Four Years of BTtoP—What Have We Learned? Overview of Findings to Date

Dr. Ashley Finley, BTtoP National Evaluator; Director of Assessment for Learning, AAC&U

While there is still much to be derived from the intricate connections between students’ engaged learning, civic development, and mental health and well-being, aggregate findings from the Bringing Theory to Practice Demonstration and Intensive Site Program research over the last several years have provided strong evidence that the linkages among these critical elements of student success are connected in salient, and oftentimes powerful, ways.

One way to characterize our learning is through the examination of dyadic connections among the three pillars of the BTtoP project – engaged learning, civic development, and student mental health and well-being. While those connections are descriptively useful and can be found in reports posted on the BTtoP Web site, findings at this stage may be better summarized holistically by looking at patterns of programmatic effects on student learning associated with the intentional construction of engaged learning environments. These outcomes can be examined at both the individual level (i.e., the impact on students and faculty) and at the institutional level (i.e., programmatic best practices and institutional sustainability).

First, we do see that these environments impact student behaviors, with regard to both learning and living, relative to comparable students not in these environments. For example, students report greater levels of engagement in their learning characterized by more interest in the topic, more reflection on material outside of class, and increased desire to take additional courses on a particular topic area. In some cases, these environments have affected student’s choice of major. Correspondingly, faculty have reported that students in these environments exhibit better writing and critical thinking skills. With regard to well-being, students engaged in courses that address issues of substance abuse and/or mental health issues have, upon reflection, indicated greater recognition of their own health-related behaviors and attitudes and some changes in behaviors as a result. Additionally, there has been some indication over time that students participating in these engaged learning initiatives, specifically those with a civic development component, tended to consume less alcohol and at lower frequencies than students not in these programs.

We have also learned that educational environments intentionally aimed at promoting student engagement, including those that incorporate civic engagement, are consistently associated with high levels of satisfaction among students and faculty. The sine qua non of students’ positive reactions to these programs seems to be the belief that at some point their learning felt consequential. For example, students would view their work as consequential because of the enlistment and fostering of peer review environments where classmates may be acting as evaluators or as an audience for student work. Students may also perceive consequence when engaged in learning environments that address a timely or policy-oriented subject matter. This could be achieved at a micro level, for example, through educating students about mental health and alcohol-related issues that impact their daily lives as students, or through macro-level social issues such as inequality, globalization, or environmental sustainability that impact their lives beyond campus as local and national citizens.

The aggregate data from campus research has also revealed a compelling impact on students via the significant pro-social nature of these engaged learning environments. Specifically, such learning environments tend to foster communities in which peers and faculty become active participants in the process of student engagement. Campus reports suggest that the interactions that arise within or as a result of these environments are unique in that they occur with both frequency and substance. As such, students benefitted from being able to engage their peers in regular discussions outside of class about course topics, assignments, and even their civic work. Qualitative data suggest these social networks provided students access to alternate viewpoints, opportunities for reflection, and assistance that may help to relieve stress and foster coping skills. Peer interactions also provided students with a valuable outlet for validation – both with regard to learning (even when just to commiserate about coursework or professors) and living – particularly with regard to student drinking and substance use. Qualitative indicators suggest these peer networks may positively impact student drinking and substance behaviors in two ways. First, students who prefer not to drink or to drink minimally increase their likelihood of forming ties with similar others, reporting a sense of relief in meeting peers who either reduce the pressure to drink or provide a social alternative to drinking. Second, peer networks have also been associated with caretaking behaviors. Thus, students’ heightened awareness of peer behavior, either situational or over time, may function as a kind of first line of defense in preventing self-harm or injury.

In addition to the above findings, campus work has also represented a national learning community with regard to institutional best practices and routes to sustainability. Each of our campus teams represents a different culture and institutional climate, poised to be progressive but also challenged in particular ways to create the necessary pathways toward full institutional change and/or enduring progress. Thus for all our differences--in many ways representative of the differences across the landscape of higher education--we have found fundamental commonalities in our need to build programmatic best practices, to recruit key stakeholders (faculty in particular), and to contend with what increasingly appear to be outmoded constructs around faculty rewards and promotion and tenure systems. These are issues we have not solved but seek to more fully understand. To do so is vital to continuing the work of building sustainable, engaged and progressive educational environments in which deep learning may be better realized among our students, our faculty, and across our campus communities.