How can we create new words that better represent the lives of our new-traditional students?

Karen Costa Headshot


Karen Costa
Writer, Adjunct Faculty, Faculty Development Facilitator
Twitter: @KarenRayCosta


Karen Costa writes about higher education, teaches students college success skills, and facilitates faculty development. Visit her at or


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