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  • Academic Course Engagement During One Semester Forecasts College Success: Engaged Students Are More Likely to Earn a Degree, Do It Faster, and Do It Better
  • Soren Svanum (bio) and Silvia M. Bigatti

The past several decades have witnessed an impressive array of studies that have attempted to identify and explain the factors important to the success and failure of students as they pursue a college education. The extent of this effort is not surprising given the impact that level of education has on a variety of life domains (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005) and given the difficulties universities have in retaining students (Braxton, 2001; Tinto, 1993). College success has been variously defined with a focus upon either performance outcomes, such as grades for individual courses or semesters; outcomes such as college persistence, often measured over one or two semesters; and, less frequently, degree attainment.

Many of these studies have been guided by educational or engagement theories of student success (e.g., Bean, 1985; Tinto, 1993). These theories have focused upon student involvement in college and propose a distinctly contextual perspective: success is influenced by the degree to which students become engaged and involved in academic and other activities of college life. These engagement approaches emphasize what individuals do and what institutions do to encourage and support individual student involvement. Astin’s (1984) definition of student involvement captures the centrality of student actions and behaviors in engagement theorizing as well as the scope of behaviors that could reflect engagement: student involvement “refers to the amount of physical and psychological energy that the student devotes to the academic experience” (Astin, p. 297).

Previous studies have often broadly measured academic engagement including such components as, for example, time- and task-management skills (Garavalia & Gredler, 2002; Trockel, Barnes, & Egget, 2000), seeking help from peers (Larose, Robinson, Roy, & Legault, 1998), and interactions with professors (Strage, 1999). Thus, academic engagement is broadly conceived and captures not just course-related activities (e.g., class attendance, completion of assignments) but includes broadly defined involvement in academic life. Additionally, engagement is often measured by student intentions or perceptions of academic engagement, often captured by single items assessed at a single point in time. Although these measures provide important information regarding student intentions or perceptions, they do not necessarily inform us about students’ actual engagement behaviors.

To address measurement shortcomings of single items representing a complex content domain, Handelsman, Briggs, Sullivan, and Towler (2005) explored the structure of a subset of academic engagement, student engagement in a single course. They developed a multi-item scale representing course engagement and analyzed the factor structure on a sample of students [End Page 120] enrolled in a course. Their results indicated that although academic course engagement is multidimensional, containing emotional, participatory, and performance components, there is a single and large dimension that measures a skill-effort component. This first skill-component factor that emerged included items about going to class, doing reading assignments, studying notes, and generally putting forth academic effort.

This skill-effort component of engagement has been found to be reliably related to various measures of college success. Robbins et al. (2004) provided an integrative meta-analytic review of the degree to which engagement behaviors predict college success. Outcomes were categorized along two dimensions: college academic performance measured by GPA and retention or persistence toward a degree. The authors categorized over 100 studies along nine constructs assumed to relate to college success. One of these constructs, termed academic-related skills, was defined as “activities necessary to organize and complete schoolwork tasks, and to prepare for and take tests” (p. 264). Similar in content to Handelsman et al.’s (2005) first factor of engagement, it was found to relate to college performance, and somewhat surprisingly, even more strongly to retention. Furthermore, academic-related skills demonstrated incremental validity in predicting retention after the inclusion of other engagement constructs such as social involvement, institutional commitment, and social support. Based upon these unexpectedly robust relations of academic-related skills and retention, Robbins et al. concluded that engagement models of persistence may underestimate the importance of skill- and effort-focused academic engagement in college student retention. Moreover, they proposed that theoretical clarity and the interpretability of future empirical...


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pp. 120-132
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