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Engaged Learning (and the Core Purposes of Liberal Education)

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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We believed that by engaging students, by involving them in demanding service-learning and community-based research experiences, the academy could force them to consider their own privilege; challenge their assumptions of entitlement and self-indulgence; help them recognize that learning has implications for action and use; help them develop skills and habits of resiliency; and make them aware of their responsibilities to the larger community.


The posting below looks at efforts to increase student engagement in service learning through the Bringing Theory to Practice project. It is an excerpt from the article, Engaged Learning and the Core Purposes of Liberal Education, by Donald W. Harward, president emeritus of Bates College and director of the Bringing Theory to Practice project. The article is from the Winter, 2007 issue of Peer Review, Volume 93, Number 1. Peer Review is a publication of the Association of American Colleges and Universities [] Copyright ? 2007, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis


Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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Engaged Learning


The development of the "whole person" has traditionally been the goal of liberal education; however, on most campuses today, the "whole person" is fractured into discrete parts. Students themselves are expected to integrate, cumulatively and developmentally, what institutional structures and operations formally divide. By compartmentalizing students' intellectual, emotional, and ethical lives, colleges and universities dichotomize the various facets of learning. This paradigm of compartmentalized learning is extended to campus life: faculty take care of the intellect, student-services staff and coaches handle the rest. Accordingly, the classroom is regarded as the exclusive setting for "real" learning, which is seen as wholly separate and different from what takes place elsewhere.

The Bringing Theory to Practice project began with the hunch that engaged learning is the key to reintegrating the epistemic, [coming to know, discovery, and the advancing of knowledge and understanding], eudemonic [the fuller realization of the learner, the actualizing of the person's potential-classically to achieve individual well-being and happiness)], and civic [the understanding that learning puts the learner in relation to what is other, to community and its diversity in the broadest sense, as well as the responsibility that comes from sustaining the community and the civic qualities that make both open inquiry and self-realization possible], purposes of liberal education. That is, we believed that by engaging students, by involving them in demanding service-learning and community-based research experiences, the academy could force them to consider their own privilege; challenge their assumptions of entitlement and self-indulgence; help them recognize that learning has implications for action and use; help them develop skills and habits of resiliency; and make them aware of their responsibilities to the larger community. And further, we believed that, with these gains, students would be more likely to transfer academic engagement to greater personal well-being and to deeper civic engagement.

It may seem quixotic to describe learning as a transformative activity. Many students, faculty, and staff may see no connection between their lives and the problems facing the community, the nation, and the world. They may not feel responsible for others. The many students who today participate in volunteer programs may fail to take action to address the problems they seek temporarily to relieve. In fact, volunteering may reinforce preconceptions and stereotypic beliefs held by students. As D. Tad Roach, headmaster of St. Andrew's School in Delaware, puts it, "students may volunteer in a soup kitchen, and accumulate hundreds of hours of volunteer service; but if service is not linked with learning, they are likely to understand nothing about the systemic socioeconomic conditions that lead to poverty. And they are, thereby, unprepared to address the desperate need for change."

We have identified service learning and community-based research as exemplars because they require active involvement by students and they have the greatest potential to transform attitudes, behaviors, and dispositions. Quite distinct from volunteerism, both forms of engaged learning require academic intensity. They entail greater expectations for students, pushing them beyond the classroom and beyond the model of learning as the passive receipt of information. And both forms of engaged learning can lead students to take greater responsibility for their learning and for its connection to both their individual development and their civic lives. Students come to recognize that not all learning occurs in the classroom, and that not all teachers are faculty.

In truth, the Bringing Theory to Practice project was founded on more than just a hunch. All of us in higher education have seen the transformative potential of engaged learning. We know, for example, that when students are engaged, when someone else is counting on them, the incidence and frequency of abusive behaviors and depression decrease. We also know that students themselves report increased confidence and a positive sense of self-value as results of experiences that take them "out of the bubble" of their school or collegiate life and into the community. Students who experience engaged learning in contexts where they are expected to contribute, and where their contributions are valued, tell us of their greater satisfaction with their education, their personal choices, and their futures. The documentation of these outcomes and their replicability are among the objectives of the project's research.

In fact, part of what the project hopes to document is how findings confirm the now accepted (but, regrettably, less often practiced) view that these are forms of learning and pedagogies (in comparison to traditional emphasis on lecturing as a means of information transfer) that more effectively assure student retention of what is learned and more effectively aid student development of higher critical skills of analysis and synthesis. To this extent, the project will not only be documenting the linkage of outcomes and core purposes of liberal education; it will also be reinforcing educational practices that are more effective in realizing knowledge acquisition and intellectual development. Engaged learning appears to be the normative condition for multiple types of development-cognitive, emotional, moral, and civic. The project explores how the commitment to understanding a topic with significant connection beyond the learner, obliging the learner to put her own views and preconceptions in judgment, makes a positive difference to students' intellectual development, to their sense of empowerment, and to their civic lives.

