Skip to Content

How Student Engagement Lost Its Luster and Became a Buzzword

Student engagement is a concept that has been embraced by educators as a reliable indicator of student success. In theory, it offers to measure the degree to which a student interacts with the educational environment and the content that seeks to enlighten them. 

In practice, it has become muddled and misunderstood. Now, it is more like a marketing buzzword for institutions of education to promote the products and services they are providing to students. Before exploring this more deeply, let’s think a bit about what the concept is supposed to mean.

What is student engagement? Student engagement is the measure of the degree to which a student interacts with and engages their educational setting. It can be observed in many forms, including; intellectual, emotional, physical, social, and cultural. Student engagement reflects the students’ commitment to success and the educational institution’s commitment to providing enriching learning experiences. 

In some form or another, this is basically what we all think of when we consider the concept of student engagement. We trust in a perceived unspoken agreement that the term will be used to benefit the best interests of students first. 

Unfortunately, that’s not the case for the people attempting to measure it or implement strategies to facilitate student engagement. Depending on the case study, the term is used in such a flexible manner that it is unlikely to have any real meaning. Further, it can be manipulated through the breadth (or lack thereof) of meaning the term purports to represent in any given study. 

Student Engagement has become a buzzword through a series of inconsistent definitions, disingenuous declarations, and unorganized groupthink. While research from the last two decades and beyond claims student engagement as a predictor of higher GPA’s, higher student retention (Kuh, Cruce, Shoup, Kinzie, & Gonyea, 2008), and higher rates of employment after graduation (Stuart, Lido, Morgan, Solomon, & May, 2011), the lack of a concise and objective definition across studies leaves the practical application of these lessons up for debate. 

The words separately are innocuous enough but the way they are used in the literature and the professional lexicon of educators implies to observers and laypeople that, together, they are greater than the sum of their parts; that student engagement meant something bigger than being… well… an engaged student. Unfortunately, decades of research on student engagement has only yielded a confusing mess of sometimes contradicting ideas.

The definitions offered for Student Engagement are as vast and varied as the researchers offering them. Some studies use student attitudes about their courses and the content; others give more weight to the degree to which students apply their in-class education to the world outside the classroom (Vuori, 2014).

Despite its absolute lack of measurability – institutions across the country are laying claim to it in hopes of boosting enrollment numbers. Conflicting research on the subject shows prospective students should take in those claims with a grain of salt. 

What the Research Says 

Student engagement is an increasingly popular idea across education research. This popularity has done nothing to cement the usefulness of the concept in practice, however. Research is often conflicting and offers no objective definition or purpose to the term is used across all studies. Many researchers have attempted to break down the idea, with varying degrees of success.  

Some research has suggested that there are three dimensions to student engagement that must be addressed by institutions of education: academic engagement, emotional engagement, and transactional engagement. (Pickford, 2016)

Student engagement within the academic dimension involves having instructors who are engaging and who design curricula that challenge students. Academic student engagement is built on the idea that instructors must provide meaningful and impactful opportunities for students to learn. While some academics argue that these opportunities occur outside of the classroom, others say that the venue of the learning is less important (Pickford, 2016).

Emotional student engagement deals with a student’s sense of belonging on campus. A student’s social and psychological well-being are considered in this dimension of student engagement. Research is divided on whether it is primarily the responsibility of the school or that of the student to initiate it (Abas, 2015). This confusion over who is responsible for fostering student engagement is a major theme in recent research and leaves scholars with more questions than answers.

Transactional student engagement involves an implied agreement between students, the school, and the instructors. There is an understanding that the school or university will provide students with opportunities for engagement that speak to their diverse needs. Students also expect that those opportunities will enrich and reinforce their learning and achievement (Pickford, 2016).

Transactional student engagement is embedded in the organizational and administrative aspects of schools. This dimension of student engagement has everything to do with how students are able to navigate “the system” and how the system responds.

How can a school or college provide equal opportunities for engagement to an increasingly diverse student body, and increasingly variable interests, needs, and ideas? To what extent are students the primary actors in their educational experience? In what ways do institutions of education need to adapt to meet the needs of modern students? (Kahu, 2013) These are important questions that have yet to be answered by researchers pursuing the topic. 

Bringing Student Engagement to Campus

Students tend to understand student engagement to be both something they are supposed to be doing for their school, and something that their school is supposed to be cultivating within the student body. Modern students have access to more information now than ever before; institutions of education must adapt to the learning needs, habits, and awareness of today’s students (Abas, 2015).