The sources of the "hunch" the Bringing Theory to Practice project was founded to explore are hardly new. Aristotle and Dewey, among many others, began with similar assumptions about the links among the core triad of educational purposes-the necessity of the pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of self-realization, and the pursuit of justice. They too believed that realizing these interrelated purposes would result in particular forms of moral development and social action. What we would identify as liberal education was, on the classical model, focused on a public community purpose, namely good citizenship- the understanding that individuals were realized or actualized in the context of community. And it was the Enlightenment that encouraged the grounding of learning,

knowledge, and discovery in replication, evidence, and the nonauthoritarian bases for any claims to know. These historical strands became linked elements in describing the sustaining core purposes of liberal education. In translating our hunch into a set of testable hypotheses, we recognized that not all relationships are causal, that discernible effects are distinguishable from likely affects, and that the relationships may be additive or even symbiotic. Nonetheless, concrete evidence is needed to substantiate the effects and affects of actualizing the core purposes of liberal education. The Bringing Theory to Practice project is supporting ongoing research that seeks to document outcomes and to justify the changes in educational practices required to make engaged learning normative.

The key role of faculty

Faculty are viewed by students as the primary agents of transformation on campus, and they are the group students respect the most. Thus, faculty are perhaps the only group on campus with the authority and the educational responsibility to confront the proximate conditions of self-indulgence and the withdrawal of students from the challenges of engagement. For this reason, the Bringing Theory to Practice project is attempting to demonstrate that, through their teaching and their expectations, faculty can affect students' choices and behaviors, as well as students' emotional and civic development.

Faculty are not counselors or therapists. Appropriately, they recognize that the provision of mental health services is beyond their expertise. But faculty are often aware of the crises their students experience. They are very likely to notice when individual students are incapacitated by depression or abusive behaviors, and they are concerned about these problems. Most faculty recognize that they have considerable influence on the choices and behaviors of young adults, and most want to help create positive contexts for learning and for student choices. If faculty do not actively encourage the full integration of students' lives, if they elect to address the issues through grading alone and to relegate all other responsibilities to student affairs staff, then the current conditions of disengagement will continue to prevail.

The Bringing Theory to Practice project

Developed jointly by the Charles Engelhard Foundation and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the Bringing Theory to Practice project was designed to encourage colleges and universities to revisit or review the core purposes of liberal education and to assess their students' achievement of the full range of related outcomes. Such an effort can reveal the need for a significant redirection of energies and resources or for broad cultural changes. Most significantly, it can result in changed student expectations.

In addition to providing support for specific campus programs, the project, now in its fourth year, supports research on the connection of certain forms of engaged learning to student health and well-being, and to the complexity and depth of students' civic development. To date, over two hundred colleges and universities have been linked to aspects of the project, and forty institutions have received grant support for their programmatic or research work. Project research is currently focused on seven institutions that are serving as national demonstration sites (see below).

Getting at purposes through an examination of possible outcomes is a complex task; it is exceedingly difficult to isolate the epistemic purpose and to determine effectiveness in creating and measuring learning outcomes. The Bringing Theory to Practice project is focused on very specific forms of pedagogy and learning that already are important elements of many undergraduate liberal education programs-namely, service learning and community-based research. These particular forms of engaged learning encourage students to examine how concepts translate into practice, how they expect and value greater personal involvement from students, and how they oblige students to link action and understanding.

The project is currently studying the possible effects and likely affects produced by engaged learning experiences that are expected, intensive, and valued elements of the undergraduate experience. We are gathering evidence- both testimonial and empirical-of outcomes that link engaged learning to behavioral choices and to student development. And we are learning how faculty and administrators who are involved across many campuses can begin to structure a "learning community" of their own affecting directional change at their own institutions. The provisional evidence supports the initial premise of the Bringing Theory to Practice project: the core purposes of liberal education can be realized through particular forms of engaged learning that affect the health, behaviors, and well-being of students and foster civic responsibility.

Even as the research goes forward, the project is encouraging campuses to continue, or to initiate, conversations about the purposes of liberal education and about the institutional means available for achieving them. This effective strategy already has led several campuses to reexamine the extent to which they are defining and actualizing their own sense of quality, and the extent to which they are pursuing services and activities that are driven by perceived "market" demands. Additionally, the project has supported the efforts of individual campuses to better understand the actual behaviors and patterns of experience chosen by their specific populations of students, and to assess those data within the context of national studies.

The overarching aim of the Bringing Theory to Practice project is to help colleges and universities deliver on the full promise of a quality undergraduate education by orienting their campus practices to the achievement of the three interrelated core purposes of liberal education. The project encourages institutions to create and support learning contexts that enable student transformation and, where current practices do not succeed in creating such contexts, the project argues for change. In creating and sustaining contexts for engagement, faculty must be supported, valued, and rewarded for experimenting with new and emerging pedagogies. This work is complex and often difficult; however, faculty frequently find such experimentation to be among the most intellectually, emotionally, and morally satisfying dimensions of teaching-especially when they are supported culturally and institutionally.

The faculty members and professional administrators involved in the project have demonstrated their strong commitment to the students on their own campuses. They have been willing to act somewhat counter to prevailing campus cultures by seriously considering how the very heart of their institutions-the faculty, dominant pedagogies, and the curriculum- can positively and holistically affect the lives of their students. Through their involvement in the project, faculty and administrators alike have found the reinforcing rationale and evidence for strengthening the academic experience in ways that more directly involve students, that expect more from them, that take them out of the classroom, and that involve them in experiencing and understanding the relation of what they study to issues and responsibilities rooted outside of themselves.