Some academics are touting the concept of a “flipped classroom” as one way educators can give today’s students more agency in their own engagement. A flipped classroom is one where the learning process is collaborative and student-driven, rather than the traditional structure wherein teachers lecture and students listen.  

Other researchers argue that Student Engagement is a process requiring out-of-classroom experiences. These might look like internships, practicums, and volunteer work where students take their in-class learning and apply it to situations in the greater community. Involvement in clubs, student government, or other on-campus organizations have also been discussed in the literature as markers of student engagement. 

School administrators are often eager to use student engagement to boost their campus’ reputation and draw prospective student interest. At an administrative level, student engagement can look like involvement in student government or institutional club, sport, or organization and service work within the community that is outside of the institution (Kahu, 2013), all of which help the school look better but may not be adding all of the value that the administrative team claims. 

Statistics surrounding student engagement have been used as a benchmark tool, assessing the quality of institutions, as well as the development of students’ skills and knowledge. The information has been used to inform institutional changes and growth (Kuh, 2001). This is a problematic assessment of institutions, however, because there is no consistency in defining what the term actually means. 

Instructors often use the term to describe highly impactful learning moments, though there is disagreement about whether those moments must occur outside of the classroom (Summerlee, 2010). Instructors also use the term to express a student’s dedication to their studies and describe the interactive component of learning – which might happen both within the classroom and outside of it.

Coming to Terms With the Hype

The short version of this story is that scholars have yet to find consensus on what student engagement means, looks like, or provides to a campus or to the students on it. They also have yet to be consistent in their use of the term when it is studied. Small variations in how the term is used create large gaps in the body of research.

As of yet, being an engaged student is as much of a description of student engagement as we’ve been able to agree on. This might take shape in a number of ways, both on and off-campus. The way we talk about student engagement depends heavily on who we are talking to about it. 

It is used by school administrators and university marketing professionals to promote enrollment and describe the relationship between their university’s students and the greater community. It is used by instructors to discuss a student’s demonstrated dedication to their work. It is used by students to talk about how instructors are building challenging curricula and responsive teaching practices.

Each interest group uses the term for their own purposes, making a measurement that much harder to ascertain by those dedicated to studying the topic. 

The lack of consistent conceptualization of this idea had dragged the term student engagement through the mire of vagueness and into a realm of subjectivity. One interviewee in Vuori’s (2014) study hit the nail on the head when they said, “it’s one of those terms or phrases that some people think does not mean anything. Of course, students are engaged, they’re in college right?”


Abas, Z. W. (2015). Fostering Learning in the 21st Century Through Student Engagement. International Journal for Educational Media and Technology, 9(1), 3–15. Retrieved from

Kahu, E. R. (2013). Framing student engagement in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 38(5), 758–773. doi: 10.1080/03075079.2011.598505

Kuh, G. D. (2001). Assessing What Really Matters to Student Learning Inside The National Survey of Student Engagement. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 33(3), 10–17. doi: 10.1080/00091380109601795

Kuh, G. D., Cruce, T. M., Shoup, R., Kinzie, J., & Gonyea, R. M. (2008). Unmasking the Effects of Student Engagement on First-Year College Grades and Persistence. The Journal of Higher Education, 79(5), 540–563. doi: 10.1080/00221546.2008.11772116

Pickford, R. (2016). Student Engagement: Body, Mind and Heart – A Proposal for an Embedded Multi-Dimensional Student Engagement Framework. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 4(2). doi: 10.14297/jpaap.v4i2.198

Stuart, M., Lido, C., Morgan, J., Solomon, L., & May, S. (2011). The impact of engagement with extracurricular activities on the student experience and graduate outcomes for widening participation populations. Active Learning in Higher Education, 12(3), 203–215. doi: 10.1177/1469787411415081

Summerlee, A.J.S. (2010). Challenge of engagement inside and outside the classroom: the future for universities. In From Information to Knowledge; from Knowledge to Wisdom Erik De Corte and Jens Erik Fenstad (Eds). Portland Press, London. pp 67-78.

Van Der Velden, G. (2012). Institutional Level Student Engagement and Organisational Cultures. Higher Education Quarterly, 66(3), 227–247. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2273.2012.00521.xVuori, J. (2014). Student engagement: buzzword of fuzzword? Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 36(5), 509–519. doi: 10.1080/1360080x.2014.936094